For the Connotation Press Anniversary Edition, I have decided to kick off a three part adventure to one of my favourite countries in the world. Spain!
Over the next three months we will discover the glamour of Seville, the vivacious city of Valencia, and finish in Barcelona where the entire world comes to party. Our journey will take us from South to North, up the gorgeous coast of the
Mediterranean, sampling the best that Spain has to offer: The beaches, the tapas, the architecture and the nightlife. And of course, I will throw in a bit of history to put it all in context.
Our Spanish adventure began with a call to my best friend Kenny in Los Angeles. We would both be celebrating our 50th birthdays this year. His dream was to bring in the big day in Spain, and to see the Mediterranean for the first time. As Freddie and I have visited Spain dozens of times, it was easy for us to put together a perfect itinerary for the four of us. We rented a four wheel drive BMW and
headed to Andalusia, Spain's southernmost region. Our first stop: the capital of Andalusia, and the hottest place in Europe. Seville.
Seville is a grand and proud city of one million extroverts who love their fiestas, their processions, their bull fights and their Flamenco. It's high drama all the way in the white washed streets that lead from one gorgeous mosaic plaza to the next. You can imagine you are on a giant stage set with colourful characters in every archway and simmering white light reflecting off the fountains and painted tiles. The mercury regularly hits 100F degrees in Seville adding to the cosmopolitan intenseness that plays out all over town, long into the warm nights.
The drama began long ago when Julius Caesar founded the city at a strategic point on the Guadalquivir River. It remained a Roman outpost for centuries before coming under Muslim rule in the year 712 AD. Seville enjoyed five hundred years of Islamic arts and culture until the Spanish throne conquered the city in 1248. The Golden Age began in 1492 when Christopher Columbus began his expedition to The New World from the river port in Seville. Columbus claimed territory and
trade for Spain and all goods imported from The New World had to pass through Seville, including tons of gold. The influx of riches from the Spanish Colonies made Seville the most important city in Europe and the population grew to a staggering one million people
—unheard of in the sixteenth century.
Seville was humbled in 1649 when the Great Plague killed half the population, and the city went into decline until the early 1800's. Queen Isabel II ruled from 1843 to 1868 and oversaw a grand urban planning scheme that saw the bourgeoisie build fanciful mansions using local ceramic tiles that give the city its unique architectural flare. Even during the dark days of Franco's military rule, Seville continued to prosper despite being cut off from the rest of Europe. Once Spain became a democracy in 1979, there was no stopping this wealthy and fabulous city from taking centre stage once again.
We wanted to be centre stage for our visit to Seville, so we chose a hotel right in the middle of the Old Town—a grand but faded mansion house with a roof top pool and gorgeous views. The Dona Maria offers great value in the best
location in town, even if the rooms and the staff are a bit stodgy and old fashioned. The pool alone was worth 100 euros a night, as our stay coincided with the summer solstice.
The first stop in Seville must be its treasure filled Cathedral and the iconic Giralda Tower in the centre of town. La Giralda was built in 1198 when the city was still Muslim. The ancient tower is three hundred and twenty two feet high, with ascending ramps instead of stairs, so the lucky Prayer Caller could ride to the top on horseback. No such luck for us, as we
staggered to the top on two legs instead of four. La Giralda has remained the tallest structure in central Seville for over eight hundred years, and the views are truly incredible. Back down on terra firma in the Cathedral there are other reminders of its Muslim past. Onion shaped doorways and bits of calligraphy are dotted throughout the cavernous space. This is the third largest cathedral in the world, after St Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London. The High Altar is decked out in 2.5 tons of gold that was hijacked from Mexico and Peru over five hundred years ago. This church is also the final resting place of the great pirate himself; Christopher Columbus.
After the Cathedral we walked down the narrow streets, past the Plaza de Toros to the life giving artery that has kept the locals cool for millennium. The wide Guadalquivir is the only navigable river in Spain. Along its banks are floating cafes and leisure boat rentals. The Promenade beyond is dotted with palm trees that generously offer their shade to the masses that come to sip a beer and contemplate the slow moving green waters. In the most prominent position on the river is the Torre Del Oro, The Tower of Gold. It was built in the 13th century to control access and levy taxes for the use of the river. It was a prison in the Middle Ages and then regained its glamour when the gold from the New World was weighed and counted when it came into port. Today the beautifully restored fortress is
home of the Naval Museum.
A little further up river is the huge, sprawling Maria Luisa park. Designed by a Frenchman at the turn of the century it features a full square mile of tiled fountains, pavilions, ponds and benches amidst huge palms and sweet smelling orange trees. The pinnacle of this beautiful shady park is the Plaza Espana. Built in 1929 to showcase the Iberian-American Exposition, it is a huge half circle of Neo-Mudejar/Art Deco styling that caters perfectly to all the senses. Grand tiled alcoves, a crescent shaped water feature and ornate bridges give the appearance of a giant stage. The theatricality of the
settings is undeniable, and in fact has been featured in many films including Laurence of Arabia and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
During our day time explorations, we had the city pretty much to ourselves. Seville is the proverbial home of the siesta. It is notoriously hot in the afternoons, and the locals all take an intermission from their dramas before reassembling for Act II when the sun begins to set. At dusk the swallows take to the skies to procure their supper and so do the people of Seville. The tapas bars are packed from sunset to the wee hours of night. The local fashionistas dress up and strut between the bars like they were on catwalks. It's a sexy show in the sultry heat. The laughs are loud, flirting is a sport and there is always an argument going on
With all this showmanship playing out all over town it's no wonder that Seville has been the setting of so many operas: Carmen, Don Giovanni and of course The Barber of Seville to name a few. The most famous native son is the celebrated Baroque painter Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). He painted remarkable pictures of the Spanish Royal family. His masterpiece Las Meninas, with its mirrors and unusual perspective is art historian Sister Wendy's pick for the greatest painting of all time. Seville's other famous son is fictional, but no less intriguing. The Legend of Don Juan seduced multitudes while prowling the streets of Seville.
Seville is also the birthplace of Flamenco, a complex art form featuring melancholy singing, intense guitar and highly stylised dance. Flamenco dates back to the 15th century when gypsies arrived from North Africa and fused their music with the local Moors and Jews living in Andalusia. The word Flamenco comes from the Arab words "felag" and "mengu" meaning Fugitive Peasant. This gypsy dance evolved over the centuries with mesmerising foot work, syncopated hand clapping and bursts of heal stomping to punctuate the performance. We did our homework and booked seats for the best, most authentic show in Seville. The four of us were in awe of the four artists. It was held in a small carmen (an inner courtyard of a four sided building) so the intense sounds could fill every corner. The confident, middle aged woman dancer was the star of the show. I wish I could remember her name! She had probably been dancing the Flamenco since she was in frilly diapers. Her dramatic looks and hand movements were bewitching. Her elaborate dress was cut high in the front so you could see her foot work, and the train fell behind her in flouncy ruffles. That girl could kick a skirt out.
After our amazing weekend in Seville, we drove south to explore the small stretch of Spanish Atlantic coastline to round out the trip. We passed a town called Chiclana De La Frontera. We decided that should be the name of the Flamenco dancer we had seen the night before. "Ladies and Gentlemen: Put your hands together for the fabulous Chiclana De La Frontera!!"
We laughed all the way to the beach.