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Seville | Sagardi – XII Jornadas Gastronómicas del Buey

Date: November 14th
Location: Hotel Palacio Pinello, Seville
Event: The inauguration of the menu for the Sagardi Restaurant Group’s XII Jornadas Gastronómicas del Buey

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Beef – before cooking

I was one of about 50 fortunates invited to this celebration of Basque cooking, organised by company founder Iñaki Lopez de Viñaspre and master butcher Imanol Jaca, and a menu arranged around the charcoal grilled txuleton steaks of mature Galician beef cold-room aged for 3-4 weeks. It proved to be an event worth waiting for. The setting was pleasant, the company friendly, and the service great. But of course it was the food that we’d come here for.

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Bresaola

We started with a little taster of bresaola, a thinly sliced salted and air dried beef that was really delicious, followed by an entree of alubia nueva de tolosa con sus sacramentos. This Basque speciality is a rich dark bean stew served with morcilla, and it was easy to see why this rather rare dish is so highly-prized.

Then the beef. Thick slabs of medium rare grilled meat that were both tasty and tender, and as much of it as you could eat. The side dish of fresh pimientos cooked over a wood fire was a perfect complement.

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Beef – after cooking

Afterwards came cheese – a Montaña Aralar sheep’s cheese – walnuts, and some rich dark chocolate truffles to finish, making a great finish to an excellent meal.

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Cheese

Many thanks then to Grupo Sagardi for organising the event, and our hosts Hotel Palacio Pinello. For those wanting to try the menu it’s available until December 11th.

Night Visit to Venerables Hospital

It seems that 2016 is to be the Summer of the Night Visit in Seville, as a number of important historic buildings open their doors as darkness falls for unique experiences in some of Seville’s special places. I’m planning on doing several of these, and last Tuesday was the first, a night visit to the Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes, in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz. The visit, conducted by our guide Sergio Raya, was to be partly by “candlelight” (battery-powered) to better recreate the atmosphere of the hospital’s early days.

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Central Patio

Those early days were in the 17th century, a time of both great wealth for some, great poverty for many, scarred by general economic decline and repeated outbreaks of plague. The relief of hardship fell partly on the church, but mainly on the religious brotherhoods (hermandades) that are now better known for their role in the Semana Santa celebrations. One of these was responsible for founding the forerunner of los Venerables in what is now the Calle de Jesus de Gran Poder in 1627. It moved to Calle Amparo in 1659, and in 1675, while under the direction of Justino de Neve y Chavas, it was granted some land and houses on its present site in the heart of the Santa Cruz by Don Pedro Manuel Colón y Portugal (a descendant of Christopher Colón/Columbus), Conde de Gelves and Duque de Vergara. Building work took twenty years to complete, with Neve himself dying in 1685, but in 1698 the Hospital was formally blessed by the Archbishop of Seville.

The hospital is laid out in two stories around a central patio-courtyard, one of the most unusual in Seville as the central area is below the level of the surrounding colonnaded gallery, and the circular fountain is sunk still lower. Although visually pleasing, the primary reason for the unusual design was apparently the problem of drainage.

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Church and High Altar

Our first stop was the Hospital’s most important building, the Church (tending to men’s souls being more important than tending to their bodies). Although not large, the Church is densely furnished and decorated, with works by Valdés Leal, Juan de Oviedo, and others making it one of Spain’s most important Barroque church interiors. The symbolism of the paintings and sculptures was intended to reinforce the idea of the centrality of the Church and Clergy in the moral life of the nation and the source of all moral authority.

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Ceiling of the sacristy

From the Church we went on through the sacristy, which has a remarkable painted ceiling intended to make the room appear much higher than it is, to the sacristy patio, one of the areas of the complex not normally open to the public. This was in fact where the hospital’s first patients were housed before the completion of the building. At one end is “the back door” which gives access to Calle Consuelo, and at the other a door leading into another small patio with a fascinating history of its own. This was once the Corral de Comedias (a type of small theatre, similar in artistic and social function to the contemporary Globe Theatre of Shakespeare) de Doña Elvira, in its day (1578-1632) the most popular in Seville. It took its name from Doña Elvira de Ayala (born 1377), whose Palace was in the nearby Doña Elvira Square, the theatre being in the palace gardens. Theatrical luminaries of the day whose works were performed here include Tirso de Molina, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega.

