Sevilla

Sevilla is the flamboyant city of Carmen and Don Juan, where bullfighting is still politically correct and little girls dream of growing up to become flamenco dancers. Sevilla has soul — and we feel it in its lacy Moorish palace, massive cathedral, lavish royal tombs, labyrinthine Jewish quarter, and its people-filled streets.

Travel Details

Flamenco

Los Gallos gives nightly two-hour shows (arrive 30 min early for best seats, Plaza de Santa Cruz 11, tel. 954-216-981). El Arenal also does a good show (near bullring at Calle Rodo 7, tel. 954-216-492). El Patio Sevillano is more of a variety show (next to bullring at Paseo de Cristobal Colón, tel. 954-214-120). El Arenal may have a slight edge on talent, but Los Gallos has a cozier setting, with cushy rather than hard chairs — and it's cheaper.

Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus (House for the Memory of Al-Andalus) offers more of an intimate concert with a smaller cast and more classic solos. In an alcohol-free atmosphere, tourists sit on folding chairs circling a small stage for shows featuring flamenco, Sephardic, or other Andalusian music, and there's exhibits on Sephardic and Muslim art and musical instruments (arrive 45 min early for best seats, Ximénez Enciso 28, in Barrio de Santa Cruz, next to Hotel Alcántara, tel. 954-560-670, memoria@terra.es).

Impromptu flamenco still erupts spontaneously in bars throughout the old town after midnight. Just follow your ears as you wander down Calle Betis, leading off Plaza de Cuba across the bridge. The Lo Nuestro and Rejoneo bars are local favorites (at Calle Betis 31A and 31B). For flamenco music without dancing, consider La Carbonería Bar (near Plaza Santa Maria, find Hotel Fernando III, the side alley Cespedes deadends at Levies, head left to unsigned door at Levies 18).

Concepción Delgado

Concepción takes small groups on several worthwhile English-language-only walks (tel. 902-158-226, mobile 616-501-100).

Alcázar

Originally a 10th-century palace built for the governors of the local Moorish state, this still functions as a royal palace...the oldest still in use in Europe. What you see today is an extensive 14th-century rebuild, done by Moorish workmen for a Christian ruler (tel. 954-502-323). Concepción Delgado also offers a tour here.

Sevilla's Cathedral

This is the third-largest church in Europe (after the Vatican's St. Peter's and London's St. Paul's) and the largest Gothic church anywhere (tel. 954-214-971). Concepción Delgado also offers a tour here.

Basílica de la Macarena

Sevilla's Holy Week celebrations are Spain's grandest. During the week leading up to Easter, the city is packed with pilgrims witnessing 50 processions carrying about 100 religious floats. Get a feel for this event by visiting Basílica de la Macarena to see the two most impressive floats and the darling of Semana Santa, the Weeping Virgin (tel. 954-901-800).

Museo de Bellas Artes

Sevilla's passion for religious art is preserved and displayed in its Museum of Fine Art — the Museo de Bellas Artes. While most Americans go for El Greco, Goya and Velázquez (not a forte of this collection), this museum gives a fine look at the other, less-appreciated Spanish masters — Zurbarán and Murillo. Rather than exhausting, the museum is pleasantly enjoyable (Pasarela de la Cartuja, Plaza Museo 9, tel. 954-220-790).

The April Fair

For seven days each April (starting two weeks after Easter), Sevilla packs into its vast fairgrounds for a grand party. Horses clog the streets in an endless parade until about 20:00 when they clear out and the street fills with exuberant locals. The party goes for literally 24 hours a day for the entire week. The city's entire fleet of taxis (who'll try to charge double) and buses seems dedicated to shuttling people from downtown to the fairgrounds. You may be better off hiking: from the Golden Tower, cross the San Telmo bridge to Plaza Cuba and hike down Calle Asunción. You'll see the towering gate to the fairground in the distance; just follow the crowds (no admission charge). 

