All Roads Lead To Seville
Visits to the city of Seville, Spain, bracketed our year of 2016 neatly, highpoints on either end. Our first stay in January had us wowed and promising ourselves we’d plan a return to see more of the city. Our visit in December, had us feeling the same, leaving us with the anticipation of more to see when we go back. And during the year, we skirted the city several times on our way to other places in Spain. In fact, the joke seemed to be that, from Lagos, Portugal, all roads lead to Seville.
One thing we’d learned from our previous visit to Seville: a car was more hassle than it’s worth. With an historic area that’s compact and walkable as well as daily parking rates that can go upwards of €30, taking the bus was an easy decision to make. We bought bus tickets, packed our bags, obtained the phone number for a taxi driver and set our alarms for an early Sunday morning departure.
Note to Selves: Reserve a taxi for early Sunday morning getaways. We’d made many early morning taxi rides previously but failed to realize that Sunday mornings are sacrosanct to Lagos taxi drivers. After being turned down cold by the gentleman we’d been assured would drive us, we went down our list of phone numbers with a growing sense of unease. And at 06:15 in the morning, it wasn’t much fun rousing hard working taxi drivers from their sleep only to be told a groggy “no” for a ride to the bus station. We came up with a hasty Plan B (and a Plan C should we need it), drove over to our friend’s home who was coming with us and hitched a ride with her pet sitter who’d just arrived. He at least was happy to accept €10 to schlepp us to the station.
The previous week had gifted both Portugal and Spain’s southern coasts with several inches of rain and, because the Algarve is a rural province, the fields were varying shades of green. The rain followed us all the way to Seville but, after our first day of playing enthusiastic tourists braving the occasional rain showers (and minus one umbrella at the end of the day) the weather changed to cool and partly sunny, perfect sightseeing conditions. And, for self-professed history geeks and wanna-be culture vultures, Seville is the perfect place to indulge your interests. There are endless things to see and do in the city but here are 9 things we can recommend:
1) Topping our list for a revisit, The Real Alcázar of Seville is a group of palaces over a thousand years old dating back to the 11th century. The upper levels are still occupied by Spain’s Royal Family which makes it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. We have to agree with Lonely Planet who said they hoped that “heaven looks a little bit like the Alcázar” and we were head-over-heels wowed during our first visit in January. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, one, two, three pictures and more are worth a thousand words.
We paid the extra money for the self-guided audio tour but, after only a half hour of listening, left the earphones dangling around our necks because (we can’t believe we’re saying this) the didactic, historic monologue proved to be a huge distraction. This is a place to stop and stare, listen to the fountains and breathe in the scent of sour oranges – a place that really just needs to be enjoyed.
2) For those of you thinking, “Seen one cathedral too many,” the Cathedral of Seville or Catedral de Sevilla is an awe-inspiring, tremble-at-the-knees, kind of place.
The third largest church (a football field would fit inside easily) and the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, it’s also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’d visited the cathedral during a service the first time (the organ music was sublime) which limited what we could see and a return was also high on our list of things to do. Built between the 15th and 16th Centuries, the body of Christopher Columbus is entombed here in splendor and, should you wonder where all the gold Spain plundered from the New World ended up, the 20 meter (66 feet) altar would be a good start.
The bell tower of the Cathedral deserves a special mention below.
3) The Tower of Giralda was built in the 12th Century as a minaret of the Great Mosque which formerly occupied the site of the Cathedral of Seville.
At 105 meters (343 feet), the tower is an iconic symbol in the city. Topped with a 16th century belfry and a weather vane of a huge bronze, statuesque beauty nicknamed “El Giraldillo” bearing a cross, there’s no mistaking which religion is on top of the tower now. There’s a separate charge to climb the tower and, as you climb the THIRTY-FOUR ramps up, there are alcoves along the way to (pretend) to admire the incredible views while you gasp for breath. And bells that vibrated us right down to the soles of our shoes when they tolled.
4) Lest you think that Seville is only full of centuries old palaces, mansions and churches (and it is, it is!) the Plaza de España was built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929, a kind of World’s Fair. Located in the city center in the middle of Maria Luisa Park, the brick monument is an exuberant combination of Art Deco, Renaissance and Moorish Revival architecture, embellished with exquisitely painted ceramic tiles.
The enormous brick buildings form a semi-circle around a plaza complete with a moat-like canal running through it and crossed by four gaily-painted bridges. To say we were captivated might have been an understatement and, with the blessing from the warm weather gods, we decided to nix our plans to visit the museums originally on our itinerary and instead spent hours wandering around the grounds, watching inexpertly rowed boats float by and soaking up the feeling of stepping back to the previous century.
5) Seville celebrates all things Flamenco, an intense dance linked with Southern Spain’s Andalusian Roma, aka the Gypsies.
By chance, we happened upon a street performance with a thin and wiry dancer who struck theatrical poses, clapped her hands and finger-snapped, swirling and stomping her feet upon a wooden platform. Her male companions played the guitar and tambourine, while one cupped the microphone in his hands and sang mournfully. We were so intrigued by the street dance that we followed a friend’s recommendation (thanks KemKem!) and bought tickets for an evening concert. The flamenco conjures up enough intense emotions to satisfy any drama queen and we also fell under the spell. In fact, when we did a little more reading about the art form the next day, we learned that UNESCO had “declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2010.
6) We’re not quite sure how the massive and very contemporary (2011) Metropol Parasol came to be built in the old quarter of Seville’s La Encarnación square but we appreciated the jarring contrast between the ancient and ultra-modern sights of the city. Claiming to be the world’s largest wooden structure, we had no trouble imagining the controversy its construction would have roused since its six parasols have earned it the less-than-stellar nickname, “Incarnación’s mushrooms.” However, we loved its sensuous curves and swoops as well as the walkways on the highest level which gave us an amazing 360° view of Seville.
We came to Seville with a map and list of things to do and see but it seemed that the city set its own pace. We saw more than we realized but found that we also slowed down to enjoy:
7) random and rambling walks throughout the historic city,
8) sharing a cone of roasted chestnuts and stopping at sidewalk cafes to savor tapas and lingering meals with friends and
9) absorbing the sights and sounds of an ancient city coexisting with a metropolitan city of modern and sophisticated people.
At the end of our second visit to Seville we were unsurprised to count the many things we’d seen and done but, like all great experiences, we were left wanting more. We have many more trips to Spain planned for 2017 (Madrid, Salamanca, Bilbao, Leon…) and, since all roads east of Lagos, Portugal lead to Seville, Spain, it won’t be hard to talk us into making a third visit to a city that’s got a piece of our hearts.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash
A note of thanks to our awesome friends Kiki Bridges, and Tim and Anne Hall who blog at A New Latitude who made this trip even more fun by sharing the adventure with us!