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Patio of Corral de Comedias

Next stop was the hospital ward on the lower floor (there was another on the floor above), a large open room with a high ceiling supported by a row of arches down the centre. The patients’ beds would have been arranged along the walls on either side, a model common to hospitals almost until modern times. From there we went up the main stairway with its ornate cupola with the Papal tiara and Saint Peter’s keys to the upper gallery. On the side next to the church a door leads to a screened balcony inside the church. Further on is the library, created in 1981, and housed in the original refectory, from the far end of which a narrow stairway leads up to our final stop, the Torre Mirador (watchtower), which has a mudejar style ceiling and views over the Santa Cruz, which looks very different from this height.

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Cupola of main stairway with Papal tiara and keys.

Thanks are due to both Focus Abengoa and Engranajes Culturales for the organisation of this fascinating tour, and more about other night tours and cultural experiences can be found here.

Sherry on Top

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Sherry on Top is a summer season of events organised by the Consejo Regulador de los Vinos de Jerez and the Asociación de Hoteles de Sevilla y Provincia that will showcase both sherry wines and the rooftop terraces of the hotels of Seville, with catas (tastings), exclusive sherry based cocktails and live music.

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Last night saw the first of the series, on the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra in the Plaza Nueva, a popular spot both for its comfort and its excellent views of the cathedral, and it was something of a privilege to have an official invitation to attend as part of an audience that included such luminaries as Beltrán Domecq and other well known figures.

The sherry tasting, led by Pepe Ferrer and Carmen Aumesquet, included a Fino, an Oloroso, and a sherry cocktail, and live music was by Los Quiero, who specialise in music from the sixties and seventies. Nice to hear one or two old favourites from the days of my youth.

With perfect weather for sitting out of doors this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and I hope to be going to more of these events through the summer.

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The Reales Alcazares of Seville

The Reales Alcazares, or Royal Palaces, of Seville is the oldest working palace complex in Europe (that is, it’s still an official royal residence, though actually infrequently with the royals in residence), and one of the most important heritage monuments in Spain. Not surprisingly, then, it’s at the top of many people’s “Things to see in Seville” list, especially since it became the locale for the filming of the Water Gardens of Dorne sequences in the hugely popular Game of Thrones TV series.

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Entrance to the Mudejar Palace

In the present day there are two palaces, the more famous Mudejar Palace built by Pedro I, “The Cruel”, in the 14th century, and the Gothic Palace originally built by Alfonso X, “The Wise”, at the end of the 13th century, but substantially rebuilt following damage caused by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Behind these are the gardens, with both small formal gardens close to the palaces, and larger gardens in both formal and informal styles beyond them.

The first palace on the site was built in 913 by the city governor for the Córdoba caliphate. The palace is long gone, but the walls of the enclosure are still there – they’re the rather forbidding walls you see in the Plaza del Triunfo and Plaza de la Alianza. In the later Moorish periods there was a positive frenzy of building and rebuilding, of which little now remains except the Patio de Yeso. Most of the palaces were levelled to create the space for the Christian period palaces.

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Patio de la Montería

Entrance to the complex is from the Plaza del Triunfo through the Lion gate, an outer courtyard, and a section of old Moorish wall, into the Patio de Montería, the spacious paved courtyard in front of the Mudejar Palace. The name (literally the courtyard of mounting) comes from the fact that this is where the court would assemble to go hunting.

The building to the right, with the windowed gallery on the first floor, was originally part of the Casa de la Contratación, founded in 1503 to control all aspects of the trade with the Indies, and includes the Hall of the Admiral and the Audience Hall, which are hung with paintings and tapestries, and a room with an internationally important collection of fans.

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Courtyard Garden

In the corner of the courtyard between this and the palace are the stairs that lead up to the modern day Royal Apartments, where the Audience Chamber and Pedro I’s bedroom are the highlights. Entrance for the guided tours is extra, and because of the limited capacity you should try to book ahead.

