Culture

Seville – Weekend Breaks in Spain’s Historic City

Seville

The Real Alcázar – Moorish architecture

Seville is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Lying in the heart of Andalucia, it makes for a perfect long weekend break with its heady mix of world-class architecture, artistic treasures, flamenco and great food.

It’s an easy getaway from the UK with flights taking under three hours which means that you arrive feeling relaxed and ready to hit the streets.

Time to grab your flamenco shoes, tuck into the tapas and immerse yourself in this great city’s Moorish culture and Spanish history…

Day One – The Major Sights – Friday

Seville

Seville’s Real Alcázar

The Real Alcázar

I’d recommend starting your break at Seville’s star attraction, the stunningly beautiful Real Alcázar, which dominates the city’s Santa Cruz quarter.

This Moorish fortress and palace has a history stretching back over 1,000 years, providing a great trip back in time through Spain’s past from its Moorish rulers to the kings and queen of Castile.

Seville

Elegance and style

The relaxing feel of the palace and its exquisite gardens hide a very bloody history.

In the 11th Century it was presided over by the Abbadid dynasty who introduced a period of elegance and decadence under the rule of al Mu’tamid.

He also ran a harem of 800 women and was keen on displaying the heads of his decapitated enemies on the palace terraces.

Alcazar pavilion walkway

Armless knight

Just as ruthless was the splendidly named King Pedro ‘the Cruel’ or ‘Just’, depending on whether you found yourself in favour. He was renowned for beheading his enemies and bumping off members of his own family.

Pedro was the Real Alcázar’s version of the Roman Emperor Caligula – the Alcázar was his pleasure ground and seat of power

He once invited a Moorish rival and his chiefs to a banquet at the Alcázar Palace. During dinner he had them arrested and taken on donkeys to a field behind the palace where they were tied to stakes and used for target practice by horsemen.

King Pedro killed several of the men himself and sent their 38 heads as a gift to the king of Granada.

Seville

One of the Real Alcázar’s typical courtyards

King Pedro exerted a huge influence on the architecture of the Real Alcázar buildings as we see them today. He rebuilt large parts of the palace and kept much of the Arabic decoration.

This jewel of a palace is a maze of small rooms which open onto grandiose courtyards and water gardens. The Mudejar architecture is characterised by arches with intricate but delicate decoration.

It’s easy to get lost in its labyrinthine rooms but they always open onto charming courtyards where you’re bound to be reunited with missing family or friends! These cool courtyards often boast a water feature and are surrounded by shaded walkways, formal gardens and sitting areas.

Alongside the Arabic architecture, the palace also features a later Gothic palace. The Palacio of King Charles V is interesting but is my least favourite part of the Alcázar.

Charles ripped out much of the Moorish architecture and replaced it with dark, heavy Gothic designs, terrible religious statuary, royal portraits and  tapestries.  It feels heavy-handed compared with the light and airy Moorish style.

Seville Alcazar

The Estanque del Mercurio

The Alcázar’s Gardens are magnificent in their own right. They’re much bigger than anticipated so I recommend taking a relaxing break in the shadowy terrace of the cafe before going for a stroll around them.

Don’t miss the underground baths where, according to legend, Pedro the Cruel’s mistress, Maria de Padilla bathed. It’s a cavernous space with a central swimming pool covered by ribbed vaults.

A highlight of the gardens is the Estanque del Mercurio with its beautiful central pond (complete with ornamental fish), decorated walls and statues.

Alcazar underground bath house

The underground bath house

The dramatic pavilion with a high-level walkway provides glorious views over the rest of the Alcázar gardens. 

The aerial views from the garden loggia provide a great opportunity for impromptu bird watching. Look out for parakeets, peacocks, siskin, tits and interesting avian life which thrives in this green oasis. The garden orchards with their orange and lemon trees provide welcome shade on a hot, sunny day. 

The Moorish gardens are characterised by their water channels, fountains, spouts and jets. There’s an air of sophistication and elegant minimalism.

Walk around the magnificent Renaissance gardens and you’ll smell the fragrant scents of orchids, roses and magnolias. It’s the perfect place for a picnic.

