Seville is worth a visit for its cuisine alone. Not for its fine dining restaurants, perhaps, but because it is the home of tapas. Tapas was invented in Andalucía, the Spanish region of which Seville is the capital. The word tapa is derived from the old Spanish custom of covering (tapando) a wine glass with a small, complimentary plate of bread or ham before serving it at the bar to a thirsty, hungry customer. Today it has come to mean snack or light bite, although you can also order tapas dishes as a ración – a larger plate of food.
Visiting Seville for the first time, as I did in the scorching heat of August, you are struck by just how much time the locals – Sevillanos – spend in and around the city’s 4,000 or so tapas bars, eating local delicacies and chatting with friends and strangers over a glass of the region’s fortified wine, jerez – sherry to us Brits. There is little point trying to decide which are the best of the bodegas (which literally translated means ‘stores’) and tabernas (taverns) where tapas are served. None will win a Michelin star – this is nearer to street food than nouvelle cuisine and, in any case, there is simply so much choice that comparisons are rendered meaningless. One taberna might do a hearty dish of chorizos al vino (spicy sausages in red wine) or garlicky snails, while another might have a fresher catch of chipirones (baby squid) that day. It really is a question of taste.
In the older, traditionally authentic tapas bars, the changing menus are chalked up daily on a blackboard, while in the touristy streets the menus become more formulaic and are printed in translation for the aid of the city’s many visitors. Don’t be put off the tourist-friendly restaurants, however, as the locals all happily roam from one tapas bar to another regardless. In fact they have a verb for it: to tapear. In many of the bodegas and tabernas, legs of jamon Iberico (ham) hang on the walls, ready to be cut into wafer thin slices and served with a sherry or a cold beer at lunch time. When it comes to sherry a chilled glass of the pale and dry Fino, or a slightly darker and not quite so dry Manzanilla, are the most popular – so forget about the Bristol Cream! The local red wines, which are usually served chilled in summer, are also worth a try.
Feast Eor the Eyes
So, yes, Seville is certainly a place where you can eat, drink and be merry. But Seville is also a feast for the eyes and the centre, especially the old Jewish quarter of Barrio de Santa Cruz, is clean, quaint and beautiful – with ‘wrought iron gates, Arcadian patios and tinkling fountains’ as a letter from John Cornelius poetically describes it. Legend has it that the city was founded by none other than Hercules and, since the mythical Greek hero’s time, the Romans and the Moors have claimed Seville as theirs. It has been called the New Jerusalem, the Babylon of the West and the Capital of Happiness. That last name is fitting.
Spending a weekend in Seville, you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s something just that little bit more archetypically Spanish about the city than the country’s other famous travel destinations. There are many reasons why this could be the case. Maybe it’s because Seville is the home of flamenco – a sound you’ll hear frequently as you explore the city’s parks and plazas. Or maybe it’s because the city’s cathedral houses the tomb of Spain’s great explorer and the discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus. Maybe it’s the gory pageant of the corrida – the bullfight – at Spain’s most fêted bullring, La Maestranza. Maybe it’s the trees full of oranges,
too bitter for modern tastes, which are used to make the world-famous Seville marmalade.
The city centre is a delight to explore and can easily be covered without the aid of public transport. There are pedestrianised shopping areas with the high-street stores you will find in any European city, but Seville comes into its own in the wide, formal avenues, the squares and the pretty whitewashed lanes of Santa Cruz, which is near the focal point of the cathedral with its bell tower, La Giralda and the Alcázar palace. Many of the city’s famous parks and buildings are only a short distance from each other.
The Plaza de San Francisco, with the cathedral bell tower in view and a host of tapas bars just round the corner near the Plaza Nueva, is a good place to start any tour. The cathedral is mammoth in scale. Completed in 1517 it is claimed by some to be the largest church in the world – bigger in volume than even St Peter’s in the Vatican. The central nave rises to a staggering 43 metres in height, chapels brim with ornate silverwork and marble, and there are works by Spanish Old Masters. Many people are drawn to climb the Giralda bell tower, which was formerly a minaret for fantastic views.