The main attraction, though, is undoubtedly the Mudejar Palace of Pedro I, built in the 1360s, and considered one of the best examples of late Moorish architecture in Spain (although commissioned in the Christian period, many of the craftsmen and artists who created its spectacular tiles and intricate ceilings were Moorish “Mudejars”, either those who remained in Seville after its conquest by Ferdinand III, but some provided by the Muslim Emir of Granada).

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Patio de las Doncellas

If you turn left at the entrance a passageway brings you almost at once to the central courtyard, the Patio de las Doncellas or Courtyard of the Maidens, named for the legend that the former Moorish rulers had exacted a tribute of Christian maidens for their harems. A long rectangular pool is flanked by sunken gardens (part of the original layout only revealed relatively recently after several centuries concealed beneath a later marble floor) and covered colonnades of pillars and arches to provide shade from the summer sun. It would be easy to rest here for a while in the peace and quiet (when it’s not too busy!), but we must pass on to the far end of the courtyard and the spectacular Hall of Ambassadors, once Pedro’s throne room, with its domed ceiling representing the universe and the stars.

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Mezzanine and upper Gallery, Patio of the Dolls

Around these public areas of the palace are arranged the royal quarters, including the Patio of the Dolls (the mezzanine and upper gallery were added in the 19th century for Isabela II, and include decorations brought from the Alhambra), and the Prince’s Room. The rooms facing the gardens have windows partly masked by vegetation, and are often bathed in an almost surreal greenish glow.

From the corner of the Patio de las Doncellas a stairway leads up to the halls of Carlos V, which are actually the remodelled upper rooms of the old Gothic Palace. Here you can find a number of magnificent tapestries of historical scenes, and windows overlooking the gardens which will be instantly recognisable to all Game of Thrones fans. The Patio de las Cruces was once the upper part of the courtyard of one of the Moorish palaces, but the ground floor was later filled in. The original was planted with orange trees whose fruit could be plucked from the galleries of the upper level.

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Baths of Doña Maria de Padilla

Behind the palaces are the gardens. Closest to the palace are the smaller formal gardens with fountains and pools. From one of these a passage under the Gothic palace takes you to the Baths of Doña Maria de Padilla (used to store rainwater for the gardens), which are one of my favourite places in the entire complex. The vaulted ceilings, muted sounds and filtered light create a unique, almost other-worldly atmosphere. Nearby is the famous Pool of Mercury, with its water spout coming from the roof of the palace, and its sleek carp swimming in the depths. Alongside is the Gallery of Grotesques, a renaissance period feature created from the wall of one of the earliest Moorish palace enclosures. The gardens on the other side are 19th and 20th century creations, but none the worse for that, and a great view of them, especially the Poets Garden, can be had from the upper walkway of the Grotesques. Other things to watch out for are the Carlos V Pavilion, the Lion Pavilion, and the Maze.

The way out of the Palace is through the apeadero (where visitors would alight from their carriages) to the Patio de las Banderas (the courtyard of the flags, the reception point for ambassadors). Resist the temptation to go straight back to the cathedral and instead turn right and right again into the Calle de la Juderia. It’s the start of a whole new adventure….

La Plaza de la Virgen de Los Reyes

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Plaza Virgen de los Reyes

Behind the cathedral in Seville you can find one of the prettiest and most iconic squares in the world, the Plaza Virgen de Los Reyes. With the fountain and baroque street light in the centre, and surrounded by exceptional buildings – the Cathedral and Giralda Tower, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the old Hospital of Santa Marta, it’s a hub of activity and a principal meeting place for both residents and visitors. During the day this is the main departure point for the horse drawn carriage rides; at dusk, come here to enjoy the deep, dark blue of the evening sky behind the Cathedral, and the wheeling and crying of the hunting swallows. Later, come to look at the Giralda lit up at night, a sight you won’t want to miss, and which never fails to take my breath away.