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I’m Rick Steves…back with more of the best of Europe. This time we’re deep in the south of Spain…in Andalusia. This is Sevilla. Hold on to your castanets. Thank you.

Sevilla does festivals with gusto. It’s a flamboyant city of larger than life lovers like Carmen and Don Juan, where bullfighting is still politically correct, and where little girls still dream of growing up to become flamenco dancers. Sevilla has soul and a contagious love of life.

Sevilla — or Seville in English — has its share of impressive sights and we’ll them. Its grand cathedral, plush Moorish palace and famous bull ring. But the real magic is the city itself; it’s tangled Jewish Quarter, riveting flamenco shows, old neighborhood tapas bars, and most all its legendary April Fair where Andalusian culture thrives.

Located in the southwest corner of Europe, Spain dominates the Iberian Peninsula. Its southern province is Andalusia. And the region’s leading city is Sevilla.

Sevilla was Europe’s gateway to the New World in the 16th century. It flourished in the Age of Discovery. The explorers Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Amerigo Vespucci all sailed from right here.

The Golden Tower was the starting and ending point for trade with the New World. For century’s part of the city’s fortifications, it came with a heavy chain draped across the river to protect the harbor. In the 16th century Sevilla’s Golden Age was powered by New World riches.

In the 17th century, all that money made the city an important center of arts and culture. In the 18th century — as its harbor silted up and the Spanish empire crumbled — Sevilla’s power faded and in the 19th century, the once-powerful-now-quaint Sevilla became an important stop on the Romantic-era “Grand Tour of Europe.”

In the twentieth century, 1992 to be exact, Sevilla hosted a worlds fair that left the city with today’s striking twenty first century infrastructure; dramatic bridges, a sleek new train system and even a new airport. Today, with 700,000 people, it’s Spain’s fourth-largest city…an exuberant Andalusian capital.

But the charm of Sevilla is best enjoyed in its traditions — like flamenco. Spaniards consider Andalusia the home of flamenco. While impromptu flamenco still erupts spontaneously in old world bars, most tourists attend a show like this. The men do most of the machine-gun footwork.

[Flamenco dancing]

The women concentrate on graceful turns and a smooth, dramatic step. Flamenco guitarists, with their lightning-fast finger-roll strums, are among the best in the world. The intricate rhythms are set by castanets and hand-clapping. In the raspy-voiced wails of the singers you’ll hear echoes of the Muslim call to prayer — an evocative reminder of centuries of Moorish rule.

The town square is Plaza Nueva. It honors King Ferdinand III, fondly remembered for freeing Sevilla from the Moors in the 13th century. From here, wander into Sevilla’s pedestrian-zone shopping center — which Spaniards prefer to the suburban mall. This is the place for traditional Spanish fashions. But I wouldn’t know my Manchego from my mantilla without a little local help.

My friend and local tour guide, Concepción Delgado, has agreed to be my personal shopper.

Rick: So there are all these traditional things to buy…isn’t it just for tourists that they sell these?

Concepción: No way. These are for locals. We love our things we have preserved our traditions for centuries.

Rick: So these traditions are healthy?

Concepción: Completely. This one of my favorite shops. Buenos días.

Now let me show you the three most traditional accessories that women wear in Spain. Shawls, mantillas and fans. Starting with the shawls that you can see here. A big display of beautiful colors and embroideries which are very practical for us too. We would use them as accessories, but they also have a function which is warming you when you’re cold.

This is what we wear on top of the beautiful, nice flamenco dresses to attend to the April Feria. On top of the Flamenco dress you cannot wear a simple coat, you must wear something more distinguished, which is a shawl. You can leave it like that…it’s more sexy.

Here we’ve got the mantilla. The mantilla is another accessory, which can be in two colors: white or black. It’s always combined with this comb, which is incorporated in the mantilla like this… and then we wear that on our heads. The white one is for only the Feria, for the festival in April when women wear them to attend the bullfights.

