Sevilla, in Spain’s sunny south, is a city where you can almost hear the swish of skirts and the click of the castanets. Strolling in the Plaza de Espana you wouldn’t be at all surprised to encounter ladies in fine lace mantillas and dainty heels. Yet this capital of Andalucia is also a vibrant modern city. It’s an irresistible combination in a city full of melodrama, beauty and life.
The river Guadalquivir binds old and new together, and in the heat of Summer a river cruise might be the only place to find a breath of air. To make the most of this enticing city you should visit in Spring or Autumn. Most spectacular of all is Semana Santa, the week preceding Easter. Processions of pasos or floats bearing images of the Virgin Mary and scenes from the Passion progress slowly through the streets. Powerful and mournful music accompanies them and at their heads, the hermandades or religious brotherhoods, dressed in penitential robes and hoods. The climax of the week is Holy Thursday, when the processions set out in the evening to arrive at the Cathedral on the dawn of Good Friday, known as the madruga.
Sevilla is nothing if not a city of extremes and, from mourning, two weeks later we pass into Feria de Abril, when the whole of the city takes to the streets in a celebration of food and dance. This is the time to see those fabulous flamenco dresses. Marquees or casetas are set up by Sevillano families, purely for socialising, on a fairground where the “streets” are named for bullfighters. Spain doesn’t get any more traditional or colourful than this!
The Cathedral and Giralda Tower
Much of the history and splendour of Sevilla is concentrated in the Barrio Santa Cruz on the right bank of the river. The Moors conquered the city in 712 and in the 12th century a mosque was built on the site where the cathedral now stands. When the Christians wrested back the city in 1401 the construction of the cathedral was begun as a statement of confidence and power. It is now the largest Gothic church in the world. For me the most spectaular feature of the cathedral is the Giralda Tower. It was originally the minaret of the mosque and as such probably the oldest building in Sevilla. Something I have seen nowhere else in the world is the 35 ramps up the 320 ft high tower to enable the muezzin to ride his horse up to the top to recite the call to prayer. Today it’s worth that climb, on foot, just for the views.
The Royal Palace and gardens were my first ever sight of mudejar architecture and I could not believe that the Alhambra in Granada would be any more beautiful than this. The delicate shapes and repeat patterns of the Islamic tiles captivated me. The building of this fortified palace began in 913, many of the Moorish features which delight today being added in the 14th century. It is the royal residence of King Juan Carlos whenever he is in Sevilla. The tour of palace and gardens was high on my list of best experiences.
Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold)
Thought to be named for the golden tiles which once adorned its dome, this 12 sided tower is of an age with the Giralda Tower. It was once vital to the protection of the city, heavy chains being connected to the base of the tower and spanning the river to keep out undesirables. Today it is a naval museum. River cruises run from the shady esplanade just beneath the tower.
Plaza de Espana
Built for the World Fair of 1929, the Plaza de Espana is truly spectacular. Striking enough for George Lucas to use as a film set in Star Wars, Attack of the Clones, I was amazed at the scale of the place. The Plaza is a huge semicircle with a high-spraying fountain at its centre. The extravagance of the building is what draws the eye- ornate bridges crossing a canal, Baroque towers and 48 fully tiled benches, each representing a Spanish province. The Paseo de la Palmera is full of remarkable buildings constructed for the Fair but the Plaza de Espana is unmissable. The Maria Luisa Park behind the plaza is a lovely place for strolling and picnics.
Coming slap bang up to date, if ever there was a building to make you stand and stare, then this is it. A few blocks north of the central shopping district in Plaza de Encarnacion, this is one of the largest timber structures in the world. This giant sized waffle shelters a market and bars; restaurants are to follow. What was an archaelogical excavation has become a museum and a ride to the top in the elevator gives the opportunity for a closer look at this innovative space. The creator Jurgen Mayer wanted to create a “cathedral without walls”. In its own way, this rivals Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.
Nearby the Metropol Parasol, try Simun Vintage, Calle San Felipe 11, for presa on wok-fried noodles or garlicky squid with ink. Tapas too, of course. There are numerous places to sample these in the narrow streets of the Barrio.
Barbania, Albareda 11, serves fish and seafood in a traditional setting. Try the tortillitas de camerones.
Bar Giralda, Mateus Gagos 1, started life as a Moorish bathhouse and is one of Sevillas best known hostelleries.
Bodega Santa Cruz, Justino Neve 2, is an old style bar where the waiter still chalks your bar bill on a blackboard.
Where to stay
Five star Gran Melia Colon, off Plaza de Armas, if you want to “push the boat out”. As well as a beautiful hotel, they have a Michelin starred chef.
Much more modestly, Hotel Amadeus, Calle Farnesio 6, Barrio de Santa Cruz, has an excellent central location, with rooftop terrace for views of the Cathedral. It’s ideal for a sunset drink to watch the lights come on and absorb the atmosphere of this vivid city.
This is part of a trilogy with Cordoba and Granada.