Seville, the largest city of southern Spain’s Andalucia region, is as full of contrasts as you might imagine of a city that was important in the Roman era, was ruled by the Moors for centuries, and then became not only the seat of Spanish Catholic kings but the city with a monopoly on all trade with Spanish North America. The Giralda, above, is a good example. It was built as the minaret of Seville’s Grand Mosque; later the top part of the tower was added and it became the tower of the Cathedral.
Near the Cathedral, these carriages are everywhere. Some drivers have trained their horses to do comic dance steps to attract customers!
Not that those transitions were smooth and peaceful. They were generally the result of armed conquest, and the new rulers in each case went to work putting the stamp of their culture on what they had conquered. The main mosque, built on the site of an earlier church, was replaced by today’s cathedral; Seville’s Jewish community was alternately tolerated, expelled, or persecuted. Each of the groups, even those who are no longer there, has left marks on Andalucian culture, whether in architecture, food or legend.
This four-faced fountain Plaza de Virgen de los Reyes is duplicated
in Seville's sister city, Kansas City, MO.
We visited Seville on a February school break, part of a trip that also included Cordoba and Granada, at least in part to understand some of this and get a feel for a unique part of Europe’s history. Other parts of our trip are chronicled in other TravelGumbo blogs; there are links to all of them at the bottom.
Our first impression of Seville was how different it felt from Barcelona and Madrid, where we had visited on previous trips. Arriving at the center of the old city, too early to check in and too early to visit the Cathedral, we found ourselves at breakfast opposite a Moorish doorway, leading into a Cathedral garden filled with orange trees. We later discovered that the wall and garden were, in fact, parts of the Great Mosque that had been incorporated in the Cathedral.
Those Moorish motifs and decorations are everywhere in Seville, as are architectural traits traceable to the Moorish period, such as houses surrounding inner courtyards with pools; all the rooms face the interior rather than the street. The former home of a wealthy family, this example is now a small hotel in the old Santa Cruz neighborhood.
Seville’s architecture closely reflects its history; its great building periods after the “reconquest” by Ferdinand III of Castille in 1248 coincide with Christian rulers “re-branding” the city, and then with the Golden Age of wealth based on its monopoly of trade with the Americas; then, after a decline for a couple of centuries a new wave of industrialization in the 19th century. Finally, new spurts of building to prepare for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first expedition, again in 1929 for the Ibero-American exhibiton. The 1992 500th anniversary left less of a mark.
Plaza Espana, above, was built for the 1929 Exhibition. Today, it’s occupied by government offices and organizations, but the Plaza and lake in front are popular with travelers and with locals. Note the ornate porcelain railings and fixtures.
After the Reconquest, Seville developed a distinct style of architecture, called “mudejar,” blending elements of Moorish and Christian cultures. A prime example of that can be seen in the Palace of Dom Pedro I in the Real Alcazar (see links at end), but it can be seen all over Seville not only in shapes of arches and doorways, but in the frequent use of ornate detail and tilework on buildings; I’ve included a number of samples here that caught my eye, in styles from different eras.
Another notable feature of Seville is its colorfully painted and richly decorated churches, to be found at every turn. These are a few we stopped at and looked into.
But it’s not just the architecture that makes Seville such a pleasure to visit. Nearly all the buildings in the central city are on a very human scale, with few really tall buildings to be seen in any direction. The core is fairly compact, and easy to walk. Because there are many pedestrianized areas and narrow one-way streets, that’s usually the better way; bus routes are limited. Streets, especially in the oldest neighborhoods, such as
Santa Cruz, are purposely very narrow: In Seville’s blistering summer, the sun gets to street level only for a short time each day.
Over the last few years, Seville has suffered the same cycle of recession, unemployment and imposed austerity as the rest of Spain, and we encountered demonstration and protests a number of times. Near the university, we had the opportunity to meet with protesters demanding that the big banks take more action to protect renters and workers struggling to pay mortgages. And, in front of the Cathedral, and opposite the Andalucian government office for health care, we found a large demonstration, called jointly by hospital workers and constructions workers; they were demanding an end to austerity-based cutbacks and closings of hospitals, and the cancellation of building plans for needed infrastructure.
I’ve posted some reviews of tapas bars in Seville (again, see the links list). It is, of course, possible to order a full meal or a daily prix fixe platter in Seville…but it seems hardly anyone does, and tapas rule the roost. They can be anything from very simple (a few slices of sausage or cheese) to elaborate cooked portions. Two or three apiece make a satisfying meal; they generally range in price from 1 to 3 Euros apiece. The big surprise to me was that how many people were drinking beer with meals rather than wine.
The Royal Tobacco Factory, home of a monopoly industry, and the setting for Bizet’s opera Carmen, based on the life of a young worker in one of the first industries to employ women; their status as wage-earners gave them an inkling of independence.
Here, with some notes, are more pictures of our days wandering through Seville. Some of the time, we joined walking tours, which were helpful to a degree, but left us realizing that not all tours are equal; the two we had in Seville (with Feel the City) were too full of gossipy legend and not enough substance; our guide in Granada left us far more satisfied.
As always, too many pictures. Aside from the ones here in the blog, there are more in the slideshow below.
A few scenes and details of the Cathedral exterior; there will be more in a separate blog soon, including the immense interior and the tomb of Columbus.
Along the river, once key to the city’s commerce.When it began to silt up in the
17th century, Seville lost its ocean trade to Cadiz. This section of the river was
turned into a canal to end frequent flooding of the city.
If an army travels on its stomach, so does an army of travelers head for the market. Seville’s central market, only one of several in the city, has moved in below the Metropol Parasol. Love it or not, it’s certainly a new landmark. Besides the market, it houses entertainment venues and below it, an archeological museum showing parts of ancient Seville, unearthed during the construction.
The Museum of Fine Arts (Bellas Artas) is located in a former convent, whose proportions seem immense and rich for a convent, as seen above. The collection covers the medieval period into the 20th century, and is especially strong in the Sevillean painters of the 17th-century golden age. And, as usual, we made the acquaintance of some painters well-known locally in their time, but not often seen in other countries.
Mournful scene reflects naturalistic art of counter-Reformation, humanizing the Church in the struggle against Protestantism.
Orange trees are everywhere, in parks and along the streets. Sadly, Seville oranges
are bitter oranges, not suited for eating. Those that don't just fall to the ground
are mostly harvested for marmalade; their high pectin content makes them ideal.
Last but not least: at the Seville rail station, a vending machine for Iberian ham!
MORE TravelGumbo blogs on Andalucia: