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.

Three Icons

Three Icons

Pretty much wherever you go in Seville, or in whatever you read about the city, the images of three of its buildingsare inescapable. They appear on postcards, as souvenirs, or decorating the walls of shops, bars and other public places, and have become enduring symbols of the city.

The Giralda Tower

giralda tower at night

The most famous of these buildings is undoubtedly the Giralda, now the bell tower of Seville cathedral, but originally the minaret of the Grand Mosque that occupied the site in the time of the Moors. The tower was built between 1184 and 1198 by the architect Ahmad Ben Baso, and is similar to other famous minarets in Rabat and Marrakech. There are also a number of copies of the tower in the United States, most notably in Kansas City.

The top of the original tower was immediately below where the bells are today, and was surmounted by four copper spheres, but these were lost in the earthquake of 1365, and replaced by a cross and bell. The bell tower and the weather vane that gives the tower its name (girar is Spanish for turn) were added in 1568, making it 104 metres tall.

Inside, the tower is climbed by way of a ramp, rather than stairs, (the muezzin used to ride his donkey to the top to call the faithful to prayer) and whatever else you do in Seville you have to go up and enjoy the view over the rooftops of the city.

The Torre del Oro

torre del oroThat the second of Seville’s visual icons, the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) also dates from late Moorish times is a testament to the importance of this period to the cultural development of the city. The distinctive twelve-sided tower was originally built as part of the city’s defensive system along the Guadalquivir river, when Christian forces began to seriously threaten the Islamic heartland of al-Andalus in the early 13th century, but failed to prevent the city falling to Ferdinand III in 1248.

It’s thought that it got its name from the golden glow of its reflection on the river, though another theory says it was because the tower was used to store gold offloaded from the ships returning from the Americas.

It has survived being used as a gunpowder store, and proposals by the city council to have it demolished. Nowadays it houses a small naval museum, whose entrance, now at road level, could once only be reached by a walkway over an arch whose far end can still be seen just inside the building on the opposite side of the street.

Plaza España

The Plaza España, in Maria Luisa Park, was built as the centrepiece of the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition, and is the masterwork of the architect Anibal González. The plaza with its central fountain and the huge semi-circular facade of the pavilion are instantly recognizable from thousands of postcard pictures, photographs, and films such as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Lawrence of Arabia and The Dictator.

plaza espana

Below the long colonnaded walkway are the alcoves with representations in ceramic tiles of historical scenes from each of Spain’s provinces, and at each end are almost disneyesque towers (unfortunately these are not open to the public to climb, as they would give great views across the park). There is also a boating “lake” spanned by four bridges that lead from the central plaza to the pavilion, and everything is decorated with a profusion of colourful ceramics.

Seville Modern

There are lots of reasons why people choose to come to Seville for a holiday. There’s the sunshine and bright blue skies. There’s the orange trees, especially the heavenly scent of the blossom, and the vibrant colours of the city’s parks and gardens. There’s flamenco, the Spring fair, and the Holy week (and other) processions, and plenty of art and culture. Then there’s the food – the culinary and social phenomenon that is tapas, which is becoming increasingly well-known, and is beginning to be exported to other parts of the world. And, of course, Seville is almost over-endowed with history and historical monuments and the picturesque narrow streets of the old neighbourhoods of the centre of the city.

But as well as all this, Seville is not just a giant postcard, but a place where people live and work, and where the new has to be continuously integrated with the old. This is nothing new. In the tens and twenties the preparation for the 1929 Spanish-American Exhibition involved en extensive programme of urban renewal and renovation, and the 1992 expo (celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America) left its mark on the riverside and the Cartuja skyline. But the real challenge is not building new things, it’s building new things that fit in with what’s there already, and don’t stand out like a sore thumb.

Despite the occassional hiccup, Seville has generally met this challenge remarkably well, and for me there are two examples that everyone should see. The first of these you will certainly find for yourself, as it’s right alongside the World Heritage Centre of the Cathedral, Archivos de India and Alcázar Palace. In some ways, however, it’s quite mundane, and it’s possible you won’t “see” it. I’m talking about the Avenida de la Constitución, the main street that runs in front of the cathedral, and its extension into Calle San Fernando. The first impression is of a classic modern European avenue, with a sleek new tram system and pavement cafés, lined with the ubiquitous Seville orange trees. But look around and you can see the old Seville alongside the new. Here are the Cathedral (15th century), the Archivos de India (17th century), the Tobacco Factory (18th century), and a number of neo-Mudejar style buildings of the early 20th century, all living together as if part of a single grand design.

The second example is a new building. The Metropol Parasols (or The Mushrooms as they are known locally) were completed just two years ago, and are the world’s biggest wooden structure (although Colossos comes pretty close). This fantastical, almost ultra-modern edifice swoops and curves above the Plaza de la Encarnación in the city centre, and houses Roman ruins, a provisions market, and up on the roof a complex of bars and walkways with stunning views. Naturally, it’s been controversial, but I like to think that the modern builders were moved by the same spirit that moved one of the creators of the Cathedral, who said “Let us build a cathedral so immense that everyone on beholding it will take us for madmen.”

