Tapas, flamenco and bullfighting are what make Seville so uniquely Spanish, writes Brian Canty.
Spain’s most southerly region is the true home of typically Spanish experiences and if we were to distil it down to three we’d have no choice but to say tapas, flamenco and bullfighting are what Seville is all about.
No other city in Andalucía evokes such strong images of all three and while there’s far more than that here, nothing ignites the people’s passion for living as much as a Toreador inviting trouble or the dignified poise of a dancer before a packed auditorium.
Drink is always involved, of course, and you won’t be long after landing at the city’s bite-sized airport 7km away when you’ll be tempted by the tastes of what this mile-squared centre of pandemonium has to offer.
I stayed for two weeks on my first visit, living with locals and though it was mid-morning when I arrived, no time is a bad time for a Cruzcampo, the most popular beer in Sevilla.
Mid-September, as it turned out, was a great time to go because not only were there less tourists clogging up the streets and driving the price of my tapas from €1.50 up to €1.70, but the temperature was a more manageable 30 degrees during the day.
In June and July it can reach 40 or even higher and because there’s so much to see, it’s not hard to ascertain why every chemist seems to have a whopping supply of medical paraphernalia for all kinds of callous, corn, bunion and blister.
Be a tourist on day one and without question, the first place you should see is the cathedral which sits in the heart of the old town.
It’s the third biggest in the world behind St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London and for €9, it’s pretty decent value. It’s truly enormous (130 metres long by 76 metres wide) and was built as a symbol of the city’s devotion to Christianity.
The audioguide is an extra €3 and that’s a bit cheeky as it is necessary if you need to know which of the dozen or so chapels you’re looking at… or that the Tomb of Christopher Columbus actually contains one of his fingers.
A minor complaint is the map that accompanies the audioguide is a bit of a puzzle but as you’ll find out later, that’s very much a common theme here.
The cathedral, which took 100 years to build, houses the Giralda Tower and that takes a fair old bit of effort to get to the top of.
Though the views of Sevilla are breathtaking, you’ll already be in oxygen debt from climbing the 34 ramps to reach the summit.
Other masterpieces are the largest altar in the word and the orange tree courtyard outside is equally spectacular — though my timing didn’t coincide with the trees in full bloom.
Adjacent to the cathedral is the Real Alcazar, the original home to the numerous Moorish monarchs and later the home of Spanish kings.
It’s said to be one of the most fascinating palace complexes in Europe and with such impressive architecture, fascinating fountains, marble sculptures, tiled steps flanked by flower pots and an atmosphere of exquisite luxury it’s hard to even comprehend the royal wealth the place possessed.
Today, they’re far from the material type and like most of Spain, wages are low but the quality of life is very high.
Sevillians are some of the happiest people in all of Spain and very proud of their Andalucian heritage.
Their passion for life — and the local football team — borders on obsession and it’s not unusual for the people here to stay out late every night of the week.
Indeed, when this tourist was nodding off around 2am, some restaurants were only laying tables!
The same restaurants — and staff, were also up not long after 7am, which begs the question ‘do these people even sleep?’
With its narrow white alleys, or ‘calle estrechas’, Santa Cruz is the old Jewish District and is the epicentre of the tourist trail.
Situated close to the Alcazar, its grated windows, ornate flower pots and old wooden gates are typical of the city and exemplify the Andalucía way of life.
A word of warning though, the place is a maze and don’t even bother asking other tourists for directions because they’re lost too.
The best thing to do is ask for the Bodega Santa Cruz bar because everyone knows it and though it’s crowded the ‘montaditos’ (pressed pittas) are worth the wait. With a short glass of beer known as a ‘cana’ you’ll never pay more than €4.
For an alternative, more relaxing way to see the city and learn of its history — without fear of getting lost, take a river cruise down the Riu Guadalquivir.
The ‘cruzeros turisticos’ are hugely popular with sightseers and it was from here that ships set sail for the new continent, returning heavily laden with abundant treasures which were taken to the nearby palace of kings.
One of the things you’ll see from the cruise is the Plaza del Toros de la Maestranza, the oldest bullring in Spain and if you’re lucky enough to be here for the season-opening Easter Sunday bullfight you’ll witness something truly unique.
