© Copyright 2023 by Gareth Oliver
Plaza de España, Photo by Joan Oger on Unsplash
What should I expect from Seville?
When I first visited Barcelona, it was clear that it was a very distinct city to Madrid. The prominent aspect is that Catalan sounds different, even to a person with a very limited understanding of Spanish. As you spend time in Barcelona it becomes apparent that the culture and history of Barcelona and the wider Catalan area make it a very different city to Madrid. I was thrilled to be discovering Seville as I find Spain intoxicating. Would it compare more to Madrid or Barcelona? or would the capital of the Andalucía region, which has a degree of autonomy, offer something different?
I have felt before the immense feeling of heat when stepping out of the plane, in North Africa and Southeast Asia, but never in Europe. I presumed it would be hotter than the UK but did not expect it the be in the high 30’s and reaching 40 on most days. Seville is on average one of the hottest cities in Europe and has a similar climate to North Africa. The taxi ride from the airport to our hotel was a spectacular way to start our trip, it gives a real sense of the diversity of Andalucía, the mountains, desserts, open countryside, and an abundance of pastureland, most of which is dry and barren. Seville is divided into 11 districts and our hotel was in Macarena, there is some debate about the origin of the name, as this region of Spain changed hands several times but what is known is the district gives it name the sculpture of Virgin Hope of Macarena, and subsequently many Spanish women are named or nicknamed Macarena, hence the song we all love or hate, Hey Macarena by Los Del Rio. Macarena is just outside of central Seville but easily accessible by the array of Tussam buses. The area is known for the Basilica De La Macarena which houses the above-mentioned sculpture, the largest section of the remaining walls from the Almohad Caliphate era as well as being home the parliament of Andalucía.
We stayed in the EXE Hotel Sevilla. The building sits in well with the surrounding area despite not being built until 1972 and the current hotel only operating since 2010. The interior has the feel of a typical Southern European patio, the highlight is the rooftop pool that delivers panoramic views of the skyline and its huge array of churches.
We were in Seville for a week and had a plan for what we wanted to do; we had booked activities in advance to save time.
On the first evening we took the bus to the Metropol Parasol in the old quarter. This piece of modern art sits 26 metres high and is said to be the largest wooden structure globally. The building, which Sevillians either love or hate, is home to a market, restaurants, and exhibition square, but like most visitors we were there for the panoramic views of the city. The place gets busy, and it is a bit of a climb to the top, but the result is stunning views of Seville, we had coincided our visit with sunset and this was an added extra, it seemed like lots of other visitors had the same idea. Post sunset there is a light show where the top of the structure is lit up in changing colours, which is pretty enough but personally I preferred seeing the sunset and so we did not hang around long.
We then headed to one of the restaurants nearby for more tapa. Many of the places we ate offered most of their dishes as tapa, i.e., smaller size, so we usually ordered a few different dishes. The highlight this time was a salmon crepe which my wife enjoyed so much that we went back to the same restaurant again before out travels ended.
It is easy to say people are friendlier in places where we do not live and this can become cliched, but as we left the restaurant, we heard someone shouting lady lady in a Spanish accent, had our card been refused for payment? had we not left a big enough tip? No, my other half had left her sunglasses and the member of the staff from the restaurant chased us down the street to return them.
We caught the bus back to our hotel, initially we paid for buses in cash, and it was 1 euro 40 per trip per person whether you went to the next stop or the end of the line, but the drivers did not seem to like people paying in cash and if you tried to pay with anything bigger than a 5 euro note this would cause a minor international incident. We found it much easier when we bought a travel card from the Tabacos for 8 euros 50 each, it was supposed to last for ten trips, but we bought it on the second day of our trip, and it did not to run out.
We had not paid upfront for breakfast at the hotel as it was 10 euro per person per day which is not too bad but did not want to commit ourselves in case it was poor, or we missed it one day. We tried it on the first day and we were not disappointed. Even though we were on the continent it was not just a continental breakfast, the buffet was extensive and included tortilla de patatas, churros, scrambled and boiled eggs and an array of pastries, cheese and fresh fruit as well as juices, teas, and coffee.
Due to the heat and the fair amount of walking we did in Seville we needed to hydrate a lot. As well as water we drank lots of juice, orange juice, or naranja was probably the most widely available, Seville is full of orange trees, their seems to be one for every person! At first, we thought they were lime trees as the fruit was green, but this was because the oranges were not ready yet, the season is December to February.
