Andalusia Road Trip – Seville – A tale of two cultures
Throughout the region, displays of Catholic dominance compete for attention with the memories of several centuries of Moorish rule. This is especially apparent in Seville, where the largest Gothic cathedral in the world sits on the site of the great Aljiama mosque built in the 12th century by the ruling Moorish Almohad dynasty, a few minutes’ walk from the Christian Kings’ magnificent Mudéjar-style Alcazàr palace.
The Seville Cathedral
When Ferdinand III conquered Seville from the Moors in 1248, the mosque was immediately christianazied. But it was not until 1401 that the decision was made to build a proper Christian church on the site. Construction of the sprawling Catholic complex, which boasts 80 chapels and the longest central nave in Spain (135 meters or 443 feet) soaring to a breathtaking height of 42 meters (138 feet), lasted over a century.
Although still an active Catholic sanctuary, the cavernous cathedral is now overrun by visitors following a loosely arranged itinerary of its main attractions, starting with the mausoleum of Christopher Columbus. His coffin is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain at the time of Columbus’ life: Aragon, Castille, Leon and Navarra. The massive late 19th century monument by local sculptor Arturo Melida was originally installed in Havana, Cuba, before being moved to Seville in 1899 after Spain lost control of Cuba. (n.b. Havana and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic also claim to hold his remains, but recent DNA tests confirmed that this tomb does hold Columbus – or one of his close relatives).
A Surfeit of Riches
A few steps away, the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel, or central nave) is dominated by its overwhelming gold-leafed Retablo of 45 carved scenes from the life of Christ. This huge Gothic main altar, regarded as the largest in Christendom, is one of the most spectacular polychrome wood structures of its time.Tourists of all nations stop to gape while their guides provide staggering statistics on the amount of gold involved.
We follow the flow around the edge of the nave, checking out various chapels until we reach the Sala Capitular (Chapter House) with its magnificent domed ceiling mirrored in the marble design of the floor and its walls covered with fine Murillo paintings. Beyond it, the grandiose Sacrista Mayor (Great Sacristy) houses the treasury with its profusion of silver reliquaries, as well as the keys presented by the Moorish and Jewish communities to Ferdinand III upon the surrender of the city.
However ambitious their Christian purpose, the new Castilian rulers did preserve a few elements from the Aljiama mosque. Most notably the minaret with its intricate brick pattern fashioned after Marrakech’s famous Koutoubia mosque now serve as the bell tower. This original Muslim bottom section is 51 meters (168 feet) high. Form the bell tower up, a seamless 16th century Renaissance addition raises the tower to 99 meters (325 feet). Topped with a distinctive bronze weather vane (giralda in Spanish), it has become the iconic symbol of Seville.
The other remaining part of the former mosque is the vast Patio de los Naranjos, named for the orange trees that shaded the entrance courtyard where ritual ablutions took place prior to worship. In the center of the patio, a Moorish fountain incorporates a sixth century carved marble font, a surviving remnant of an earlier Visigoth church, which itself was leveled to make room for the mosque. On the north side of the patio, the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness) is a stucco engraved horseshoe-shaped masterpiece also dating from the original Almohad mosque.
The Real Alcázar
A few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, the Real Alcàzar (Royal Palace) is a unique complex of fortresses, palaces and gardens that has evolved over eleven centuries. It remains the official Seville residence of the Spanish royal family, making it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.
The construction of the fortress began in the 10th century, during the reign of Caliph Abd al-Rahman (912-961). The complex was then enlarged and renovated throughout the city’s rich history. Beyond the fortification walls and the remains of a 12th century Almohad palace, all later work was carried out by Christian kings in the Mudéjar style – a post-Islamic style that remained strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship.
The Palacio de Don Pedro
Also known as the Mudéjar Palace, the architectural masterpiece built by Pedro I (1334-1369) with its stunningly beautiful ceilings and elaborate plaster- and tile-work is the most spectacular of the entire complex. The Prince’s suite has a breathtaking gold ceiling intended to recreate a starlit night sky. The various apartments open through scalloped Moorish arches onto the exquisite Patio of the Maidens with its long central reflecting pool outlined by two sunken garden. The most famous of the public spaces is the Salon of the Ambassadors, a vast hall with a jaw-dropping Islamic-style cupola ceiling intended to represent the universe.
The gardens are a major element of the Alcàzar. Spread across 6 hectares (15 acres) they have evolved through the centuries into three distinct areas that reflect the style of gardening of their respective eras while remaining the oasis of tranquility intended by the early occupants.