Murillo Exhibition at Los Venerables

Right in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz, in a charming little square of the same name, is the Hospital de Los Venerables Sacerdotes (Hospital of the Venerable Priests), founded in 1673 by the dean of Seville Cathedral, Justino de Neve, as a home for sick and retired priests, and used for this purpose until the late 1970s. Apart from being quite big, it’s nothing particularly special from the outside, but like so many buildings in Seville the treasures, both arquitectural and artistic, are on the inside, looking away from the troubles of the world outside.

Today Los Venerables is an important museum of the Barroque period (roughly, the 17th century) in Seville, and brings together some of the works of the most gifted artists and architects of that period. It was designed by Leonardo de Figueroa, who also worked on the San Telmo Palace, the Fine Arts Museum, and the Church of Santa María Magdelena, and features an unusual central patio with elevated arcades and a sunken central fountain. The complex includes a church that is surely one of Seville’s hidden jewels. Although modest in size, with only a single nave, the harmony of the shape of the barrel-vaulted roof and the decorations and other artworks, principally by Juan de Valdés Leal makes this a very special place.

In rooms that were once the home of ageing priests are the museum’s art collections. The permanent collection focuses on the life and times of Diego Velázquez, and includes both works by Velázquez himself, as well as other important artists of the time.

From October 9 until January 20, 2013 there is also a special exhibition of works by Seville’s most famous painter, Bartolomé Murillo, which has been brought together in collaboration with the Prado Museum of Madrid and London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, and offers a unique opportunity to see them in the city where they were created.

Walls, Gates and Towers

In exploring Seville, you will often come across the terms “The Old Centre” or “Casco Antiguo”, referring to the area inside the city walls, which generally ran just inside what is now the inner ring road.

The first walls were built by the Carthaginians of wood and mud, but it was the Romans under Julius Caesar who built the first stone walls. These were several times destroyed and rebuilt, until work began in 1023 on those we see today. They were finally completed in the early 13th century, including a major westward extension in the 12th century to include the area around the new Grand Mosque (now the Cathedral). The wall was more than 6km long, with 13 gates, 6 postigos (small gates that were not considered as main entrances to the city) and 166 towers. Most of the walls were destroyed in the middle and late 19th century to allow for the expansion of the city.

The two largest remaining sections of the wall that are still standing are those that separated the Alcázar Palace from the city, which you can see in the Plaza del Triunfo and Calle Agua (Water Street, so named for the pipes inside the wall that brought water from the Roman aqueduct into the Alcázar). The Gold and Silver towers, and the Tower of Abd-al-Aziz can also be seen in this southern part of the city.

In the north of the city is the longest surviving piece, between the Macarena Gate (rebuilt in the 18th century), and the Córdoba Gate. This is the best place to see how the walls might have looked to anyone approaching the city.

Also still surviving are the Postigo del Aceite, and the walls around the Jardines del Valle, near the Puerte del Osario, as well as a number of fragments where the walls were incorporated into various buildings around the city. Some of these were only discovered when the buildings were renovated. The names of many of the gates still survive, however, such as the Puerta Arenal, Puerta Carmona and Puerta de la Carne.

Perhaps the most poignant, however, is the short section of wall that you can still see in Calle Fabiola. It’s all that’s left of the internal wall that separated the old Jewish quarter from the rest of the city.

Plaza Nueva and Plaza San Francisco

One of the recurring themes of my interest in Seville is the visual imagination of how the city has changed over the centuries. Because Seville has such a well-preserved centre, with many buildings of great antiquity, it is easy to forget that it didn’t always look the way it does now. Even a bit.

Stand, if you will, at the end of the Avenida de la Constitución, with the Plaza San Francisco on your right, and the Plaza Nueva in front of you, and imagine the scene a thousand years ago. The first thing you notice is that the city walls are behind you, and that there is a small lake in front of you, fed by a branch of the main river running down what is now Calle Sierpes and on into the Arenal. Down to the river is just fields and trees, subject to surprisingly frequent floods. Not for another 150 years will the walls be extended to where we think of them today, much nearer the river. In the space inside the walls behind us, the new Grand Mosque and its minaret, which will later become the Giralda Tower, appear. After the reconquest of 1248, it will be replaced in turn by the Christian cathedral.

There are other changes going on too. Houses have been built to your left, and the lake has been drained. In its place monks have started work on what will become the “Casa Grande” of the Franciscans, which will soon give its name to the open space in front of it – the Plaza San Francisco. The monastery itself will come to occupy the whole of what is now Plaza Nueva and the streets beyond and to either side.

