The Archive of the Indies

Entrance to the Archivo

El Archivo General de Indias (General Archive of the Indies) is the third, and probably least well known, of Seville’s World Heritage monuments, and is located between the other two, the Cathedral and the Royal Palaces, in one of the most impressive of such groupings anywhere in Europe. The Archive itself was created in 1785 by order of Carlos III, to house all the documents related to the exploration and administration of Spain’s overseas possessions, until then housed in several smaller archives that were no longer large enough to hold the volume of paperwork involved. Today, mauch of the Archive is housed in a second building nearby, but is still an important resource for historians studying the Spanish empire period.

Corridor with vaulted roof

The building itself was originally constructed as a Commodities Exchange, the Casa Lonja de Mercaderes, for the merchants trading with the New World. In the years after Columbus discovered the Americas (1492) Seville was awarded a monopoly of the trade, and the 16th century saw a rapid increase in commercial activity in the city. Because of its central location and proximity to the port, much of this activity went on around the Cathedral, particularly the Puerta del Perdón and the Fuente de Hierro (where the Sagrario church is now), causing considerable friction between the ecclesiastical authorities and the merchants. Eventually, in 1572, a purpose built market was commissioned by Felipe II, and was constructed between 1584 and 1598 according to designs drawn up by Juan de Herrera. Later, in 1717, after the silting up of the river had made it impossible for ships to come upriver to Seville, the market was transferred to Cadiz, and the building became a lodging house, until Carlos selected it as the site for the new archive.

The grand staircase

As we see it today the building is an impressive example of Italian influenced Renaissance arcitecture with a regular and balanced geometry, around a large internal marble floored courtyard. One of its finest features is the grand staircase, added in the late 18th century as part of the conversion programme. The gardens in front of the main entrance are much later, being added in 1928 as part of the creation of what is now the Avenida de la Constitución in preparation for the Spanish – American expo of 1929.

Fountain in the gardens

 

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.

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.

1-photo 1 (1)Mateos Gago Street

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 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.