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Sampling Seville

The poet Lord Byron once referred to Seville as a city famed for its oranges and women; today’s visitors might add tapas, flamenco, sub-tropical climate and world-renowned festivals to this list. Lucia Cockcroft shows us why this is a city ripe for discovery


Certainly, few who spend some time in Spain’s great southern city come away indifferent, despite being the country’s fourth largest city – with a population of 720,000 – Seville manages to feel manageable and laid-back, its captivating old town, pedestrianised streets and rich Moorish past amounting to a seductive proposition.

Depending on the purpose of your visit, April can be a fascinating time to come: this month hosts the city’s two world famous festivals, Abril Feria (April Fair) and Semana Santa, a blazing spectacle of colour, noise and life.

But if business is your sole reason for the visit, beware: April is the month that hotels and restaurants fill to bursting point and the cost of a room spirals.

Festivals aside, Seville is also Spain’s third most important business tourism destination: in the fourth quarter of 2005, 17 percent of total visitors were business or congress visitors, according to the tourist board.

The city is a popular choice for conferences, conventions and incentive trips, its infrastructure improved for the Universal Exposition, held here in 1992. Regular AVE trains, which are fast and slick, connect Seville to Madrid, in under three hours, and a host of airlines – including BA and Ryanair from London – fly to and from the San Pablo airport, 12km from the city centre.

One of the improvements made for the ’92 Expo was the building of Palace de Exposiciones y Congresos, a major conference and exhibition venue on the outskirts of the city. A multi-purpose hall seats 600, with up to six auxiliary rooms for between 50 and 175 people. There’s also a large meeting room, VIP lounge and restaurants seating up to 200.

The year 2010 is set to see the centre expand: plans are afoot to extend it so that it can stage European and international conferences for over 6,000 delegates.

Four-star hotels are plentiful: in 2005, 36 fell into this category, amounting to 5342 rooms. The five-star list is far smaller, at four hotels in total, or 685 hotel rooms.

If the company’s budget permits, try and reserve a room in Alfonoso XIII, built in 1928 to be one of Europe’s most luxurious hotels. It has since played host to royal families and heads of state across the world, its 147 rooms furnished in Moorish, Castillian or Baroque style.

It’s easy to wile away spare time in Seville: as the regional capital of Andalusia, sights are plentiful and the city is a delight to explore on foot, though the searing heat of the summer months makes a siesta a wise – some would say necessary – pastime.

First stop, and home to most of the sights, should be the old town, the Barrio Santa Cruz, a former Jewish ghetto, where every street comes with its own romantic legend.

Even in high summer, when the sun penetrates every other corner of the city, this area offers some respite – the tall whitewashed buildings throw long shadows across the tiny streets, filtering out the sun. If the heat permits, mid afternoon, during siesta-time, can be an especially rewarding time to wander, the streets empty apart from some ally cats and a few tour groups.

The best plan when touring the Barrio Santa Cruz is really not to have one: chances are, the labyrinthine streets will make a mockery of your sense of direction anyway. Put the map away and wander randomly, stopping for some tapas in one of the numerous bars (though don’t come before 2pm for lunch, or 9pm in the evening – Spaniards eat and play late), or loitering in a shady patio.

Deep in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz there are a few buildings not to miss, however: notably the Hospital de los Venarables, containing Sevillian works of art, and the striking mansions of the Calle Lope de Rueda.

It’s likely you’ll emerge, blinking, from the old town to the central square housing Seville’s cathedral – a vast, imposing structure and possibly the largest gothic building in the world.

Taking over a century to finish, it was built after a group of religious fanatics decided to construct a church so wonderful that “those who come after us will take us for madmen”. The cavernous interior, pleasantly cool in the summer, contains 44 chapels, painstakingly carved altarpieces, and, so it’s claimed, the remains of Christopher Columbus.

Seville’s Moorish legacy can be sampled at a very different building, the Alcazar, a seventh-century palace-fortress seemingly tailor-made for the operas of Carmen or Figaro. The city was a favourite base for the Spanish kings for around four centuries – and the fourteenth century ruler Pedro the Cruel lived and ruled from this building.

Pedro’s legacy remains, as he ordered a rebuilding of the palace, using fragments of earlier Moorish buildings in Seville, Cordoba and Valencia. It now harbours some of the best surviving examples of Mudejar architecture – the style developed by Moors working under Christian rule. The willowy, enchanting gardens of the Alcazar, with their tall palms and abundance of orange trees, are worth at least an hour’s exploration on their own.

Maria Luisa Park is another spot in which to linger, with one of the loveliest parks in Europe, this half-mile area to the south of the city is studied with orange trees, palms, elms and Mediterranean pines, the dazzling flower beds dotted among pavillions and ponds. It feels sub-tropical and exotic; more like north Africa than Europe.

If time permits, the Triana area – on the other side of the Guadalquivir River – is a fascinating place to stroll; it has a feisty, quirky character a world away from the well-trodden streets of the Barrio Santa Cruz.

Traditionally the gypsy quarter, Triana retains a slightly scruffy, bohemian feel, but it oozes character, and is the home of some of the city’s best ceramic shops and a host of tapas bars.

Rumour has it that this is the best area in the whole of the city to catch some authentic flamenco, away from the Barrio Santa Cruz, where some of the shows offering ‘genuine’ flamenco are anything but. To maximise the chance of experiencing some of the elusive real stuff, come late (ideally not before midnight) and seek a bar full of locals. You could strike lucky.

If that sounds too much like hard work perhaps it’s best to follow the lead of the Sevillianos: find a spare bench and relax while the life of the river, with its volleyball players and rowers, passes you by.

En route to Triana, overlooking the river, you’ll pass the thirteenth century Torre del Oro (‘tower of gold’), part of the original Moorish city foundations. It now houses a maritime museum containing drawings depicting Seville at its heyday.

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