There are so many stories in Seville, that, after walking around in this city for some days, I don’t know which one to tell first. This beautiful city in the south of Spain has everything a Spain lover can wish for. Flamenco was invented by gypsies in a colorful quarter, proud men in black sombreros walk the streets, hooded penitents follow a candlelit statue of the Virgin, while matadors unfurl scarlet capes in the bull fighting ring.
The Spanish here are so passionate about all that they do that for centuries they inspired writers into setting famous romantic stories in Seville. There is Don Juan, the wealthy aristocrat who devotes his life to seducing women, and ends up dying as a sinner. Then there the story of the downfall of a soldier who is seduced by the fiery gypsy Carmen, abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties for her, yet loses Carmen's love to a glamorous matador. The Barber of Seville, a story about the clever and enterprising Figaro who tries to help his former master the Count. Carmen, Don Juan, and The Barber of Seville are all famous operas.
Of Moors and Spanish
According to the people in Seville, the first story is about the mythological founder of the city, Hercules, who sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar to the Atlantic, and founded trading posts at the current sites of Cádiz and of Seville. Whoever founded the city might be unclear, but it is sure that the Romans were here thousands of years ago, as every time someone digs into the ground, Roman remains are found. There are remnants of an aqueduct, a temple, columns and walls near the Seville Cathedral.
The Moors, Muslims from Northern Africa, built beautiful palaces on top of the Roman remains after they conquered the city in 712. These Moorish style buildings are still everywhere in contemporary Seville, where ceramic tiles decorate the houses often with small fountains in the courtyards everywhere. Christian rule, which started in 1247 after the Christian King Ferdinand III of Castile and Leon began the conquest of Andalusia, didn’t wipe out the Muslim styles. Instead the new rulers kept the Arab craftsmen, making Seville the colorful place it is today. Only here can you find palaces and buildings that are a sandwich of Roman foundations, Islamic tiled buildings and Christian toppings. The most famous example of this is the Giralda tower, where a whole minaret of a former mosque was incorporated into the big Cathedral’s bell tower.
Lady Maria and the Oldest Royal Palace in Europe
Chinese speaking tour leader Clara Leal Paz starts our visit of the Alcazar palace with the story of a tree. Right after the entrance through a red lion gate, there are two giant silk floss trees, which symbolize the third important era in the history of Seville – the time after Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas and made Spain into an empire. These trees were brought over from the Americas in the 16th century, when King Philip II made the gardens of the Alcázar one of the first places of acclimatization of new plants coming from the colonies.
The Alcazar is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe, and after Clara has led us through this Arabian nights fairy tale place of stunningly beautiful halls, golden domes, courtyards and gardens, everybody understands why the Spanish royals still come to stay here when they are in town.
One of the palace’s most popular places is the Baths of Lady María de Padilla – cavernous rainwater tanks named after the mistress of King Pedro, King of Castille and Leon. Lady Maria was a Castilian noblewoman who met King Pedro in the summer of 1352 and their relationship lasted until her death ten years later, during which she had born him four children. Even though the King had to marry other noblewomen for political reasons, Lady Maria was the love of his life, and after her death, she was buried in the cathedral along the rest of the royal family. Nowadays, it’s difficult to take two steps in Sevilla without coming across a monument dedicated to her, a room she lived in, or a monastery she founded. The baths named after her are also famous settings in movies – most recently in the HBO TV series Game of Thrones.
The Great Explorer
Every hall has a story here, and we soon find ourselves in the place where Christopher Columbus debriefed Queen Isabel after his first trip to the New World. The Queen immediately realized how important his discovery was and in 1503, she created a new palace wing to administer Spain's New World ventures. As all goods imported from the New World had to pass through the House of Trade before being distributed throughout the rest of Spain, Seville became the gateway to the colonies in Latin America.
Opposite the palace, in Seville’s massive cathedral, the final resting place of the famous explorer is held up by four allegorical figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during Columbus’ life. There is another story here, as it turns out that the great explorer continued to travel after he died, much like he did while he was alive.
