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Prisoner of Seville

Morning in Seville. In the patio, caged cockatiels shrieked at the blue sky over our second-storey room. Paco cackled toothlessly at us as we appeared downstairs. He opened the grille door of our pension, crying, ‘Buenos dias’, letting us into another bright morning.

We settled into a cafe for a Spanish breakfast on wicker stools. As I sipped coffee, and nibbled at tostados, I wondered if we could ever leave Seville. Like the cockatiels in the patio, we were trapped. Entranced by the beauty of our surrounding, we couldn’t tear ourselves away.

Around us, the old quarter of Seville – the barrio of Santa Cruz – sprawled in its labyrinth of shaded streets. White-washed facades and barred windows protected intimate courtyards of geranium pots and colourful tiles. Seville’s historic houses are quintessentially Spanish, yet owe much to the architectural legacy of the Moors who inhabited Andalucia until the fifteenth century. The Moors built their houses around interior courtyards where the family could congregate away from prying eyes. Courtyards and floors were tiled in bright colours – the blues, greens and yellows of Islam – and garlanded with the flowers of the countryside.

Walking the cobbled laneways we peered into countless shaded patios of trickling fountains, slumbering dogs and washing lines. There was a scent wafting through the streets of Santa Cruz. It wasn’t flowering wisteria, nor the perfume of Spanish lasses with almond eyes walking to university. Nor was it the mellow reek of sherry barrels or cured hams hanging from the rafters of tiny bodegas. Seville appeared to have its own fragrance, which further bewitched me. Walking towards Seville cathedral we passed children going to school, and unhurried office workers on their way to work. Orange trees heavy with fruit lined the streets. White doves fluttered overhead. There didn’t appear to be any need to hurry. Gypsy women hawked carnations outside the cathedral, and their husbands wooed tourists into horse-and-buggy tours of the city.

Ignoring sales pitches I gazed up at the cathedral tower, the only remaining fragment of a mosque which once sat on the site. La Giralda, the female weathervane figure atop the belfry, hovered in the clear sky. From all over the city I had watched La Giralda over the skyline, and found myself gravitating towards her. We entered the cathedral, a fabulous clutter of Gothic domes, balustrades and soaring arches. Inside, light ricocheted through stained glass windows, illuminating a glitzy Baroque altar, and the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Shuffling with a tide of tourists and pilgrims, we climbed the cathedral tower to gaze over the domain of La Giralda. Below us a patchwork of terracotta rooves, courtyards of orange trees and twisting streets stretched to the Gualdiquivir River. On the banks of the river the Torre del Oro stood sentinel over murky waters.

It was from here that many of the conquistadores voyages to the New World began. The Torre del Oro no longer acts as a repository for gold plundered on voyages of discovery, but houses a nautical museum. Beyond the tower the esplanade of Marquez de Contadero runs beneath fig trees and arbours of mimosa. Along the esplanade, waiters with sparkling trays brought drinks for the elegant ladies gossipping in open air cafes. On the opposite shore a string of bars on Calle Betis faced the centre of the city, and the enigmatic figure of La Giralda.

Calle Betis, on any night of the week, sways with a multitude of revelling Spanish youth, meeting, wandering, drinking, singing into the night. While the moneyed ladies chattered in the cafes, tourist who had been hustled into buggy rides clattered along the Paseo de Cristobal Colon. We waited for the buggies, and a tide of mopeds and chugging buses.

Even waiting at a pedestrian crossing is a beguiling affair in Seville. Any block of moving traffic features pairs of moped-riding girls, who swirl past amid gleeful shrieks, clouds of hair, deisel smoke and coy fluttering lashes. Having evaded sly winking moped pilots, we crossed the road, and circled the Plaza de Toros.

Claimed to be the home of Spanish bull-fighting, the white-washed arena throbs with capacity crowds for fights every Sunday during summer. Today, a weekday, all was quiet but for people rushing to meet friends for lunch. Lunchtime appeared the only time that the Spaniards would rush. Those who earlier had casually wandered to work, now hotfooted it to rendez-vous at atmospheric bodegas and cafes.