Alcazar pavilion walkway

View from the Alcázar walkway

Seville Cathedral and La Giralda

After the Alcázar’s exhausting ‘walkathon’, you’ll need to recharge your batteries and eat lunch at one of the many cafes and tapas bar in the streets around the palace.

This will set you up nicely for your next challenge – a stroll around Seville’s cathedral and a hike to the top of its impressive tower from where there are panoramic views of the city.

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

The cathedral is a World Heritage site for good reason. Built on the site of the original Mosque of Seville, demolished in the 15th Century, it boasts a mix of Gothic and Baroque styles.

They are very keen to point out that this is the “biggest Gothic cathedral in the world”.  Allow plenty of time to get around its huge interior, the highlights of which include the nave, sacristy, a myriad of small chapels and the mausoleum of Christopher Columbus.

Whether Columbus is actually buried here in the giant mausoleum is open to question but there’s no denying that it’s an impressive monument to the navigator.

Seville - Columbas cathedral

Columbus monument

Most magnificent of all is the ornate, gold encrusted Main Chapel – or Capilla Mayor – with its Gothic retablo featuring 45 carved scenes from the life of Christ.

It’s the largest and richest altarpiece in the world and resembles a 3-D version of an illuminated manuscript. It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe, even if you’re not religious.

Incredibly, it was the work of one craftsman, Pieter Dancart, who took years to complete this masterpiece. What a stunning sight.

Seville Cathedral

The stunning gold chapel

But the outstanding feature of the Cathedral is La Giralda, one of the world’s most beautiful Islamic towers, which was built between 1184-99 as an observatory and mosque.

Why not climb to the top of its bell tower up the 35 gently sloping ramps which make this less of a slog than most towers with steep, narrow steps.

From the top, you’ll be rewarded with stunning panoramic views over Seville from which you can identify some of the city’s most prominent buildings and parks. Be prepared to jostle for the best photo opportunities.

Seville aerial

Seville aerial view

On the way out of the cathedral, don’t miss the Patio de los Naranjos or Patio of the Oranges with its Moorish fountain. It’s a throwback to the earlier Visigothic cathedral.

Tremendous tapas 

In the evening, what better way to unwind than visiting one of the many excellent tapas bars or restaurants in this quarter of the city. Typical regional dishes include bull’s tail and oxtail stew. I guess they had to do something with all the bulls they killed in the local bull ring.

The seafood dishes are to die for, whether it’s salted cold, gambas al la plancha in crunchy sea salt or fried fish. If you’re feeling hungry, why not order a racion or ration rather than a tapas dish. This is larger and is equivalent to having a full meal.

Spanish food

A ‘racion’ of sea bass

I enjoyed the fish especially the giant cod portions and sea bass which are best served simply with a selection of vegetables and fried potatoes. But I was disappointed a the lack of green vegetables on offer. Everything seems to come fried!

Iberian pork is ubiquitous on the city’s tapas menus, whilst tuna and anchovies are also worth a try because they are produced locally down the coast.

Day Two – Old Meets New – Saturday

City shopping

On your second day I’d recommend shopping and discovering a few interesting tourist sights slightly off the beaten track.

Retail therapy is best scheduled for the morning when the shops aren’t closed for their extended lunch hour. The historic streets around the cathedral are full of souvenir stores, if that’s your thing, but I’d suggest walking slightly further to Calle Sierpes where the shops are more sophisticated.

Fan shop Seville

Fan shop

The streets around Plaza de San Fransciso are worth a look with their high-end flamenco dress, jewellery and accessory shops. If you’re a fan of fans (and who isn’t?), you’ve come to the right place!

Modern Seville

Seville Sitas

Las Setas – mushroom style

Not far from these streets is something very different – a modern shopping market hall and mall in an architectural creation called Las Setas or the Mushrooms. It claims to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

This contemporary shopping centre is controversial. Is it an ugly monstrosity or an exciting addition to the old city?  Whatever your view, it’s worth going to the top of the mushrooms to walk the sky deck and get a different aerial perspective over the El Centro district.

