Thursday 15 January 2009

Escape To Seville

A few months ago I headed south, to Seville. These are my recollections:

If being Moorish means making you want to come back for seconds, then Seville spectacularly fails. What appeals to me about Spain is its phoenix like resurrection from the ashes of its past. Yet, like an insect in amber, parts of Seville remain mummified in its history.

Once Seville grew rich from trading with the Americas. Now its vendors prosper by selling trinkets to Americans.

That’s not to say I did not enjoy my visit to the Real Alcazar. Without realizing it I had sneaked in through the back door. I have no idea if there is a charge for entry, but I noticed that the crowds coming towards me held small maps; others held electronic guides to their ears. I wondered from where they had got them until I found myself just inside the entrance and saw the long queue waiting to get in. I was` pleased I had missed that.

The labyrinthine passages and the relaxing gardens were a sheer joy. I am pleased we no longer rely on film in our cameras; the processing costs from my walk in the Jardines would have cost a fortune. Around each corner is a delight; an unexpected pleasure. The imagination of its builders is impressive. It is if every niche is planned to appeal to all the senses; from the intricately designed interiors to the cool, relaxing arcaded plazas and shady gardens. The perfume of the roses is not over-powering, the fountains not exuberant. They trickle rather than spurt, whisper rather than gurgle.

With my first sight of the cathedral a phrase entered my head. If God’s works are miraculous, then Man’s are wonderful. The massive bulk of the cathedral is lightened by amazing external carving. The flying buttresses soar, the tower of the Giralda almost penetrates the sky. I am both fascinated and overawed by medieval architecture. How the craftsmen constructed such edifices without the benefit of modern technology is incredible. I can, and have, studied for this for a long time. In Amiens or Chartres I have sat and contemplated the inspiration and dedication of the men who formed them.

No chance for such contemplations in the cathedral in Seville however. At nearly eight euros to enter it is somewhere to go once only. This is a shame as there is much to see, or perhaps not see, as I really feel that they have over-egged the pudding. The only real marvels that can be clearly seen are the massive vaulted ceilings. All else is obscured by gaudy wooden gilt carvery. The views are limited and the enjoyment consequently diminished.

And the crowds! As a tourist myself I cannot blame anyone from making the grand tour and seeing the sights. But Seville cathedral has become a theme park for tourists and screaming parties of schoolchildren. It is a place on their itinerary; a place to gawk and exclaim, not to contemplate and wonder. I felt cheated out of my eight euros.

The streets around the cathedral also pander to the tourist. It is a matter of a few metres from the cathedral walls to the nearest Irish bar. The carriage drivers with their patiently waiting horses solicit for custom and I can honestly say I had the worst dinner I have ever had in Spain in one of the narrow streets that radiate from the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, which lies at the foot of the Giralda tower. I actually found myself wishing I had gone to McDonalds!

But the view from the Giralda tower is fantastic. The highest a member of the public can climb is ninety-seven metres above the town and from there one can see forever. To glance directly down is to invite a severe case of vertigo, but to see Seville laid out beneath your feet is really quite breath taking. And it was pleasing that one could climb the tower at no extra charge, unlike St. Paul’s in London, where they charge both on entry and then again for the crypt, the dome and so on. But the space up there is limited and yet they had allowed a thousand kids to run rampage down its sloping access. (There are no steps, until the very last part, just a continuous ever ascending helix – except it’s square, if that makes sense!) I was pleased none of the kids had thought to come equipped with a skateboard. In the cramped spaced I was jostled and pushed by bored, belligerent children. The spaces for viewing are limited and impatient queues formed. One could not stand and contemplate. There was just a mad scramble to get the camera to where its aim was unobscured by the crowd and take the picture for later viewing.