As you might expect, this place has a long, complex and fascinating history. The Phoenicians, sailing from their home cities of Byblos, Tyre and Sidon to trade with lands as distant as the British Isles, established a small settlement just up the hill close to three thousand years ago, probably mooring their boats in the river channel that then ran along what is now the Avenida de la Constitución. Hercules, credited with being one of the founders of the city, is the Greek name for one of the Phoenician gods. The Romans conquered the city in 206 BC, and by the middle of the 1st century BC it had grown enough for Julius Caesar, then governor of Spain, to build its first stone walls, for which he is credited as the city’s second founder. These walls actually ran along the edge of what is now the square, just in front of the Cathedral. Under the corner of the Archbishop’s Palace there are still some remains of the Roman baths, positioned so that the waste water would drain outside the walls, though it’s not possible to visit them.

Time passed. The Roman empire tottered and fell, and after six centuries as a Roman city, Seville (and the rest of Spain) were left to their own devices. Some of the Germanic tribes who had helped destroy Rome crossed the Pyrenees and headed into Spain. One of these, the Vizigoths, seduced by promises of endless sunshine and undeterred by the lack of towels, set up their own kingdom. Shortly afterwards Christianity arrived, and before long the Vizigoths were involved in civil wars fuelled by a heady mix of personal rivalry and religious differences. The disunity paved the way for the conquest of Spain by the Moors, newly converted to a militantly expansive Islam.

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The Giralda Tower

Their first arrival, in 711, was probably intended as a raid, but after the Vizigothic king was killed and his army routed the following year, Spain lay open to invasion. For most of the period to the early 11th century Seville was under the control of the Caliphate of Cordoba. The first administrative buildings on the site of the Alcázar fortress palace were built in the 8th century, as was the little mosque (now the chapel of the Encarnación convent) at the entrance to Plaza Santa Marta, but with the collapse of the Caliphate Seville gained its independence, its first Royal Alcazar, and rebuilding of the city walls. The biggest changes, though, came in the 12th century. In order to accommodate a growing population the new Almohad dynasty needed both a new Grand Mosque, and more living space. A new western wall was built closer to the river, and on the site of the modern cathedral the Moors built a new Grand Mosque and a minaret, now the Giralda Tower, that is the square’s (indeed Seville’s) best known and best loved building.

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The Archbishop’s Palace

1248, and the Christian conquerors led by Ferdinand III entered the city. At first there was probably little outward change in appearances. The mosque was reconsecrated as a cathedral, and some houses on the north side of the square were given to the new Archbishop as a residence. Over the next 500 years these would gradually be transformed into the grand Palace we see today, with the impressive entranceway, the last part to be built, being added in the 18th century. In fact, until this time, the square as an open space did not exist, being occupied by a number of buildings belonging to the church and used for administration. The enclosure around these buildings was known as the Corral de Los Olmos, the Courtyard of the Elms, after the Virgin of the Elms who can still be seen in a little niche on the side of the Giralda Tower. This is the name by which Cervantes referred to it, as can be seen by the plaque on the wall behind the statue of the Pope.

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The Virgin of the Elms

Also founded at the time of the Christian conquest was the Jewish quarter, separated from the rest of the city by a wall that ran along the back of the square. The wall was probably destroyed after the great Pogrom of 1391, as the Hospital of Santa Marta (now the Convent of the Encarnación) was founded here in 1404. In 1401 the decision was taken to demolish the old mosque and build a new cathedral on the site, which was to be so grand that “when people see it they will think we were mad”, in the words of a member of the Cathedral chapter. It was finally completed in 1526, and is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Shortly afterwards a campanario (belfry) and weathervane were added to the minaret.

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At the beginning of the 18th century the demolition of the church buildings in front of the Palace and the hospital created something approximating the square we know today, a process completed by the remodelling and widening of the entrance to Mateos Gago street, and the addition of the fountain and street lamps in the centre of the square as part of the preparations for the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition.

There can be few places as apparently timeless as the Plaza of the Virgin of the Kings, yet with so much change and history.

Seville’s Golden Age

In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

This was the pivotal moment in the history of one of Europe’s oldest cities which would propel it from modest national importance to being the richest city in Europe, a position that it would maintain for the next two centuries thanks to the monopoly of the Americas trade granted to the city by royal decree in 1503.