Look around the Metropol Parasol market to get a sense of what real people in Seville like to eat in the way of fish, meat, cheese and local vegetables.

Digging up the past

Seville archaeology

The archaeology museum

One of the main reasons for visiting Las Setas is the splendid archaeology museum or Antiquarium which has an underground walkway through the ruins of Roman Hispalis which were discovered during the building of the shopping mall.

It’s a great way to discover the history of Roman Seville and how the city looked in ancient times.

There are the remains of seven houses with mosaic floors, fish salting vats and various streets. The most impressive is Casa de la Columna, a large house with a patio featuring marble pedestals, surrounded by a lovely mosaic floor.

Seville archaeology

Fragment from ancient Seville

Day Three – Art and architecture – Sunday

Beautiful Art

Seville Beaux Artes

Painting of a dead bull fighter

When in Seville, you need to get arty because this is the place for great Spanish masters like Murillo and Zurbaran.

Your first port of call today is the Museo de Bellas Artes in a former convent close to the Arenal district.

One word of warning – this is definitely not for anyone who dislikes looking at old masters and religious art. My partner Tony has a low tolerance threshold for this stuff so I had to whisk him around before boredom and ‘cultural overload’ set in.

Tammy in Seville

Tammy studying art

Fortunately, he was distracted by the restoration team working on a huge Murillo canvas, a great new spectator sport, whilst I studied the endless paintings of virgins, saints and angels.

Zurbaran fans are in for a treat because there’s a large collection of his darkly disturbing works. There’s also the odd Goya and El Greco as well as a large room of Murillos, a local lad made good.

Upstairs, the collection starts to get a little mixed and the late 19th Century paintings lack the class of the earlier works in the collection. The final galleries have some truly appalling portraits, but are redeemed by a striking portrait of a bull fighter on his death-bed and a painting of women working in a tobacco factory.

Renaissance Palaces

Seville

Casa de Pilatos

After a brief coffee break, I’d recommend continuing your journey along the interesting back streets to the Casa de Pilatos in the Barrio Santa Cruz district.

The Casa Pilatos is one of Seville’s finest houses with a blend of architectural styles including Mudejar, Gothic and Renaissance.

Built by the Ribera family in the 16th Century, it’s a treasure-house of art and Roman relics. It’s strongly reminiscent of the style of a Roman villa.

Many of the palace’s rooms are named after the Passion of Christ including the brilliantly evocative Chapel of the Flagellations.  This is the oldest room in the palace featuring an entrance arch decorated with Mudejar plasterwork.

Seville Pilatos House

Ornamented arches

The house and gardens have a calmness and elegance that makes this a pleasurable late afternoon trip. The lovely central patio is surrounded by decorated arches whilst a fountain and Roman statues add to the classical feel.

The Golden Room is one of the most extravagant parts of the house with its impressive gold-leaf ceiling and Mudejar decoration.

But be warned that the upper floor of the house can only be visited on a guided tour which we got dragged into by accident. I don’t mind the occasional guided visit but this one was slightly bizarre and felt rushed.

The 30-minute tour was delivered at break-neck speed in Spanish and English by a charming guide who was quite hard to understand.  On the plus side, we did get to see the highlights of the Renaissance house with traditional furnishings and paintings by Goya, Tintoretto and Ribera.

Seville Palacio

Casa de Pilatos’ gardens

Once you’ve collected your breath after the whistle-stop guided tour, head back to your hotel for a siesta.

Alternatively, the Flamenco Museum is not far away, if you’re interested in the history of the dance. It also holds regular flamenco performances.

Day Four – Street Life – Monday

Authentic streets – El Arenal and Triana

After three solid days of heavy duty sightseeing, I’d recommend Monday as a ‘rest day’ where you can mooch around two interesting districts of Seville.

Monday is when most everything is shut which means that it’s a good time for wandering Seville’s many attractive back streets and alleys.

Triana street scene

First stop is Triana, a very different district of Seville, renowned for its working class roots and authentic atmosphere, far from the tourist crowds. It’s an easy walk across the bridge by the Torre del Oro from where you’ll discover the old town which was once the centre of the gypsy community.

