Made in Seville

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2001

Even the beggars of Seville, who confront visitors on street corners everywhere, know no modesty. After I consented to let one read my palm during a recent visit, I dug into my pocket for a few pesetas.

"Giving coins will bring you bad luck," she said, unabashedly. "Don't you have paper money?"

After four days of encountering such wily locals, touring the city's huge cathedral and Muslim fortress, and taking in other sights, tastes and aromas of Seville, I was smitten.

As I wandered through plazas lined with baroque mansions and orange trees, the stuff of art, opera and literary intrigue seemed to rise like morning mist from the streets. After all, Diego Velasquez, Spain's most beloved painter, produced his most celebrated early works in a studio here. French composer Georges Bizet set "Carmen" in a nearby tobacco factory. And Miguel de Cervantes started writing "Don Quixote" in a Seville prison.

Besides its artistic credentials, this city of 700,000 also serves as the gateway to one of Europe's trendiest summer travel destinations. Andalusia, the region of citrus and olive groves stretching across southern Spain (with Seville as capital and the urban enclaves of Granada and Cordoba short train rides away), is fast replacing Italy's Tuscany and France's Provence as the place where nature-loving Europeans head to escape the Continent's urban strongholds.

Seville's residents seem to go all out in pursuit of the impassioned pastimes that Spain is best known for, transforming the city's cobblestone streets into one big stage. Sevillanos love to crowd into the massive Plaza de Toros and cheer matadors as they face off against bulls. When night falls, they repair to bars like La Carbonera and El Mundo, where dancers and singers belt out their spirits in performances of flamenco, the emotional art form forged two centuries ago by local gypsies in these parts. On Easter, Seville hosts the biggest celebration in Europe, a week-long festival that brings thousands of the faithful into the streets, parading life-size passion scenes from church to church.

A visitor is quickly swept up in the quest for drama. A couple of months ago, a friend and I flew across the rugged Sierra Morena mountains from Madrid and hopped a taxi to our hotel. No sooner did the driver cross the Guadalquivir, the sky-blue river that cuts like a vital artery through the center of the city, than he began to rattle off a half-dozen of his favorite flamenco haunts.

Within hours we were seated at a red table at one of them, a club called the Tablao El Arenal, sipping beer. With a family from Germany at one table and a couple from New Jersey at another, the place screamed "tourist trap." When the floor show started, however, it could not have been more passionate or authentic. Women clad in blood red or canary yellow gowns and flowing scarves came forward one by one, crooning and moving boldly through a series of dance steps. A trio of men dressed in black strummed their guitars and chimed in in chorus in the background.

As each performer stepped forward, I leaned toward the stage in an attempt to grasp the tales they were rendering in Spanish. But I soon realized that, like the blues you hear in clubs deep on the South Side of Chicago or the fado sung in the bars of Lisbon, these were sagas that needed little translation. I gazed into the performers' somber faces and observed their elegant gestures, savoring their art. Flamenco, it was clear, is part of the soul of Seville.

The more I explored this city, the more I marveled that so many of the world's most beloved operas, most admired paintings and most finely woven tales have emerged from this intimate urban enclave in the mountains of Andalusia. How could a place overshadowed in size by Madrid, Barcelona and even Valencia inspire some of the Europe's best-known artists, become the backdrop for at least 20 operas, and offer haven and creative force to scribes ranging from Cervantes to Hemingway?

To answer that question, my traveling companion, Elio, and I took to Seville's streets, a web of narrow, winding paths covered mostly with finely hewn stones, with the Avenida de la Constitucion at the center.

We started in Santa Cruz, a neighborhood full of restaurants featuring gazpacho and paella, and boutiques offering ceramics and locally made paintings and jewelry. Eventually we made our way to the Plaza Salvador, where locals linger over coffee all afternoon and late into the evenings. We ended up west of the river in Triana, a former stronghold of Andalusian gypsies, now a neighborhood of churches and low-rise houses with colorful back courtyards.

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