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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A Visit to Jerez

Although I’d been to Jerez (pronounced Hereth) de la Frontera a couple of times, specifically for the spring fair, which I prefer to the bigger and more impersonal one in Seville, the last time was some five years ago, so when my friend Shawn (aka SevillaTapas) suggested a couple of nights there on a working holiday to explore the city and also visit some sherry bodegas (or vice versa), it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

sherry bodega

sherry bodega

For the most part people associate Jerez with sherry and horses, and these are still the main attractions (the annual motorcycle GP also draws a lot of visitors), and I’d never really thought of it as a tourist destination. In fact, although it’s not on the same scale or as well preserved as cities like Seville or Cordoba, Jerez still has a substantial historic old centre that’s worth spending an afternoon strolling around, and a number of monuments worth seeing (of which more later). The name of the city goes back to Phoenician Sèrès and Roman Ceret (although the main Roman settlement was at Asta Regia to the northeast), which later became the Moorish Sherish, from which the famous wine takes its name. The city was reconquered by the Christians in 1264 and became Xerez (later Jerez) de la Frontera, because it was on the border of the Christian and Moorish terrritories, and the name has been retained even though it has long ceased to be true.

120-jul262014 033This being Sherrytown, though, the first order of business was a visit to a sherry bodega, or in our case, visits to four sherry bodegas over the course of two days to see what’s on offer for the “sherry tourist”. For a more detailed account of our bodega visits you can see my friend Shawn’s blog, so for this post it’s just the basics. First off was Gonzalez Byass (famous for its Tio Pepe fino and the iconic Tio Pepe figure with its guitar and jauntily angled hat), the biggest bodega in Jerez. It’s certainly impressive, but for my money, although good fun, the tour was a bit like an extended advert, suitable for the beginner or people with only a casual interest. For the more mature student, a visit to one of the other bodegas we saw would be more appropriate – Lustau (who make La Ina), or Tradición, a fairly small bodega that specialises in well aged amontillados, olorosos and palo cortados, as well as a fascinating private art collection. We were also privileged to visit Urium, a small family run bodega that doesn’t normally do tours, where we were treated like royalty by host Alonso Ruiz. The bodegas themselves are fascinating, with the ranks of casks in long naves like cathedrals to sherry, although the first thing you notice, sometimes even from the street outside, is the pervasive aroma of the wine.

swordfish Jerez market

swordfish Jerez market

Another must for us was a visit to the market, which is in a lovely building on the edge of the old town. No real surprises, but the whole swordfish I spotted being unloaded was the first I’d ever seen. We also did the traditional chocolate and churros breakfast in the square outside, which certainly seemed to be a popular way for the locals to start the day.

When it comes to strolling around town, it seems that all roads lead to the Plaza Arenal. This is the big square on the side of the old town facing the modern part of the city, and is so named because of its past association with bullfighting. The square is pleasant enough (the decorative sherry casks paying homage to Jerez’s most famous product are quite fun), but the most interesting parts of the historic centre are close by. Most important of these is the Alcazar, the 11th century Moorish fortress, which

Cloisters of Santo Domingo

Cloisters of Santo Domingo

among other things holds the city’s only surviving mosque and minaret, baths, a later octagonal tower, and a formal garden. The walk from the Plaza Arenal past the old town hall and the Church of Santo Domingo to the Cathedral takes you through the oldest parts of the city. For those who, like me, are fascinated by such things, the area of derelict bodegas beyond the cathedral has a certain charm. Not far from here, in the Plaza Mercado, is the Archaeological museum, though unfortunately we didn’t have time to go and see it. Also worth seeing are the Cloisters of Santo Domingo and the remains of the old city wall in Calle Muro.

We found some good places to eat too, though our two favourites were both some way out of the centre. Nevertheless if you have the time traditional fish restaurant Bar Arturo was our absolute favourite, with great food, good service and a lively atmosphere. Ajo Negro was very much a modern bar, but again great food and service. In the area around Plaza Arenal Reino de Leon, Cruz Blanca, and Pulpo y Aparte all served us well.

Jerez is easy to get to, with regular trains to and from Seville, and a journey time of about an hour.

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Ronqueo

Before I came to Spain I laboured under the misapprehension that a tuna was a small round fish that fit neatly into a tin. Apparently not. Apparently it’s a 200+kg monster whose various parts have special names like ventresca, tarantelo, cola blanca or morillo, so that you know exactly what you’re friendly local tapas bar waiter is going to bring you. Now, I did actually discover this pretty quickly, but a couple of days ago I was able to attend an event that brought that fact home to me in a compelling way.

The event in question was a ronqueo, the carving of a tuna into its component parts (the name derives from the Spanish word for snore, and is supposed to be the sound of the flesh being stripped away from the spine), ready to be turned into delectable little fishy dishes. The ronqueo was organised jointly by four bars, La Pepona, Sidonia, Nazca and Duo Tapas, who hosted the event, with each getting a share of the spoils.

