In 1929, Seville hosted the ‘Ibero-American Exposition’, a world fair known as Expo’29. Its purpose was to improve political relations between Spain and the attending countries; all of which had historical ties through colonization of the Americas or political union, like Portugal and Brazil. It was a flamboyant occasion and the international pavilions were destined to become permanent consulates at the exposition’s closure. We passed many of these ornate consulates on the taxi journey from our hotel, the Silken Al-Andalus, towards the heart of the city.
This hotel is conveniently placed, near the ring road, and close to the historic centre. Travel using local transport is the best option in Seville as parking in the tourist areas is monstrously difficult. We headed directly for the Plaza de España, the Expo’s star attraction, which is located in María Luisa Park.
This lovely park has a distinctly Moorish feel, with ponds, fountains, orange trees and other features typical of Islamic design. But it’s the Plaza de España that catches the eye. This wonderful building curves gracefully around a large open square, at the centre of which is a spectacular fountain. There is a surrounding moat crossed by four elegant bridges, representing the Spanish Kingdoms of Castile, Navare, Aragón and León.
Radiating from the main building are 48 small pavilions, each one adorned with colourful ceramic tiles, and dedicated to individual regions of the country.
At the time of the Expo, hundreds of documents, letters and manuscripts associated with Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition of discovery, were amongst the principal Plaza de España exhibits.
The centre of Seville is very compact and it was only a short walk from the Plaza to its magnificent ornate cathedral, the very focal point of the city. On route we had the chance to admire the Alfonso XIII Hotel. This palatial establishment, built by King Alfonso XIII for the Expo’s most glamorous guests, was designed to be the finest hotel in Europe, and it still exudes some of its original splendour.
The enormous Gothic cathedral was completed in 1507 and occupies the site of the 12th century Aljama Mosque, built by the Almohads, then the ruling Moorish dynasty. Little remains of the original mosque except the spectacular 100m high iconic ‘La Giralda’, formerly the minaret and now the cathedral’s bell tower. It is named after the weather vane at its apex, a statue representing ‘Faith’ and called El Giraldillo.
There is much to see inside the cathedral and its sheer size and grandeur is quite overwhelming. We particularly enjoyed the beautifully domed oval chapter house. However, the cathedral’s most renowned ‘jewel’, the gold covered alter piece in the main chapel, was a little too elaborate for our own personal taste.
Columbus’s tomb attracts much attention. The world’s most famous explorer died in 1506 in Valladolid in Western Spain. His remains were first moved around Spain, and then sent to Cuba in the 19th century, before eventually being returned to Seville. After four epic Atlantic Ocean voyages, poor old Columbus died a mentally disturbed and unhappy man. On his deathbed, he was still waiting in vain for recognition and riches previously promised by Spanish royalty. Perhaps even sadder was the fact that he never knew that he had discovered the New World, and nor did anyone else at that time. Columbus thought he had found some outlying bits of Asia!
We later explored the nearby Royal Alacázar Palace. Construction of this beautiful palace began in 913 in Islamic times, and continued for centuries under different rulers – notably the Christian Monarch, Pedro the Cruel, in the 1300s. There are many decorative rooms, elaborate tapestries and, at its very heart, the remarkable Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens). This refers to the legend that the Moors demanded 100 virgins every year as a tribute from Iberian Christian Kingdoms!
Lavish reception rooms line the patio, which has a central rectangular reflecting pool. Equally impressive are the lovely Alcázar gardens, which have become a magnet for local artists. Designed in the Muslim era as a haven for contemplation and rest, they still retain their magic and are perfect for relaxation after a bout of intensive sightseeing. There are water channels, fountains, citrus trees, decorative shrubs, vegetable gardens and, of course, the tiles that give them their special Moorish character.
Our second day began at the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower), a 13th century military watchtower by the Rio Guadalquivir. Built by the Almohads, it is one of Seville’s most recognised landmarks, being 12-sided at the bottom and six-sided at the apex. There’s a great view from the top and it has been variously used as a chapel, warehouse and prison. Now a museum, the tower showcases Seville’s naval history, the importance of its river and Spain’s memorable marine achievements.
Our day’s nautical theme continued in the Arquivo das Índias next to the cathedral, where we viewed the exhibition ‘300 Years of Piracy in the Caribbean’. This extraordinary archive contains over 40 million documents on the colonization of Spain’s American Empire. Unsurprisingly, their account of Caribbean piracy had a decidedly Spanish bias with some well-aimed and justified criticism of the French, Dutch and English privateers (i.e. pirates) who frequently plundered their treasure ships!
The area immediately east of the Alcázar is the Barrio de Santa Cruz, which was Seville’s medieval Jewish quarter. We loved Santa Cruz’s labyrinth of narrow winding streets, antiquated houses and tiny tree-filled squares – of which the Plaza de Doña Elvira was our favourite. Quite by chance, we discovered the Hotel El Rey Moro, in a 16th century house with a picturesque central courtyard. We were the only customers for lunch and, after a delicious meal, were given a tour of this charming guesthouse by the proud proprietor – it will definitely be our hotel of choice when next in Seville!
The Jewish district is now a peaceful place that exudes a quaint charm, but in the Middle Ages it was a place of deceit, death and destruction where thousands of Jewish lives were lost.
Much of this ancient part of the city was nearly destroyed in the rash of urban development before Expo 29. However, thanks in part to the intervention of Spain’s history-loving King Alfonso XIII, the project was shelved. Alfonso’s timely rescue of Santa Cruz from the bulldozers has become a far more cherished legacy to the people of Seville than the construction of the luxury hotel that bears his name.
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 13 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.