After Naranja, both Pineapple, Pina, and Peach, Melocton, seem the most popular. We both fell in love with the peach juice, it was so fruity, thick, and fresh.
There is some debate about Hop on Hop off Sightseeing buses, almost a kind of snobbishness that they are for tourists and not real travellers. I disagree and feel that they are the ideal way to get an orientation of a city and a general overview of the highlights and history. You can then decide what aspects you wish to explore further. If booked as part of a package, i.e., we purchased along with entry to Real Alcazar and Cathedral Giralda, they can work out affordable. The full route around the city takes around an hour and briefly crosses the river. It takes you near to all the major sites, but you do not actually see all of them, such as Plaza De Espana, as parts of Seville are pedestrianised. For me the highlight of the bus tour is getting to see the pavilions of the 1929 Ibero- American exhibition. The primary purpose of the exhibition was to improve relations, and importantly trade, between Spain and her former colonies. To display their wares and attract trade the former colonies-built pavilions, the largest being built by Panama who even imported two llamas to graze in the garden for authenticity! The pavilion that caught my attention the most was that of Guatemala, it is visually in contrast to the rest, a lot smaller and covered in blue and white tiles with images of Mayan deities. Like most of the pavilions the building is in current use, as the dance conservatory of Seville.After the bus tour we headed back to the hotel for a siesta, swim and headed out in the evening for tapas. A note about Sevillian customs, a fair number of restaurants, as well as shops, close at around 16.00pm and do not open again for dinner until 20.30, maybe a bit earlier or maybe a bit later. There are places open, particularly in tourist spots, but if there is somewhere specific you want to go it is always worth checking.
Day three was one of the days we were anticipating, a trip to the Real Alcazar, or Royal Palace. It is still an official residence of the King of Spain, but luckily, he did not decide to visit whilst we were there, he was in nearby Granada, as the palace closes to the public and apparently Seville comes to a standstill.
Alcazar is an Arabic word and is the name given the palace fortresses built by the Moors following the conquest of Iberia, Spain has many Alcazar’s and six are classified as Royal.
The Seville Alcazar has always been amongst the most visited locations in the city and is a UNESCO world heritage site, however I suspect it has become increasingly popular since it was used as the location for as Sunspear Castle, Dorne of House Martell in Game of Thrones, I can see why! the water gardens, opulent golden domes and the lush orchards would catch the eye of a location scout.
The origins of the Alcazar can be traced back to 712AD when following the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula several forts were built, it was significantly expanded in the 12th century under the Almohad Caliphate and many of these features are still visible today such as the Mudejar Palace.
In the 13th century Seville was retaken by the Spanish empire and from then on Catholic, Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance elements were added. This is where the Alcazar comes into its own, a mixture of so many architectural styles from different eras is what makes it unique.
We spent pretty much the whole day their as there is a lot to see, I would advise paying the extra 7 Euros and getting the audio guide as it gives a sense of the historical perspective and if you follow their suggested route, you will not miss anything. Explore it at your own pace, my personal highlights were the main gate- Puerta Del Leon, the 16th Century Patio De Las Doncellas and the flora and fauna of the Alcazar gardens, we were joined by a Peacock whilst having lunch in the garden café.
Visiting the Alcazar is a breath-taking experience, Royal Palaces can be dry but the mixture of architectural styles, history and colours make this place fascinating. In a city that is visually stunning, Real Alcazar is the highlight.
By the time we had finished exploring the Alcazar it was late afternoon, so we headed back to the hotel as the pool was calling me.
Seville is home to 115 churches, quite often you will come across one whilst walking around, and if there is no mass at the time, and you are respectful most of them welcome you to enter, like the rest of Seville they vary in style and features gothic, renaissance, and baroque features. The striking element of visiting a Catholic Church for me, expect the nuanced differences such as the alter being the centrepiece rather than the pulpit and the inclusion of confessional boxes, is the use of iconography in the form of statues and paintings, particularly focussing on Jesus, Mary, and the Saints.
