If crowds of tourists snapping a phone-pic of the Mona Lisa send you screaming for the exits, you are my kind of tourist. I had the good fortune to see the Mona Lisa in the 1970s. She wasn’t even behind plexiglass. My friend and I walked right up to her, admired Leonardo’s brushstrokes, concluded that the background was a bit dark and the painting surprisingly small, and moved on. Sculpture was more our thing. In those days, you could stroke Jesus’ leg in sympathy with the Madonna’s vivid sorrow, and the guards in St. Peter’s Basilica didn’t even blink, let alone stir themselves to swat your grubby hand away.
The Pieta, St. Peter’s Basilica
I’m incredibly grateful for my gap-year travels in Europe. But they turned me into a tourism snob. I really struggle with conveyor-belt tourism. For a long time, travelling off-peak and visiting sights early in the day avoided the worst of the crowds. However, there are now so many of us with our to-do list of sights that October is the new August and 9 am the new noon. In writing this blog, I have tried another strategy. Some call it off-the-beaten-path travel and others slow travel. I call it aiming for authenticity. And it can be done anywhere, even in the largest cities, if you’re prepared to skip the must-dos and focus on the places real people live.
So, with that wordy introduction, here are my top activities for visitors to the city of Seville. As well as a few that you can skip ….
Seville is a gorgeous city. In the spring, the weather is perfect for walking: cool when you set out in the morning, increasing to about 25 C by mid-afternoon. And the skies! During our two week stay in Andalusia, we didn’t have a single cloudy day.
The historic or “monuments” area of Seville is graced by tall palm trees, wide boulevards and beautiful 19th century architecture.
The residents of Seville seek the sun in winter and spring. Even at 7 pm, the streets and cafes were full of people. Real ones, on their way home from work, enjoying a quiet moment with friends.
Orange trees are everywhere. In the spring, their perfume spikes the air. Seville oranges are bitter, so half of them are sold to the UK market to become marmalade (for consumption by bears in macs), while the other half are turned into orange wine.
The streets of the old neighbourhoods, like Santa Cruz, are narrow, twisty and turn-ey.
I suggest you walk everywhere. You will get lost because this is an old city. The streets don’t run straight and the names change every few blocks. But getting lost is part of the fun. You will discover a new plaza around every corner, and with it a new church, bar, restaurant and shops.
Or an astonishing bougainvillea growing in the courtyard of an elementary school.
One of my tour guides joked that tourism is Seville’s biggest industry and restaurants its second. Eating out is a huge part of the culture.
Saturday afternoon outside a bar/cafe
Before I visited Seville, I thought tapas was either: (a) something the Spanish made for tourists like sangria or (b) their evening meal. Having spent a week here, I concluded that tapas is the way the people of Seville eat when they dine out. Most people share the restaurant dishes they order, regardless of the time of day that they’re eating.
Tapas come in regular and medium sizes. Two tapas and one medium (called a “racion”) is enough to feed two people with olives and bread. The olives are essential because every restaurant provides a different kind and part of your quest will be to identify the one you like the very best. The bread costs extra whether you eat it or not, so you may as well eat it if it looks tasty. You’re in Spain; gluten be damned!
Take a class
A cooking class helped me to appreciate the food of Seville. And it provided tips for cooking Spanish food once I came home. I’ve been making gazpacho for years yet I’ve just learned that the pulp, seeds, and skin have to be strained. That may sound obvious, but it’s not a step in any of the recipes I’ve followed. Another surprise: in Andalusia, gazpacho is served as a thick drink in a glass, not in a bowl.
I took my cooking class through the tourism agency, Not Just a Tourist. The class was 5 hours long and the food was fantastic. Our chef Carlos wasn’t a professional. Most of what he taught us, he had learned from his mother. Carlos took us shopping for the ingredients in the Feria Market, which is Seville’s oldest food market. We learned that there are several dozen varieties of olive, and that you should always give up your spot to the older woman with the shopping trolley who says she’s tired. We also learned that the fishmongers at the Feria Market operate a tapas stand after hours. Whatever they don’t sell during the day they cook up for cheap and cheerful tapas once the market closes.
If cooking isn’t your thing, a language class is another option. You exercise your brain, learn a new skill, and feel a bit more comfortable in the country.
Find an oasis
Mine was La Palacio de las Duenas, the ancestral home of the Duke of Alba. It beats the hotspots hands down for the solitude. The building lacks the history of other sights because it only dates to the 19th century. However, its sheer grace can’t be over-stated. Planted courtyards lead into dim rooms filled with antiques and art which spill into more courtyards. The audio guide was well worth the extra 2 euro.
