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

 

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.

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.

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.”

Seville | Don Juan

After Cervantes knight errant Don Quixote, Spain’s most famous literary figure is surely Don Juan de Tenorio. The protagonist of countless poems, books and most famously of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, he is normally portrayed as a heartless womaniser and bragadoccio, and it as a notorious libertine that his name has passed into the popular imagination. In most versions of the story he comes to a much-deserved bad ending, being dragged away to hell by the statue of the father of one of the women he had tried to seduce, who he had killed in a duel.

But was there ever any such person? The Don is often said to be modelled on the historical Miguel de Mañara (1627-1679), and both his birthplace in Calle Levies and the Charity Hospital La Caridad, where as senior brother he made his name for charitable work among the city’s poor, feature in Seville City of Opera’s Ruta de Don Juan. However, since Tirso Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, the first known literary work about Don Juan, appeared in 1630, when Mañara was just three years old, this connection has to be dismissed as a later fancy, possibly intended to discredit the brotherhood.

don juanStatue of Don Juan in the Plaza de los Refinadores

There is a more likely candidate. In the 14th century a prominent noble family with the name de Tenorio lived in Seville (their house was on the site of what is now the Convento de San Leandro). During the reign of Pedro I “The Cruel” one Juan de Tenorio supported Henry of Trastámara in his bid to seize the throne, but was discovered and forced to flee. Beyond the name, there is nothing to suggest that the later stories were based on the personality or activities of the original, though they may have been intended to blacken the name of an opponent of the king, and to be a morality tale of the consequences disloyalty.

Beyond doubt, though, the character of Don Juan is Sevillano through and through. The connection is celebrated with a commemorative statue erected in 1975 in the Plaza de los Refinadores. The Hostería del Laurel, which features in Zorrilla’s 1844 play, is in the Plaza Venerables, and nearby is the Plaza Doña Elvira, named for the only woman who truly loved him. In some versions she is called Doña Ines de Ulloa, and a family of that name is known to have lived in the Plaza in the 16th century. The tomb of the original Don Juan is said to have been in the Franciscan Monastery, which formerly occupied what is now the Plaza Nueva.

A Brief History of Tapas

We probably all know what tapas are (if you don’t they are those little plates of food that come with your drink, popular all over Spain, particularly in Andalusia, and even more particularly in Seville, the “home of tapas”). But why are they called “tapas”, how did they originate and why have they become such an integral part of the lifestyle?

wine glasses and tapasThe first of these questions is relatively simple. In Spanish a “tapa” is a lid or cover, and the story is that tavern keepers would give their customers a slice of bread or ham to cover their drinks to keep out the dust and the flies (fruit flies are partial to a bit of sweet wine or sherry). It’s also possible that something strongly flavoured, like cheese, could be used to disguise the taste of poor quality wine.

This is also part of the answer to the second question, but not by any means the whole story. The most general reason probably goes back to Spain’s agricultural past. In the summer heat workers in the fields would start early, but the main meal of the day would be eaten just before the hottest part of the day, and was followed by the siesta, so to keep them going during the long mornings they would eat small snacks.

1-jamon ibericoThis is also a tale of three kings (but not The Three Kings). It is said that when the 13th century king Alfonso X “The Wise” became gravely ill his recovery was aided by eating small quantities of food and drink throughout the day, instead of full meals, while Felipe III in the early 17th century decreed that tavern keepers had to serve food with their drinks as a measure to combat the problem of drunkenness, especially among off duty soldiers and sailors. Later Alfonso XII (or possibly Alfonso XIII, an indication that the story may be apocryphal) is claimed to have been visiting a tavern in Cádiz and was served his drink with a slice of ham to keep out the sand blowing in from the beach. When he ordered another drink he asked for it with “the cover”. Over time the food that was served became more varied and more substantial, and going out for tapas became a common practice. The activity is also a very social one, and families and groups of friends would share their tapas while socialising, making this a very convivial activity in a way that is unusual for a more formal meal.

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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.