From the heady grandeur of Seville to the evocative serenity of Cordoba, David Whitley turns off the audio guide to feel his way around the Spanish province of Andalusia
There comes a point when putting down the audio guide and just marveling at the surroundings becomes the smart option. Seville’s Alcazar is one such place.
It’s a remarkable patchwork, put together by various Spanish kings in occasionally jarring styles over the centuries. The detail gets ever more extravagant. But nothing dampens the sense of wonder more than a droning voice in the ear, harping on about architectural detail in the driest way imaginable.
The star in this network of palaces is the Palacio de Don Pedro, built when the money really started flowing into Spain from the Americas. It’s a masterpiece of southern Spain’s distinctive Mudejar style, fit for royalty both real and fictional — the Alcazar recently doubled as Prince Doran of Dorne’s palace in the fifth series of Game Of Thrones.
Mixing Islamic and Spanish influences, it’s a glorious blizzard of colorful tiles, complex plasterwork, keyhole-shaped arches and a wooden dome carved to look like the night sky. However, the history is as striking as the intricacy. Trade between the old world and the new was controlled from the Admiral’s Hall. It was also where Ferdinand Magellan planned the first circumnavigation of the globe and Juan de la Cosa drew up the first world map.
Seville’s position as the monopolistic port city for all the gold coming from the Americas made it the wealthiest in the world, and that shows in its cathedral. Back then, the city authorities wanted to build a church “so large, future generations will think we were mad”. On those terms, it’s an unequivocal success. It’s so huge, it feels almost empty inside. There’s just so much space lined with oppressive stone among the glittering chapels, enormous altarpiece and treasure-filled side rooms.
Yet the crowds are gathered around one ludicrous, grandstanding tomb, which is raised in the air and carried by four statues. Inside, supposedly, are the remains of Christopher Columbus — although the evidence that it really is Columbus in there is patchy at best.
In these behemoths alone, Seville has two sights to rival any city in the world. But its past glory and current spirit are very different animals. Perhaps even more so than Madrid and Barcelona, Seville throws itself into bar and tapas culture with unrestrained gusto.
Local resident Shawn Hennessy has made digging out the best tapas in town her life’s mission, and her Azahar Sevilla tapas tours concentrate on the spots you might not otherwise find. These include Casa Moreno, which looks like a corner store, but just so happens to have a bar at the back. Huge hams hang from the ceiling and little bits of meat on bread soon appear. The traditional Spanish jamon is good, but the cured loin is exceptional.
“You see that toasting machine?” asks Shawn. “That’s the entire kitchen. But they do an amazing job with it.” The unflashy simplicity of Casa Moreno contrasts marvelously with the young, hip and heaving Eslava. It’s standing room only at the bar for the honeyed ribs and mushroom cake in red wine sauce, but the richness and decadence of the food seems a perfect fit for a city that doesn’t plan on doing much sleeping in the searing summer heat.
Enlightenment in Cordoba
A night-time exploration of Cordoba, Andalucia’s other great city, is a very different experience. An hour by train to the northwest of Seville, Cordoba’s golden era came earlier. In the 10th century, it was the largest city in Europe and the capital of a widespread, Islamic caliphate.
At the time, it was arguably the most enlightened city in the world, renowned for being a place of scholars and artists. It was also a city where Muslim, Jewish and Christian people lived happily alongside each other. This becomes abundantly clear on Artencordoba’s post-sundown walking tour of the city, which passes through the areas of the World Heritage-listed old town where followers of the three religions once lived. The streets are wonderfully maze-like, the buildings faithfully restored, and old synagogues and churches hide down unpromising alleyways.
There’s a serenity to Cordoba at night that gives it an added atmospheric grace. The warren of narrow streets peels off into courtyards with bubbling fountains and hanging baskets. It’s a very easy city to fall in love with, and the correct approach is much the same as it is with Seville’s Alcazar: don’t get too hung up on the facts and figures, amble around at your own pace and just let your admiration guide you.
The standout attraction is an utterly arresting eye-popper. The grand patio of Mezquita, the great mosque-cathedral, is typically Andalucian. Walls that have stood for centuries surround orange trees and trickling water channels. But this in no way prepares you for what’s behind the heavy, richly patterned entrance doors: the vision of hundreds of red and white arches, spanning across a vast floor, is as psychedelic as it is impressive.
This was once the main mosque in the caliphate. The mihrab — the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca — is surrounded by exceptionally delicate mosaic tiling, which artists from the Byzantine Empire were brought in to construct.
Yet among the trippy overhead sky of arches are some clues that this is no longer a mosque. Statues of the Virgin Mary adorn pillars and side-chapels are splashed with over-the-top, gold-swathed tombs.
And then in the middle comes an abrupt change of style. Fussily-carved wooden choir stalls face an altar lavished in red marble and statues of cherubs. This is the cathedral. And it’s inside the former mosque — which gives an idea of just how gigantic the Mezquita is.
It’s an extraordinarily evocative place: a word that seems to apply time and time again to Spain’s historic inland cities, such as Granada, Segovia, Salamanca and Toledo. Complicated layers of history swirl around in the air, past grandeur mixing with very different present-day personalities. And you don’t need a deluge of information to appreciate the magic.