Let’s have a look at the fans now. As you can see, very different colors, different materials, but they are mostly made in wood. Remember that Seville gets very hot during the summer and women, old ladies use them when they attend services. Very old churches have no air-conditioning. They are cooling themselves like this. Sometimes you hardly hear the priest. Just [thumping]. That’s all around you.

In the old days, there was a language with fans which is disappearing, but in the love game it was very useful too. For example you were looking at someone that you weren’t very interested in…you can go away because I don’t like you much. But if you were really interested, that movement would tell him something, don’t you think? Anyway, the most common movement for a fan is…

In the year 711, the Muslim Moors swept in from Africa and conquered the Iberian Peninsula. They ruled Spain for five centuries, inspiring a Europe-wide crusade among Christians to reconquer this land. Muslim rule stretched as far as France. But bit by bit the Moors were pushed back — expelled from Sevilla in 1248 and finally pushed entirely out of Western Europe by 1492.

The Moors left a distinct mark on Andalusian culture. While in Sevilla, they ruled from here…the Alcázar.

More than six centuries later this magnificent building still functions as a royal palace. The Alcázar provides a thought-provoking glimpse of a graceful Moorish world that might have survived its Christian conquerors — but didn’t.

What you see today is a 14th-century rebuild — done in Mudéjar style. This was a Moorish style done by Moorish craftsmen but for Christian rulers after the Reconquest.

This became the king’s palace. Its centerpiece was the elegantly proportioned Court of the Maidens. It was decorated Mudéjar below, and Renaissance above. The king hired Muslim workers to give Moorish elegance to what was a stark fortress. They built what’s considered the finest Mudéjar building in all of Spain.

The intimate Dolls’ Court was the king’s living quarters. Imagine the royal family lounging around a reflecting pool in this courtyard.

The stylized Arabic script — a standard feature of Mosques — created a visual chant of Koranic verses. But the décor is clearly Christian. You’ll see animals, buildings, and kings that you wouldn’t find in religious Muslim ornamentation, which forbids images.

A century or so later — just after Columbus’ New World discoveries — Queen Isabel built a more European style wing to the palace. Anticipating a big business in plunder and trade, she built this to administer Spain’s New World ventures. The chapel is dedicated to Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires. St. Mary of the Good Winds was the patron saint of navigators and a favorite of Columbus.

This altar painting dates from shortly after Columbus died and features what’s considered the first and most accurate portrait of the great explorer on the left. It’s also thought to be the first painting of Indians done in Europe. The Virgin’s cape seems to protect everyone under it — even the Indians.

Like the palace, the gardens reflect a mix of cultures. The intimate geometric Moorish gardens lead to the later much more expansive back yard of Spanish Kings. The gardens are full of tropical flowers, cool fountains, and — in the summer — hot tourists. I’m thankful we’re here in late April…beating the brutal heat of the Andalusian summer.

The Moors were relatively tolerant of other religions. During their rule, Christians, Jews and Muslims shared the city peacefully. After the Christian Reconquest, Sevilla’s thriving Jewish community was concentrated here…in the Barrio de Santa Cruz. Today only a few peaceful squares surrounded by a tangled web of alleys survives from the days when this was Sevilla’s Jewish Quarter.

Explore, wander among lanes too narrow for cars, whitewashed houses corralling peaceful squares and wrought-iron latticework. Regardless of who lived here, the design of the neighborhood seems to have one goal — stay cool. The narrow streets — some with buildings so close they’re called “kissing lanes” — were designed to maximize shade.

Homes faced an inner courtyard offering a welcome refuge from the bustle and summer heat. The Moors gave Andalusia its characteristic glazed tiles...with only geometric patterns. In later centuries, Christians decorated their tiles with livelier scenes. Either way, the tiles kept buildings cooler. Residents here spend winter upstairs and move down to the cooler courtyard level in the summer.

Concepción: These orange trees are great for shade. They never lose their leaves.

Rick: Refreshing too, on a hot day.

Concepción: Well, not to eat. These are sour orange trees. We just use them for vitamins, perfume or that kind of marmalade the British like.

