As we reach the one-year mark on the pandemic, I find myself thinking about places that have left the biggest impression on me. Near the top of that list is Seville, Spain. It’s not just the sights or the scenery that made it truly memorable to visit, but some elusive mix of everything that combined to make the city feel magical. It’s so charismatic and romantic, so grand and yet so charming. So, I ask myself, what made Seville feel so magical?
Seville is one of the largest cities in Spain and the capital of Andalusia, the vibrant region in Spain’s south. Despite its size, the city has a historic center that feels timeless. As you walk through its tangle of little streets, you are immersed in Seville’s golden age, when Spanish explorers set out for the New World and brought back unfathomable wealth. But Seville is not a collection of dusty old buildings–far from it. Brightly painted facades bursting with flowers reflect the lively spirit on the street, where people find shade beneath the orange trees during the day and bounce between tapas bars at night.
Tapas y vino
My wife and I kicked off our first evening in Seville with a food and history tour that set the tone for a magical visit. Our guide whisked us from bar to bar as we sampled some of the city’s tasty tapas. We had some Spanish classics like jamon iberico, delicate, buttery ham in thin slices, queso manchego, sharp and nutty sheep’s milk cheese served with a drizzle of olive oil, and croquetas, little deep fried nuggets stuffed with delicious fillings (think jalapeno poppers, but Spanish and therefore much more delicious). There were so many perfect bites, and lots of wines to pair with them: spicy vermut, sweet vino de naranja, tangy manzanilla.
Along the way, we learned that going out in Seville means you eat a bit, eat a bit more, and then maybe later you sit down to dinner. Tapas is basically a process, a social activity that doesn’t really have an equivalent in America. You find an open spot to stand at the counter and order from the bar. Grabbing a high-top table is also a possibility. At some of the traditional places, they write your bill on the bar counter in chalk. You might stay for another round of food and drink, but it’s just as likely you’ll pay up the tab and move on to the next bar. Why limit yourself to the selections of just one establishment? Eventually, around maybe 10 pm, you can consider sitting down for dinner. If you’re still hungry, of course.
The food tour gave us a foundation for our own tapas adventure on another night. Everything we found to eat was delicious. A few times we just randomly pointed at what other people were ordering, and it always worked out. I often say that I’m not a foodie. I will happily settle for utility grub and go on with my sightseeing. But my short time in Seville made me question this entirely.
Catedral de Sevilla
Walking around Seville, it’s hard to miss the city’s massive gothic cathedral. It’s one of the largest churches in the world; an imposing fortress in the middle of a huge square, with a bell tower that soars high above the city. It’s both beautiful and imposing, solid stone walls topped with elegant spires. Inside, the space is almost like a sports arena, big enough to hold another church but decorated to the smallest detail.
The cathedral has an almost overwhelming collection of treasures that tell the story of Spain’s golden age of exploration. Exploration would be the nice word, of course, since it’s also a story of brutal conquest and pillaging. If you’re into that sort of thing, make sure to check out the tomb of Christopher Columbus inside the cathedral. It was his voyages into the New World that opened up the floodgates of wealth, gave Spain an empire, and ultimately paid for all of this fancy stuff.
Problematic history aside though, I loved seeing all the art, like the glowing Baroque paintings by Bartolomé Murillo and the enormous altarpiece with hundreds of glittering gold figures. It is quite literally a wall of gold. Dozens of sculpted scenes from the Bible are stacked up like a giant religious comic book. Everything about the cathedral is grand, evoking that age when a newly unified Kingdom of Spain was on top of the world.
The highlight for me was climbing La Giralda, the bell tower that dates from the era of Almohad rule when it was the minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville. You climb a series of ramps to the top, peeking out through the windows as you ascend. Eventually you reach the top, a Renaissance-era addition. Looking up you see the big cathedral bells, and looking out you see incredible views of old Seville. You can see the cathedral’s grove of orange trees in neat rows, the mighty walls of the alcazar and the gardens beyond, the elegant circle of Seville’s bullfighting ring, and a jumble of buildings that stretches far into the distance.
Seville is a beautiful city in general, but maybe the most beautiful of all are its gardens. When we visited the Real Alcazar (the royal palace), I think we spent just as much time wandering the palace gardens as we did touring the rooms inside. It’s a sprawl of geometric patterns in shrubbery, with bright flowers everywhere and palm trees overhead. And peacocks. To be honest, the peacocks were a bit aggressive, but they seemed to fit the scene well.
The gardens and the palace both have a style that’s uniquely Andalusian, like something from a fairytale. Bright tile mosaics, graceful pointed arches, bubbling fountains. You start to imagine yourself as a royal guest, strolling through the fantasy world of the kings and queens.
We saw similar themes on an even larger scale at Maria Luisa Park nearby. Formerly the private gardens of another palace, the park is filled with more fountains and exotic trees. And it’s home to Plaza de Espana, an impressive square (well, semicircle) designed to represent all of Spain in architecture. And there are flowers, so many flowers. When we visited, even the trees were flowering in huge bursts of pink and purple.
The gardens in Seville come in small sizes too. You’ll see a fountain in the courtyard of a random building, like the courtyard of someone’s miniature palace. You’ll walk by a little balcony bursting with flowers. Lots of the streets are lined with rows of orange trees. It’s as if the whole city is devoted to making things beautiful.
Seville definitely has a vibe, and it comes with a soundtrack. In the main squares you’ll hear a guitarist playing, picking out classical melodies or strumming rhythmic flamenco. You might even catch some flamenco dancers, like we did on the plaza near the cathedral. Flamenco is something uniquely Andalusian, a blend of musical and dance traditions combined into a colorful, high-energy performance that…well, you really have to see it. (And you can, with the magic of YouTube: here) But I’ll try to explain.
We went to see a flamenco show one evening, and I was mesmerized. We crowded into a little basement room at the Flamenco Dance Museum, seated in two rows around a tiny, floor-level performance area. When the performers started, everything was a rush of energy. A whirl of sound and movement swept through the room: dancers doing fancy footwork, guitarists strumming, singers belting out vocals, and all very up-close to us in the audience.
At the risk of digression, I’ll say that flamenco music works around a flow of communication between all the performers. At times, the guitarist plays an interlude to set the scene or punctuates the dancer’s rhythms with some flashy strumming. There are moments when a singer takes the lead, and other times where a dancer takes control and moves the music forward, sometimes at dizzying speed. The footwork, hand claps, and finger snaps are a percussion section that synchronizes everything, speeding up or slowing down with the ever-changing mood of the different pieces. It’s an exhilarating art form.
So, what is it that makes Seville feel so magical? It’s really hard to define–a culture, a vibe, an atmosphere. Other cities might have a better museum or more iconic landmarks, but Seville has this beautiful culture/vibe/atmosphere. (Sorry, I’ll get back to you with an official decision on terminology.) The city seems to tell you story after story, whether through food, architecture, or music. And the local people seem to enjoy their city just as much as the tourists do.
Seville shines not just in wonderful sights, but in little moments like a perfectly cooked croqueta, a row of impossibly bright flowers, a flamenco guitarist playing as the sun sets behind the cathedral. I would love to return, just to have a glass of vermut at El Rinconcillo and watch the people stroll by. Then again, there must be so many other places to discover. Maybe I would walk down a different street and look for a new adventure in that magical city.