Seville

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‘We need to go to flamenco dancing’ said Madam.

I was lying in my recliner and had fallen asleep.  I was glad she woke me as I was worried I was going to have that nightmare again.  The one where I’m chased by Scarlett Johansson and, just as she catches me, she turns into Jacob Rees-Mogg.   I woke up screaming the last time.

‘Flamenco, my sweet?  I don’t think it is that easy to learn.’ I replied.

‘Learn?’, she said, ‘I just need to see it!  Where are the best dancers?’

‘Umm, Spain I guess.  I think maybe Seville.’

‘Right then, we’ll go tomorrow.  Book some tickets.’

Lonely Planet rated Seville the best place to visit in 2018.  The city is known for its beautiful Moorish architecture, flamenco dancing, monuments and artistic heritage.  Lonely Planet also rated Detroit as number two, so I guess their ratings may not be to everybody’s taste.

We were staying at a “boutique” hotel.  The entrance was on a narrow street, one car wide. The taxi driver dropped us off and stood, blocking the road and insisted on explaining at length where the best bars and tapas were and which direction for the cathedral and old town.  It must have been the one Euro tip I gave him.

We checked in and the receptionist offered us a glass of Cava and insisted on pulling out a map and pointing out all the tourist sites and best areas.  By the time she had finished circling all the attractions the map was covered in pen.  There was going to be a lot to see.

While Madam unpacked, dismantled the bed to check on the condition of the mattress, counted the pillows, tested the lights, opened and closed every drawer and complained that the air conditioner wouldn’t go below 16C, I looked in the bathroom.

They had supplied the usual soaps and shampoos but there was also a shaving kit,  two toothbrushes, a shower cap and a comb.  ‘So that is what makes a boutique hotel’ I thought.  I am always pleased beyond the modest cost of these items when I find them in a hotel bathroom.  Like everybody else, we empty all of them into a suitcase before we leave.  I have a big bag of them somewhere in the bathroom at home.  Does anybody have a use for thirty-nine shower caps?

I returned to the bedroom to find Madam with her bottom in the air and her head under the bed.

‘Are you okay my sweet?’ I asked her.

‘Mmmpphh mmm  phffmmm’ she replied.

I knelt down and joined her under the bed.

‘I was checking for dead bodies,’ she repeated.

‘No, my sweet, this is a boutique hotel.  Neither bodies nor dust will you find.  They even have a pillow menu.’

‘A what?  A pillow menu?’ she asked.

And it is true.  They did.  

There was a selection of seven different pillows including Fibre –  a medium strength pillow for those who sleep face up or change their sleeping position frequently; Active – a soft pillow for those who don’t fidget all night and an Active Cervical – a soft anatomic pillow.

After much study we decided that whatever three pillows each they had left on the bed would be fine.

By the time Madam had rearranged the room to her satisfaction it was a respectable time to start drinking so we walked around the corner to the tapas bar recommended by the taxi driver.  I think it may have been owned by his brother-in-law.

We ordered a few tapas and some Sangria.

‘How much is the Sangria?’ asked Madam.

‘€2.50’ I replied.

‘This could be dangerous,’ she said as she drained her glass and held it up to the waiter for another.

She was halfway though her second glass when she said ‘Look! Across the square!  A Choclateria!  They have Churros!’

‘They look closed.’ I said but she had already bounded across the square and was resting her chin on the counter and pulling on the shutters.

They eventually opened and Madam asked the price.  

‘Two Euros for the Churros, and another two for chocolate sauce.’ said the server, ‘they are really good! We will need a few minutes to heat up the oil.’

She seemed almost as excited as Madam.

Madam looked at me and said ‘Will one serving be enough?  Do you want any?’

I was never a big fan of them and said ‘I may have one of yours if you don’t want them all.’

She thought for a moment and said ‘I’ll start with one serving then.’  She gave me a warning look and continued ‘but I may get another one later.’

A Churro, for those of you disadvantaged by culture or geography, is a fried-dough pastry usually served with a rich chocolate dipping sauce. They made by piping dough from a pastry bag into hot oil.  Hot, greasy and remarkably filling.  The sort of food you can still taste the next day. They are traditional in Spain and Portugal but can be found throughout the world.

One Churro turned out to be massive, at least six feet long, conveniently cut into six inch lengths with a pair of scissors. 

She avidly tucked into them, a look of ecstasy on her face.  

‘These are so good!’ she said, ‘I may have to get more!’

She continued dipping them in the chocolate sauce and savouring every bite, a dreamy look on her face. 

Halfway through she finally slowed down and said ‘you have some.’  

I had a couple which was enough for me.

‘Have more,’ she said.

I gave a Churro flavoured burp and said ‘No, I’m done.’

She dutifully ate a few more and stopped, staring at the last two sections.

‘My belly hurts.’ she said, ‘please have one more.’

I ate another and we both looked at the last one.

‘My belly really hurts.’ she said.

