The sun is barely up and I am walking through Maria Louisa Park in Seville. There are a few cyclists, joggers and dog walkers wrapped up against the frosty morning, but it is quiet. In front of the Plaza D’Espana three carriages with white horses await the tourists who are looking for an extra special memory. Their drivers are hidden in the back, huddled under blankets. The first rays of sun illuminate the grand semi-circular building and plaza which features a Venetian style canal, traversed by several elegantly arching footbridges. At the base of the walls are 48 tiled alcoves depicting different cities in Spain and the history associated with each one. Some have been appropriated by street sellers with paintings, traditional fans and assorted souvenirs who quickly pack up when a police car appears and then unpack just as quickly when it leaves. The first coachload of Asian tourists arrives so I decide to move on to the next spot on my planned itinerary for the day.
The Royal Tobacco Factory, which features in the opera Carmen as her place of work, is now a university campus, buzzing with young students winding down for the Christmas holidays. Having once been a factory, it’s not that architecturally impressive but I am curious as to why it is surrounded by a moat and later I discover that it was designed by military architects.
I pause for an expensive chai latte in Starbucks (every city has one now) and gaze out of the window at more horse-drawn carriages, modern trams covered in Opel and Unicef adverts, and a scruffy young man with piercings who is trying to conduct a survey. The uninterested locals are polite but speed away to their more pressing business.
Next in my plan is the Alcazar, a grand Moorish Palace in the centre of Seville. Having already visited the Alhambra in Granada, I’m ready to be disappointed, but in some ways it is even better. Fine stucco porticos, colourful patterned tiles, huge tapestries and lush green gardens with ponds and fountains, scented with orange trees and jasmine. Groups of tiny primary children mix with multi-national tourists and military-looking security guards. At the small café in the gardens, two peacocks harass a table until the occupants finally give in and share their tostadas while sparrows hop beneath the tables in search of crumbs and parrots squawk noisily from the tops of palm trees.
Before lunch I need to fit in the other big draw of Seville, the Cathedral, third largest church in Europe and the final resting place of intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus. There was some doubt about that fact but recent DNA testing has proven that at least some of the bones are his, while it is claimed that the rest are interred in the lighthouse of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The interior is vast and lined with 80 chapels dedicated to various saints. In one corner I locate the entrance to the 105m high Giralda Tower, formerly the 12th century minaret of the mosque which stood on the site. Unlike most bell towers, it is accessed by a disabled friendly ramp, but anyone in a wheelchair would struggle to see over the walls at the top. It’s best not to ascend too close to the hour as the bells are large and quite deafening. Some of the old Arabic charm of the former mosque is retained in the orange tree courtyard, complete with central fountain and mihrab.
Included in the ticket for the cathedral is entrance to the Del Salvador church so I go in search, finding it temptingly surrounded by tapas bars. I ignore my rumbling stomach and enter the church to discover a sumptuous Baroque interior with very detailed information in English. To be honest, it’s all a bit too much, but I’m grateful for the quaint toilets hidden in the back.
The tapas looks very good – swordfish steak, calamari, fried camembert, pate – but I need something more substantial to get me through the rest of the day so I opt for the menu del dia at the Café Universal which seems to be popular with the local business workers and students. My meal is a large salad of tuna and asparagus, pork fillet with chucky chips, cold custard for dessert and a glass of chilled white wine. The bread basket contains more than just a roll. It has artisan breadsticks and small plastic tubs of olive oil and wine vinegar. Unfortunately, there’s no mustard for my pork, but the waiter obligingly finds me some pepper sauce.
It’s trying to rain when I leave the restaurant, so I hasten to the next planned spot – Casa de Pilatos, built by the Marquis of Tarifa in the early 16th century. On Wednesday afternoons it is free for EU citizens but the upper floor is only accessible on a guided tour and the next availability is not for 90 minutes. The downstairs is reminiscent of the Alcazar, with stucco arches, blue and green wall tiles and courtyard gardens but of is very limited and doesn’t have the same wow factor. I’d have been disappointed if I’d paid for my visit. The main curiosity is a painting by José de Ribera of a bearded woman breastfeeding a baby. Personally I think it looks more like a man with breasts but I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Perhaps the artist was trying to make some kind of feminist statement, who knows?
In order to get back to the river, I have to pass through the shopping district. Windows are adorned with coloured lights and decorated trees while shoppers leave department stores with armfuls of festive presents.
The sun is steadily sinking as I walk along the riverside to the Torre del Oro, a 13th century watchtower, prison and anchor point for a large chain used to block the river against military invasion. Inside is a Naval Museum which sounds very interesting but when I enter, the reception staff are honest about the lack of information in English so I decide to give it a miss. Outside, a young lady dressed in nautical uniform tries to persuade me to take a river cruise but it is very expensive and I am too tired to really appreciate it so I make my way to the bus stop and await my ride back to the pretty marina in Gelves which is my temporary home in Seville.