Perhaps work was only a minor distraction to be overcome before getting down to the serious business of having lunch. Over plates of calamari and tortilla the locals gathered to chatter and laugh, and forget about bothersome jobs. After lunch, plates were cleared, the sun beat down and siesta ensued. A burglar alarm shrieked endlessly but was resolutely ignored. Shops closed, streets emptied, shutters were drawn, and Seville retired to patios to slumber amid geraniums through the hot hours of afternoon.

Siesta proved to be good time to see the sights without worrying about throngs of tourists. We wandered the paths of the Murillo gardens, through elegant pergolas of bougainvillea, towards the Christopher Columbus memorial. In a fountain a drowned dove’s wing forlornly flapped – even in death the dove seemed to be possessed by the magic of Seville. But the sun was relentless, and we soon realised the wisdom of the locals, and decided that a siesta was a good idea.

It was not until 5 o’clock that shops reopened, and traffic crawled towards the city centre again. On the elegant streets of Calle Sierpes and Calle Tetouan shoppers bustled past cap-wearing lottery ticket sellers and students heading to afternoon classes.

In shops offering bull-fighting posters and Moorish tiles, we caught the doe-eyes of passing students. Spanish girls had an alarming tendency to unabashedly return our stares, until we fumbled in confusion with Bolero hats or pairs of castanets. Humanity continued to throb through the city centre, even after shops closed around 9 o’clock. The office-workers of this morning were again in a rush, this time intent on a night’s revelry.

We followed a trail of revellers to Las Columnas bar, beyond the cathedral. Inside, a crowd three-thick jostled at the bar, ordering drinks and tiny plates of tapas. Couples sat on beer kegs, or giggled at a polka-playing poker machine in the corner. Well used to such a confined space, the locals had none of the personal body space problems that afflicted we Australians. We were greeted and welcomed at extremely close quarters by a multitude of eager Spaniards. But the pressure in the bar was mounting, and the mob spilled out into the street.

Under kerbside orange trees, the flock ebbed and flowed with constant arrivals and departures. Amid spontaneous bursts of song and laughter, we were encouraged to ‘march until dawn’ – a haughty Spanish term for pub-crawl. Through the back streets of Santa Cruz our smiling guides lead us. They stopped outside an unremarkable wooden doorway, and gestured us into La Carboneria bar. We stepped into an atmospheric vault of exposed beams, pebble mosaic floors, and soot-stained fire place. The myriad creations of local artists hung from the walls. We sat at long wooden tables, and imagined the clandestine meetings of lovers, poets and revolutionaries which must surely have happened here in the dark nights of the past.

Tonight there were no poets or revolutionaries, only an eccentric musical ensemble of tin whistles and lutes, and we were running late for a flamenco show. We farewelled our new friends and raced to Los Gallos on the edge of the barrio. As we settled into our seats, there was an air of expectancy, and excited murmuring. Lights dimmed. Gypsy men with oiled hair appeared. A guitarist sat on a stool. A girl came down the stairs. Throbbing guitar, clapping, and hoarse cries: the passion began immediately. The girl threw her body across the floor, her spotted skirt twirling wildly. Her wrists twisted in delicate arcs, her hips swayed voluptuously. The guitarist followed her crescendoes and descents, Gypsy voices rose to wailing point. Until she stamped her feet thunderously on the floorboards, and disappeared in darkness. With succeeding dancers brandishing castanets, Gypsy shawls or fluttering fans, the crowd rose higher in their seats. Cries of ‘Olé’ and stacatto hand-clapping greeted the entire company twirling through a rousing finale, and we shuffled out into the night.

Fired with flamenco passion and adrenalin, we decided to ‘march until dawn’. The bars of Santa Cruz continued to jump, and an excited tide of merry-makers drew us along. From the riverfront bars of Triana, to tiny smokey bodegas, to nightclubs playing thumping techno, we ‘marched’. Smiling Spanish faces beckoned us on… and on. As a pink dawn glimmered, we finally staggered back past the austere countenance of La Giralda. Paco opened the iron door of the pension again.

Morning again. We lacked the energy to pack our bags, we missed all the departing trains. We were dry-throated, hung-over, gasping for coffee. Sentenced to another day in Seville. Could we ever leave?

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