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.
Our first mission was to seek out cultural landmarks. Just east of Seville's cathedral, in a courtyard in Santa Cruz, was the deep-green, flower-covered balcony that inspired Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." At that early hour, before you could even sniff the aroma of fresh coffee wafting in the morning wind, I imagined hearing echoes of Figaro and Rosina crooning from above. Across the way was the town house where Bartolome Murillo, the 17th-century Spanish master known for his sentimental portraits of the Madonna and other biblical figures, was born, and the small cathedral of Santa Cruz where he is buried.
A bit farther afield, on Calle San Fernando, was the labyrinthine baroque and rococo tobacco factory, the site where Don Juan woos Carmen in Bizet's romantic opera. It now houses the University of Seville. I strolled in and tried to picture the dazzling heroine rolling cigars in this place where students currently were slumped over Dante and Garcia Lorca.
Not far away, on Calle Padre Luis Maria Llop, was the small ocher house where Velasquez was born. A few blocks farther was the spot where Cervantes began making notes for "Don Quixote," his classic novel, while languishing in debtors' prison. A short stroll away was the small house where American writer Washington Irving, whose tour through Andalusia in the early 1800s resulted in a classic travelogue, lived and wrote in 1828.
As I moved about, I first closed my eyes and smelled. I caught the sweet scent of oranges, which for much of autumn and into winter hang from trees along the streets of Seville and in surrounding Andalusia. As I breathed deeper, I took in the aroma of tapas, the Spanish delicacy of fresh cheese, smoked ham and meats on baked bread served in cafes throughout the city. Finally came the slightly salty fragrance of the Guadalquivir, the wide river that streams into the city, through the Andalusian countryside and into the Atlantic.
I then mingled. Over gazpacho and grilled trout in the Meson Don Raimundo, a glass of wine at the Bodega Santa Cruz or amid flowers in the Parque de Maria Luisa, I bellied up to locals. Everywhere I went, I encountered Sevillanos consumed with their various passions -- but never too busy to chat with a stranger.
They seemed to undertake every act -- from sipping espresso at breakfast to late-night toasting of grappa -- with flair and gusto. When Elio and I dropped into the Taberna del Alabardero, sister to the top-rated restaurant of the same name in downtown Washington, we told the waiter we wanted a light supper. Instead, we were presented with a five-course feast, centering on a magnificent grilled trout and accompanied by a fine bottle of Ribera del Duero, served by four charming waiters. The only thing light about the meal was the price: about $30 a person.
Finally, I listened. What I heard during the day was the endless chatter of locals, who converse in the slow, lyrical Spanish common in the southern part of the country. Occasionally the singalongs of marauding students -- ubiquitous in this college town -- rose above the din. By night, when the crowds had moved into cafes, a poetic calm settled into the streets. Cocking my ear, I could catch the passionate crooning of flamenco singers somewhere in the distance.
With a 1,000-year-old Muslim fortress occupying one corner of the city center, a 13th-century cathedral nearby and a 600-year-old Jewish settlement a five-minute walk away, Seville begs for more than just casual exploration.
Although the main attractions lie no more than a half-hour's walk from each another and are easy enough to locate on a map, I enlisted a guide to help put the evolution of Seville in historical context and understand how it has become a synonym for Mediterranean artistic culture.
David Gonzales, an out-of-work history teacher and Sevillano, started the tour where any history of Seville should begin: the Alcazar. This jewel of a building was originally built in A.D. 913 as a palace for Seville's Muslim rulers, who had moved up from Morocco and staked a claim on the region in the early 10th century. Surpassed only by Granada's Alhambra as the grandest example of Islamic architecture in Europe, it's a veritable labyrinth, with patios covered by intricate mudejar plasterwork and mosaic tiles decorating the ceilings. A garden of orange trees, red and orange bougainvillea shrubs, ornate fountains and pools occupy the center courtyard. One of several Arabesque buildings in the city, this is the kind of place where you want to linger. Even on a two-hour visit, I felt rushed.
Ever since the mid-12th century, when Christians toppled the ruling Muslims, the Alcazar has been used as a retreat by Spain's royal families. Six years ago, the daughter of Juan Carlos, Spain's ruling monarch, held her wedding feast here.
David next led us to the barrio of Santa Cruz, used as a Jewish ghetto in the Middle Ages. A pogrom virtually wiped out the city's Jewish community in the 1300s. A few shops sold delicate Spanish ceramics embedded with Stars of David and other religious emblems, a poignant reminder of this important chapter in Seville's past.
Our day-long journey ended where most tours begin, at Seville's 500-year-old cathedral. Towering over the center, adorned with a formidable array of stoic faces, figurines and spires, it is the world's third-largest church (after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London).
All of the great chapters of the city's history come together in this gargantuan space. Built on the site of a mosque, the Almohad, which Christians toppled in the early 1400s. They left only La Giralda, an ornate Islamic minaret at the top of the cathedral as a reminder of the city's Muslim past.