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In preparation, the bar was emptied of most of the furniture, and plastic sheeting laid on the floor – although the fish is, of course, already dead when it’s brought in, and expert cutting minimises the “blood and gore” that you might otherwise expect, this is nevertheless a sensible precaution that makes cleaning up easier. With everything prepared and the butcher (does anyone know if this is the right word in this context?) in attendance the tuna is wheeled in on a trolley and unloaded, and the work begins.

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Using some very sharp knives and an instrument like a small machete the head is cut off, and then the brains, heart and then other internal organs removed. I was most surprised by the appearance of the gills, dark concertina like masses that were much larger than I expected. Next the fins and spines are removed and discarded, and then the cuts from the belly – ventresca, descargamento and tarantelo – separated from the rest of the fish, almost as if it was being unwrapped. Next were the long rolls of red meat from either side of the spine, the descargado and plato; these are what you most commonly see on the fishmongers’ stalls in the markets, waiting to be sliced into steaks. Then the tail is held up and the last cuts, the cola negra and cola blanca, are cut away.

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It’s all over surprisingly quickly, and the various cuts laid out on a long table (a bit like an anatomy lesson in Bones). It’s a lot of tuna, and definitely isn’t going to fit into a tin, which in any case feels increasingly like sacrilege. Final touch is a glass of sherry and some perfect hors d’oeuvres prepared from the recently deceased. All in all, not a bad morning’s work.

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The Footsteps of Saint Teresa of Ávila in Seville

Entrance to Las Teresas convent

Entrance to Las Teresas convent

In the heart of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Seville, leading up from the Plaza Santa Cruz towards the cathedral, is the little winding street of Las Teresas. If you live in Seville, or have visited as a tourist, you will certainly have walked along it. You will quite likely also have stopped in at its best-known landmark, the delightful Bar Las Teresas, with its rows of jamón Iberico hanging from the ceiling. But diverting though it is, this is not our topic for the day and reason for being here, which is across the street and a couple of doors down. Here you will find yourself in front of a truly impressive wooden door in an ornate portal set in a rather blank and forbidding wall, with just a few barred windows set high up near the roof. It’s the entrance to the Convent of San José, better known as Las Teresas after its founder Saint Theresa of Ávila.

Santa Teresa is one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent saints and theologians, a mystic, writer and reformer of the Carmelite nuns, and the current interest in her is because next year is the 500th anniversary of her birth.

She was born in 1515 in Ävila, a small town between Madrid and Salamanca most famous for its virtually intact city wall. Her grandfather had been a Jewish convert to Christianity, and had been investigated by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith (remember that the last of the Moors had only been expelled from Granada in 1492, and Christianization of the newly created kingdom of Spain set in motion by Ferdinand and Isabela). Her father, however, had successfully integrated into the new order, and Teresa’s mother was a pious Christian who read Teresa stories from the lives of the saints as a child. After her mother died, when Teresa was 14, she developed a romanticised and sentimental obsession with the Virgin Mary and works of popular fiction about mediaeval knights.

Not long afterwards she was sent to be educated by the Augustinian nuns of Ávila, after which, now aged 20, she entered the Carmelite Monastary of the Incarnation, an order enjoined to contemplation and devotion, supposedly founded on Mt Carmel in the 12th century. It was here in the quiet of the cloister that she experienced the ecstatic religious trances for which she is most famous, and developed the mysticism which was her inspiration. At the same time she became increasingly concerned by the lax observance of the Carmelite order in Ávila, and despite some initial opposition set up a reformed Carmelite (the discalced, or barefoot Carmelites) convent in Ávila, the beginning of twenty years of reform and founding of new convents which bring us back again to the starting point of our article.

On May 26, 1575, Teresa arrived in Seville with a few nuns, for the purpose of founding a convent (her eleventh). To begin with they rented a house on Calle Zaragoza, where they stayed for ten years, but the location was never satisfactory. In those days (Seville’s Golden Age at the height of the America’s trade) Zaragoza was one of the main streets leading down to the port, a noisy place full of taverns, sailors and traders. Eventually, with the help of San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), they were able to buy the property in Teresas Street which has been their home ever since. Although not open to the public, it included among its possessions the only known portrait of Teresa painted during her lifetime, and the original manuscript of her best known work, Las Moradas, the Dwellings of the Interior Castle.

Teresa herself never saw the order’s new home. In 1582 while travelling in northern Spain she was taken ill and died. By one of those strange quirks of fate or history she died on the night when the Church was switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, with the removal of the dates October 5-14 that year. Teresa died either late in the evening of October 4 (Julian), or in the early hours of October 15 (Gregorian). She was beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622, and remains one of the Catholic church’s most popular and important saints.

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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 , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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