La Palacio de las Duenas
Seek out the obscure
After I visited Las Duenas, I dropped into the nearby 14th century Convento de Santa Ines y Santa Angela de la Cruz. The resident nuns bake cookies. However, they’re cloistered, so they can’t be seen by the public. You ring a bell next to a wooden door. Through the door, the nun asks what you want. You tell her and she gives you the price. You put your money onto a wooden lazy-Susan type tray that moves through a gap in the door. She takes the money and replaces it with your cookies. I bought the ones unique to the convent, but there is a range of choice, including madeleines.
Another obscure find was the Old Tobacco Factory. Now part of the University of Seville, this building was the site of a tobacco factory in the 18th century. Women were employed to roll cigarettes and cigars because of their superior manual dexterity. Admission is free.
For another 1.5 euros, you can visit the Museo Bellas Artes and see a wall-sized painting of the women at work. Admission to the museum is free if you can show you’re a citizen of an EU country.
Otherwise, this museum was a disappointment. The building itself — a former convent — is gorgeous.
But the collection was confiscated from convents and monasteries, so biblical themes are heavily represented. While many of the works are skillful and evocative, the relentless subject matter wore on me after a while.
Only the last few rooms contain paintings of ordinary people in the 19th century, which was of more interest to me.
Sometimes specialized museums are best
Like the Jewish Interpretation Centre, a small museum with a huge heart and extremely well-informed staff.
Our curiosity about the Jews in Spain had been piqued in Cordoba when they were suspiciously absent from the historical record. Our ticket agent at the Seville museum switched effortlessly between French for the couple ahead of us to English for us then Spanish for the couple following us as she delivered a mini-lecture on the history of the Jews in Seville. She gave us a map to show us where to see various sites. However, every trace of the Jews was obliterated during the Spanish Inquisition, so there’s really nothing to see. The museum itself is contained in two small rooms. The history of the Seville Jews is told through the stories of individual people. Today only 40,000 Jews live in the entire country.
The Jewish Quarter
Give yourself permission to skip the hotspots
By all means, if a popular tourist spot has personal meaning to you, brave the crowds to see it. Even I can appreciate that the Cathedral in Seville is an amazing piece of architecture.
But because I’m not a Catholic, there wasn’t any real reason for me to visit.
Now the Alcazar was another thing altogether because I am a history hound.
The Alcazar is the official residence of the Spanish royal house. Our guide described it as a “Frankenstein” complex. In the Spanish tradition, it layers Castilian over Muslim over Visigoth over Roman building. The Muslim and later Christian influences, as well as their combination (which is called Mudajar), are most prominent.
The Frankenstein Alcazar
I liked the Muslim-influenced parts of the Alcazar better than the Castilian parts, and the “old gardens” — begun in the Renaissance — better than the “new gardens.” That’s probably due to my strong preference for symmetry and water features.
Muslim influence in the Alcazar
However, the Castilian parts contain a lot of interesting history. Like this hand-painted ceramic tile depicting Phillip II upon his marriage to Maria Manuela of Portugal in 1554. Seeing what people looked like makes them more real to me.
Another find was this tapestry depicting a 16th century map of Spain. Corsica and Sardinia are on those islands on the left and North Africa is across the sea at the top. Yep, maps, as well as history, are indeed written by the victors.
A word to the wise: the Alcazar is packed. I went first thing in the morning and it was a zoo. People started lining up for tickets 50 minutes before opening time. My friend visited in the late afternoon when she said it was relatively quiet.
The price of admission is 9 euros plus the cost of an audio guide, less for children and for pensioners over 65. However, the number of these tickets is limited and you have to line up to get them or buy them online well in advance of your trip. Hence the ubiquity of “skip the line” tickets, either with or without a guided tour.
The cost of a guided tour varies from 20 to 60 euros, depending on the company you choose. I paid 40 euros and had a tour with 7 other women. Some tour groups have as many as 30 people in them. My friend paid 25 euros, but the guide didn’t show up. Then the audio didn’t work. Her tour finally started almost an hour late.
Some tours also don’t include the price of admission. So read the fine print and ask questions so you know exactly what you’re getting. And remember that you’ll probably get what you pay for.
The Plaza de Espana
Although my friend liked this one, I wasn’t keen. The Plaza was built for the 1929 Iberico-Spanish Exposition, an economic fair that brought together Spain, the US, Portugal and a number of former Spanish colonies.
Along the base of the building, a series of ceramics depicts important events in the history of Spanish cities. The one for Malaga shows the conquest of the city by the Castilian forces.
Unfortunately, the plaza is stuffed with tourists and faux-flamenco dancers. The buildings behind the Plaza house the offices of various government ministries, so there’s nothing to see inside.
Triana was an old working class neighbourhood peopled by gypsies and women who worked at the cigarette factory. As depicted in paintings in the art gallery, it was a rough place.
Today, it looks picturesque from across the river.
It’s sold to tourists as a “real” neighbourhood. But like anything that is sold successfully to tourists, it hasn’t taken long for it to lose its authenticity. Up close, Triana is now over-run with cheesy gift shops and outdoor cafes.
Head for the exit.