Welcome to Seville Concierge

We offer customised full and half day outings in Seville, created especially for you. We also do shorter walking tours in the city and day trips to nearby places.

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Roman Wine Tasting

Text by Peter Tatford
Photos by Shawn Hennessey

As all you erudite folks probably already know, Seville was in antiquity a Roman city, probably the most important in Western Europe outside of Italy itself. It’s official name from the time of Julius Caesar was “Julia Romana”, but as often happens it was the city’s older name, Hispalis, which remained in popular use, and is preserved in altered form in the modern name. It was an important trading, manufacturing and administrative centre with extensive commercial links with Rome, exporting wine, oil and fish products back to the Imperial capital.

baetica wines

But what was daily life like in Hispalis during the six centuries of Roman domination? Recently my friend Shawn @azaharSevilla and I were lucky enough to be invited to a rather special wine tasting event at Gastrosol, atop the Metropol Parasol. It was put on by the people responsible for Cotidiana Vitae (Daily Life) at Italica, the well-preserved Roman residential city at Santiponce, just outside Seville. Roman wines were provided by Baetica, who have done excellent work in recreating the styles of wines that would have been drunk in those far off times, drawing on the knowledge of winemakers, historians and archaeologists to make them as authentic as possible.

First though, it was down into the basement for a tour of the Roman ruins discovered when work to redevelop the site of the old market in Plaza Encarnación began back in the nineties. The ruins are now a well restored and preserved archaeology museum with some fascinating things to see. These include a fish salting plant that must have been a smelly neighbour for the residents, a house with an unusual (to me at least) raised platform for dining set into a semi-circular alcove, restored mosaics, and some crude gaming tables, as well as glimpses of the stratification (new bits built over old bits) of the site as it developed.

antequarium tour

Then it was time to go upstairs for the wine tasting. Our hosts, Manuel León Béjar and Alejandro Vera had chosen four wines for us to sample, Mulsum (fermented with honey), Sanguis (steeped with rose petals), Antinoo (steeped with violets), and Mesalina (flavoured with cinnamon, and named for the wife of the Emperor Claudius), which became very popular in the later Roman Empire. It’s not really known how close these are to the Roman originals, especially as many of the old grape varieties have sadly disappeared, but extensive research into the wine making techniques of the time and descriptions of the grapes that were used gives us considerable confidence, and the use of the various flavourings is well attested to by writers and commentators of the time.

roman wine tasting

Now, I have to admit that I’m not really a wine expert, so for proper tasting notes and pairings I’m going to send you over to these good people (the notes are in Spanish), but I will say that it was a fascinating experience, and that the wines were quite distinctive compared to modern ones. My favourites were the Mulsum, which did have a definite tang of honey without being overly sweet, and the Mesalina, which was the most intensely flavoured, and was apparently mainly used at the end of, or even after, the meal. Maybe next time we’ll get a complete Roman banquet, though I’m still not convinced about the advantages of eating lying down.

For more information about activities at Italica, including tasting events, you can visit the Cotidiana Vitae website.

Posted in Architecture, Food and Drink, History, monuments, Museums, Plazas, Rome, Seville | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Queen’s Sewing Box

queens sewing boxPretty much everybody who comes to Seville has the Plaza España in Maria Luisa Park on their list of places to see, and rightly so. But here’s a suggestion for something a little different to look at on your way back to the city. Just outside the park proper, across the main road from the Los Remedios Bridge, is an almost fairytale little building decorated with horizontal stripes that always remind me of a wedding cake, and topped with crenellations and a miniature watchtower. It’s popularly known, for historically inaccurate reasons, as the “Queens Sewing Box”, and for this reason has become  attached to a rather poignant story.