1492, and Columbus has discovered America. With a monopoly on trade with the new world, Seville is rapidly becoming rich. As symbols of its wealth the city acquires a new civic centre around the Plaza San Francisco. A new town hall (ayuntamiento) is built in front of the Casa Grande (the archway on the end of the town hall is the original main entrance to the monastery), followed a few decades later by the Antigua Audiencia (the justice house, now the Cajasol bank building). If you’re unlucky you may see the autos de fé of the inquisition during this and the following century.

The Casa Grande, badly damaged by a fire and general neglect in the Napoleonic era, is finally demolished in the 1840s, the resulting space becomes the Plaza Nueva, and the town hall is given a new facade. But even now there are big changes to come. What is now the Avenida de la Constitución, is still a typical narrow Seville street, but in the early years of the twentieth century it is widened into the modern wide, straight street we see today, familiar buildings like the circular “wedding cake buiding”, the Adriatico, and the Banco de España are built and the first cars and trams appear.

Finally, just a few years ago the whole area was pedestrianised and repaved, and the new tramway installed, resulting in the cityscape we see today.

The Two Towers

view from the Torre de los Perdigones

With the unusual luxury of an otherwise free morning the other day, I had the opportunity to take some time out to do one of my favourite things – exploring some of the more unusual and out of the way parts of Seville.

First port of call was the Espacio Santa Clara, the arts and culture centre that opened last year in the former convent of the same name after some six years of restoration work. That work is still ongoing, but sadly, only slowly, due to lack of funds. I’ve been fascinated by this building for a long time, as I pass the narrow, closed gate in Calle Santa Clara on a regular basis without being able to see inside.

original entrance of Santa Clara convent

One thing I did know was inside was the first of my two towers, La Torre de Don Fadrique. It’s built in three stages in a style called Romano-Gothic, and surprisingly is the only example still standing. According to popular legend it was built about 1255 by the infante Frederick, brother of King Alfonso X, as a love-nest for his mistress, La Doña Juana, who was also his stepmother, the second wife of the previous king, Ferdinand III. The illicit romance was so unpopular that after three years Juana abandoned Seville and returned to France, with Frederick waving his last goodbye from the top of the tower as she set sail. My sources differ as to how much, if any, of this story is actually true. What is certain is that not long afterwards Frederick was executed by his brother, either for the offence against public decency, or, more likely, for treason against the crown.

Either way Frederick’s land around the tower was confiscated, and in 1289 was used for the founding of a Franciscan convent. The current building dates to the 16th and 17th centuries, and the grounds were once much more extensive, the peripheries being sold off to pay maintenance and running costs until the convent finally closed in the mid-20th century.

top of the Don Fadrique tower seen from street

Unfortunately, when we arrived there was a notice on the door saying it was closed until the beginning of September, although on asking the man at the front desk it turned out this just meant that there were no exhibitions showing at the moment, and it was still possible to go into the central patio/cloister and the refectory. Although much of the rest of the building is still derelict, and it’s not possible to go into the orchard patio where the tower is, this area has been lovingly restored, and in September will be the venue for several concerts as part of the Biennal de Flamenco.

From Santa Clara we went to another tower with an interesting, but much shorter, history – La Torre de los Perdigones (The buckshot tower). This was built in the late 19th century as part of a munitions factory (closed in the fifties, and turned into a pretty little park a couple of decades later) and was used for making lead shotgun pellets. The lead was melted in a furnace at the top of the tower and dropped down the centre into a cooling lagoon to solidify them. We went up to the viewing platform just below the top to enjoy the wonderful views over the Cartuja and Macarena from a novel perspective. Although the narrowness of the platform at that height did give me a touch of vertigo, it was still a great experience, and goes to show that there’s more to Seville than just the Cathedral and the Alcázar.

La Monumental

remaining gate of La Monumental

Halfway up Avenida Eduardo Dato, on the corner of Calle Diego Angulo Iñiguez opposite the Buhaira Palace Gardens, stands a short section of apparently functionless wall with a bricked up doorway to a small vacant lot. There’s no plaque, no sign, nothing to say that this is all that remains of the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Sevilla, the city’s ill-fated second bullring, first opened to the public in 1918, closed in 1921, and finally demolished in 1930. The driving force behind its construction was the famous bullfighter José Gómez Ortega ‘Gallito’, also known as Joselito, whose death in the ring on May 16, 1920, was a contributory factor in its closing. In 1915, when construction started, this was a ‘greenfield’ site a short way outside the city. Demolition made way for the new suburbs that now spread out to Nervion and beyond. I knew of the existence of the Monumental before I discovered this, but even such a small piece of its actual physical presence makes it much more real.

The architects were José Espiau y Muñoz and Francisco Urcola Lazcanotegui, whose other works include the Hotel Alfonso XIII, and the Adriática at the end of Avenida Constitución.

La Monumental tapas bar is located on the old site and is filled with bullfighting memorabilia including framed contemporary newsclippings about Seville’s forgotten bullring.