I’m watching a freeloader in a restaurant on a very hot day in Seville. That could be almost any day in this town; in summer, the mercury can sail past 40C, past 50C, even. What to do on days like that? The freeloader knows. Stay in the shade and eat. He (or is it a she?) is strutting over the hexagonal tiles on the street outside Antigua Abacería de San Lorenzo, pecking at morsels fallen from the canopy of tables above. Nearby, a baby cries as a boisterous moped hurtles past. A waiter takes a gulp from a perspiring glass of water. They’re trying to do too much. I’m taking the freeloading pigeon’s lead: eating and watching, watching and eating.
San Lorenzo is the kind of tapería found across Seville, a tapas bar with tables inside and out, and a menu that seems too affordable for a modern European city. How can roasted Iberian pork loin baked with onion confit be only €3 (£2.60)? And a whole puck of goat’s cheese €2 (£1.80)? An entire bottle of Rioja here costs as much as a single glass in London. Seville is the kind of place that makes me resent living in the UK.
Located just west of the popular La Alameda area, San Lorenzo sits in the shadow of an old church, but it’s hardly unique in that — there are a great many churches casting a great deal of shade in Seville. Lanes twist and turn, widen and narrow, then explode out onto grand thoroughfares.
Sevillian civilians are understandably delighted with their lot. As well as being blessed with wonderful weather and food, it’s a city dedicated to cycling (only Amsterdam has more cycle lanes) and the sanctity of its historic buildings. Unsurprisingly, UNESCO heavily endorses Seville. To study the Andalusian capital’s history is to study all of humanity’s. I’m given a crash course while cycling with the excellent SeeByBike. As my guide, Justo Lora, explains everything to me, it feels as though every history project I ever did at school rushes back at once.
Legend has it the city was founded by the Greek demigod Hercules; what’s more certain is that it was further developed by Julius Caesar and later conquered by the Moors, who themselves had to repel Viking raids. The Christians then won the city back from the Islamic invaders, and immediately began preparations to send out conquistadors of their own. Running through the heart of the city, the Guadalquivir River carried them all.
With Seville booming, the Catholic kings spent a fortune building Seville Cathedral. It took 105 years to complete and today is the world’s third-largest. Christopher Columbus planned his four voyages to the Americas from Andalusia; each time he returned to Seville he’d have noticed the cathedral’s grand roof had grown a little higher. Today, he examines it from inside, from the vantage point of his golden coffin, carried aloft by four knights, representing Spain’s ancient kingdoms.
Almost all Western history — real and imagined — leads back to Seville. The Roman Emperor Hadrian was also born in this province. One day, he decided to build a wall at the edge of his vast empire, in a place now called Britain. Over 1,800 years later, a portly American writer stood on that mighty wall and wondered what would compel an unstoppable force like the Romans to build such a barrier. What did they seek to keep out? Wondering became imagining and that man, George R R Martin, conceived a novel. One book became several books and they became a television series called Game of Thrones, one of the biggest productions in TV history. Part of its enormity comes from being filmed in locations around the world, fantastic places dressed just a little to become fantasy. Consider Dorne, for example, a hot land of hot people doing hot things. When HBO needed somewhere to play the ornate Dornish capital, where did they come? Why, to Seville, of course.
Those scenes were filmed in the very tangible palace complex of Alcázar. Over the course of the city’s history, different rulers indulged varying degrees of cultural and architectural appropriation; temple sites became mosques, and they, in turn, became churches and cathedrals. Today, if you start digging down in any part of the old town, you’re likely to find traces of all three. Seville’s Alcázar is one of the best examples of that. A royal network of gardens, residences and churches, much of the design is Arabic, yet covered in seals and sigils bearing the images of a castle and a lion.
The quartered coat of arms that represents the united kingdoms of Castile and León was perhaps the first global marketing exercise. It was these symbols that Columbus and his sons carried west to a new world. The legendary, doomed explorer Ferdinand Magellan carried them from here too, all the way to the Philippines, where the warrior-king Lapu-Lapu promptly introduced him to the business end of a spear.
As riches returned from the newly plundered Americas, Seville became a city gilded in blood. As my bike bumps along cobbled streets, I see the colours of gold and red are common still. Sevillians talk about the romance of the 250-year-old Maestranza bullring, of the heroism of the master matadors, of the red blood spilled across the orange dust as the merciless sun bears down. I can’t think of bullfighting as anything other than cruel, but then this isn’t really for tourists — it’s for the city and her traditionalists. If you go, you’ll at least see some honest, brutally authentic, unvarnished version of Seville.
The same is true of flamenco, so long as you know where to look. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Seville annually, determined to see ‘genuine’ flamenco shows in the heart of Andalusia, the dance’s birthplace. In most instances, they’re paying to watch highly trained performers who’ve rehearsed for years. The dancers’ athleticism is undeniable, but to see one of those shows is something like going to watch Riverdance in the hope of seeing local Irish dancing.