Considered to be the first building in the Neomudejar style that was to be so popular during the first three decades of the 20th century, it was built in 1893 by the architect Juan Talavera de Vega as a guardhouse and garden retreat in the grounds of the San Telmo Palace. The palace itself can be found just before the next bridge upriver, an impressive building built in 1682 as the School for Navigators, that’s architecturally one of the most important of the 17th century. This palace and its very extensive grounds were eventually acquired by the Duke of Montpensier, a French aristocrat, and his wife the Spanish Infanta Fernanda Luisa in 1849. Their daughter, Doña Maria de las Mercedes of Orleans, was born in 1860.

san telmoIt was a troubled period in Spanish history. In 1868 Queen Isabella II was deposed, and Mercedes’ family went into exile, not returning until the restoration of Alfonso XII in 1874. Mercedes and the new king, who was also her cousin, had met in 1872, and on January 23, 1878 the couple were married. It soon became obvious that the new queen was sick, in fact with typhoid fever, and on June 26, at the age of 18, and after just five months of marriage, she passed away.

Quite why the popular tradition should have grown up that because of her delicate health this queen spent much of her time here sewing is unclear, but the name has stuck, and this little building will always be “The Queen´s Sewing Box”.

When the Infanta Luisa died in 1897, most of the gardens of San Telmo Palace were gifted to the city and became the site of the 1929 Spanish American exhibition, now Maria Luisa Park. The Queens Sewing Box is a tourist information centre with a small exhibition and cafe upstairs.

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The Legend of Sierpes

Calle Sierpes (Serpent Street) is the main shopping and commercial street through the centre of Seville, connecting Plaza San Francisco and the Town Hall at one end with the Plazas Campana and Del Duque at the other, and it’s one of those streets whose name is almost synonymous with the city where it is to be found. This relationship is a product of the many literary references to the street, most notably in the works of Cervantes (who for a short period was “a guest of his majesty” in the Royal Prison, which once occupied the site of the Cajasol bank on the corner of Sierpes and Entrecarceles streets).

During Seville’s Golden Age (the 16th century, following Columbus’ discovery of America) Sierpes was notorious for the shady characters who gathered there, intent on making easy money from the riches generated by the trade with the new World.

In early mediaeval times the area lay outside the city wall, and a branch of the Guadalquivir flowed through what are now the Alameda de Hercules, Trajano, Sierpes and Constitución (a Viking longboat was discovered beneath the Plaza Nueva), most of which was drained to make way for the expansion of the Moorish city in the 11th century. One theory as to the origin of the name Sierpes is that it’s because the street follows the winding, serpentine course of this old river.

In the 15th century it was known as Espaderos (Swordsmith) street, for the great number of workshops of this type, only acquiring the name Sierpes afterwards, for reasons that are disputed. Apart from its winding course, the name may be derived from the Locksmith’s Cross, the Cruz Cerrajería, that once stood there, but is to be found today in the Plaza de Santa Cruz, which is embellished with snake-shaped ornaments. It is also said that it is named for one Alvaro Gil of Wurms, who had his residence here, or for a tavern called Wurm. Most popular, though probably not the most truthful, is the Legend of the Serpent.

It is said that in the late fifteenth century children in the neighbourhood began to mysteriously disappear without trace. After months of anxiety, a man who would not give his name promised to solve the mystery and identify the culprit, but only if his request to be released from prison was granted. Alfonso Cardenas, the ruler of the city at this time, accepted the terms, and sent his clerk to get the details.

The anonymous informant was one Argüeso Melchor de Quintana, a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Osuna, in prison for participating in a rebellion against the king inspired by the Duke of Arcos, who had later deserted him. Before the notary Quintana recounted how he had found the culprit. He had made a tunnel in order to escape from the prison, and stumbled on the Roman and Muslim underground galleries of Seville. In his flight, he ran into the child stealer, who he had killed before returning to jail because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a fugitive. He then took them to the place, where they found the murderer already dead, with a dagger buried in him to the hilt, and the bones of the children around him. But the culprit was not a man, but a huge snake, which was presented to the public in Espaderos street, which thereafter was also known as “Calle de la Sierpe “. Quintera obtained his promised freedom, settled in Seville and married the daughter of Cardenas.

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The Lost Rivers of Seville

I’ve long had a fascination with those bits of a place that have been lost and largely forgotten, such as Seville’s second bullring, and one aspect of this in urban areas is the old watercourses that have been buried or diverted, and disappeared from view. My interest began in London, with rivers like the Fleet, the Walbrook, the Lad Brook and the West Bourne, and has continued now that I live in Seville.