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The next morning, we walked to the cathedral through narrow winding streets and around the old Jewish quarter.  Madam stopped every few yards to photograph the buildings and streets.  

‘I feel like I’m wearing out the word wow,’ she said, ‘everything is so… wow.’

The architecture was indeed stunning, the cathedral is the largest Gothic building in the world, the narrow lanes and passages all around are lined with moorish influenced architecture, bars and appealing restaurants.  Most streets were lined with orange trees, heavy with ripening fruit.  Bubbling fountains in squares were surrounded by tiled seats under shading trees.

I’ve been to Spain many times but the last time was fourteen years ago.  Walking around Seville, I realised how much I missed Spain. The people, the architecture, the way of life.  I’ve missed it a lot.  I could live here, I thought.  Then I remembered Brexit had screwed up that opportunity and was sad.

Madam felt an invisible pull as we passed every gift and souvenir shop and there were dozens of them.  I generally waited outside.  She came out of one shop waving a couple of Christmas ornaments.  ‘Look!  They look like they are ceramic but are made of plastic!  Only seven Euros!’

I sighed and wondered if I needed to get more cash.

She rushed into another shop and bought a ceramic plate that looked like it was made of plastic for €14.

We walked on down to the river.  They had a group of flamenco dancers in an open area next to the river.  I never quite got flamenco.  I have a memory of sitting through what seemed to be several hours of a dancing during a visit to Spain with my parents when I was twelve years old.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored in my life.  It’s like it is the same dance that goes on forever.  All twirling skirts and waving fans. 

I read in one on the tourist guides that you get a shiver down your spine when you are watching and start to understand flamenco.  As we stood in the square I did feel a shiver but I think it was the cold.  We had expected warmer weather in southern Spain although it was December.  It wasn’t exactly cold but it was rare if we were outside without a coat.

Madam was getting hungry so we headed to the Alameda Hercules Plaza around the corner from the hotel.  It was an attractive square with a Christmas market in the centre and restaurants and bars on either side.  We walked the length of both sides but every place was packed.  Not a table to be had.  We ended up heading down a side street and found a table at the back of a seedy looking locals bar.

The waiter handed us a menu entirely in Spanish.  Normally we can scan it with the translate app on a phone and get a rough translation but this was in a weird italic script that our phone couldn’t decipher.

‘You listened to a Spanish language tape a few years ago.  Order something!’ said Madam.

‘I’ve no idea what anything is’ I said, I only listened to the first Spanish language tape.  I can ask for directions to a hotel and get our laundry done.  I think food was on the second tape’.

Madam was getting hungry grumpy by this time.  ‘I don’t care, just choose something!’ she snapped.

‘No, really, you choose, you lived near Mexico. You must have picked up some Spanish in the school playground.’ I said, handing her the menu.

‘I only learned the swear words. Just try and remember something from your tape,’ she said as she handed back the menu.

The waiter stood expectantly, his pencil poised.

I peered at the menu trying to work out how to avoid a meal of pigs testicles or sheep’s eyeballs.

The waiter started tapping his pencil impatiently.

I cleared my throat and said in my best Spanish ‘Por favor déjame tener el nombre de una buena tintorería.’

‘Que?’ said the waiter.

‘What did you order? said Madam.

‘Umm, I asked him for the name of a good dry cleaner.  I was the only phrase I could remember’ I replied.

Madam sighed and looked at the waiter who looked back and repeated ‘que?’

She snatched the menu away and pointed to some random items on the menu.  The waiter shrugged and pointed at something else.  Madam shrugged and said ‘No carne.’

‘What did you order?’ I asked.

‘No idea,’ she said, ‘it may well have been one of everything. But no meat… I think.’

We ended up with rice and mushroom starter and swordfish and cold potatoes main course.  Madam seemed happy and I had two large beers so it turned out well in the end.

We had noticed a display of unlit Christmas lights near the cathedral so headed there as it started to get dark.  What we had not realised was that it was the day of the official opening and everybody in the city had turned out.  It was packed.  We waited amongst the crowds for thirty minutes, more people were flooding into the square every minute.  Eventually the lights came on and the crowd turned into a sea of arms waving phones.  The lights were okay but I’m not sure they were worth the wait and fighting the crowds. 

We managed to find an ice cream shop not far from the lights and sat on the step of one of the cathedral buildings eating ice cream and watching the strolling couples and families.

‘I like Seville,’ said Madam.

‘I like it too,’ I replied.

‘No, I REALLY like it,’ she insisted.

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We wandered, somewhat aimlessly through the old town and down towards the river.   When a feast for the eyes is around every corner, what does it matter which direction you head?

We found, by accident, the delightful Jardine de Murillo (Gardens of Murillo).  Giant magnolia trees towered over fountains, ceramic tiled benches and, of course, the ubiquitous orange trees.  In the gardens is a 23 metre (75 feet) high monument to Christopher Columbus, known as Christobel Colon in Spanish. Two tall columns topped off with a lion with a claw on a globe, symbolising the Spanish empire. In the middle of the two columns is a caravel inscribed with the names of Isabella and Ferdinand, the sponsors of the journey to America.  On the pedestal are a portrait of Columbus and the coat of arms of the king.

