I was a little baffled by Sevilla. At first I thought it was a relatively straightforward, typical Andalusían city – we arrived in the evening, passing lively crowds of people eating, drinking and chattering away in the glow of the orange street lamps as we found our way from the bus station to the hostel.
I soon discovered that Sevilla is anything but straightforward; in fact, it is very much unique, with a vibe unlike that of any city I have ever visited. It is also more than a little confusing.
I quickly gave Sevilla the nickname ‘The Spanish Hogwarts’, for its uncanny knack to simultaneously bewitch and bewilder. On that first evening, as we attempted to find a place to grab a quick dinner before falling into bed, I learned the number one rule of the city: never try to get anywhere in a hurry. I am convinced that the narrow, twisting streets change direction when you’re not looking, forcing you to wander in circles, so that you never move any closer to your destination but instead stumble across a beautiful building or tiny plaza that disappears as soon as you leave it behind and can never be rediscovered on purpose.
The second rule followed hastily behind the first. We eventually found our way to the cathedral and ate in a small tapas bar nearby. The food was substandard but necessary after our seemingly endless wanderings, and we wolfed it down gratefully. Except for the three of us – and the bar staff – the place was almost empty, a fact that was a little perplexing for a Saturday night in a – supposedly – buzzing city. As we left the bar and went for a short stroll around the cathedral, we realised that the whole city was eerily quiet. Clearly the streets around the bus station were an anomaly. The only locals in sight were a handful of smartly dressed OAPs, who emerged from a church at around 11pm. It was then that we realised our error; it was the Saturday night before the start of Semana Santa, arguably the most important week in the Catholic calendar and particularly key in Southern Spain. A time for families to eat together, pray together, and get an early night to prepare for the celebrations ahead. And thus we learned rule number two: never look for a party in Seville the night before Semana Santa kicks off. It is apparently the one night of the Spanish calendar when la fiesta does not exist.
The following morning we enjoyed a breakfast of coffee and pastries at a café across the road from our hostel. Sitting at our outside table, we watched the locals flooding out of the church opposite, all dressed to the nines and many carrying palms. As we finished breakfast and embarked on our own walking tour of the major sights, we realised that the dapper dressing was not limited to our particular area – the entire city was in their Sunday best, something perhaps unremarkable on paper, but incredibly surreal in reality. The only people on the streets not in suits or sporting enormous hats were the tourists. To our amusement, we also noted that the teenage girls seemed to be treating Palm Sunday as an excellent opportunity to get their legs out. With every church we passed the skirts got shorter and the heels got higher.
Our improvised tour took us underneath the Metropol Parasol, an enormous modern sculpture in La Encarnación square, reportedly the biggest wooden structure in the world. Bizarrely, the building is popularly known as Las Setas de la Encarnación – ‘Mushrooms of the Incarnation’. We emerged into the cathedral square, admiring the intricate Gothic engravings and nosing past the queues of people emerging from mass to glimpse the grand arches inside the enormous structure. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See (more simply known as Seville Cathedral) is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third-largest church in the world. It is incredibly ornate and beautiful and dominates the centre of the city. We used it as a navigational landmark to help us avoid repeating our experience of the first evening, as the sheer size of the building means that it can be glimpsed from almost anywhere in the city.
Opposite the Cathedral is the Alcázar, a Moorish fort that is now the oldest palace still in use in Europe. Sadly, we were put off from looking inside by the enormous queue of people that stretched all the way across the square. We did, however, have a quick peek into the stables and cooed over the infamously beautiful Andalusían horses (the entire city is filled with horses and carriages, driven by men who prey on the collective tourist weakness for these magnificent beasts).
Enjoying the glorious sunshine, we walked along the river towards Plaza de España, Seville’s most beautiful plaza, nestled in the Parque de María Luisa a little way out of the city centre. Plaza de España was my personal highlight of Sevilla. The plaza was built in 1928 and its one of the most important examples of the Renaissance Revival architecture style in Spain. Buildings are arranged in an enormous half-circle around the edge of the plaza, accessible by bridges arcing over a moat. The walls of the plaza are divided into small alcoves covered in tiles, each representing a different Spanish province. Most of the buildings are now used by the government – for the town hall, amongst other things.
We sat by the fountain in the centre of the plaza and immediately got soaked by spray, prompting an embarrassing show of running and screaming across the square. There is something old-worldly and almost Venetian about the gorgeous, ornamental bridges and the palatial buildings with their sweeping staircases. We had a leisurely explore and photographed to our hearts’ content.
For lunch, we returned to the centre of town for tapas and sangria. Giddy with sunshine, we then decided to sit at a street-side table and indulge in another jarra de sangria as we did some serious people-watching, laughing at the girls tottering past in sky-high stilettos, the cute little kids in their 1930s flannel shorts and knee-high socks and even a few people heading to a Semana Santa procession in KKK-style outfits.
Our plan was to have a look at the Plaza de Toros. Then the rain came.
When it rains in Andalusía, it rains. Umbrella-less, we sprinted along the streets, passing scores of families huddled in doorways and glammed-up girls screeching about their ruined hair. Soaked to the skin, we squeezed into a tiny bar in a conservatory-style building on the side of the road and waited out the storm. Perhaps it was the time of year or perhaps it was the rain, but my overwhelming impression of Sevilla in that moment was of a tight-knit community. In this tiny bar, strangers were laughing and joking together, welcoming each other in from the rain, making space where there was none, buying drinks and generally showing kindness in an unusual social situation. This sense of community and compassion is one of my favourite things about Spain and it is particularly evident in Andalusía. Even more remarkably, as tourists in Sevilla, we were welcomed into that bar like locals.
As the rain eased off a little and we began walking back to the hostel, we passed a flamenco venue and decided to go in, on the off chance that they would have tickets available for that evening. Flamenco is an iconic part of Sevilla and although I had been living in Spain for around 7 months, I still hadn’t seen any live performances. Although the late evening show was busy, there was a show starting at 7 that was almost empty. We took our seats and settled down with our free drink to watch the show. It was a shame that the venue was so empty (the only other people in the audience were a mother and her son, a group of Japanese tourists and a Spanish family celebrating a birthday) but the show was wonderful, with some passionate solo and group performances. My particular highlight was the dancing to a small selection of music from the opera ‘Carmen’ – it was amazing to see how expressively and energetically the dancers were able to get the story across, especially with such an empty audience. We applauded rapturously.
After a dinner of more tapas (because of the variation in dishes from bar to bar and city to city you can never get bored of it), we headed back to the hostel, accidentally stumbling across an enormous procession en route! Unluckily for us, our hostel lay across the path of the procession, and the thousands of people lining the streets made it more then a little difficult to cross the road. I asked a nearby policeman if there was a way round and received a blank stare in response. There was nothing for it; we waited until there was a brief pause, joined hands and elbowed our way through the crowds to the other side, trying not to look left or right or see how many people we had knocked over on the way! We were completely knackered after all the walking and so stumbled into bed, as we had to be up early to catch a bus to destination number 3 – Cádiz.