As sultry guitar music plays, the lights dim and two flamenco dancers appear on stage—a man and a woman. For the next hour, my husband, Peter, and I are enthralled by the pounding sound of the dancers’ feet accompanied by rhythmic hand-clapping, thrumming guitar, and haunting songs. Fast, slow, jubilant, mournful—the dancers express varied emotions as they perform intricate steps that echo in the darkened room.
Flamenco is synonymous with Andalusia, Spain’s southern region, and just one of many unique elements of Andalusian culture. Peter and I have come to Seville, the capital of Andalusia and Spain’s fourth largest city, to learn more about the history and character of this region. Seville, we will discover, is about so much more than gorgeous cathedrals and palaces. It is also a city of pleasure, where you can while away the evening, enjoying tapas on cozy terraces as you sip sherry and watch the parade of people stroll by. Before long, you’ll be under the city’s spell.
Seville, with its strategic location near Spain’s Atlantic coastline, has been the target of invasions since Roman times. Around 700 AD, the Moors conquered Andalusia, giving the province its name and influencing its culture and architecture.
One of Seville’s biggest attractions is Real Alcazar, or the Royal Fortress, originally built as a Moorish fort and later transformed by Spanish kings and queens into a lavish palace, still used today by Spain’s royal family. Known for its immense halls and picturesque gardens, the palace features a variety of architectural styles including Mudejar, characterized by elegant arches, intricate plasterwork, and decorative tiles.
Even though it’s late fall, the day we visit is sunny and warm, perfect for relaxing in the palace’s gardens, where water features, such as ponds and fountains, create a tranquil setting. Orange and lemon trees add color and aroma, and majestic palms and cypress trees add drama to the landscape. We enjoy a leisurely self-guided tour through the palace’s great halls, but the gardens are my favorite part of the visit, a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
When Christians gained power in the 12th-century, they built gigantic cathedrals to establish dominance over the Moorish population. A breathtaking example is the Seville Cathedral, the third largest cathedral in Christendom, after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. The city fathers reportedly said their intention was to build a cathedral “…so big that those who see it will think us mad.” In addition to its vast, elaborate interior, the cathedral is known for its soaring bell tower. Visitors can climb to the top for spectacular views of Seville, but when we glimpse the line stretching around the corner, we opt to keep our feet on the ground.
Instead, we head to another unique attraction in Seville, Plaza España, an architectural marvel that now serves as municipal offices. Built of bricks and tiles for the 1929 Ibero-American Expo, the majestic building is an example of Renaissance Revival. Shaped like a crescent, it encircles a plaza featuring a sparkling fountain, a curving canal where you can rent boats, and a parade of people enjoying the beautiful weather. We climb the steps to get the best views of the plaza from the second floor and soak in the serenity and beauty of the plaza.
From there it’s a short walk to the Guadalquivir River, which snakes its way through Seville and on toward the Atlantic Ocean. Paths along the river are a great way to enjoy the city’s sights, while getting a little exercise. We hop on a river cruise and enjoy a narrated tour in English while relaxing on the sunny top deck.
THE BRAVE BULL
Another of Seville’s popular attractions is also found near the river: the Plaza de Toros, built in 1761. I’ve always been curious about bullfighting—inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s passion for it—yet the cruelty of the sport makes me cringe. I figure touring the bullfighting ring and museum will be a safe way to satisfy my curiosity. The 40-minute tour begins in the ring. Our tour guide shows us where the matadors and bulls enter the ring and points out the Prince’s Balcony, where the royal family watches the bullfights.
The museum is located beneath the stadium seating and features displays about the culture of bullfighting. An art gallery with oil paintings from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries depicts the evolution of bullfighting, including the early periods when the bullfighters rode on horseback. One room displays some clothing worn by bullfighters, including a jacket stained with blood. (The matador survived, the guide reassures us.) The tour ends at the bullfighter’s chapel, where the matadors pray before facing what our guide affectionately called the “brave bull.” After the tour, I’m still not sure I want to witness an actual bullfight, but I have a better understanding of why bullfighting is so revered by Spaniards.
An important part of Spanish culture is the gastronomy, and the province of Andalusia is no exception. One way to sample the region’s best delicacies is by enjoying tapas. Every bar and restaurant features dozens of choices, and best of all tapas are affordable, ranging from $3-$4 for a plate to share. One local dish we try is a stew with chick peas and spinach. Another is a tasty combination of tuna and potatoes. The region’s creamy gazpacho, which uses day-old bread, is also a must try. Local sherry from nearby Jerez de la Frontera is perfect for pairing with tapas. Light, dry Fino goes great with shrimp and calamari, and Oloroso—with its caramel, nutty notes—is a perfect match for the local cured ham.
One night Peter and I feast at a slow-food hot spot called Contenedor. When we arrive at 8:30 p.m., the restaurant is empty, but soon the tables begin to fill. After ordering a bottle of red wine, we try to decipher the chalkboard menu, written in Spanish. Luckily our waitress translates for us, and everything sounds heavenly. We settle on a green salad with local ham, salmon tartare, and duck with mushrooms and rice. As is the custom, we share our dishes and love every bite. Judging from the happy smiles on the faces of diners around us, we aren’t the only ones enchanted by this venue.
But when it comes to Andalusian culture, flamenco is what most often comes to mind. Seville’s Museum of Flamenco Dance is an ideal place to learn about this spirited art form, which has its roots in local folk dance and music. Peter and I make an advance reservation for the flamenco show held each evening at the museum and arrive early to explore the museum exhibits.
Our self-guided tour takes us through the history of flamenco, and we learn about the different styles, traditional costumes, and famous dancers. State-of-the-art interactive galleries ensure visitors get an in-depth introduction to this art form. But the highlight of the museum visit is the flamenco show, held in an intimate cabaret setting. As we listen to the soulful guitar, melodious songs, and spirited clapping, the dancers twirl in a riot of color, their shoes pounding a staccato rhythm on the wooden stage. Flamenco is an experience that captures the heart and soul of Andalusia and one I will always associate with Seville.
IF YOU GO:
• For tourist information, visit www.visitasevilla.es/en
• A high-speed train between Madrid and Seville takes just over two hours.
• For accommodations, one option is to rent a private flat. We found a stylish apartment for $70 per night on www.airbnb.com. Our host, Gulielmus, welcomed us, showed us around, and provided lots of helpful advice including a recommendation of where to eat (see below). Visit www.airbnb.com/rooms/1096633
• El Rey Moro, a boutique hotel in the Barrio quarter, just steps from the cathedral and Real Alcazar, was once a 16th-century palatial home. Rooms start at $150 per night. www.elreymoro.com