The essence of Andalusia – Seville

The essence of Andalusia – Seville

As is the case with many of the great historic cities of the Mediterranean basin, the origins of Seville are shrouded in legends. Hercules himself is said to have taken a break from his better-publicized great deeds to create the original settlement of what is now the capital of Andalusia, Spain’s southern-most region.

A complicated history

Andalusia - Seville's Torre del Oro tower.

The Moors’ Torre del Oror on the Guadalquivir River.

In the millennia that followed, others came to lend a hand in shaping the city as we know it today. It became Hispalis to the Romans after they evicted the Carthaginians. Rome undertook its customary construction program, a few remains of which endure to this day including the twin columns that dominate the vast La Alameda de Hércules Square on the north side of the city’s historic center. Then came the Vandals and the Visigoths successively, who left nothing but their usual devastation before being abruptly tossed out by the Moors in 711. This ushered in the Islamic Empire of Al-Andalus that was to endure for half a millennium, leaving a stunning architectural and artistic imprint throughout the region.

Andalusia - Seville's Arschbishop's Palace.

The Spanish Baroque Archbishop’s Palace.

Then in 1248, the Christian King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered the area. The Moors’ Palace (the Alcazar) became the Castilian Royal residence still used today as the local residence of the royal family and mosques morphed into churches. Enter Christopher Columbus. Upon his return from the New World in 1493, Seville managed to co-opt the monopoly on trans-oceanic trade for its port on the Guadalquivir River. Prosperity ensued and the city became a major economic and cultural center of the Baroque era. To this day it is a unique hybrid of Islamic and European architecture and traditions, and a fascinating place to start my discovery of Andalusia.

A tale of two cultures

Andalusia - Seville's Triana Bridge over the Guadalquivir.

The Triana Bridge over the Guadalquivir.

Since my first random wanderings lead me to the bank of the Guadalquivir, I board a ship for hour-long dusk cruise. In addition to offering a beautiful panorama of both sides of the city, highlights include the Torre del Oro, a polygonal medieval watchtower originally built by the Moors as parts of the city ramparts to control river access. While the golden tile facing that gave it its name have long vanished, it still a gleams in the early evening light. Further down river the Isabel II (or Triana ) Bridge, a superb example of nineteenth century iron architecture, leads to the historic working class Triana neighborhood, famous to this day for its ceramics and flamenco music.

Andalusia -Seville's Cathedral and the Giralda.

The Santa Maria del la Sede cathedral is the largest gothic cathedral in the world.

During the next few days, I explore the area around the Cathedral (Santa Maria del la Sede), the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Its fifteenth century builders used some columns and other elements from the mosque that previously stood on the grounds, including the Giralda. Once a minaret, the 300-foot bell tower, now Seville’s iconic symbol, offers a unique view of the city. Inside the cathedral, a grand mausoleum is said to holds the remains of Christopher Columbus.

 

Andalusia - Seville's Alcazar Neptune Fountain.

Neptune Fountain in the gardens of the Alcazar.

I wander in the courtyards of the Alcazar with their lacy stone and woodworks and their intricate Islamic geometric tile works. The gardens are filled with orange trees and the trickle of countless fountains. And I lose myself in the labyrinth of medieval streets of Barrio Santa Cruz, the Jewish ghetto until the Jews were driven from Spain by the 1492 edict of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

 

Andalusia - Seville's Lebrija Palace.

The interior patio of the Lebrija Palace is paved with Romain mosaics.

The Palacio de Lebrija is an ideal refuge for a rainy day. This little known museum is a typical Sevilliano family palace built around cloistered interior patios, restyled in the nineteenth century from original sixteenth century buildings by the Condesa de Lebrija. The Countess was an avid collector and the museum houses her eclectic private collection ranging from Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Persian ceramics to Louis XIV furniture and works by Van Dyck and artists of the Murillo school.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Seville, spain

The capital of the Alsacian Wine Road

The capital of the Alsacian Wine Road

On my first visit to Alsace several decades ago, I commented to my local host about the warm welcome I had experienced everywhere I went. “We have had plenty of practice with visitors over the past couple of millennia,” he quipped. Quite. First came the Romans in the first century B.C., who are credited with covering the undulating hills of this wedge of alluvial plain on the west side of the Rhine with the vineyards that are to this day the pride of the region. After the Roman Empire fell apart came the Allemans, who gave the region its language, then the Franks. That marked the start of a one thousand year tug-of-war that saw Alsace change hands multiple times between France and Germany; and develop a unique culture that, while remaining definitely French, has maintained strong German influences in its architecture, cuisine, arts and traditions.