This monopoly was regulated and enforced by the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade), which collected a 20% tax (the quinto) on all goods entering Spain, as well as other taxes and levies, and had to approve all voyages of trade and exploration, trade routes and the like. This information was updated and preserved in the Padrón Real, the official, and secret, map of the networks of Spanish trade and empire around the world, a major undertaking that employed Spain’s best cartographers. The casa also trained and licensed captains and navigators. From 1543 it worked in conjunction with the Consulado de Mercaderes, the Merchant Guild of Seville, through which most of the wealth from the New World was channelled.

As the money flowed in the city began to acquire the trappings of wealth. The Cathedral, by some reckonings the largest church in the world, was completed in 1526, and the 1560s saw the addition of a belfry and a statue, the Giraldilla, representing Faith, to the Moorish minaret. In the Plaza San Francisco the city’s secular authorities were housed in a new town 1-01-photo 1 (4)hall, the Casa Consistorial (1527-1564), usually known as the Ayuntamiento, with its ornate plateresque decoration and the arcade that gave access to the Franciscan friary which occupied the whole of what is now Plaza Nueva. In the later years of the century the Real Audencia, a court of the Castilian crown, was built on the other side of the Plaza San Francisco, with the Royal Prison on the corner of Sierpes street (the site is now occupied by a bank). Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, was for a short time “a guest of His Majesty” here. 1-02-photo 2 (4)From the same period are the Archivo General de Indias, built originally as the Casa Lonja or commodities exchange, and now the third of Seville’s World Heritage buildings, the Casa Moneda (Royal Mint), where silver from the New World was minted into coin, and the Hospital de Cinco Llagas (the Five Wounds), which is now the home of the Andalucian Parliament. At the same time many churches, monasteries and convents, as well as private palaces of the aristocracy and merchants all over the city were built or elarged.

With that kind of money came not only lavish building projects, but patronage of the arts. Seville’s Golden Age came to its full fruition in the 17th century Baroque School, among whom were such luminaries as Francisco Herrera, Diego Velazquez, Bartolomé Murillo and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as sculptors like Pedro Roldán and Juan Martinez Montañes (the God of Wood). Many of their works can be seen in the Fine Arts Museum and other museums around the city.

Although work actually started on it before the discovery of America, Seville’s university, which grew out of the Dominican schools of the previous century, also belongs to this period, with Papal authorisation for its courses being granted in 1505. It was installed in buildings near the Puerta Jerez, where the street named for its founder, Maese Rodrigo, can still be found. All that remains today is the little Mudejar chapel at the end of the Avenida de la Constitución. In 1771 the university moved to another of the important buildings of the time, the College of the Annunciation of the Professed House of the Society of Jesus, and the Church of the Annunciation next door, on the corner of Plaza de la Encarnación, were both built in the 1550s.

This explosion of wealth and culture has left a lasting mark on the modern city, as many of its buildings and artworks are still preserved, and can be seen on a walk around the city. For me, it’s possibly the most beautiful, fascinating, and culturally rich cities in the world.

“Who has not seen Seville has not seen a marvel.”

The New Seville Aquarium

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If you’re coming to Seville on holiday, there’s no shortage of interesting things to see and do, from sightseeing the monuments and exploring the old city, to museums and art galleries, flamenco, and of course, eating, drinking and people watching in the bars and cafes. But as from last week, after a long period of planning and construction, and numerous delays, Seville has a new attraction that extends the range of things to do.

The Seville Aquarium has some forty tanks, holding about 400 different species of marine life, from flotillas of small, brightly coloured tropical fish to ominously cruising sharks, from urchins to octopus, and even giant crabs and turtles. Conceptually, it follows the path of Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the world (which began in Seville in 1519), and the different creatures he would have found on the voyage. There’s a soothing fascination to watching the fish glide around their tanks, and although it’s on a relatively modest scale it’s a great way to spend an afternoon – especially for kids on a wet or very hot day.

I was fortunate enough to have an invite to the press opening. So here are some photos of my sneak preview of the Seville Aquarium.

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Seville Aquarium

Calle Santiago Montoto (Puerto las Delicias) s/n

Opening hours Mon-Thur 10am to 7 pm (Nov-Feb) 10am-8pm (Mar-Oct) Fri- Sun 10am – 9pm (10pm Mar-Aug)

Tickets €15 adults €10 children, disabled, pensioners. Discounts for families and groups.

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.

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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.

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.