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Every guide about Seville told us to get a combined ticket for both the cathedral and Iglesia de El Salvador (Church of the Saviour) at the latter to avoid queues at the cathedral.  We bought our ticket and walked into the church and both stopped dead.

‘Wow’ I said.

‘You too,’ said Madam.

‘Wow,’ I repeated.

I’ve been to a lot of churches and cathedrals around Europe but this one was stunning.  Words to describe it escape me so you will just have to look at the pictures in my Seville Photography  post.  In fact, the photographs don’t really do it justice, so you should just go there yourself.

We walked a couple of blocks to the entrance of Seville Cathedral. A beggar on crutches stood by the door, hand outstretched.

The cathedral was much larger  – it is the largest gothic cathedral in the world- but somehow not as impressive as Iglesias de El Salvador. Much that is worth looking at is behind heavy iron bars and seemed shabby and neglected.  It was like it needed somebody with a scrubbing brush and a bucket of soapy water.   Areas were roped off.  Priceless paintings lined the walls but had to be viewed from twenty or thirty yards away. The gold and silver was tarnished.  A film of dust lay over the displays.  

I couldn’t help but wonder if they should take a Euro or two from the entrance price and spend it on a few cleaners. Perhaps I am being unfair and they are about to embark on a massive restoration project and restore it to its former glory. I hope so.

One of the major attractions in the cathedral is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. His tomb is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain.  It was surrounded by visitors posing for selfies, many of them American, for obvious reasons.

Columbus seems to have travelled further in death than in life. Originally interred in Valladolid Spain in 1506, his remains were later moved to Seville on the orders of his brother. In 1542 they were again moved to the Dominican Republic. In 1795, they resumed their journey, this time to nearby Cuba. A hundred year rest was followed by their final journey back to Seville. Probably.  I say probably because in 1877 a box was discovered in the Dominican Republic inscribed with the words “The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”  So, are his remains in Seville or in the Dominican Republic?  Nobody really knows.  Either way, it is an impressive and fitting monument.

Attached to the cathedral is the Giralda, a tower originally built as a minaret for the Great Mosque of Seville in the twelfth century.  A long winding ramp leads up to the top with views over the city.  These ramps were created with enough width and height to accommodate “beasts of burden, people, and the custodians,” according to one twelfth century chronicler.  Somebody involved in the design didn’t like the idea of climbing 35 levels on foot.  Unfortunately on foot was the only option available to us, so we trudged, along with dozens of other visitors, up the steep and winding slope stopping several times to admire the view.  And what a view it was.  The tower reaches 98 metres (320 feet) and Seville is almost flat so we could see the whole city laid out before us.

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Madam can never resist a royal palace so a visit to the Real Alcázar was on our agenda.  The Alcázar of Seville is a royal palace built for King Peter of Castile on the site of an Abbadid Muslim residential fortress destroyed after the Christian conquest of Seville.  I should have found it more interesting or attractive judging by the glowing online reviews.  Perhaps it was my mood but it just seemed a mass of tiled rooms and courtyards.  They were nice enough but all seemed so similar.

The 60,000 square metres (almost 15 acres) of gardens, on the other hand, were spectacular and worth the price of admission (discounted for over 65s).  They are arranged in different sections and reflect various historical periods.  Each area is packed with plants and trees.  The ubiquitous orange trees of course, but also lemon pomegranate and palm trees.  I left Madam to explore the palace and spent most of my time happily wandering the gardens.

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 Just when you think Seville couldn’t possibly get any more beautiful, you come across the Plaza de Espana.  This massive building is Seville’s most impressive after the cathedral, for its sheer scale and grandeur. Plaza de Espana was built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929 along with the pavilions around the building.  In front of the building is a 500-metre canal crossed by four bridges, reminiscent of Venice.

Flamenco dancing were performing by one of the bridges, musicians were singing on one side of the plaza, children were running, trying to catch giant bubbles blown near the fountain.  It was wonderful and I could have happily sat there all day.  There’s a slideshow of pictures on my Seville Photographs post.

All too soon, it was time to head home.  Our return flight uneventful.  Had it been a few hours later we would have been affected by the Gatwick chaos caused by some numpty flying drones over the airport.

I read the news about cancelled and diverted flights the following morning and said to Madam ‘That was lucky, we could have been diverted to Cardiff.’

She thought for a while and said ‘or Amsterdam.. or maybe still in Seville.’ 

She had a point.  Sometimes your glass really is half full.

It was a good trip.  The hotel was clean and comfortable, the staff friendly and efficient.  We ate a lot of tapas and drank some wine.  Seville was, in the words of Madam, “wow,“ or should I say ‘WOW!’  Amazing architecture, friendly locals, good inexpensive food and wine. You should go there immediately.

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