Nowhere in the world is this sport more revered than in Sevilla. Here, kids don’t grow up wanting to be footballers. They want to be matadors and with good reason because a good one can make €200,000 a night. And they’re paid BEFORE they ‘perform’.
Designed in the 18th century, the arena situated in the El Arenal District was fully restored in the mid 19th century. It’s spacious and comfortable and is the largest in Andalucia with a capacity of 14,000.
Every Toreador (aspiring matador) wants to fight here at least once and experience its unique atmosphere, but it’s definitely not for everyone.
The adjoining museum might be a better bet for those against the concept and this wonderful attraction features a comprehensive history of bullfighting as well as a Toreador’s cape painted by Pablo Picasso.
For something a bit less vicious on the senses get to a Flamenco show at the Casa de la Guitarra.
The one-hour shows are on daily at 7.30pm and 9pm, but many others have later options.
The show I attended on a Saturday night was without question the most amazing thing about my trip to Sevilla.
The four who performed didn’t spare an ounce of energy and any notions I had that this would be a half-baked effort for overcharged tourists were quickly dispatched. It was so good that I went the following night at the Andalucian Palace.
We spilled out onto the streets afterwards dripping in sweat so to cool down we nipped around the corner to the ‘gelateria’ for a cool-down ice-cream.
Here, the ‘Bolas Helados Arte Sanos’ are made by master heladero Antonino Villar. No artificial sweeteners, hand-made daily by friendly staff, it’s one of the best in town.
But by this stage of the afternoon (even though it’s 10pm) it’s time for some more tapas and something little more relaxing so head across the river to the trendy Triana.
The market here is open all day and here you’ll be able to sample some of the best tapas in town.
Think ‘gambas al ajillo’, ‘ensaladilla Rusa’, ‘pimientos de Padron’ and my own personal favourite, ‘albondigas’. The latter are meatballs made with pork, beef or a mixture of both.
Annually, more visitors flock to Spain than any other country in the world and 3,000 years of civilisation have produced a rich concentration of historical landmarks.
Among these is the Plaza Espana, situated inside the Parque de Maria Luisa. The Plaza is a fine semi-circular building whose façade is flanked by stunning towers.
In the middle of the huge square is a fountain, and at the base of the semi-circular buildings are 52 tile illustrations featuring a scene from Spanish provincial history on each.
It’s an exquisite work that has managed to withstand the ravages of time and it can all be enjoyed from a rowing boat that travels under Venetian style arched bridges that span a canal.
Sevilla is romantic, exciting, edgy and intense. The people are passionate and their festivals portentous. You haven’t been to Spain until you’ve visited here at least once.
How to get there
Fly from Dublin to Seville direct with Ryanair for €31.99, one way. There’s the option of early Tuesday or Saturday flights.
When to go
Semana Santa (Easter Week) and the Feria de Abril two weeks later are the busiest times but arguably the best, as the city is pretty much in party mode for a month. Prices are ramped up, however. September is perfect as it’s still warm, but prices are lower.
Where to stay
For a superb four-star check out La Casa de la Juderia which is €320 for three nights, including an amazing breakfast. Room only is €100 less and that is definitely a better option, given the quality of food around town. For something cheaper, the Ayre Hotel located right in front of the city’s main train station (Santa Justa) is hard to beat, and at €68 per night is a steal.
Yes. Lots of it! All the high-street brands are situated in or around Avenida de la Constitucion, but for souvenirs, aprons, traditional ceramics, espadrillas and ornaments, head down the backstreets.
Bodega Santa Cruz on C/Mateos for tapas, La Brunilda on C/Gallera for lunch or dinner while for a real treat and the best in town it has to be Restaurante Egana Oriza on C/San Fernando. For breakfast, it’s gotta be the prettiest little place called ‘Cupcakes and Go’ on Puerto del Osario. €2.50 for a bowl of muesli with three fruits chopped in with yoghurt. €4.40 if you want a cortado and an ensaimada!
Triana has an array of trendy bars but it’s a bit away from the real hub of activity, which is situated in or around Alameda de Hercules. Bars here stay open until at least 4am and for Al Fresco boozing check out the Plaza de la Alfalfa.
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