On day 4 we visited the main Cathedral of Seville, Cathedral of St Mary of the See, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world and among the world’s largest Christian places of worship. Like the Alcazar the Cathedral has its origins in the Moorish period and started life as a Mosque, which was completed in 1198 and then following the conquest of Seville in 1248 it was Christianised and eventually converted to a Cathedral. Some parts of the Mosque remain, such as the church tower which was the Minaret and also the courtyard.
The courtyard is where you enter the cathedral from, named Patio de los Naranjos (Orange Tree Courtyard) and its prominent feature is a striking octagonal fountain that was used by Muslim’s to wash their hands and feet before entering the Mosque.
When you enter the cathedral, you get a sense of the size, but due to the open plan layout it does seem overwhelming, it consists of a ginormous nave and then coming off it smaller chapels, tombs and rooms containing Catholic art.
One of the first things that caught my eye was the size of the organ. The altarpiece is also interesting, a huge piece of carved wood covered in gold leaf depicting the life of Jesus.
Legend has it that when the cathedral was constructed it was quipped “Lets construct a church so large that future generations will think we were mad”, whether this is true or not the church is certainly grand is unique in containing a mixture of architectural styles, including Islamic.
One draw of the cathedral is that it houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus, which is fact an Anglo-Saxon version of his given name Cristobal Colon. Some would argue that Columbus used violence and slavery, forced indigenous people to convert to Catholicism and introduced deadly diseases that wiped out local populations and so should not be held up as a hero, whilst others say this is revisionist history and we cannot judge him by today’s standards, and he has contributed to the current socio-political-linguistic landscape of the continent of America. Another controversy exists in whether the remains are that of Columbus, DNA testing in 2006 matched the DNA in the remains to that of the DNA of his brothers and the Catholic church say that is enough to categorically state they are his remains; however, some say his remains are at Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic.
The cathedral is busy- but due to the acoustics it is not overly noisy and due the vastness of space it does not get too congested, one thing I wish to mention is the closed feeling to some of the cathedral, including the golden alter, is behind a large slated gate, almost like a portcullis which mean you cannot get too close to it, I suppose I understand the need for this but I do feel it takes something away and could be done in a different way, such as glass panels, which would not obstruct the views so much.
The cathedral is still a functioning church, and whilst the main chapel is reserved for the weddings of Royals the other parts of the cathedral can be used by commoners for marriage, we were lucky enough to see a wedding taking place, we could see some of the congregation and whilst the wedding itself took place in a room that was out of sight it was televised for all to see. Compared to the Alcazar we did not spend too long at the Cathedral, around an hour and a half but that was long enough to see everything we wanted too.
By the time we had finished it was late afternoon and we were ready to eat, we came out of the cathedral onto a busy street and found somewhere that served Paella which is something of a rarity in Seville. When I think of Spain I think of Paella, however it is a Valencian dish that is not hugely popular outside the region. The places that serve it in Seville tend to be tourist spots and it is relatively expensive compared to other dishes. The place we found near the cathedral was a little takeaway place ran by a Valencian family, we had a Paella De Marisco, seafood Paella which at 10 euros was relatively expensive for Seville but it was delicious and satisfied our craving.
On day 5, we headed to Italica, the site of an Ancient Roman City. The site is slightly out of Seville in the town of Santiponce, so we took a local bus to San Sebastian bus station and then a regional Andalucía bus which only took around half an hour.
Like the Alcazar, Italica was also used as a location in Game of Thrones, the Amphitheatre is the dragon pit- which during its existence was the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire. The vaults around the amphitheatre offer some shade and are good to walk around to get a panoramic view. Also, within the site are several other buildings, such as the bath houses which contain intricate mosaics of the pre-Christian gods. Entry is next to nothing and free if you are from an EU country, if I had come a few years earlier I could have saved myself 1 Euro 50.
Many people visit Seville for a day or two as part of a wider trip to Spain and if this was the case you would not have the time to visit to Italica, but if you are there for longer, I would recommend a visit, some of the reviews I read gave the consensus that it is not verry good, not much to see and did not meet their expectations, I would disagree and say it is worth it to see the Amphitheatre alone.
We adapted to the local way of Andalusian life, getting up at a reasonable time and going out early to explore Seville, then heading back to the hotel and then heading out again in the late evening for dinner, this avoided been out when the sun was at it hottest.