Take a walk around the old streets where you can make a pit stop at one of the many local cafes for coffee and tapas. Walk along the river and you’ll find the site of an old gunpowder factory on Calle Gonzalo Segovia which blew up in 1579, destroying a large part of Triana.

Triana Seville

Street life – Tammy in Triana

The streets feel very different to the tourist centre of Seville – more spacious and less cramped with their small white and cream houses with colourful flower boxes. The area is well worth a trip for its historic buildings, although I found it scruffy in parts.

The best time to go is when the carnival sets off for El Rocio’s pilgrimage of the virgin and the streets are crammed with horses and carriages in late May

Seville Tower

Tower of Gold

Return over to the other bank of the river and pop into the Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold), a Moorish watch tower dating from 1220. Legend has it that the tower once housed gold plundered from the Mayans and Incas.

There’s a small maritime museum with historic artefacts and model ships. If you climb to the top, there are good views down the river.

Another option is to take a boat trip down the River Guadalquivir to the small island of La Cartuja where there are several tourist attractions including a Carthusian monastery and the Centre for Andalucian Contemporary Art.

Bull fighter

Bull fighter

Alternatively, walk along the river bank and visit the Bull Ring with its imposing white, circular amphitheatre where gladiatorial contests are held between man and beast.

I’m no fan of blood sports so avoided a trip to the museum and the bullfighting ‘spectacle’, although many Spaniards love nothing better than watching a bull being slayed by a man dressed in a strange toreador outfit.

Fans of Carmen will be keen to visit the museum as the bull ring was where the action of Bizet’s opera unfolded – and they can pay homage to her statue on the street outside.

Seville Bull Ring

Seville’s famous Bull Ring

Afterwards, take a walk through the interesting streets behind the bull ring which make up the attractive district of El Arenal.

The riverfront is a busy tree-lined boulevard but dive down Dos De Mayo and its side streets to discover dozens of tapas bars and attractive, old back lanes.

After your walk, take a break in one of the lively bars in El Arenal before heading to the nearby Hospital of the Caridad for your daily dose of culture.

Heavenly Art – Hospital de la Caridad  

Located on a quiet street 200 metres from the cathedral, this is one of the city’s greatest hidden treasures. Founded in 1674 as a charitable hospital, it’s still in use as a home for older destitute men. It’s lovely to stroll around its courtyard and chapel where charming, elderly Spanish pensioners come and talk to you, usually in incomprehensible Spanish!

They’re keen to show you around the hospital’s star attractions and have huge pride in this special place which is very touching.

Caridad Seville

The Caridad’s chapel

Art lovers will be in thrall to the brilliant collection of paintings by grand masters like Murillo, Zurbaran and Roldan.

The star turn is the chapel which blew my mind as I walked through its almost hidden side entrance. I wasn’t expecting the glut of great art and ornate, gold decoration.

Its founder Don Miguel de Manara is said to have been the inspiration for Byron’s Don Juan, having lived a life of excess and decadence. But he saw the light having seen a nightmarish vision of himself as a corpse on the way home from an orgy!

He decided to give up the high life and orgies for charitable and philanthropic work including setting up the hospital. It’s a great story.

Hospital Caridad Seville

Hospital de la Caridad

During work on the chapel, Don Miguel commissioned a series of paintings by Murillo, depicting biblical tales including Christ feeding the 5,000 and the Prodigal Son.  They look as fresh as when they were first painted.

There are several intriguing paintings including the fantastic noirish pair called ‘Triumph of Deaths’ with a skeleton of death pointing to the dark side and a decomposing bishop being eaten by worms.

They’re a chilling reminder that death was ever-present in the 17th Century. Seville’s Plague of 1649 killed nearly half of the city’s population.

Caridad Seville

Courtyard at Hospital de la Caridad

As you step into the courtyard, it’s worth admiring the tiled panels which tell various biblical stories from Moses and the parting of the Red Sea to Jonah and the Whale.

