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.

Festival of the Virgen de Los Reyes

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – Seville is big on Virgins. And on August 15 it’s the turn of Seville’s very own Our Lady the Virgin of the Kings, the official patroness of the city.

The stories of the origins of the image, whose actual sculptor is unknown, are a mix of history and legend. According to some she was carved by the angels and after being found by Ferdinand III, accompanied him throughout the reconquest of this part of Spain from the Moors. More prosaically, it is said that the king saw her in a vision, and that the image was made on his orders. Another story is that she was a gift from Ferdinand’s cousin, Louis IX of France. Since the 16th century she has “lived” in the Royal Chapel in the Cathedral.

The celebrations officially extend from August 4 to 22, with special services in the cathedral and viewing of the Virgin, but the highlight is the triumphal procession on August 15, the day of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. The route is short, the procession leaving the cathedral by the gate in the plaza, and doing a single anti-clockwise circuit of the cathedral before entering again by the same gate. It starts early, too, at around 8am, but it’s worth missing your lie-in to go and watch.

The procession is accompanied by many local church and civic dignitaries, a brass band, the pealing of the church bells, and large crowds in the square and surrounding streets. Nowhere does religious processions better than Seville, and the procession of the city’s patron Saint is no exception.

Justina and Rufina – Two very Sevillana Saints

If you’re in, or have ever been to, Seville, you may have noticed pictures of two young ladies in mediaeval dress, surrounded by pottery and supporting a model of the Giralda tower between them. The picture is most probably a reproduction of the painting by Seville’s favourite artist, Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), and the two young ladies are the Saints Justa and Rufina. Although not technically the patron saints of Seville (that honour goes to Ferdinand III, who reconquered the city from the Moors in 1248) they are considered the special protectors of the Cathedral and the Giralda, which they preserved from harm during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and are also patrons of potters and pottery sellers.

justina rufinaAccording to legend they lived in the Triana neighbourhood of Seville in the 3rd century, during Roman times, where they made fine earthenware pottery, a trade by which they supported both themselves and many of the city’s poor. However, they refused to sell what they made for use in one of the city’s pagan festivals, and had all their pots and dishes smashed by angry locals. In retaliation they smashed a statue of the Goddess Venus, and for this crime they were arrested and imprisoned by the Roman prefect Diogenianus.

Unable to persuade them to renounce their Christian faith Diogenianus had them tortured on the rack and with hooks, and then forced them to walk barefoot to the Sierra Morena (a mountain range to the north of Seville). Seeing that their resolve was still unshaken they were deprived of food and water. Justa was the first to die, and her body was thrown into a well. Diogenianus expected that the death of Justa would break Rufina’s spirit, but when it didn’t she was thrown to the lions in the amphitheatre. However, even the lions refused to co-operate and devour her, and Diogenianus finally had her strangled (or possibly beheaded), and her body was burned.

Both bodies were recovered by Sabinus, the bishop of Seville, and given a Christian burial in 287. Their saints’ day is July 19.

A Day in Málaga

Lots of people on their way to Seville or Granada arrive in Spain through Malaga airport. The city has something of a reputation as one of those coastal resorts full of high-rise hotels that grew up during the tourist boom of the sixties and seventies, but although there is an element of truth in this, especially along the coast to the west of the city, the heart of Málaga is quite a different animal, and if you’re passing through it’s well worth taking a day to take a look around.

For a start, this is a city full of history. Apart from the native Iberians, the Phoenicians were the first colonisers in around 770 BC, followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Vizigoths, Byzantines, Moors, and finally, in 1487, the Christians. All these successive peoples, and the fact that Málaga is a port city, have left their mark on the appearance and culture of the city, and helped to make it the vibrant place it is today.

Secondly, it’s beautiful. Sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, with an old centre that mixes the elegant and the picturesque, a castle perched on a hill, and a seafront garden promenade, it has something for everyone.

For an overview (literally), start the day with a coffee or beer on the terrace of the Parador Hotel on the hill above the bullring, and enjoy the stunning panorama of the city before the sun gets too high. It’s the stuff of which picture postcards are made. Tip – take the number 35 bus up from Parque Málaga to the Gibralfaro Castle (also worth a visit), but walk back down the steep hillside path to the Alcazaba, the 11th century Moorish palace-fortress, which while much smaller than the Alhambra, achieves the same combination of luxurious dwelling, peaceful garden and working fortress.

After that, get out and about in the old town. It’s small enough that you can’t get really lost, but it still has the labyrinthine charm that you expect. The Aduana Palace (the old Customs House), containing both the Fine Arts Museum and the Archaeological Museum, the Cathedral, and the Roman Theatre are all within five minutes walk of the Alcazaba. A bit further on is the museum of Málaga’s favourite son, Pablo Picasso (Antonio Banderas is a close second), housed in the delightful Buenavista Palace, where you can also find the 7th century BC Phoenician wall that is the oldest known structure in the city. The house where Picasso was born can be found in the Plaza la Merced, at the end of the city’s “main drag”.

This starts with Calle Granada, which still follows its original serpentine mediaeval course. Near the northern end is the church of Santiago, dating back to just after the Christian conquest, which is a fine example of the Mudejar style of the time, and the southern end is in the Plaza de la Constitución, which has been the city’s main public space and political centre since the 15th century. For art lovers the Thyssen Museum can be found a little way along Calle de la Compañia, one of the streets leading out of the west side of the square. Beyond the square is Calle Larios, which is quite different in character to Calle Granada. It’s Málaga’s main shopping street (now fully pedestrianized), and was built in the late 19th century by cutting a wide swathe through the existing street layout from La Constitución down to the harbour. I think its one of the most elegant streets I know of anywhere.

From the bottom of Larios it’s well worth making a diversion to the recently renovated Atarazanas Market, and taking a stroll among the stalls laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and meat. Take a moment, too, to admire the big stained-glass window at the end of the market hall, with its montage of scenes of the city. The name Atarazanas means shipyard, and in Moorish times the sea came right up to the walls of the building.

No visit to Málaga would be complete without taking a stroll along the promenade of Parque Málaga alongside the harbour, as Malaguenos have been doing for over a hundred years, enjoying the cool shade of the trees and the profusion of subtropical and exotic plants, fountains and statues, that always feels like a haven of tranquility despite the nearby main roads. This part of the harbour has recently been redeveloped with a marina, shops, bars and a small maritime museum.

Other things to do if you have time or are staying longer:

About a half-hour walk eastwards along the beach from the Alcazaba, past the delapidated splendour of the Balnearios del Carmen, is the former fishing district of Pedregalejo. As well as a picturesque boardwalk between the beach and the fishermen’s cottages there are some fabulous fish restaurants that barbecue fish on open fires. My personal favourite is Andrés Maricuchi.

A similar distance out of the centre, but in the opposite direction, is the Automotive Museum, and you don’t need to be a vintage car enthusiast to enjoy this collection of immaculately preserved vehicles that spans the whole of the twentieth century.