The city motto: ‘She has not abandoned me’
The motto of Seville, which you will see around the city adorning everything from flags and lampposts to manhole covers, is ‘NO8DO’. The ‘8′ is actually the shape of a skein of wool, which in Spanish is translated as madeja. The motto is pronounced as No madeja do, which is a play on the sentence, No me ha dejado, or ‘she (the city) has not abandoned me (the king)’.
According to one legend the motto refers to the city’s support of King Alphonse X in a 13th-century war with his son, Don Sancho. Another tells that Ferdinand III uttered the words after expelling the Moors in 1248.
Next stop is the Alcázar – the fortress palace of Pedro I. The palace complex is mainly Moorish in design – or, to be precise, Mudéjar in design. The Mudéjares were muslims who were allowed to stay in the city following the city’s conquering by Christians in the 13th century. A pretty series of courtyards and passageways leads you from the Alcázar to the palace’s Italianate gardens, where the breeze rustles the leaves of palm trees and the sound of those tinkling fountains and cicadas fills the air.
From the gardens, across a wide avenue, is the huge Plaza de España with its tiled murals depicting the 40 different regions of Spain. Under a beating sun, a handful of street vendors sell shawls and hand-painted fans, there is the echoing clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages taking tourists on sightseeing trips, and a group of buskers sing flamenco, backed with the strum of a guitar and the click of castanets.
No trip to Seville would be complete without a look at the Maestranza bullfighting ring, even if you don’t want to witness the grisly action. The streets around the Maestranza are evocative of a timeless, almost fairytale Spain, and are legendary as the setting for Bizet’s opera of gypsies and murderous revenge, Carmen. People still flock to Seville to see the matadors and toreadors in action. Others come for the Semana Santa – the Holy Week beginning on Palm Sunday, with sombre, black-clad processions – and the Feria de Abril, a lively and colourful festival that follows the Semana Santa. But my visit was for tapas, so, let’s eat.
On the menu
If you are used to the kinds of tapas served in many British restaurants, be prepared for something a little different – a phrasebook will definitely help! Boquerones (white anchovies) are popular, calamares (squid) come stuffed, fried or battered. Empanadillas are small fried pasties, usually stuffed with tomato and tuna. Then there is fritura de pescado, flash-fried fish of varieties found off the Andalucía coast, and gambas al ajillo – succulent garlic prawns. Ortiguillas are deep-fried sea anemones (a local favourite), while a plate of puntillitas fritas turned out to be a mountain of deep-fried tiny squid, each only two centimetres long.
If you’re not a fan of seafood, or if you are vegetarian, then the selection of tapas is more limited, but there are still choices to go with that glass of Fino. Often, the first thing to arrive at the table is a complimentary bowl of the local fruity green olives – a proper, ‘free’, tapa, then. Ordering queso curado brings a plate of well-matured Spanish Manchego cheese and patatas ali oli are potatoes in a creamy garlic mayonnaise. Two regional favourites should also be tried.
Espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas) is a deeply savoury Andalucían favourite, while a bowl of gazpacho (cold tomato soup) is a classic summer staple and a perfectly refreshing dish for a warm evening. Vegetarians be warned: meat and fish often crops up in dishes where it is not listed. We ordered a tortas de berenjenas (deep fried aubergine) and it arrived as parcels of aubergine, each containing a plump, pink prawn. Which is a little bit how you might feel after eating all that tapas under the Seville sun.
Each season brings its own benefits to Seville. In the spring there is the orange blossom and the festivals. Summer is very hot but, as many Sevillanos escape to the coast for a few weeks in July and August, it makes for a quieter, roomier city. Even in winter the temperatures remain quite a bit higher than those in the UK, which means it’s an attractive proposition for a winter break, too. ‘Sultry, brooding and exotic,’ as John Cornelius describes the city, it’s difficult not to envy those lucky Sevillanos more-ish cuisine and culture.
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Kristel van Winkel
Great Hotels of the World
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