Seville's Barrio De Santa Cruz Retains The Aura Of Its Dazzling Moorish Past
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“I wonder whether I ever shall spend a night
With flower gardens and water pools around me,
Where green olive groves, far famed, are planted,
Where the doves sing, the warbling of birds resounds.”
So wrote al-Mu`tamid, the 11th century Arab poet king of Seville, reminiscing about his beloved city as he languished in exile in Morocco. Well he had a point for Seville of his day was a dazzling metropolis which was the home of kings, musicians, poets and men of letters. It was a magnificent metropolis of palaces, flower-filled courtyards and gardens – their blossoms, perfuming the city streets.
Even today there is an Andalusian saying that ‘Who hasn’t seen Seville, has seen no wondrous thing’; and one can go on to say that ‘they who have not visited that city’s Barrio de Santa Cruz have not really travelled to Seville’. In this part of town one can sympathize with al-Mu`tamid, pining away for his beautiful city.
That Quarter’s orange-scented streets; wrought-iron lanterns, casting shadows on gleaming white-washed walls; ochre-framed windows hiding behind exquisite grills; and flower-filled tiny plazas have, for centuries, ensnared visitors with their haunting charm.
Known as the Jewish Quarter, the Barrio became their ghetto after the Christian conquest in 1247 – hence its name. Stretching from Alcázar on the east to Calle Santa María de Blanca on the west, it is all that remains of the Moorish layout of Seville. As in Muslim times, the Barrio is densely populated. It boasts some of the city’s most expensive real estate, reflected in meticulously maintained white-sparkling homes, strung along its meandering minuscule avenues.
Located under the shadows of the city’s famous La Giralda and Alcázar Palace, the Quarter is a labyrinth of exotic and clean tiny streets, edged by Moorish influenced palaces and monuments. In-between, its charming plazas strewn with geraniums, ivy, jasmine and orange trees, fill the alleyways with their intoxicating fragrances. Amid these legacies of the Arabs, enterprising merchants have established antique and artisan shops, bars, cafes and souvenir outlets that cater to the thousands of daily tourists.
To the back of these pedestrian-friendly streets, the residential homes, bordering the quiet alleys are neat and pleasing to the eye. Not true today, but once behind these brilliantly whitewashed houses, barricaded with iron grills, girls were kept chaste, so it is said.
The Barrio can be explored in a few hours of leisurely meandering or more preferably, to savour its delights, in a few days. The Quarter’s appealing Moorish aura usually ensures that visitors will not want to leave. Most travellers frequently linger in-between tourist sites, stopping in bars and cafes for drinks and tapas – a top delight when visiting the Barrio.
A memorable way to begin exploring Barrio de Santa Cruz is climbing the Giralda – the Moorish tower of Seville’s Gothic Cathedral. Almost 97 m (318 ft) high, the loftiest in Spain, it is the symbol of the city. Under the shadow of its Moorish arches and arabesque brickwork, the pageant of the Barrio unfolds, inviting by its irresistible sirens calls.
However, before answering these calls, a walk through the Cathedral is a must. Built on the foundation of the former Great Mosque of Seville, it still retains, besides the Giralda, the Patio de los Naranjos which was the original mosque’s courtyard, along with parts of its walls and arches. In area, according to the Ginness Book of Records, it is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.
From the Cathedral, beginning from Plaza de los Reyes, one can explore the most important sites of the Barrio by walking a circular tour starting at Calle Mateos Gago, then moving along to Calles, Mesón del Moro, Santa Teresa and Callejón del Agua. After the Palacio Arzobispal, noted for its fine patio and staircase of jasper, one should stop at the Cervería Giralda that incorporates parts of a Moorish bathhouse. Here, amid the atmosphere of the Moors, a walker can enjoy excellent varieties of drinks and tapas at very reasonable prices.
At the beginning of Mesón del Moro, another Arab bathhouse in now the San Marco Pizzería and to the left are the Convento de José, a former 14th century palace containing excellent Mudéjar plasterwork and the Church of Santa María la Blanca which has built into its south wall the former entrance to the original synagogue in the Barrio.
Past Murillo’s home, now housing the works of that famous Sevillian painter, lies Plaza Santa Cruz, one of the Barrio’s much described squares. Under its greenery and flowers important Sevillians are buried, and on its edge, the Los Gallos night spot draws the flamenco crowds.
From the next-door Jardines de Murillo, a pleasant oasis of tiled benches and lofty trees, one can stroll down Callejón del Agua, edged by magnificent mansions and patios then stop at Corral del Agua for a fine meal in a courtyard, covered with blooming flowers.
The nearby Plaza de Doña Elvira is the most charming of the Barrio’s plazas. Its orange trees and exquisitely tiled benches are edged by La Cueva a colourful rambling restaurant as well as with artisan shops and attractive buildings. In the evenings, young men under perfume-defusing orange trees play their guitars, no doubt hoping to capture some lady’s attention.
A minute’s walk away is the Hospital de los Venerables, featuring an exquisite azulejo patio and the nearby Plaza Alianza. Here, one can have a coffee in the shadows of orange trees and bougainvillaea before walking to Alcázar – a palace of the Moorish kings rebuilt in 1360 by Muslim craftsmen from Granada for Peter the Cruel of Castile. In the midst of rooms adorned with sayings from the Qur’an in beautiful Arabic-Kufic script, set in the finest Mudéjar architecture in Spain, Peter the Cruel, surrounded by his Moorish bodyguards, would be entertained by Arab dancers and poets.
On the outside, the palace’s vast well-groomed Moorish-style gardens of shrubs and climbing plants overflow with a profusion of jasmine, lemon, myrtle and orange flowers. It was gardens such as these which, no doubt, made al-Mu`tamid yearn for his beautiful Seville.
As if answering these longings, in June 1998, the city put on a week of entertainment, honouring its poet king – appropriately in the Alcázar. Like al-Mu`tamid must have done many times, we rested under the garden’s shady trees and thought of our meanderings in Barrio de Santa Cruz. It was a fitting climax to the Barrio’s quaint winding streets, houses festooned with flowering plants, spectacular patios, dainty squares and, above all, intoxicating Moorish atmosphere.