On day six we visited Plaze De Espana and Park De Maria Luisa which feed into one and other. We took the bus which dropped us off near the entrance to the park and walked through. We continue walking and found a place to eat, a bit formal and pricier but still a good find. A word of warning, the Spanish seem to love all forms of pig and put it in everything, my wife, who does not eat pork, ordered a cheeseburger and it came with bacon. I did not complain as I got to eat it and she did not mind too much, she just ordered French Toast with ice cream which was superb. I also had squid, which was verry fresh, it was supposed to come with mashed potato which did not seems to materialise, but I was on holiday and too laid back to complain. I ordered a Café con Leche after the meal, I found drinking hot drinks had some sort of paradoxical effect and were quite refreshing in the hot weather. We then continued walking through the park and arrived at the Plaza De Espana. Like many of buildings in the city the plaza was constructed for the 1929 Ibero American Exhibition and in line with other building is a mixture of architectural styles such as Baroque, Moorish and Renaissance. It was built within the existing Parque De Maria Luisa which was donated to Seville by the royal family in 1893. There is a central plaza which houses a splendid fountain, however when most people refer to Plaza De Epspana, they are referring to the semi- circle of grand buildings that were used as the offices for the exhibition.
The park is the largest green space in Seville, and I loved meandering through taking in the sites of the Moorish mosaics, fountains such as the Lion Fountain and amass of trees, predominantly Orange but also an array of pines and other botanic varieties, both local and tropical. You could also see, and hear, a variety of birds such as ducks, parrots, and doves.
The experience of approaching the Plaza from the park is an experience as more and more becomes visible and then as you move away from the tree lined path the full view of the plaza becomes apparent, the Ochre red ceramic colour of the semi-circle buildings are particularly memorable.
Around the plaza are several alcoves each with glazed mosaics dedicated to different regions of Spain, the area gets busy but if you can get into one of the alcoves and take a seat as they are a good vantage point.
It is an exceptional place to explore, the central fountain is cut off from the plaza by a canal that can be accessed by crossing one of the four bridges. Another vantage point for views is from atop of the plaza buildings, which you can access from one of the gateways. It is not possible to walk around the whole outside upper perimeter of the building as it is closed off as much of the building is now in use as government offices, but there are still opportunities to enter, climb the grand staircases and look out over the plaza and into the park.
Yes, the plaza is flamboyant, and busy, but it also mesmerising and one of my highlights of my trip to Seville, I find it fascinating the building is less than a hundred years old and built essentiality to show off the city, which it certainly does.
As a sidenote, the plaza has been used as yet another film location, this time not Game of Thrones but Lawrence of Arabia and more recently Star Wars- Episode 2, A New Hope.
Day 7 was our final full day, and we decided to head outside of Seville and take a trip to the coast. Travel by train was our preference but Spanish trains are reservation only and all the tickets had sold but luckily, we were able to get a coach. The journey was comfortable and air conditioned and gave us the opportunity to take in more of the Andalusian landscape.
After around an hour and forty-five minutes we arrived in Cadiz. They have a hop on- hop off bus and so we did this, first taking a full route of the city.
Cadiz has a riveting history as one of the oldest inhabited cities in Western Europe. Founded by the Phoenicians, then occupied by the Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and then Moors it has traces of this in the culture and architecture.
The dominant aspect of the skyline is the baroque Roman Catholic Cathedral which was completed relatively recently in 1838. The Hop on Hop Off ticket included entry to the cathedral but on this occasion, we gave it a miss as we had limited time.
Right next to the Cathedral is a church, Iglesia de La Santa Cruz, which was the previous cathedral for the city and prior that a mosque during Moorish times, apparent by the dome shaped buildings.
Cadiz has the feel of an island, it once was, and as although it is now joined to Spain by an isthmus and is connected by road to nearby San Fernando to the South, the only way to access from the North, the way used when coming from Seville, is via one of two bridges. We crossed the 1812 bridge, named after the year of the Spanish constitution, which was only completed in 2015. The tour bus takes a diversion up to the bridge as it is spectacular, one of the highest bridges in Europe, it reminded me of the bridge in Malaysia that connects Penang Island to the mainland.
After doing a full loop of the city, which is relatively small and the tour does go back on itself and re-enters roundabouts which led to a couple next to us singing Ring a Ring of Roses in Italian, we disembarked at Playa Santa Maria- Santa Maria Beach.