The interior is splashed with gold leaf brought from explorers to the New World. One room contains massive sculptures made from pure gold and silver. Another room displays four moving Murillo renditions of biblical scenes. Finally, inside the Puerto de los Principes, we eyed the tomb of Christopher Columbus, whose remains are said to have been transported here from Cuba in 1899.
The picture a visitor gets of historical Seville is of a uniquely multicultural center, a place where, at least during part of its history, Jews, Christians and Muslims came together under one roof. It was in fact this unlikely combination of influences that gave Seville its artistic character, David explained.
"The secret to the city's strength is the mix of cultures that lie at its root," he said. "If we stemmed from only one culture, we'd probably be like any other city in Spain. But every people who settled in this region had a huge impact. We are a product of all of them."
Seville's status as one of the world's major trading ports in the late 15th and 16th centuries further elevated its status. That was an epoch when Columbus and other seafarers regularly sailed from far-off places like Peru, Mexico and North America across the Atlantic and up the Guadalquivir, bringing gold and other treasures.
David showed us remnants of that so-called Golden Era: plazas lined with baroque mansions, stately arabesque palaces, grand statues and elaborate gardens.
Back on our own for the last day, we headed for two of the city's other celebrated monuments. The first was the Plaza de Toros, a gigantic stadium built in 1758 on the river banks. In the exalted profession of Spanish bullfighting, it has the star power of New York's Carnegie Hall or Metropolitan Opera House, a guide proudly explained -- a place where every aspiring matador must fight on his way to glory. Although we had missed the bullfighting season by a few weeks, it was easy to imagine this vast expanse -- which draws crowds of 14,000 -- roaring in a rush of waving red cloths, charging horned creatures, fighters and fans. A small museum displayed elaborately decorated matadors' uniforms and photos of past fights -- and a small infirmary stood ready for the fighters who proved not quite as fleet-footed as their prey.
Finally, there was the Plaza de Espana. The main pavilion of Expo '29, an international fair staged here seven decades ago, particularly impressed me. It was a gigantic sweeping structure, made of bright colored stone and highlighted by arches decorated with ceramic scenes from the 50 provinces of Spain, from Madrid to Valencia.
As we walked across the broad esplanade in front of the plaza, used as a backdrop in the film "Lawrence of Arabia," I began to think of reasons to extend our visit another day. There was still the Museo de Bellas Artes, with its collections of Murillos and El Grecos. And what about the Torre del Oro, a 13th-century tower once decorated with gold-covered tiles?
Then, in the distance, I saw the gypsy who had told my fortune coming my way. Surely, she would bring a request for more pesetas, a prediction of ill fortune, or worse. I turned and strolled briskly away. Act III, Scene 3 of my Seville visit was over.
WHERE TO STAY: I chose the Hotel Los Seises (Calle Segovias 6, telephone 011-34-95-422-94-95, www.sol.com/hotel/los-seises/info.htm), within easy walking distance of the cathedral and other major sites. The former 16th-century palace has great architectural style, a rooftop swimming pool and friendly service. Double rooms, with a sumptuous buffet breakfast, go for $90 a night.
The Alfonso XIII (San Fernando 2, 888-625-5144), designed to be the most elegant hotel in Europe in 1928, still holds its own as a place for those in the mood to splurge. Now managed by the Westin chain, the Alfonso exudes elegance: towering palm trees out front, splendid chandeliers in the lobby and large rooms that are appointed with cushy beds, huge desks and armchairs. Doubles run about $150.
The Apartamentos Murillo (Reinoso 6, telephone 011-34-95-421-09-59) are a good option for budget travelers. Located on a narrow street in the popular barrio Santa Cruz, the units offer a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. They're basic, but clean and well kept. Some units have a couple of bedrooms, making this a good choice for families. Plan on spending about $60 a night for a one-bedroom.
WHERE TO EAT: Casual diners are best off heading to the barrio Santa Cruz and hopping from one wonderful cafe to the next, noshing on tapas as you go.
For something more formal, the Taberna del Alabardero (Caragoza 20) would be my choice. The menu, centering on such Seville specialties as grilled fish and gazpacho, is the finest I encountered in the city. The setting, in an elegantly restored mansion, is also precious. For two -- with wine, dessert and the same level of fuss that far costlier establishments offer -- expect to pay about $60.
La Isla (Arfe 25), which serves up tasty seafood dishes in an intimate setting, is convenient to the bullring and some of the major flamenco bars. Dinner runs about $50 for two.
WHAT TO DO: For visitors who arrive in bullfighting season (spring through early fall), a Sunday afternoon match at the Plaza de Toros (Paseo de Cristobal Colon, telephone 011-34-954-2245-77) is surely worth the $20 admission. Reserve well in advance through your hotel concierge or travel agent.
Although you can do the Alcazar and the cathedral on your own, you're probably best off taking a guided tour. Your hotel should be able to recommend a good one.
For flamenco, the cover for the show at El Arenal (Calle Rodo 7) runs about $18 a person, including one drink.
INFORMATION: Tourist Office of Spain, 888-657-7246, www.okspain.org.