Sevilla; A Reversal Of Fortunes

Sevilla doesn’t have great luck.  Once the largest and richest city in all of Spain, home to Christopher Columbus, Magellan set sail from its river harbour, it was Spain’s cultural centre with Velasquez and Murillo drawing attention to the Andalusian city. It was the home of Don Juan and Carmen (the opera)… and then… it’s harbour filled with silt and Spain’s world dominance ended.  Early in the 20th century Sevilla decided to host a world’s fair to try to turn around its’  fortunes.  It opened in 1929, the year of the collapse of the stock market and the global economy and the start of the great Depression. But Sevilla still had Flamenco and Bullfighting and those two passions kept the soul of the city alive.

The Plaza de Toros is one of Spain’s oldest bullrings. Construction started late in the 18th century and was completed almost a hundred years later, but it has been maintained in remarkable condition. It’s still in use and while I had no plans to actually see a bullfight (for ethical humane reasons), I did take a tour of the bullring and learned a lot more about bullfighting, its’ history and the good, the bad and the ugly of the ‘sport’.   While every bull must die (in fact only two bulls have ever been saved since El Toros opened) at least the meat is used to feed the city’s poor and not wasted.  Still I believe it is an inhumane way to kill the animals, taunted and stabbed repeatedly until the final death blow.  Many Spanish cities are abandoning bullfighting now, Barcelona for one. I was able to visit the Bullfighters chapel at El Toros, the place where every bullfighter goes to say a final prayer before entering the ring.

Flamenco on the other hand delivers the same intense energy, some of the same moves as a matador but is set to music and no one gets killed at the end.  I wanted to attend a Flamenco show even before I arrived in Spain but I was told to wait until I visited the south of the country where the music and dance originated.  Since I didn’t have much time in Sevilla (48 hours) I opted for a show aimed at the tourists and while I’m not an expert in Flamenco, it was a performance I won’t soon forget.  The women dressed in colourful costumes pounding out the beat with their hands and their castanets, while the men glide across the stage, their feet tapping out the high energy dance and moving so fast it’s hard to believe they are moving at all but you can still hear the staccato of the taps.  And it is the music, the strumming of the acoustic guitar and the mournful sound of the  singer’s voice that reveals the heart of Spain.  One of the reasons I wanted to visit Spain is that it was one of my father’s favourite places in the world, and one of the main reasons for that was Flamenco… I now understand why.

But Sevilla is more than bullfighting and flamenco.  The best part about the city isn’t the architecture, the tourist sites or the attractions,  it is the soul of the city and that can best  be found by wandering the ancient streets of the Santa Cruz barrio.  At one time it was the Jewish quarter until the Spanish Inquisition forced its’ residents to flee for their lives while others were slaughtered or burned at the stake. Today very few Jews live in Sevilla.  The Santa Cruz neighbourhood retained its’ maze like streets, so narrow (often called ‘kissing lanes’ the buildings are that close) that even cars and motorcycles can’t squeeze down them.  Orange trees are everywhere, the oranges a deep green, looking (and tasting) like a bitter lime. They also use different ways to keep cool during the sweltering summer heat (every day temperatures were in the 40’s). Aside from air conditioners and fans and big beautiful parks with massive trees providing shade, they also put up shade banners over streets that get a lot of sun (they do the same thing in Madrid) and most restaurants provide a fine mist around their awnings that showers down a cool spray of water to keep the heat out.  I spent hours just wandering these streets and while tourists are told by the guidebooks to ‘just get lost in the barrio’ my uncanny sense of direction meant I couldn’t get lost no matter how hard I tried.

At the centre of the district is the cathedral, the largest gothic cathedral in the world and the 3rd largest cathedral in the world, after the Vatican’s St. Peter’s and London’s St. Paul’s.  I have mentioned before how I am ‘cathedraled out’, still this one is magnificent and absolutely massive (an easy landmark to find your way around Sevilla).  The one thing that held my interest is the tomb of Christopher Columbus.  It is held aloft by the statues of four kings representing the four regions of Spain. And yes they really are Columbus’ remains that are kept there, DNA tests in 2006 confirmed that.  The Giralda Bell Tower is also something to be seen. Once a Muslim minaret that would call the faithful to prayer, it is now a massive bell tower for the cathedral that you are able to climb, all 34 storeys (I counted) for the best views in all of Sevilla.

I may have only spent a couple of days in the city but I fell in love with Sevilla, its’ people and most of all its’ spirit and soul.

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