Bienvenida a Sevilla. This introduction to Seville introduces a melting-pot of a city with many cultures in its history: the glorious cathedral, centre of Christian heritage, sits bang opposite the atmospheric Alcazar, designed in the Moorish style, and just across from Santa Cruz, the former Jewish Quarter with its tiny winding streets and flower-filled patios. Orange-blossom scented squares, lovely palaces, a splendid art-deco park, traces of Columbus and the Golden Age, and of flamenco and bull-fighting … Seville has it all. This introduction to Seville brings you information to help you get your bearings and pick up the basic facts which underpin everything. See below for all the other episodes in the series, plus reading ideas and more useful links.
Get your bearings
Seville is the capital of Andalusia, Spain’s most southerly region, which sits on both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts and is dominated by the Sierra Nevada, the country’s highest mountain range, which is partly snow-capped all year round. The city sits on the River Guadalquivir and although it’s 50 miles inland it’s always been a port city. Indeed Seville is known as a ‘puerto y puerta’, or ‘a port and a gateway’, underlining its heritage as the European port of choice for 16th century Spanish galleons laden with gold, silver and exotic new foodstuffs such as tomatoes, potatoes, spices and chocolate.
the centre of seville
Centre your visit first on the cathedral and the Alcazar. Just to the south is El Arenal, the former port area where you will find a tree-lined promenade along the river and attractions like the bullring, and the city’s main theatre and art gallery, the Teatro Maestranza and the Museo de Bellas Artes. A little north of the cathedral is Santa Cruz, the former Jewish area, today a picturesque labyrinth of little streets and flower-filled patios behind iron grilles.
East of the cathedral is the huge and beautiful Parque de Maria Luisa with its tree-lined avenues, fountains and art deco tiled benches. The showpiece building at the nearby Plaza de Espana curves around a pretty boating lake. In the Macarena district to the west you’ll find the the Macarena Church and ‘Las Setas’ (‘the Mushrooms’) which you can climb for stunning views of the city. Triana, south of the river, is the former working-class district, notable for its many tiled shopfronts, busy food market and history of flamenco and bull-fighting.
a little history
Wave after wave of ‘invaders’ have marked the history of Seville: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Jews, Christians. Traces of the Moors are easily spotted in Seville today and include both the minaret, the only part of their mosque to survive an earthquake, which is now the bell-tower of the cathedral and also the main walls of the Alcazar palace.
In 1248 came the Christian conquest of the city, followed by a ‘Mudejar’ period, when many Moors stayed in Seville and continued to influence the architecture and the culture. In the 15th century, as the Reconquista of Spain was complete, the Moors left in large numbers, as did many Jews, victims of the Spanish Inquisition and its denunciations, torture and burnings. Yet it was also the beginning of the Golden Age, following the discovery of America and the lucrative era which saw Seville as the main port in the trade between America and Europe.
The 18th century saw the opening of the Royal Tobacco Factory, later the setting for Bizet’s opera, Carmen. After economic decline in the 19th century, the 20th century was marked by the drama of dictatorship, leading to the Spanish Civil War and the rule of General Franco from 1936 to 1975. The 1940s and ’50s were known as ‘the Hungry Years’, but then came the development of tourism in the 1960s and an economic boom. When Franco died in 1975, Spain’s monarchy was restored and King Juan Carlos called for free elections, turning the country back into a democracy.
WHAT MAKES SEVILLE UNIQUE?
So many things combine to make Seville the fascinating city it is: pretty squares and blossoming orange trees, traditions like flamenco and bull-fighting and unique festivals. In la Semana Santa (Holy Week) there are solemn hooded penitents processing through the streets, and decorated floats carrying models of the Virgin Mary, the best known of these being the Macarena. A few weeks later comes the Feria de Abril, with its horse-riding, marquees and funfair. Then there are the parks and palaces, the art of Murillo and Velasquez, the tapas and sherry and the stunning mix of cultures evident even in the name of the River Guadalquivir, from the Arabic ‘Wadi El Kabir’ meaning ‘great river.
This patchwork heritage is everywhere in the city’s architecture too. Roman ruins have been incorporated into the 21st century ‘Las Setas’ (a towering platform from which to view the city) and Moorish design is dominant at the Alcazar Palace and elsewhere. Look out for the characteristic arches and domes, delicate lacy plasterwork and tiles in geometric patterns in the typical colours of blue, green, black and ochre.
In the next post, we’ll be visiting two contrasting sites, the cathedral and Santa Cruz. See below for weblinks and guidebooks which proved useful in our research for the Seville series. And, if you fancy doing some reading around Seville in all its variety, we also list below some ideas for books of travel writing, literary anthologies and three novels which between them give lots of new angles on the city.
Listen to the podcast
other posts in the seville series
The Alcazar: Seville’s Moorish Roots
The Cathedral, the Giralda and Santa Cruz
The Golden Age of Seville
Semana Santa and the Feria de Abril
Parks and Palaces
Travel Writers on Seville
Stories of Seville
Links and Reading
5 books of travel writing
Spain by Jan Morris
As I walked out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee by P D Murphy
Death and the Sun by Edward Lewine (‘A Matador’s Season in the Heart of Spain)
Andalus by Jason Webster (‘A Quest to Discover Spain’s Moorish History’)
A Handbook for Travellers in Spain by Richard Ford (published 1845!)
3 Literary anthologies
Andalucia, A Literary Guide for Travellers by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Spain, A Literary Companion by Jimmy Burns
Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural and Literary History by Elizabeth Nash