Captivating Seville: Spain's City of Moors and Flowers
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
I was almost exhausted as I laboured up the last few steps of the Giralda – Seville’s most outstanding monument. A former minaret of that city’s once Grand Mosque, it appeared, after a ten-minute climb, to reach for the sky and its top an almost unattainable goal. Yet, I struggled on until spent and weary I reached the top of that 300-foot-high tower.
A steeple of Spain’s most massive Gothic cathedral, which is the 3rd largest Christian structure in the world, the Giralda has for centuries been a mecca for thousands of tourists. For over 700 years it has been the landmark of the city and a lasting reminder of the Moors who had made southern Spain an earthly paradise.
Now, in the dwindling twilight, as I gazed from the top of this former minaret, the view was revealing and magnificent. Below, the Patio de los Naranjos, once the Mosque’s courtyard along with the other remaining parts of that venerable house of worship, integrated into the Cathedral, were a memento of the city’s glorious history. In the distance, on all sides, the vivid colours of the skyline, dotted with the towering steeples of countless churches – many former minarets of mosques – created an enchanting oriental picture of a fairy tale town. All that was needed was for the Moors to re-appear.
The oldest and richest of southern Spain’ urban centres, Seville, a chic and cosmopolitan city with an aristocratic history, is the capital of modern Andalusia. Before and during Roman times it was an important town and gave Rome several emperors. However, the city reached its age of splendour under the Moors when it became a dazzling metropolis and the home of renowned musicians and literary men. After the discovery of the Americas, it controlled the trade with the ‘New World’. The wealth this engendered made Seville an important commercial and intellectual centre – a position it retains today.
The monuments from this illustrious past are in the older section of the city. Facing the Cathedral are the imposing crenelated walls of Alcázar – Seville’s fabulous 14th century Moorish palace built by Mudéjar craftsmen (Muslims living under Christian rule). The lavishly decorated patio and surrounding chambers incorporate some of the finest examples of Spanish Muslim art which remind the visitor of Granada’s famous Alhambra. On the outside, its vast well-kept gardens with their covered walks formed by trained shrubs and climbing plants are arranged in Moorish style. They overflow with a profusion of flowers intermixed with jasmine, lemon, myrtle and orange trees and give the palace a ‘Thousand and One Nights’ setting – entrancing most visitors with its magical spell.
Next door to this gem from the Moorish age is the Barrio de Santa-Cruz – in Muslim times, the Jewish Quarter. The most intriguing part of the city, it consists of a tangled mosaic of narrow streets and cobbled alleys. Every square foot is covered by charming white houses, secluded plazas, tiny orange-tree-filled squares, comfortable bars, and exquisite restaurants. Its aura of mystery and romance, without fail, entraps even the most skeptical tourist.
A few minutes’ taxi ride from this bewitching section of Seville takes one to the imposing Plaza del España with its twin spires dominating the skyline and, the nearby María Luisa Park, a large expanse of manicured greenery. Full of flowers encircling tiled pools and fountains set amid towering trees, this park has, in the main, been responsible for Seville becoming known as a ‘city of gardens’. Also, within its confines is the Archeological Museum, housing an impressive collection of pre-Roman and Roman treasures; and the neighbouring Museum of Folk Art, located in a charming Mudéjar pavilion.
If, after touring Seville’s main attractions, visitors have time to spare, there are still the twelve-sided Torre del Oro, once forming a part of the Moorish fortifications and now a Naval Museum; Pilate’s House, an outstanding example of Sevillian 16th century architecture; and dozens of ancient churches and renowned palaces.
I had travelled to Seville a number of times and glorified in its Moorish remains and tantalizing gardens. Yet, on more recent visits, I found that all these were overshadowed by its fairs and festivals. We had come to take part in these festivities during the universally famous Holy Week and the April Fair which follows.
Commencing on Palm Sunday and culminating on Good Friday, the Holy Week is celebrated by continuous processions of endless floats with their jewelled and garlanded Virgins followed by bands featuring fifes and drums. Day and night, the anguished cries of the Saetas and the improvised flamenco laments echo above the massive crowds. It is a memorable experience which one rarely forgets.
A few days after Holy Week comes the six-day April Fair. This is held in a vast canvas town consisting of hundreds of kiosks and pavilions, decorated with flags, flowers and lanterns and, at night, brilliantly illuminated. Colourful parades featuring horses mounted by couples dressed in traditional Andalusian finery and carriages drawn by magnificent stallions are the main attractions.
In addition, bullfights highlighted by the best matadors of the season; and beginning in early evening until the wee hours of the morning, feasting, music, dancing, and other types of merry making make for an exciting week of entertainment.
People travel from all over Spain and beyond to join in the revelry. Hence, lodging without a firm reservation is impossible to find. We had made ours months in advance and verified it a few weeks before the festivities.
The colour, delight, and drama of Seville, especially during its fairs and festivals, have inspired many plays and novels. The most popular drama in Spanish literature ‘Don Juan Tenorio’, the novel and opera ‘Carmen’, and the Barber of Seville’ all have some connection with this seductive city. They have given it a worldwide reputation as a town of lowers, dark haired beauties, splendid processions, lighthearted gaiety, and the halo of enchanted patios – all not figments of the writers’ imaginations but attributes of the real Seville.