Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Seville - Romantic Capital of Spain?

by Robert Bovington

Sevilla surely represents the idealised picture of Spain. It is a city of spectacular fiestas like Semana Santa and the Feria de Abril; it is a city of magnificent buildings and tranquil courtyards where the heady scent of orange blossom and jasmine fills the air; it is the home of tapas and flamenco.  No wonder so many cultural works have been located in this historic city - the operas Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, La Forza del Destino, Don Giovanni and Fidelio were all set in Sevilla. It is, perhaps, the romantic capital of Spain. Certainly it was a capital of Muslim Spain and, in the 16th century, it was the richest and most populous city in the country.

Sevilla has experienced a rich history. Iberians, Romans, Vandals and Visigoths had inhabited the town before it fell to the Moors In 711. Ixvillia, as it was called, became a leading cultural and commercial centre under the Muslims but following the recapture of the city in 1248 by the Christian army of Ferdinand III, the fortunes of Sevilla dwindled. However, the Spanish discovery of the Americas brought new prosperity to the city and Sevilla became the centre of the exploration and exploitation of the Americas. The city has experienced varying fortunes since but today it is a thriving city. It is the capital of Andalucía and the fourth largest city in Spain.

With all that history it is no wonder that there is such a wealth of treasures to delight sevillanos and visitors - but where to start? Well, if it were me, I'd start with a tapa, perhaps washed down with a glass of cool fino. It is generally recognised that Sevilla is the home of tapas and what better way is there to start an expedition than with a delicious snack washed down with a fine sherry. The Santa Cruz district is a good place to wine and dine as it has a number of excellent tapas bars and is close to the Giralda and the Cathedral.

La Giralda

La Giralda is one of Sevilla's most famous landmarks. It is part of the cathedral complex but it is a beautiful monument in its own right. It was originally built as a minaret in the 12th century but the Christians turned it into a bell tower. It stands in the Patio de los Naranjos - so named because of the orange trees situated in this delightful courtyard. 

Now here is a piece of useless information - the three largest churches in the Christian World are named after Peter, Paul and Mary! However, I guess that we are talking about biblical characters rather than a pop group! Sevilla's cathedral is actually called the Cathedral of Santa María. It is immense! However, there is some confusion as to whether it is the largest Christian church. Some guidebooks claim that Sevilla Cathedral is the third largest behind St. Peter's Rome and St. Paul's in London. Others claim that it is the largest in area. Well, who cares - it is pretty big! 


It was built over the period 1401-1519 following the Christian Reconquest on the former site of the city's mosque - the Giralda tower being all that is left of the former Moorish temple - well apart from the Patio de los Naranjos - and the Almohad archway and door of the Puerta del Perdón - and a few pillars - well most of it was newly built! The main portion of the Cathedral of Santa María was built in North European style, Gothic in design with high vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses but there are Plateresque, Baroque and Renaissance elements. There is much to see in this vast place of worship including the tomb of Christopher Columbus, the Capilla Mayor chapel and works of art including paintings by Goya, Murillo and Zurbarán. The main altarpiece is absolutely fantastic with every centimetre lavishly decorated.

Another 'must see' site - or should that be sight - is the Alcázar Palace. It is probably the finest surviving monument from the Moorish period in Sevilla. However, the original Arab palace was completely rebuilt in 1364. It is a palace fit for a Moorish king but it was not designed for Muslims. It was built for Pedro the Cruel who had to be quite wicked to have a nickname like that in those times. And cruel he was - he was a rapist and mass murderer who killed his own brother. On one occasion, he murdered a visiting Arab dignitary in order to steal a large ruby, which he later gave to Edward the Black Prince. It is now part of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London! Pedro might have had a penchant for murdering Arab kings but he did like Moorish architecture - so much so that he employed the best Moorish craftsmen to create an architectural jewel. The Alcázar is an extensive complex of palatial rooms, courtyards and gardens.