The city of Seville is on the banks of the River Guadalquivir, and although the valley is quite wide and flat, there are uplands not too far away from which streams drain into the main river.

Indeed, the main river itself has seen substantial changes since the beginning of the 20th century. Before that time the areas of Seville near the river had been subject to frequent, and sometimes severe, flooding, the result of snow melt in the mountains above Córdoba and the winter rains. In addition to this the old port on either side of the Torre del Oro had become silted up, and inaccessible to modern commercial shipping. This resulted in an ambitious project to deal with both these problems.

It can be seen on old prints and paintings that just below the old city the river followed a big looping curve to the right (west) of its present course. In the early 20th century a completely new artificial channel was created that cut off the loop, and allowed the modern port of Seville to be built. Later, another new channel was cut to the west of Triana that takes the main flow of the Guadalquivir (the last stage of these works was completed around 1990 for the expo of ’92). The river that you see now by the old city is therefore the original course, but it no longer connects to the new river at its inland end, preventing floods in the city centre. Perhaps most surprisingly, the site of the April Fair is built on land reclaimed from the old course of the river.

Although it’s difficult to visualise now, there was also a second channel beside the main river that ran from near the Barqueta Bridge, through what is now the Alameda de Hercules, along Sierpes and Constitución to near the Torre del Oro. The Vikings used this route to attack the city in the 9th century (one of their longboats was discovered beneath the Plaza Nueva), but most of it was drained when the city was expanded in the 11th century. The northern section, however, remained as a stagnant lagoon until the 16th century, when it was cleared and drained to create the Alameda de Hercules. A small stream whose be springs fed the water cisterns under the Plaza de Los Pescadores, and which can still seen in the crypts beneath El Salvador church, also ran here.

The last of our lost rivers is the Tagarete. This ran around the east and south of the city, just outside the walls, and though its course was diverted to the north of the city in the 20th century the small culvert where it joined the Guadalquivir can still be seen near the Torre del Oro. Also still visible are the culverts that fed the moat around the Royal Tobacco Factory. Sometimes a substantial stream, and sometimes almost dry, depending on the season and the rains, it was often noxious and polluted, as it ran past both the mediaeval tanneries and the slaughterhouses outside the Puerta de la Carne.

Nowadays there is almost nothing to show where these rivers ran, although if you know where to look in the layout of the streets, with a little imagination you can almost see them as they were, and how the city itself might have appeared in those bygone days.

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The Garden of the Moorish king

Having lived in Seville for almost ten years I thought I knew pretty much everywhere in the old centre, but a few days ago while walking up Calle Enladrillada in the Macarena neighbourhood I stumbled upon a quite large open space with a short street frontage, now being used as a resource by the local community, with spaces for recreation and also vegetable gardens.

It turns out the place has a history, too. It’s known as the Huerta Del Rey Moro (the orchard or kitchen garden of the Moorish king), and was once the private garden attached to the Casa del Rey Moro, now the headquarters of the Fundación Blas Infante, which has an entrance in Calle Sol. Legend has it that in the period after the Reconquista of 1248 it was the home of an exiled Moorish prince, from which it gets its name. The house was later a “patio de vecinos (neighbours)”, and is thought to be the oldest surviving example in Seville. The garden itself fell into disuse, and despite the house and garden being declared a site of cultural interest in 2001, was earmarked for redevelopment.

At present it’s in a kind of legal limbo, occupied and utilised by the local community, but still with the threat of being used for housing if funds become available. Although in need of refurbishment, I think it would be a shame if one of the few green spaces in this part of the city were to disappear, and with it a piece of the city’s history.

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Three Palaces

In the glory days of the empire, Spanish society was dominated by a rich, ruthless aristocracy that was totally convinced of its own right to rule, and Seville, the richest city in Europe, boasted dozens of palaces and grand houses.