Rick: Oh, that bitter English marmalade, yeah…

Concepción: …it’s made with our oranges.

The Santa Cruz neighborhood comes with a timeless beauty…savor the simple elegance of Sevilla.

The delicate charms of Santa Cruz are just a few steps from Sevilla’s immense cathedral. It’s the third-largest church in Europe (after St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London) and the largest Gothic church anywhere.

When they ripped down the mosque that stood on this site in 1401, the Reconquista Christians bragged, “We’ll build a cathedral so huge that anyone who sees it will take us for madmen.”

You could fit a soccer field in here. Everything is supersized. The towering main altarpiece is covered in gold leaf. Constructed in the 1480s, it’s composed of hundreds of figures. It tells the story of the life of Jesus in 40 scenes from His birth to His resurrection.

The choir — an enclosure within the cathedral for more intimate services — surrounds a spinnable music rack. It held giant hymnals — large enough for all to chant from in an age when there weren’t enough for everyone.

In the transept, four pallbearers carry the tomb of Christopher Columbus. They represent the four medieval kingdoms that became Spain: Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and Leon — each identified by their team shirts.

Columbus even traveled a lot after he died. He was buried first in Seville, then moved to Santo Domingo, then to Cuba, and — after Cuba gained independence from Spain, around 1900 — he sailed all the way back here to Sevilla. Is he really in there? Sevillanos like to think so.

All that survives of Moorish Sevilla’s main mosque is its courtyard of orange trees and a towering minaret. The tower offers a brief recap of the city’s history — sitting on a Roman foundation, a long Moorish period capped by the Christian age.

The Moors built its spiraling ramp to accommodate a rider on horseback — Somebody climbed this tower five times a day to call Sevilla’s Muslims to prayer. Today, tourists gallop up for fine city views… and the former minaret functions as the cathedral’s bell tower. It’s topped with a bronze weathervane…a statue that symbolizes the Triumph of Faith.

Some of Spain’s best bullfighting is done right here in Sevilla’s 14,000-seat Plaza de Toros.

There are fights on most Sundays, Easter through October. Bullfighting is just one facet of the pageantry-packed traditional culture so alive in Andalusia. With or without the bulls, festivals fill the arena with vibrant traditions…music, colorful dress, and a proud heritage.

While bullfighting is controversial and many believe that the patronage of tourists just helps keep a brutal spectacle alive, others see bullfighting as a real and vivid part of Spanish culture. Whether or not you actually attend a bullfight is up to you. To learn about this tradition without actually supporting it, you can tour Sevilla’s Plaza de Toros and checkout its bullfight museum.

Your visit starts with a tour through the strangely quiet and empty arena. In the museum you’ll learn more. A few special bulls are honored here — each awarded the bovine equivalent of an Oscar for putting up the best fight of the year. This one’s missing an ear — it was awarded to the matador who also performed well. Matadors dress to kill — elegant in their tight-fitting and richly-ornamented “suits of light.”

The first-aid room is where injured fighters are rushed. Hoping not to end up there, matadors pray here, in the chapel. The Virgin of Macarena is a protector of matadors and the favorite among Sevillanos.

While her images are everywhere, you can see the actual darling of Sevilla nearby at the Basílica de la Macarena. Grab a pew and study the Weeping Virgin. She’s a 17th-century doll — complete with articulated arms, and human hair …she’s even dressed with underclothes. With crystal tear drops her beautiful expression — halfway between ecstasy and sorrow — touches pilgrims.

Sevilla’s Semana Santa or Holy Week celebrations are the most magnificent in Spain. During the week leading up to Easter, the city is packed with pilgrims witnessing grand processions carrying elaborate floats through the streets.

The two most impressive floats of the festivities are parked behind the altar.

The biggest float, slathered in gold leaf, shows the sentencing of Christ. Pontius Pilate is about to wash his hands. His wife cries as a man reads the death sentence.