To ease my aching feet I took a tour in one of the open topped buses. For fifteen euros I expected more than a tour of two now defunct trade expo sites and a brief glance at the Plaza de España. Ok, it did come with a set of free earpieces that enable one to hear the commentary which claimed to be full of history and anecdotes. Another disappointment! “On the left is the tobacco factory on which Carmen was based”, “On the right was the Mexican pavilion for the trade fair in 1929”. And then???? Nothing! No tales, no insights, very little history. After one complete circular tour I alighted at the Plaza de España and enjoyed the frescos and the relative peace. Once the centerpiece of the 1929 expo, the semi-circular building is now a tax office and a place for weddings. I witnessed one happy bride pose with her retinue on the steps of the Viennese style bridges which cross a waterless, litter strewn sunken moat.

But with the obvious tourist traps done I wandered away to other parts of the city. I have always had a fascination with engineering on a large scale, and in particular, bridges. Seville serves well in this respect and has among the several that cross the wide Rio Guadalquivir two spectacular examples; the Puente de la Barqueta and the Puente del Alamillo. The last had recently been a subject of a History Channel documentary and I was keen to see it up close.

The receptionist at my hotel told me it was about forty minutes walk. He lied. It took twice that, but I didn’t mind. The Paseo Rey Juan Carlos is a riverside walkway that is a pleasure to amble along. The view of the gently curving river with its leaping fish made for an enjoyable excursion. And the quality of the graffiti on the bridge supports quite high! The Puente de la Barqueta preys over the river like a giant insect. Thick stays descend from its belly to support the platform. The Puente del Alamillo rests like a harp on its back. Its massive supporting, reclining tower shoots one hundred a four metres skywards, the roadway below suspended by the harpstrings. Under the bright blue sky it gleams a brilliant white and can be seen from the train a long time before reaching the station.

Puente de la Barqueta Puente del Alamillo

I saw both the bridges, crossed them, photographed them and was happy and turned back into town. But I was footsore and thirsty. Just off the Puente de la Barqueta begins the area known as Macarena. There is to be found a bit of the old city wall, with its synonymous gate and the tower of Los Perdigones, which boasts a camera obscura with which to view the city.

Just up a side street I found a cerveceria. It was mid afternoon. A few workmen stood at a street side counter and ate tapas and drank their beer. Inside secretaries ate and read newspapers. The floor was littered with discarded sugar sachets, napkins and cigarette butts. I felt at home.

The barman, who wore a stained tee shirt emblazoned with “The best is yet to come” (in Spanish, which I translated but cannot remember the exact wording,) seemed curious that I was English. The choice of beer was either non-alcoholic Barbican or the local Cruzcampo. It was a no brainer!

And suddenly, from not liking Seville very much, I had a complete change of heart. All around me people were speaking Spanish. Not an American, German or French accent anywhere. What’s more, (thanks in part to having learned a lot of Spanish from Pimsleur recordings with South American accents,) I could understand the conversations around me.

The next day I went back into Macarena and wandered the alleys and streets so narrow they can be crossed in a couple of paces. I found a tiny plaza where an enterprising café owner had set up tables on the steps of the church opposite and there I sat in the shade of the bell tower drinking coffee and contemplating the world as it passed me by. It was so quiet I could hear the birds singing. A couple of blocks away the plaza Alameda de Hercules was a mass of construction machinery and a maze of protective fences. A place of cheap tapas bars and hostals, it belonged to the young. There must be a music school nearby as the pavement cafés were full of students with instrument cases at their feet enjoying cheap food. Soon the restoration of this square, or rather oblong, will be complete, but I hope the tourists don’t find it quickly.

So there is hope for Seville. A new tram system now clangs its way through the centre. Away from the Giralda and the Alcazar the city behaves like any other. The area of Macarena will remain unspoiled as they would have to tear it down and begin again. The street musicians will continue to play in the Calle Velázquez, the little shops in the Calle Sierpes will carry on trading. The citizens are friendly. My taxi driver from the railway station, unlike the taxi drivers of Madrid, immediately began a conversation. He wanted to talk football. When I told him I didn’t really like the game he pronounced me, “Muy raro”, and carried on regardless. The alleys proclaim to be for pedestrians only, but beware of motorcyclists who don’t read signs. If you are coming to Seville get the tourist traps done quickly, then find that little hidden square in the depths of Macarena and chill out.

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