Although some of these no longer exist, many are still with us, though often much changed in use and appearance. What were once the houses of the wealthy are now often smart hotels (the classic construction of rooms surrounding one or more central courtyards makes them ideal for the purpose), or have been converted into private apartments.

Some, however, not only still exist, but are also still the private homes of some of Spain’s top aristocratic families. So here are three palaces that you can see (though only from the outside) in the centre of Seville still occupied by the titled and (presumably) wealthy.

The first, the Palace of the Marquises of La Motilla, is certainly the most visible, being right in the city centre on the corner of Calle Laraña and Calle Cuna, though it might be considered cheating a little as the building we see today was only constructed in the early 1920s when these streets were widened. It’s most obvious features are the square 25-metre-tall watchtower, its neogothic arched windows, and the courtyard trees behind the corner of the building. Not what you expect in the middle of a shopping street, but Seville is good at surprises.

Our second palace is in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz, in the Calle Lope Rueda, just off the Plaza Alfaro, where the front door of the Palace of the Marquises of Pickman is set back from the street behind a short iron fence. And it’s quite some front door. The elaborate facade (in a style known as plateresque) is not only big, it was also moved here from another palace in Ubeda and re-erected. The Pickmans themselves, as you might guess from the name, are not of Spanish descent, but were a merchant family from England who in the 19th century owned the successful ceramics and pottery factory in the Cartuja monastery.

Our third palace is the home of the best-known of our aristocrats, the 87-year-old Duchess of Alba, Spain’s most titled peer and a personal friend of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. The Palacio de Las Dueñas can be found near the city centre in the Macarena neighbourhood behind a large, but not overly ostentatious, gateway in Calle Dueñas, which gives you a good view across the gardens to the house itself. The house wass also the birthplace of Antonio Machado, one of Spain’s most famous poets, whose father was employed in the house.

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A Night Tour of El Salvador Church

salvador night visit (1)

If you buy an entrance ticket to Seville’s famous Cathedral, you’ll have the option of a combined ticket that also allows you into the nearby church of El Salvador, the second biggest in Seville after the Cathedral itself. Although not as grand as its big sister, it is nevertheless impressive, both from outside in the Plaza, and from inside, where one is almost surrounded by the huge, ornate shrines and altarpieces, but for me the most interesting things about it are the things that you usually can’t see. For although the present building was only completed in 1712, the site has been in use since antiquity, and beneath its floor is a “layer-cake” of the history of Seville, stretching back through the late Mediaeval period, the Grand Mosque of the Islamic period and the Visigothic church, to the time of the Romans, when the basilica, the most important public civic building in a Roman city, stood on this spot. Over the last ten years extensive restoration work in the crypts has revealed many interesting things related to that past, and I was recently fortunate enough to take part in one of a season of night tours that have given members of the general public the opportunity to learn more about this unique heritage.

The tour gathered in the patio, where you can already see the tops of the original Moorish pillars and arches, and also the old minaret, now a bell-tower, before our guide led us down into the crypts. These proved to be surprisingly un-creepy, as the renovation work had included modern lighting and air-conditioning as well as structural supports for the pillars of the church above us, and we were able to see some of the tiled floors from the mediaeval period (the floor of the present church having been built above these), preserved Roman and Arabic inscriptions, and the alcoves where many hundreds of people, often children, had been buried through the centuries. At the very lowest point we saw the buried stream that had been the source of the problems that had led to the necessity for works beneath the church.

salvador night visit (2)We then had the unusual experience of going into the chamber (the camarín) behind the seated statue of the church’s patroness, the Virgin of the Waters. This can be glimpsed from outside the church through the window where she is placed to watch the Semana Santa processions.

The final stage of the tour took us upwards, by way of one those cramped, tightly curved spiral staircases, first to the balconies inside the church, and then onto the roof. I don’t have much of a head for heights, but the view over the surrounding streets as we did a complete circuit before descending to ground level again was incredible.

All in all it was a really interesting and unusual experience, and I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to do this tour not to miss it. The guided night tours (in Spanish) cost 12 euros with a minimum group of 10 people and are available until September 15th (the day tours are available year round). For more information go to the Cathedral Reservations Page.

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