There is so much to see in Sevilla that it would take a month of Sundays to do it justice - on the map obtainable from the Tourist Office there are thirty-four religious buildings listed! There are countless museums, beautiful palaces, attractive plazas and delightful gardens. In the old Jewish quarter there are the narrow, twisting streets of whitewashed buildings with their wrought iron balconies and flower-filled patios, which evoke an atmosphere that is so quintessentially Andalucian. So, if you are only planning to stay for a week you will only scratch the surface of the attractions available in this great city. Apart from the aforementioned Cathedral, Giralda and Alcázar Palace, other key sights are the Museum of Fine Arts, the Indian Archives, the Tobacco Factory, the Town Hall, the Archaeological Museum, The Plaza de España, the Casa de Pilatos, the Torre del Oro, the Monastery of Santa María de las Cuevas and, for children young and old, Isla Mágica.

The Museum of Fine Arts (Museo de Bellas Artes) is one of the best art galleries in Spain. It includes works by many great Spanish artists including El Greco, Zurbarán, Valdés and Murillo. Murillo and Zurbarán are particularly well represented with whole rooms dedicated to their paintings.

The Indian Archives are housed in the Casa Lonja, a sort of repository-cum-museum adjacent to the cathedral. It is a wonderful collection of documents relating to history and administration of Spain's empire in the Americas. There are several million items including books, plans and manuscripts.

Fábrica Real de Tabacas

The Fábrica Real de Tabacos was the original tobacco factory - the one immortalised in the opera Carmen. Nowadays, it is part of Sevilla University. When the original factory was built in 1725 it was the second-largest building in Spain after El Escorial! It is an imposing Baroque and Rococo building.

The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) was built in the 16th century. The interior is a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles whilst the outside has the original Plateresque façade as well as the 19th century Neoclassical façade facing the Plaza Nueva.

 The Museo Aequeológico is housed in a Renaissance style pavilion. It includes relics from the Roman city of Itálica.

Plaza de España

The Plaza de España is a magnificent square - sorry - a magnificent semicircular piazza that was designed as the centrepiece for the Latin American Exposition of 1929. Two hundred metres wide, it is almost entirely covered with glazed tiles that depict historical scenes and pictures of other Spanish related subjects.

The Casa de Pilatos is a sumptuous mansion that was constructed in the 15th century. Pontius Pilate's home in Jerusalem was allegedly the inspiration for this beautiful building which is a mix of Mudéjar, Gothic and Renaissance styles. 

Torre del Oro
The Torre del Oro is a 13th-century Moorish watch tower. There are varying opinions as to how it this dodecahedral tower got its name. Some say that the tower was originally adorned with gold leaf; others say that it was used as a warehouse to store gold from the New World expeditions. Perhaps a simpler explanation is that it is golden in colour! Anyway, it was originally built as part of the city's defensive system. It stands on the bank of the Guadalquivir.

The 14th-century Monastery of Santa María de las Cuevas is one of many monasteries in the city. What makes it so special is that it houses the museum of Contemporary Art. The monastery has experienced varying fortunes - it enjoyed visits by royalty and important people like Columbus who planned his second voyage to the New World here. Later, it became a military barracks and then a ceramics factory. It is situated on the island of La Cartuja.

Isla Mágica is a theme park with a difference. It does have the usual rides that children find so exhilarating but it also celebrates Andalucian history, particularly the voyages of Columbus. It, too, is on the island of La Cartuja - on the former site of the Expo 92 site.
For those who wish for a bit of relief from all the sightseeing, there are a number of green spaces in the city. There are many parks and gardens, but María Luisa Park is popular with the locals.

I have covered only a fraction of the sights on offer in Sevilla. There are many things to do apart from sightseeing; there are the tapas bars and many fine restaurants; there are the bullfights and flamenco; there is the great River Guadalquivir with its riverside walks and boat trips; there are theatres and, of course, the fiestas - especially the internationally renowned festivals of Semana Santa and the Feria de Abril. These are spectacles in themselves. The Easter Holy Week festival of Semana Santa is renowned for its solemn but beautiful processions whilst the April Fair is both colourful and lively with dancing, drinking and partying but then there is much to celebrate in this glorious city!

Robert Bovington

more blogs by Robert Bovington...
"Photographs of Spain"
"postcards from Spain"
"you couldn't make it up!"
"a grumpy old man in Spain"
"bits and bobs"
"Spanish Expressions"
"Spanish Art"
"Books About Spain"

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