As ever, we wanted food and had the best meal of the trip. We had Tortilla de Camarones- prawn fritters, a local speciality. They are a hard, flaky, and crispy fritters with small prawns on the outside. These tiny prawns, which are endemic to the Cadiz Bay area, are too tiny to deshell so must be eaten whole. Another local speciality is croquettes with various fillings, on this occasion they were filled with Red Snapper which was extremely fresh and has a sweet aftertaste which contrasted with the bitterness of the citrus aioli.
The bombshell of the meal was Piedra caliente de langostinos y almejas, hot plate of prawns and clams. The server comes the table with the seafood in a bowl and then places it on the hot plate to cook, they then pour the sauce over which creates a pleasing sizzling sound and a pleasant, thick aroma of seafood. The food is cooked in front of you and then served. I loved the theatrics and eccentricity of it all and the attention we got from other customers.
We found a shaded spot on the beach where I left my wife to sit and relax on a lounger whilst I went for a dip in the sea. This is the Atlantic and not the Mediterranean and so it is a couple of degrees cooler than the beaches at Barcelona and you do feel this when you go in, but it is easy to adapt to and the sun overhead is still blazing so you will not feel cold for long. Our coach back was at 18.30 so after an hour or so we headed back to the station using the hop on hop off bus that went close by, we arrived a little early and so sat in the station café and drank coffee and ate what I would describe a Tuna Pasty which was nicer that is sounds and also a kind of chocolate tart- when you think of pastries you maybe think of France but I would say the ones in Spain have been of a higher quality, and also cheaper.
The bus ride back was pleasant and coincided with sunset which is always a pleasure to see.
On getting back to Seville it was time for dinner and as we had been less than 150km from Tangier whilst in Cadiz and the huge influence Moorish culture has on Andalucía, we decided to go a Moroccan restaurant. Seville has many, as Moroccans are Seville’s predominant non-Spanish residents. We had a Tagine with Chicken served with apricots, almonds and stewed plums which was superb, the plums were so tangy. It was as good as Tagines I have eaten in Marrakech. We also had a mixed kebab with lamb, chicken and beef which was served on skewers and covered in herbs and spices, again these were delicious, tender, cooked to perfection and full of flavour.
The last day we took it easy, had hotel breakfast again and did a little bit of shopping at a nearby supermarket. We were flying budget so had limited baggage space or we could have brought back a lot, even just general things such as toiletries are much cheaper.
We then headed to the airport by taxi, which was half the price travelling to the airport as when we travelled from the airport to Seville. The trip did not end in the best way as our flight was delayed by six and a half hours, but we passed the time drinking coffee, eating and then found some comfy chairs where we sat and read. These things happen though, and we are legally entitled to compensation but how long this will take I do not know.
I started this piece by asking by posing the question of will Seville be more like Madrid, Barcelona or completely different. In comparison to Madrid, it has a more touristy feel, Madrid is full of tourists but it also a global capital city and functions in that way. Madrid has the Prado and predominant Royal Palace of Spain, but these do not have the grandiosity, scale and eye-catching features of the Alcazar and Plaza De Espana. Barcelona is also a beautiful city; however, a lot of the beauty is manmade such as Gaudi’s Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia whereas Seville, and the wider region, had more natural beauty. Food wise Seville has been exceptional, the sea food being the highlight, I cannot say it is better than the seafood of Barcelona, but it is equal to it. Looking at the overall picture Madrid maybe has the edge for food as it brings together all the regional influences of Spain and combines it with international features to create something unique, but obviously the seafood is not as fresh which may just but the key factor for me.
Seville does feel like part of Spain, the weather, the food, the pace of life, the changing landscapes and at certain times, for example around the Plaza Espana, I did feel like verry much like I was in Spain but is also at times felt unique. Visually it the most stunning city I have visited, only Budapest comes close, the mixture of styles of architecture and the attention to detail is sublime. Several times I looked at a building thinking it must be of some importance for it to be a shop or an office, in every building it is apparent thought has gone into it. There is also something about the pace of life, all of Spain still has the manana attitude, such as lingering over a meal but in Seville this is more manifest, restaurants and cafes can seem chaotic, and you may have to remind the staff what you have ordered if it does not turn up but is all works out in the end.
is a mesmerising city and there is certainly enough to occupy a
week. I am
drawn to the area and wish to explore the wider Andalucía
region such as Granada and Cordoba.