Vineyards, geraniums and foie gras

Alsace - Colmar window boxes.

Window boxes overflowing with geranium are an Alsacian tradition.

La Route des Vins, the 170 kilometer (106 mile) itinerary that meanders north to south from Marlenheim to Thann through the legendary Alsatian Vineyard abound with villages and towns filled with picture-perfect half-timbered facades and window-boxes of cascading red geraniums. Along the way, a proliferation of noted eateries dish out the succulent specialties for which Alsace is renowned, such as choucroute garnie (sauerkraut simmered in white wine with smoked pork and sausages), paté de foie gras (goose liver paté, which originated here in the eighteenth century), a wide variety of local charcuteries and smoked fish, and the pungent Munster cheese.

For me, however, the ultimate destination of any visit to Alsace is Colmar, the self-appointed capital of La Route des Vins. Mainly spared the destructions of the French revolution and two world wars, it has an exceptionally large and well-preserved historic center for a city of its size (population 65,000). Its cobblestone streets lined with architectural treasures that span eight centuries of combined French and German evolution welcome visitors with the laidback cheerfulness of a small town. At the edge of the historic center, the especially picturesque La Petite Venise (Little Venice) neighborhood is clustered around a network of canals from the river Lauch, where tanners and fishmongers were once located. Farmers also used these waterways to ferry their products to the town market in small pole-propelled wooden barges. Similar barges are in operation today with silent electric motors, to allow visitors a close look at the ancient and still inhabited riverside homes.

Alsace - Colmar fine dining.

The dining room of l’Echevin overlooks the Lauch River.

La Petite Venise is also home to the romantic Hostellerie Le Maréchal, created from four adjoining sixteenth century homes overlooking the river. Under the traditional steep tiled roofs, neat rows of windows are underscored by flowerboxes overflowing with the ubiquitous red geraniums. Inside, passageways have been opened through the common walls to link the various public areas, forming a maze of cozy nooks filled with antiques. At the rear of the property, the intimate dining room of L’Echevin (French for high ranking medieval magistrate) overhangs the river. In addition to its inviting setting the restaurant is a recognized destination for Alsatian gastronomy with two toques from Gault et Millau and three forks from Michelin to its credit.

Beyond La Petite Venise

Alsace - Colmar medieval center.

Ancient wrought iron signs still advertise local businesses.

Alsace - Colmar Insenheim Altarpiece.

Center panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.

The opportunity to roam at leisure through entire neighborhoods of meticulously maintained medieval houses and the prospect of a couple of superb dinners at L’Echevin would be reason enough for a weekend break in Colmar, especially now that several daily TGVs (short for Train à Grande Vitesse or high speed train) make it an easy three hour trip from Paris. But on this recent visit, the lure was the town’s foremost artistic treasure: the striking Isenheim Altarpiece, considered Matthias Grünewald’s greatest masterpiece, originally painted in 1512-1516 for a monastery in nearby Isenheim. After undergoing extensive restorations in anticipation its five hundredth anniversary, it had been recently returned on display at the Underlinden Museum. Housed in a former thirteenth century convent for Dominican sisters, the museum also holds a major collection of Upper-Rhenish medieval and early renaissance sculptures and paintings, including several altarpieces by native son Martin Schongauer as well as works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer.

Alsace - Riquewihr vineyards.

Riquewihr is surrounded by some of the most prized winegrowing land in Alsace.

Alsace - Riquewihr architectural details.

Riquewihr is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

For me, no visit to Colmar is complete without a side trip to Riquewihr, the walled village classified as one of the most beautiful in France, a mere 12 kilometers (seven miles) away. Nestled in the middle of some of the most prized winegrowing land in the region, it is still home to families who trace their uninterrupted winemaking tradition back to the early seventeenth century. There I looked forward to a visit to my favorite vintner, Hugel and Sons, and a walk up the hill beyond the city walls to their venerable Schoenenbourg vineyards, reputed since the Middle Ages for producing some of the finest Riesling in the world. But it was raining on the day of my visit, hard enough to postpone the Schoenenbourg until next time. Instead, Etienne Hugel, the current head for the vinery took a few of us under the historic sixteenth century building of the Hugel headquarters for an extensive tour of the cellars. We set off through a succession of vaulted halls that reach deep under the old town. Wines are maturing there in rows upon impressive rows of giant oak casks, including the famous Sainte Catherine dating back to 1715, still in use and a Guinness World Record holder, before ending our tour in the tasting room. A warm welcome indeed!

Visits of the Hugel cellars are by prior appointment only.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Colmar, Alsace, France