Tuesday 17 September 2019

Seville: Orange is the new black on a sizzling Spanish city break

Mark Evans visits Seville, the home of juicy oranges, Spanish kings and flamenco, for a good-value break

Plaza de Espana. Seville, Spain.
Plaza de Espana. Seville, Spain.
Hotel Inglaterra, Seville
Alfonso Hotel in Seville
Flamenco
Seville cathedral
The Real Alcazar palace

Mark Evans

Over two million of us travel to Spain each year for our holidays - with a sizeable chunk heading to the traditional favourites on the Costa Del Sol.

While there's nothing wrong with soaking up the sun on a resort beach in Torremolinos or Marbella, the most interesting places are found inland, cities where egg and chips isn't the ultimate culinary delight.

In a country of beautiful cities - think Salamanca, Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia - Seville has a good shout of being the jewel. Roman ruins, Moorish palaces, Christian cathedrals filled with gold, its historic quarter is world class. No wonder the King of Spain has his own palace here, in one of the country's most sun-kissed areas.

The great thing is that Seville, which has become mega-trendy, packs all of its major attractions (three Unesco World Heritage sites) into just two square miles of its old town, with all the highlights within short working distance.

The big draw is the largest cathedral - and biggest Gothic church - in the world. You'd be forgiven for thinking you're in Marrakech as the cathedral used to be a mosque until the Moors got kicked out by the Christians in 1248, after 400 years running the show.

The church is simply enormous, filled with hordes of gold brought back from the New World by Spanish explorers to what was then the country's centre of power. Indeed, Christopher Columbus - and his son Diego - are buried inside. Columbus himself wanted to be laid to rest in the Americas, but when Spain lost control of Cuba in 1898, what was left of his body was brought back.

Seville cathedral
Seville cathedral
Plaza de Espana. Seville, Spain.
Hotel Inglaterra, Seville
Alfonso Hotel in Seville
Flamenco
The Real Alcazar palace

For a good view of the city, the cathedral's 342-foot-tall Giralda tower is a must-climb. Formerly the mosque's minaret, now a bell tower, it's handily ramped up all the way, so no steps to worry about. Why? In Muslim times, it was designed to carry the muezzin by horseback for his loud calls to prayer five times each day.

The Moorish influence is evident too in the Spanish royal family's local palace, the oldest still functioning in Europe, the Alcázar of Seville.

Again, you'll be left scratching your head: Am I in Morocco?

Built on the site of a Muslim fortress, many of the Catholic kings wisely kept the style intact - after all, who doesn't like gardens filled with Seville oranges and running water? The result is an astonishing place of power (used for filming scenes from Game of Thrones), where voyages to America were hatched.

Although an inland city, 94km from the coast, Seville's river was deep enough in Renaissance times for old galleons, and Magellan circumnavigated the globe from here.

Paintings depict the New World, showing how the natives were converted to God. What they don't show is the tonnes of gold brought home, turning Spain into a powerhouse of Europe.

Seville is the home of flamenco, and you'll often see it being performed on its streets. A mix of Arabic dancing, moves brought over by Indian gypsies and local influences, it's a must-see when you're in town. There's even a unique museum (museodelbaileflamenco.com) dedicated to the centuries-old tradition, and you'll discover that it's not a museum piece - they're even experimenting with moves set to rap and heavy metal.

The performances are phenomenal, drawing in tourists (but not touristy), in an intimate room, where you can see the beautiful moves up close. It's even possible to take a flamenco class. I gave it a shot for about half an hour, learning the intricate hand and foot moves.

Flamenco
Flamenco
The Real Alcazar palace
Seville cathedral
Alfonso Hotel in Seville
Hotel Inglaterra, Seville
Plaza de Espana. Seville, Spain.

Truth be told, I was brilliant at it.

The dance is still performed across the Guadalquivir River, which divides the city from Triana. The neighbourhood is fiercely proud of its roots, and although it looks like a suburb, the locals maintain they are separate from Seville. Now getting trendy, it's filled with bars and restaurants, but still keeps that distinct local feeling too.

Oddly enough for an historic city, Seville's landmark site is the Plaza de Espana (Spain square). Beautiful and popular, it was built in 1928 - which makes it almost brand new in these parts. A must-stop place for a selfie.

A good way to visit Seville and Triana is to jump on a Segway (available at a stand beside the square from cyclotours). It's a cheap way to see the nearby Maria Luisa park and cross the river to Triana, before zipping back to Seville and taking in the sights.

Sightseeing makes you hungry, and a great pitstop is La Azotea (laazoteasevilla.com), for tapas -the traditional dishes of the city.

Small plates of cheese, fish and meats cost only a few euro each, but the passion of the staff - they love showing customers the freshest fish available - makes it the kind of place where you'd spend hours.

Seville is a traditional sort of place, but fun with that. I visited just recently, when the city was gearing up for the Easter celebrations. With nearby Triana once being the home of the feared Spanish Inquisition, you'll still see shops filled with religious costumes and candles. Maybe it's all an excuse for a Spanish-style party though - I watched one float being prepared, with a skeleton on top and a guy dressed as a clown wheeling a keg of beer.

But the locals do embrace the present too. One local project was Las Setas, the world's biggest wooden structure, which kind of looks like an enormous breakfast waffle. Hated at first, it's now a local source of pride, eight years since its construction. Home to the Antiquarium museum, where you can visit the ruins of the city's Roman-era houses, it's also tall, so it's great for those 360-degree pictures of the city from above.

Even if history isn't your thing, Seville will enchant you. Pull up a chair in one of its countless pretty squares, grab a glass of wine and a tapa or two, and you'll appreciate why tourists from all over the world flock here, without it losing its charm.

Get there

A cinch. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies out on Monday afternoons, and back on Friday mornings from Dublin right now. Combining it with a beach break is easy too, with a train service to historic Malaga or Cadiz on the coastline. Madrid, too, is just two hours away by high-speed train (renfe.com).

Where to stay

2019-03-16_lif_48768722_I3.JPG
Alfonso Hotel in Seville

The Hotel Inglaterra has two great things going for it: an amazing location, just a few minutes' walk from the historic sites; and a great rooftop bar with amazing views over the city skyline. Rooms average around e130 a night, with offers available online (hotelinglaterra.es).

If you want the ultimate stay, the local equivalent to the Shelbourne Hotel is the palatial Hotel Alfonso XIII (above), one of the finest in Spain.

With a look that's part Miami Beach, part Beverly Hills with lots of European panache, it's even got a pool right in the heart of the city. Rooms are available from as low as €150 a night. If you want to splash out, the enormous house-like top suite starts from €3,000 (marriott.com).

Where to eat

La Quinta Braseria: The owner is a bit of a local hero - and it's easy to see why. It's like an episode of MasterChef, with amazing, cool dishes. I'd fly back for the spicy tomato sauce alone (grupoanot.com).

Casa Robles: Old-school charm that draws in locals and tourists. Huge selection of local meats and wines (casarobles.es).

Taberna del Alabardero: Beautiful, old building and charming service. Gorgeous roof terrace (tabernadelalabardero.es).

For more information, see Seville's official tourism site, visitasevilla.es/en.

This feature originally appeared in The Herald.

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