Looking for Carmen in Seville

Flamenco mural

Who was the real Carmen?

Seville is renowned for its two most famous exports –  Marmalade Oranges and Carmen. One has become more popular than the other, thanks to Bizet’s famous opera.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Carmen was based on a real life character, but she was invented by the French writer Prosper Merimée in his short story of the same name. The novella inspired Bizet to create one of opera’s most enduring personalities.

I’ve been on the trail of Carmen to separate fact from fiction – and I’ve been trying to identify the iconic locations featured in the opera.

The Story of Carmen

Seville Tobacco Factory

Seville’s Royal Tobacco Factory

Everyone knows the story of Carmen. If you had to describe the story in 140 characters on Twitter it would go something like this…

“Gypsy woman casts spell on soldier, tires of him, falls in love with bull fighter, rejects former lover’s advances and is stabbed to death when he falls into a jealous rage”.

The story of Carmen is set in Seville during the 19th Century – it’s basically a crime of passion set against a backdrop of gypsy culture and bull fighting. Today you can see many of the landmarks made famous by the opera.

The Antigua Fabrica de Tabacos, where Carmen worked as a cigar maker, is a splendid building that looks more like a grandiose Renaissance palace than a factory.

Tobacco Factory Seville

The palace-like factory

This gigantic complex, 250 metres long and 180 metres wide, is the largest building in Spain after the El Escorial palace in Madrid.

Surrounded by palm trees, its impressive exterior is covered with statues and ornate decoration. The ostentatious design demonstrates that tobacco was a huge money earner in the 1800s.

Cigarette production was heavy and labour intensive work. It employed thousands of people whilst 200 donkeys drove its rolling mills until 1965 when the factory closed down and moved to a new site across the river.

Tobacco Factory Seville

Royal Tobacco Factory

The Tobacco Factory was once Spain’s largest employer and employed 10,000 female cigarette makers or ‘cigarreras.’

The women workers who worked in this giant sweat shop lived in specially built dormitories. It must have been a bleak existence. To add insult to injury, the women’s morals were often thought to be questionable.

They were seen as an under-class, earned a pittance and suffered the indignity of being body searched for stolen goods every time they left the building. Carmen was one such woman.

Tobacco Factory Seville

Angel welcomes virgin

Look above the main factory entrance and you’ll see the statue of a marble angel blowing a trumpet. Popular legend had it that the trumpet would sound only when a virgin entered the factory for the first time!

The building is now part of the University of Seville but you can take a walk around its grounds and peak inside, although many of its original workshops have been converted to lecture rooms.

There’s a pleasant entrance area leading onto a Clock Patio with a fountain and ornate decoration. Close your eyes and you’ll feel what life must have been like in the 1800s.

Seville Tobacco Factory

Tobacco Factory sign

This factory is also where Carmen saw Don José for the first time during the changing of the guard. You can still see the remains of the old city walls, the defensive moat and sentry posts where soldiers would undertake guard duties.

Where is Lilas Pastia’s Tavern?

The next stop on your Carmen tour should be Lilas Pastia’s tavern on Calle Maria de Padilla, the street which runs along the side of the Old Tobacco building.

There is a plaque identifying what is supposed to be the site of this tavern but it isn’t very convincing. When I read Merimee’s Carmen, I was surprised to find that Lilas Pastia’s tavern was originally in Triana on the other side of the river in Seville.

The current site of the Carmen plaque on Calle Maria de Padilla isn’t even a taverna – it’s a barber’s shop.

Seville Cathedral

Santa Cruz quarter

A short walk takes you to the nearby Real Alcazar and the streets of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood. There’s a spot close to the walls of the palace where Carmen is supposed to have danced in the opera. It’s here that you can imagine her performing a passionate flamenco with castanets.

Located on a quiet street 200 metres from the Real Alcazar is the Hospital de la Caridad, one of the city’s greatest hidden treasures.

Founded in 1674 as a charitable hospital, 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.

Hospital Caridad Seville

Hospital Caridad

Some believe he may also have been the inspiration for the character of Carmen’s womanising lover.

The real Don Miguel is said to have seen the light having seen a nightmarish vision of himself as a corpse on the way home from an orgy. As a result, he decided to give up the high life and orgies for charitable work including setting up the hospital.

Whether he inspired the character in Carmen is anybody’s guess.

Tales of the Toreador

Bull fighter

Bull fighter

The Real Maestranza in Seville was built in the 1760s and is said by many to be the most beautiful bull ring in the world. It features prominently in the opera Carmen because this was where Escamillo fought his bulls.

Close your eyes and you can imagine the roar of 14,000 people watching the toreador plying his dangerous trade. Today, you can go on a tour of the Bull Ring and visit the small museum to get a flavour of the life of a toreador, past and present.

A statue of a toreador stands outside the Bull Ring looking for all the world like it could be the fictional Escamillo about to burst into the ‘Toreador’s Song’ from Carmen.