This is a place with a really special atmosphere which makes it stand out from the crowded tourist honey pots nearby. For a taster, take this virtual tour of the Hospital chapel

In the evening, treat yourself to dinner at Bar Enrique Becerra on Calle Gamazo in the maze of cramped streets at the back of the cathedral. This authentic bar and restaurant is a real find with the best tapas in the city.

Dance explosion – Flamenco

Flamenco mural

Flamenco dancer

Finish the evening with a night of Spanish dance passion and a flurry of flamenco. There are many flamenco clubs and some restaurants include a late evening flamenco session as part of the meal deal.

Authentic flamenco is a sight to behold and the contemporary version is a world away from my Thomson package holiday experience 30 years ago. Back then it was all about castanets and funny costumes – a sanitised version for the mass tourist market.

Now flamenco is experiencing a resurgence with its heady mix of exuberant dance and magical music. In style, it’s a blend of North African, Arabic, eastern and western influences. Flamenco music also draws on Spain’s Jewish and gypsy cultures.

The dancing is fierce, furious and emotionally charged. Go away from Seville without seeing any flamenco and you’ll miss a cultural highlight.

Flamenco Cordoba

Authentic flamenco

Alternatively, why not indulge your passion for food at one of the city’s top restaurants or simply soak up the atmosphere and take a walk around the city streets and illuminated buildings.

The Plaza d’Espana is one of my favourite night-time walks with its flood-lit towers, sparkling fountains and miniature canal system. This was where the Spanish Inquisition had a ‘burning platform’ where heretics were incinerated for 300 years.

These days, it’s a quiet place for a charming stroll or ride in a small boat with no daily ‘burnings’.

Alcazar pavilion walkway

Seville’s gorgeous gardens

Seville is definitely my sort of city. It’s relaxing, civilised and stylish with something for pretty much everyone, whether you’re a foodie, art lover or casual sightseer.

I hope that you’ll be inspired to try its fabulous fusion of food, flamenco and fiestas. Seville is without question one of Spain’s more relaxing historic cities. It’s ideal for art lovers who can binge out on an orgy of cultural excess.

As for me, I can’t wait to go back there!

Tammy’s Travel Guide – Seville

Seville Cathedral views

Seville from above

Seville is located in south-west Spain. It’s easy to reach from Andalucia’s major airports. Seville has its own airport too, seven miles to the north of the city.

The Real Alcazar is open daily and has the bonus of being one of the few attractions in Seville not closed on Mondays or lunch times. Allow two to three hours for your visit.

Be sure to check opening times of tourist attractions as they vary enormously – the Spanish siesta often results in ‘close down’ over lunch.

Horse and carriage rides are popular with many tourists and these trot off from the cathedral square, if you’re in full sightseeing mode.

Seville oranges

Seville oranges

Practical stuff

With a climate as hot as an oven in summer, the best times to visit the city are late Spring and Autumn when temperatures are a pleasant 16-22 degrees.

Getting around Seville is easy but walking is by far the best choice, providing that you’re on for a bit of exercise. There’s a mini tram system which runs from Maria-Louisa Park to the far end of the cathedral if your feet are tired. Buses are another option if you need a ride to the Triana district.

Check opening times. Like the rest of Spain, opening hours vary with most shops and tourist attractions having long lunch breaks. Many museums and attractions close on Mondays and some at weekends. I find this hugely frustrating but it’s a good excuse to enjoy extended bar breaks

Why not combine your visit into a longer road trip like me, taking in Andalucia’s big historic cities – Cordoba, Granada, Cadiz and Jerez?

Seville hotel view

View from Melia Savilla Hotel

Where we stayed: I stayed at the Melia Sevilla Hotel close to the Plaza de Espana and Maria-Louisa Park which is a pleasant 12 minute walk from the main historic centre of Seville. It’s a contemporary and comfortable hotel at good value prices. There’s a roof top swimming pool and great views across the city from its upper floors.

There’s an excellent restaurant called the Baco Borbolla across the road with great seafood and an authentic ambience.

Seville Plaza d'Espana

The Plaza d’Espana

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s