Flamenco, at its core, is a barely controlled mayhem for troubled souls who need an outlet for their passion and fury. And it lives on in Seville, away from the stage, away from the box office, in gloriously dilapidated dive joints like Bar Gonzalo. Held up by scaffolding and held together by the community, it looks from the outside like the sort of place you wouldn’t want to enter without someone holding your hand. The SeeByBike team are the ones holding mine. The performance is already well under way when we squeeze in up the back and order some drinks. Men are arrayed around the far table, some holding guitars at acute angles, like soldiers on patrol. Others slap arthritic hands together to keep time. They take turns at singing, their pained expressions — picked out by unkind fluorescent light — mirroring the religious iconography behind them. The walls also display portraits of dearly departed dogs, paintings of matadors in fatal full flow, and photos of serious-looking men in suits seriously too large for them. There are ads for beers that haven’t been brewed for decades, and graffiti that appears to have been there just as long.
I’m told this music is the Spanish equivalent of the blues. “I can’t understand most of the words, but they’re complaining — about love, about work,” says Justo. Bar Gonzalo is a hot mess, full of sweaty Sevillians performing as though their lives depend on it, and as the cold beer hits my stomach I wonder if it’s also the greatest bar in the world. I wonder too how long things like this have been going on in Seville — and how long it can it all last.
As the music builds, a small scruffy man with thick glasses and a limp seizes his moment, screeching with minimal skill but maximum commitment. I’m later told he lost his job when he became partially disabled after falling from the third-storey window of a burning building. He’s been homeless since. He really does have something to complain about, then; the broken embodiment of true flamenco.
There’s something elemental in his performance, something so obviously authentic that the next morning I find myself unable to think of much else. Seville is well prepared for mass tourism, but unlike comparable historically rich European cities (Rome, Edinburgh) it seems to have retained more of its unfiltered essence.
City of festivals
The same seems to be true across the region. As the heat eases and evening approaches, I head out to Villamanrique de la Condesa, a small city half an hour west of Seville. For much of the year, the old agricultural community is virtually dormant. Then festival season arrives. The largest is the Feria de Abril, held at roughly the same time as Seville’s 40,000-odd orange trees blossom, the spring breeze perfuming the entire city. The Feria is marked by holidays, revelry, and the gory demise of several bulls.
Out in the countryside, the focus is on a grand pilgrimage to the village church in El Rocío, to worship the Virgin of the Dew. Attracting a million devotees from across Spain, this mass migration, like all these annual festivals, isn’t an imitation of the old days, it’s a continuation of the way things have been done, unchanged, for hundreds of years.
In Villamanrique, locals are preparing for the great parade by dancing flamenco to an infectious rhythm set by the pipe and tabor (an instrument comprising a flute and a hand-held drum). In front of thatched farm buildings, girls with heavy, expertly applied makeup move to the music — control just winning out over chaos. The artificial flowers in their hair cope admirably as they spin and flourish in the warm dusk. One girl takes her shoes off to dance barefoot on the grass; another in a polka-dot dress sits atop a horse, which appears to dance too. On and on the drums and flutes play. Then, in the middle of it all, a skinny woman with a long neck and huge golden hoops through her ears begins dancing to a slightly different rhythm. The rest stand back in something like awe. “She’s part gypsy,” my guide whispers conspiratorially in my ear.
Gypsy history is important in this region, nowhere more so than in Triana, a Bohemian neighbourhood on the west bank of the Guadalquivir. When the Romani people were expelled from Seville in the mid-18th century, they settled here. Their suffering found release in music, bullfighting and pottery. You can still find the distinctive blue-and-white Triana ceramics all over the city, covering bridges, decorating palaces. “Triana is a factory of artists,” Justo had told me. “All the greatest dancers and matadors came from here.”
On my last night in Seville, walking alone in Triana’s maze of lanes, I encounter a parade. Due to a quirk in the alley’s acoustics it’s all but muted until it’s right in front of me, a 50-strong brass band erupting as drummers hit their skins so hard spectators blink involuntarily.
This is all in honour of the local children’s first holy communion, but in this city of festivals that’s justification enough for music and the parading of a huge float carried aloft by 10 strong men. The thing is so heavy they can only manage one song before needing to stop. After a short break, there’s a knock from inside the float that says they’re ready to lift again. The thing jerks up, candles quiver, drums thunder, horns blast, and the Sevillian parade marches ever on.
Getting there & around
Ryanair flies to Seville from Stansted and Manchester. EasyJet and British Airways both fly from Gatwick.
Average flight time: 2h40m.
Seville’s centre is compact enough to be tackled on foot over a few days. The city also has a limited tram network, which passes through the historic centre. Cycle lanes run across the city, while much inside the walled centre is shared by pedestrians and bikes. SeeByBike offers tours and rentals.
When to go
Summer can be fiercely hot; autumn and spring offer sunshine but manageable temperatures.
How to do it
Riviera Travel has a seven-day tour of Spain, with six nights’ B&B accommodation, including three in Seville at Hotel Don Paco, plus return flights and transfers, from £499 per person.
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)