Sultry Seville seduces
It’s sometimes said that only tourists look up to admire a city’s buildings. But the locals in the historic Santa Cruz quarter in Seville might be missing a trick, for craning my neck upwards reveals a world of detail that could otherwise be easily missed: richly patterned tiles on the undersides of balconies, pot plants suspended from iron railings, religious icons set in niches in the walls, scalloped edges of terracotta roof tiles and just-glimpsed greenery from rooftop gardens.
This part of Seville has rather a lot going for it at street level, too. Traditionally the Jewish quarter of the city, it’s a tangle of streets so narrow you can touch the buildings on either side with arms outstretched. Squares are shaded by some of the city’s roughly 30,000 orange trees — bitter, not sweet, so passers-by won’t be tempted to eat them, meaning the trees provide decoration in fruit and in flower. As our local guide Lidia says: “It’s a good place to get lost, this neighbourhood.”
Orange trees shade a square in Seville’s old town.
We’re on the final stop of a week-long coach tour through Portugal and Spain with Insight Vacations. Today has been our longest day of driving, having set off from the Portuguese town of Evora this morning and travelled here via a jamon factory near the border. But, welcomed by the fragrance of oranges and jasmine blossom, we soon feel reinvigorated.
Lidia tells us that the Santa Cruz quarter was first developed in the 11th and 12th centuries, and became the Jewish neighbourhood in the mid-13th century, when Ferdinand III of Castile conquered Seville and concentrated the city’s Jewish population into these streets.
Pogroms, closures of synagogues and other anti-Semitic acts took their toll in the late 1300s, and by the late 1400s, the Inquisition was reaching its peak, with many thousands of Jewish people leaving the country.
The Holy Cross Square, filled with bitter orange trees, illustrates these layers of history. Lidia tells us the square was the site of a mosque during the hundreds of years of Moorish rule, then a synagogue, then a church, which was later demolished. Indeed, she says, much of the old city was destroyed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “in the name of progress” — her tone of voice makes it clear what she thinks of “progress” of this sort.
Seville is, Lidia says, “a city with a lot of history and a lot of legends”. The opera The Barber of Seville was set here, obviously, as were Carmen and Don Giovanni, among others. As we walk, Lidia points out a few sights connected with these stories, including a building (now a hotel) in the Plaza de los Venerables where the Spanish writer Jose Zorrilla is said to have stayed while working on his version of the Don Juan story.
Part of the appeal of this neighbourhood lies in peeking past the heavy doors and iron railings to get a glimpse inside the multimillion-euro homes. Lidia positively encourages this, urging us to peer into shaded courtyards filled with patterned tiles and pot plants, and consider which house we’d buy, given the chance. She’s got her eye on one in Plaza de Dona Elvira, named for Don Juan’s lover. “If I win the lottery, this is my house, ” she jokes.
We end up in the square between Seville Cathedral and the Alcazar, a Moorish fort-turned-royal palace that’s still used by the Spanish royal family as their official Seville residence. It will also make an appearance in the next season of the TV series Game of Thrones, Lidia says — apparently the cast has recently been here filming.
A horse and carriage outside Seville Cathedral. Seville Cathedral.
Today, the area is bustling with tourists, commuters heading home from work and people sitting outside cafes. Horse and carriages mill around, their drivers waiting for business, and the sound of a man playing blues guitar mingles with the smell of chestnuts roasting from a street vendor’s cart. A little further along, a Christmas market has been set up selling figurines for the elaborate nativity scenes, or belen, that are traditional in Spain. There’s an incredible range, everything from the conventional baby Jesus, camels and Wise Men to the rather more unusual — miniature Seville orange trees, tiny legs of jamon, even a little figure of a man pulling down his pants and going to the toilet, called a “caganer” and derived from Catalan culture.
A chestnut seller in central Seville. Miniatures including tiny legs of jamon, for nativity displays, on sale.
Normally we’d go inside the cathedral at this point of the tour but it’s closed this afternoon following the funeral of the Duchess of Alba, a colourful and tremendously wealthy aristocrat said to have possessed the most noble titles in the world — so many, in fact, it was long rumoured that Queen Elizabeth II was obliged to curtsey to her. A proud Sevillian, the duchess apparently had permission to ride into the cathedral on horseback, if she so wished.
The cathedral itself is an impressive structure, said to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the third-largest church (behind St Peter’s in the Vatican and Brazil’s Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida). Built on the site of a mosque, it incorporates the former minaret into the ornate Giralda, or bell tower, and contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
We end our tour near the River Guadalquivir outside a bullring, the magnificently named Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla. Bullfighting is one of a number of quintessentially Spanish customs which originate in this region, and it remains legal here.
This is an active ring, hosting fights during the season from Easter Sunday to mid-October, although Lidia says the sport’s popularity is waning. “In the past, if you asked a kid, what do you want to be when you grow up, he would say, bullfighter, ” she tells me. “Now he would say, football player.”
We spend most of the following day out of the city, in Cordoba, but return to Seville for a memorable evening, the last of our tour. We’re collected from our hotel by horse-drawn carriages and clip-clop through the early-evening traffic to the Maria Luisa Park. It’s a gorgeous way to see the sights, even if I do feel a little incongruous amid the headlights and car horns.
In the park, people are enjoying the dusk: lying on blankets on the grass, couples walking hand-in- hand through the manicured gardens, cyclists pedalling past. We loop through the Plaza de Espana, a grand space of cobblestones and fountains built for a world’s fair in the 1920s and featured in Lawrence of Arabia and some of the Star Wars films, and onwards through the old town.
We round out the evening with a flamenco performance, followed by dinner at a tapas restaurant in the old town, sharing plates of jamon, cheese and various Spanish specialties, including plenty of local wine. And as we walk back to the bus after dinner, the scent of orange and jasmine is in the air — the smell of Seville, lingering in the night.
© The West Australian