While pious Sevillan women wail in the streets, relays of 48 men carry this three-ton float on the backs of their necks — only their feet show from under the drapes — as they shuffle through the streets from about midnight until 2:00 in the afternoon each Good Friday.

This float, with the Weeping Virgin from this church’s altar placed regally in the center, is the hit of the parade. It’s festooned with wax flowers and candelabra. It seems fragile — all silver and candles — locals explain it’s “strong enough to support the roof while delicate enough to quiver in the soft night breeze.”

Rick: Have you actually seen this one going through the streets?

Concepción: The Queen of the City you mean?

Rick: Yes.

Concepción: Of course. She even wears her crown and that day she looks absolutely beautiful. When she goes through the streets people get crazy. They can’t explain all those emotions and they clap or they cry or they throw petals from balconies.

Rick: What’s so special about this particular Mary?

Concepción: She knows everything about us because we have been telling her our problems for centuries. Her name is “hope” which is what we all need.

Sevilla’s passion for religious art is preserved and displayed in its Museum of Fine Art — the Museo de Bellas Artes.

The top Spanish artists —Valesquez, Murillo, Zurburan — all called Sevilla home. Sevilla was Spain’s commercial and material capital…it’s New York City, while Madrid was a newly built center of Government…like Washington DC. In the early 1800s, Spain’s liberal government disbanded many of the monasteries and convents and secular fanatics were looting the churches. Thankfully, the most important religious art was rescued and hung safely here in this convent-turned-museum.

Spain’s economic Golden Age — the 1500s — blossomed into the golden age of Spanish painting — the 1600s.

Artists such as Francesco de Zurbaran combined realism with mysticism. Under a protective Mary he painted balding saints and monks with wrinkled faces and sun burnt hands. This inspirational style fit Spain’s spiritual climate during an age when the Catholic Church was waging its Counter-Reformation battle against the Protestant rebellion.

The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas is considered Zurburan’s most beautiful and important work. It was done at the height of his career when stark realism was all the rage. Zurburan presents the miraculous in a believable, down-to-earth way.

Eventually, the soft and accessible style of Bartolome Murillo became more popular than Zurbaran’s harsher realism. Murillo became the rage in Spain and through much of the Catholic world. This Madonna and Child shows how Murillo wraps everything in warm colors and soft light.

Murillo’s favorite subject is the Virgin Mary, shown young and pure. The painting is called the Immaculate Conception, one of dozens Murillo painted on this subject. Catholics believe that not only was Jesus born of a Virgin but that Mary herself was completely pure…conceived immaculately.

With all this religiosity, it’s no surprise that Sevilla is also famous for letting loose in vibrant festivals — and we’re here for the biggest of all…the April Fair.

For seven days each April it seems much of Sevilla is packed into its vast fair grounds. The fair feels friendly, spontaneous… very real. The Andalusian passion for horses, flamenco… and sherry is clear — riders are ramrod straight, colorfully clad senioritas ride sidesaddle, and everyone’s drinking sherry spritzers. Women sport outlandish dresses that would look clownish all alone but somehow brilliant here en masse.

Over a thousand private party tents, or casetas, line the lanes. Each striped tent is a private party zone of a family, club, or association. To get in, you need to know someone in the group — or make friends quickly.

Concepción’s well connected…and as a friend of a friend, we’re in.

Rick: This is your caseta?

Woman: My caseta.

Rick: Okay.

Because of the exclusivity, it has a real family affair feeling. Everyone seems to know everyone in what seems like a thousand wedding parties being celebrated all at the same time.

It’s time to say “adiós” to Concepción and to Sevilla; they’ve got lots more celebrating to do.

Whether finding new ways to stay cool, checking out a new dance, learning how the Moors made their mark, appreciating a new artist or just joining the party, travel shows me how life can be enjoyed to its fullest in ways I haven’t even considered.

Enjoying life with abandon comes easy here in the south of Spain. I hope you’ve enjoyed our taste of Sevilla and Andalusia. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Adiós.

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