A scent of oranges
Throw away the map and explore Seville’s leafy avenues and white-washed lanes, advises Judy Bryant.
South African Garden and Home
Judy Bryant / supplied
Seville, the alluring capital of southern Spain’s Andalusia region, is a seamless blend of cultures and influences possibly best explained by its beautiful cathedral bell tower.
The Romans came to Spain in 206 BC and liked it so much they stayed for 700 years, followed by the nomadic Germanic Visigoths and then the Moors in the eighth century. They built a great mosque with a minaret in the late 12th century, with the original Muslim bronze spheres at the top later replaced with Christian symbols. A Renaissance belfry came in the 16th century, blending perfectly with the Moorish base.
The old is interwoven with the new in a dynamic, authentic mix. Go for a stroll, for example, and you’ll find that a university building is the former Royal Tobacco Factory which inspired the passionate opera Carmen.
And the neighbourhood across the river, Triana, is still renowned for producing the best bullfighters, flamenco dancers and artisans. Ceramics, sculptures and leather goods continue to be made in its generations-old workshops and the beauty of the surroundings makes you realise why artists such as Murillo decided to settle here.
The city is synonymous with thousands of orange trees and their intoxicating scent, while the bitter fruits are renowned for making the finest marmalade. The trees also provide shady green swathes in the scorching summers.
We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in one of the oldest neighbourhoods or barrios, El Arenal, once home to the city’s port. There’s a superb fine arts museum in a restored former convent (Museo de Bellas Artes) as well as specialist clothing and accessories shops, bustling cafes and bars and one of Spain’s most famous bullrings, the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza. Tablaos (flamenco clubs) can be found off many of the narrow, white-washed alleys.
Near the historic Puente de Isabel II bridge (it replaced an old floating bridge consisting of boats) spanning the Guadalquivir River is the crenellated 13th century Torre del Oro, once part of the city’s walled defences. It’s the place to start a peaceful boat trip, take your pick from a complex of gourmet food stalls, or cross to the unpretentious Triana sector.
Passing the chapel of the Virgen del Carmen, patron saint of sailors, you’ll arrive in Plaza del Altozano, with its glass-fronted balconies and a statue of Triana’s most famous bullfighting son, Juan Belmonte. Near this plaza you’ll find the remaining ceramics workshops, and the fresh produce market where you can join the locals shopping for everything from fresh vegetables to sushi.
Apartment doorways are framed with beautiful azure tiles, and flowers cascade over balconies. We discovered a small gourmet deli near the river with exotic patés, olive oils, postcards and local wines for take-home presents, and plenty of unpretentious cafés selling coffee and pastries.
At night you can pop into the lively bars or take a romantic riverside stroll along the tree-lined promenade beside Paseo de Cristobal Colon, or enjoy a local sherry or chilled beer on one of the river terraces. Small snacks, tapas, make a delicious light meal – choose from a wide range including jamon serrano (salt-cured ham dried in the mountain air), patatas bravas (fried, spicy potatoes) and calamares fritos (squid rings and tentacles served with lemon).
The must-visit Museo des Bellas Artes is a former 17th century convent whose collection extends from the mediaeval to the modern, focusing on Seville School artists such as Murillo, Juan de Valdes Leal and Francisco de Zurbarin. Follow the signs in English for a self-guided tour through the museums’ galleries, progressing from the 14th century through to Baroque and the early 20th century. Take time to view the beautiful little water well and tiled surfaces of the central courtyard.
Another cultural tip is to book ahead online for a show at the Museo del Baile Flamenco. While Triana is the birthplace of dance, this restored 18th century house near the cathedral in the city centre is a wonderful introduction to this passionate art. There are videos on its history and top performers, evocative old black and white photographs and exotic costumes that belonged to famous bailaoras (dancers).
We spent an hour exploring the exhibits, then enjoyed a glass of champagne at the bar before taking our seats at the small stage – surprisingly, some of the greatest flamenco fans come from South Korea! Up close and personal, with a haunting-voiced singer and guitar maestro, it was a spell-binding, intimate performance by two (male and female) dancers at their peak.
Afterwards, you can shop at the museum’s outlet for guitar music CDs and other memorabilia. And it’s fascinating to slip into shops that are still doing a brisk trade in handmade fans, mantillas and shawls, and to see mothers and daughters poring over the latest spring-summer range of bright flamenco fabrics.
Across the plaza from the cathedral is the splendid Real Alcazar complex of palace apartments and reception rooms – an excellent one-stop place to view exquisite Mudejar (partly Gothic, partly Islamic) craftsmanship and regal grandeur before strolling through the beautifully landscaped, themed gardens and finally enjoying a coffee in the garden café.
The Spanish royal family still moves into the upper floor apartments when visiting the city, but in the rest of the complex you can view fabulous tapestries, collections of decorated tiles, the dazzling gilded dome of a visiting ambassadors’ reception hall, ornate archways and vaulted halls.
Bullfighting isn’t for everyone, but the Toros de la Maestranza is a striking mix of vibrant colours and evocative details: the golden circle of sand, overlooked by the royal box; dark red doors, curved at the top and studded with rows of metal nails; cream hand-painted tiles with dark rose-pink letters; and the faded red and white horses’ mangers, the wall tiles edged with a pattern of flowery ribbons and small horse silhouettes.
The museum is a series of well-curated interleading rooms with striking paintings of famous bulls and their opponents (a delightful sketch of two bull-fighters by Jean Cocteau), suits of light with faded sequins and elaborate embroidery, busts of bullfighters in their black hats, and pastel sketches of festive crowds.
Visitors can also peek into a little gilt-encrusted chapel, with a praying stool upholstered in wine-red fabric, where matadors pray before a fight.
It’s all so intense, and a microcosm of the passion and ritual of life in Seville: from the flavours of the food to the soulful singing in tiny dark bars, the joy and abandon of flamboyant festivals, and the beauty of rows of brightly-coloured 18th-century townhouse facades, their wrought-iron balconies interlaced with bright flowers.
First published in South African Garden and Home November 2016
Images Judy Bryant and supplied