Columbus’ body began its final rest in Valladolid Spain, where he died in 1506, and was moved shortly thereafter to Seville, by orders of his surviving brother, Diego. But since Columbus had said that he didn’t want to be buried in Spanish soil, the remains were again moved in 1542, to Colonial Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic. There they remained until 1795 when Spain lost control of the Dominican Republic, and the bones went to Havana, Cuba. One hundred years later, they made their final voyage back home to Seville, and were placed in the cathedral where you can visit him today.
All is well that ends well, you might think, except that the Dominican Republic until now claims that the real remains are still there. Countering this are the results of recent DNA tests that concluded that the bones in Seville are really those of Columbus, or in any case, of a very close relative of the ones of his son, who is also buried in this cathedral.
Apart from the tomb of Columbus, the Seville cathedral is famous for being the largest Gothic church in the world. After they had destroyed the mosque that was built here, the church elders drew up plans for this immense structure. "Let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we are mad,” they were supposed to have told each other, and they certainly succeeded. We admire the altarpiece, which is comprised of 45 carved scenes from the life of Christ. This is the lifetime's work of a single craftsman, Pierre Dancart, and the ultimate masterpiece of the cathedral - the largest and richest altarpiece in the world and one of the finest examples of Gothic woodcarving anywhere. The guides provide staggering statistics on the amount of gold involved.
Arabs might have taken care of decorating Seville, but during Holy Week it is clear that the Catholic faith took root here forever. Starting about 400 years ago, every year in the week leading up to Easter, the brotherhoods of the city’s 115 plus churches follow different routes across Seville. They hold giant candles and walk alongside richly decorated floats, which are lifted on the heads of teams of strong men. On the floats are wooden religious sculptures, some of which are over 300 years old.
This is the time that thousands of people dress up in pointed hoods and long robes of repentant sinners, concealing their faces and identity, so that individuals seeking repentance in public remain anonymous. The highlight of the Holy week is the Thursday before Easter, when the processions leave their churches at midnight and walk the whole night, arriving in the cathedral by dawn, just to turn around and walk back again.
“Whether you are religious or not, these are works of art,” says tour leader Esther, from Andalucia Experiencias, who is taking us to the churches around the old city center on Thursday morning. There is a festive atmosphere, members of the church brotherhoods in suits and women with black woven lace veils greet each other and admire the floats. We also look at the elaborate gold, long candles, and red velvet floats, and aren’t surprised to learn that to carry these through the narrow ancient streets of the city takes a year of practice. “It’s a great honor to be able to carry the statue,” Ester says. “Some people wait for years before it is their turn.”
While in the center the devout walk from church to church, in a small courtyard right behind the medieval wall of the palace, a group of musicians and dancers at Los Gallos are bringing down the house. Time and again the audience, who are lured in by soft guitar play in an ancient courtyard, erupt in cheers as the dancers show their lightning-fast footwork performed with absolute precision to the wailing of the singers and the play of guitars.
Their two shows a night are never the same, the artists tell me in between two performances. It all depends on the mood of the singer, pointed at as the most important person in the group. “You can learn to play guitar, and you can learn to dance, there are techniques. But the singing has to come from the heart,” 68-year old Guan Reina says. He started singing when he was a boy, and “Never stopped learning. With the songs, we take each other to the next level.” Next to him, flamenco dancer Maria Moreno says that she also started in primary school. “My parents knew how to dance flamenco, but they weren’t professionals,” she says. “They danced at parties and during festivals.”
Long ago, gypsies from the Triana quarter across the river started singing in their courtyards, and this is where flamenco started. Unlike other traditional customs, flamenco is not a dying art. In Seville it’s alive and well and popular among young people as well. This is obvious during the April fair, when the whole town dresses up as flamenco dancers, and you can see it in the many shops in town where you can buy dresses, shawls and fans and all other flamenco fashion accessories for the locals, not the tourists.
At Los Gallos, the artists might be performing on a small stage, they also travel the world, and have learned to adjust their dance steps to the size of the tablao. “It’s nice when it’s intimate like this,” Moreno says. Flamenco is hugely popular in the US and in Japan, even though foreigners don’t understand the lyrics of the songs. “It’s a kind of art with a very special sentiment, and everyone can feel it,” guitar player Guan Carlos Berlanga says.
It’s much like Seville itself, where every foreigner can walk around and feel the stories of the past.
More on this topic: All the Colors of Seville