Seville Bull Ring

Toreador statue outside the Bull Ring

The street outside the Bull Ring has dramatic significance too because this is where the jealous Don José killed Carmen by stabbing her to death in a jealous rage.

Look out for the drab statue to Carmen on the opposite side of the street, although it doesn’t look anything like how I’d imagined her.

Nearby, the statue of a woman riding a horse is often mistaken for Carmen… except it isn’t her. It’s actually the Countess of Barcelona on horseback. She was the mother of Juan Carlos, King of Spain, and was a huge fan of bull fighting.

Seville Bull Ring Carmen

Carmen or the Countess?

Carmen’s House in Triana

Walk away from the Bull Ring towards the river and take the bridge to cross over into Triana, a working class quarter of Seville, once well-known as a gypsy community.

This is where Carmen lived in Prosper Merimée’s original story in which she proclaims: “People who are fond of good fritata come to eat it at Lillas Pastia’s at Triana.”

Merimée goes on to describe Carmen’s quarters: “She was living with Lillas Pastia, an old fried-fish seller, a gipsy, as black as a Moor, to whose house a great many civilians resorted to eat fritata, especially, I think, because Carmen had taken up her quarters there”.

Today, you can wander around Triana’s historic streets and pop into one of the many authentic fritata cafes to get a taste of what Carmen might have eaten.

Triana street scene

During the early 20th Century the myth of Carmen spread far and wide with the growing popularity of Bizet’s opera. Some travellers came to Seville seeking what they thought might be ‘the real Carmen’.

Triana was an area which fascinated travellers because of its gypsy community, and it also inspired Merimée who wrote extensively about its people in ‘Carmen’.

A 1930s scholar called Walter Starkie travelled to the city from Ireland and wasn’t impressed by what he found, proclaiming that he’d “never seen an uglier collection of women all my life”.

Unsurprisingly he was chased away from Carmen’s tobacco factory with “a chorus of obscene abuse”. Carmen again proved to be an elusive figure.

Carmen in Cordoba

Cordoba bridge and river

Cordoba – Guadalquivir river

I was surprised to discover that much of the action in Merimée’s book takes place in Cordoba rather than Seville, unlike Bizet’s opera.

The author writes about the Dominican convent and street life in the town including the community on the riverfront along the Guadalquivir:

“At Cordoba a great many idlers collect, toward sunset, in the quay that runs along the right bank of the Guadalquivir. Promenaders on the spot have to breathe the odour of a tan yard which still keeps up the ancient fame of the country in connection with the curing of leather.”

This is where we encounter Carmen in his book for the first time.

The funny thing about Carmen is that she has variously been described as being Basque from northern Spain or a gypsy of Romany origin from Andalusia. But nobody seems to really know the truth of the fiction.

Flamenco Cordoba

Flamenco in Cordoba

Who was Carmen?

Carmen is pure fantasy, but it’s fun trying to find the streets and sites that helped create her iconic image and the myths surrounding her.

This is how author Prosper Merimée describes Carmen in his book and perhaps it’s the nearest we’ll ever get to her:

“I very much doubt whether Senorita Carmen was a pure-blooded gipsy. At all events, she was infinitely prettier than any other woman of her race I have ever seen… Her skin, though perfectly smooth, was almost of a copper hue.

“Her eyes were set obliquely in her head, but they were magnificent and large. Her lips, a little full, but beautifully shaped, revealed a set of teeth as white as newly skinned almonds. Her hair—a trifle coarse, perhaps—was black, with blue lights on it like a raven’s wing, long and glossy…

“Her eyes, especially, had an expression of mingled sensuality and fierceness which I had never seen in any other human glance.”
Carmen by Prosper Merimée


Carmen – from Cordoba or Seville?

To add to the myth, the composer of the opera, Georges Bizet, never even set foot in Spain. His inspiration, Prosper Merimée, the creator of Carmen, was also French, although at least he had studied Spain’s gypsy culture.

Which all goes to prove that fiction can be a strong aphrodisiac when you’re searching for Carmen. She remains an alluring figure and a magnet for tourists looking to discover her enduring legacy.

Viva Carmen – long may her spirit live on!

Tammy’s Travel Guide – Carmen 

Hospital Caridad Seville

Hospital Caridad – Seville

Seville is a good place to start your search for the fictional Carmen. Her workplace, the Old Tobacco Factory, is open to the public during university hours. There are guided tours at 11 am on some weekdays or you can grab an audio guide from the concierge’s office.

The Hospital Caridad is close to Seville Cathedral and is open most days – it is well worth a look inside, even if its association with Carmen is tenuous. Triana – the gypsy district – is just over the over side of the river.

The Seville Official Tourism office runs specialist guided walking tours which include an ‘Opera Tour’ featuring locations from Carmen.

A river walk along the Guadalquivir in Cordoba will give you a flavour of one of the key locations featured in Merimée’s book of Carmen. Cordoba is also a great place for discovering authentic flamenco music and dance.

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