by Anna Selby
Seville is one of those rare cities – Florence is another – where you can expect a casual stroll to yield one delight after another.
Much of Seville’s old city is pedestrianised and perfect for just wandering around on foot, finding architectural treasures around every corner. Street lamps are hung on the walls of the houses; large, ornate and giving out a soft, flattering light.
The houses themselves look decidedly closed from the outside, shuttered and barred, the often massive studded doors firmly shut. If one should be open though, you glimpse a secret world – a marble courtyard open to the sky filled with greenery and usually a splashing fountain.
All of this owes much to Seville’s Moorish heritage. Even the cathedral was once a mosque, its tower a minaret later topped with bells and crosses. Its keyhole windows, though, are still unmistakably arabesque because for seven centuries, Islam ruled in southern Spain.
If their houses are closed, Sevillanos are the opposite.
Even in early March, everyone is out on their evening walk, stopping to chat, take a fino (super-dry sherry) and a small tapa in one bar, before continuing to late night shopping and eventually, much later, dinner.
In Seville, life is lived outdoors and at this time of year it is magical with the air infused with the smell of orange blossom from Seville’s 30,000 orange trees.
In the gardens of Seville’s royal palace, the Alcazar, that scent blends with jasmine, a suitably sensual mix for this palace of delights.
Spanish royalty has historically preferred to hold its big events – such as weddings – here rather than the massive Gothic cathedral, a stone’s throw away.
In all its glorious beauty, it’s filled with fountains, shady courtyards and gardens, while the tiles, the delicate plasterwork, elegant double columns and horseshoe arches represent some of the finest Islamic art you will ever see.
For centuries, Seville was the winter capital of Spain, evidenced in its many smaller palaces in the old town for the nobility.
Many are now hotels, albeit on a smaller scale than the Alcazar, around similar marble courtyards with fountains and greenery, a necessary cooling system in the savage Andalusian summer – a house with a courtyard is 12 degrees cooler than one without.
Back on the city streets and it’s a different world – noisy, filled with shouts and laughter and music. Seville’s a musical place – it has featured in some 138 operas (you’ll see plenty of references to Carmen, Figaro and Don Giovanni) – but the local music is, of course, flamenco.
At the Flamenco Dance Museum, the stage floor is pitted with the marks of the dancers’ shoes – percussive instruments in themselves – and the audience crowds round the tiny stage just big enough for one singer, one guitarist and two dancers. None was in the first flush of youth but they were powerful, passionate performers and you can see the chemistry.
Granada’s Alhambra was built very soon after the Alcazar in Seville but it feels much more of a fortress than a palace.
Strategically situated high above the town, it was the last Moorish kingdom to fall to the reconquistadoresin 1492.
The caliphs who built it must have known their days were numbered but inside the fortified walls they still contrived to build an Islamic paradise on earth – green gardens, cooling fountains, delicate craftsmanship of glass, tiles, wood and plaster.
The plasterwork in particular is remarkable, resembling finely wrought stalactites falling from the ceilings. This effect was intentional and meant to imitate the stalactites of the prophet’s cave, underlining the piety of the Alhambra’s rulers.
In spite of Napoleon’s attempts to blow it up and its decades as a squat for, as my guide described them, “gypsies and vagabonds”, it is still one of the planet’s most iconic buildings, a masterpiece of Islamic art in the heart of Europe.
At night it is lit from below and the limestone walls glow, with the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada turning pink in the sunset behind them.
Cordoba, the last of my Moorish cities, is not visited so much as Seville or Granada but it should be. It has some of the most beautiful courtyards, or patios here, in Andalusia, that have their own festival and competition in May.
The streets and squares are lovely, bars and restaurants spill out on into the open air, there are fascinating museums (flamenco, bullfighting) and magnificent Roman remains.
At its heart is the mezquitaor mosque that has an integrity that even the cathedral rudely inserted in its centre couldn’t destroy.
Its rhythm of slender columns with their double horseshoe arches reaches in every direction, repeating symmetry as far as the eye can see.
Marble and stone, reds and creams are the principal materials but there were, too, ivory and jasper, porphyry, gold, silver and brass.
It is architecture as music and even the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, regretted the additions.
When he visited the completed cathedral installed in the centre of the mosque, he lamented, “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”
But, we will let you decide for yourself.
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