Closest to the palace, the ancient Almohad-style gardens are an inviting maze of tiled patios, bubbling fountains and secret corners, all connected by stairs and verdant arches. Then come the central Renaissance gardens, designed in the 16th century in the Italian Mannerist style. Their most famous elements are the Mercury Pond (named for the statue of the Roman god standing in the middle of it) and adjoining Grotto Gallery, which transformed a part of the Moorish fortifications into an upper loggia from which to admire the vast expanse of the gardens and the Charles V pavilion. The third area, created at the start of the 20th century on the former site of the property’s old orchard, is known as the English garden, and includes resident peacocks.
After a couple of hours spent making our way through the countless, extravagantly ornate rooms of the sumptuous palace, we especially enjoy exploring the fabulous gardens, spotting their countless fountains and generally relaxing in their relative peace.
Beyond its architectural masterpieces, an other multi-cultural artistic treasure of Andalusia is Flamenco – the complex fusion of song, dance and guitar music that tells the story of the Andalusian soul. The origins of Flamenco are much debated as this art form has been documented only for the past two centuries. Most of what we know has been transmitted in music and folklore. What is obvious it that it did originate in Andalusia when the area was under Moorish domination. The music and instruments were adapted over time by Christians, Jews and later Gypsies to become a hybrid form of expression to communicate their pain, oppression and passion.
Since the late 1960’s Flamenco has gradually evolved from local folklore to international celebrity, and Seville abounds with flamenco from bars, where the Flamenco “jam session” can be great – or not, to Tablaos. There, nationally and internationally known artists perform professionally choreographed shows. With only one night to experience Flamenco on this trip, we go for the sure thing and book a table at Tablao el Arenal. Founded some 40 years ago by international flamenco star and Seville native Curro Veléz, it is located in a typical 17th century building that still channels the spirit of old Andalusian cafés. It has garnered a long-standing reputation for the quality of its performers, and also offers a dinner option with a fixed price, four-course, à la carte menu of Andalusian specialties prior to the 75-minute performance.
Our dinner and show advanced reservation scores us an amazing center front row table where we don’t miss a single step of the virtuoso footwork of the dancers. The show features 15 performers (guitarists, singers and dancers) and all are superb (sorry no photos allowed!). And yes, the meal is very nice too. Overall, the perfect evening to close our short visit to Seville, before leaving for Cordoba in the morning.
Good to Know
- Getting around – The center of Seville is definitely a pedestrian experience. If like us you plan to arrive by car, jettison your vehicle in one of the underground garages at the edge of the historic center. Check ahead with you hotel or short-term apartment management for recommendation of which parking to use.
- Visiting –The Seville Cathedral is open for cultural visits on Monday from 11:00 am to 3:30 pm, Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 2:30 pm to 6:00 pm. Tickets are available at the door usually with a relatively short wait. If you also wish to visit the La Girlada (bell tower) and/or the roof of the cathedral, advanced tickets are imperative. Make sure to purchase them from the Seville Cathedral official website to avoid surcharges.
- The Real Alcázar is open daily, October through March from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm and April through September from 9:30 through 8:00 pm. Unless you plan to visit late in the day (after all the busloads of tourists have departed) it is imperative to purchase advanced tickets – again directly from the Alcazar’s official website. A regular ticket will give you a line-free entrance to the palaces and the gardens any time during your chosen day.
- The Royal Apartments (Cuarto Real Alto), should you decide to visit them, require that you purchase a separate ticket with a strict time-slot reservation. And be prepared to leave all your belongings, including cameras and cell phones – unless you are prepared to leave the latter turned off in you pocket – in lockers at by the entrance. Photos are strictly prohibited. The audio-guided tour takes 30 minutes, with security guards moving visitors along. Only 15 public rooms are opened to the public and although these have historic names referring to long-ago monarchs (i.e. Isabella of Castilla and Pedro I), most of the furniture and décor are from the 19th In my opinion, the visit is of little interest and not worth the constraint of adhering to the strict schedule.
- Tablao El Arenal 7 calle Rodo, 41001, Sevilla. Contact: tel. +34 954 316 492 – open every night for from 6:00 pm to 11:30 pm with performances at 7:15 pm and 10:00 pm. We found their dinner and show formula to be excellent value (75 Euros, or 84 U.S. Dollars per person at the time of this writing, beverages included). Advanced reservations through their website strongly recommended.