I’m watching a freeloader outside a restaurant on a hot day in Seville. A hot day? It could be almost any day in this town. In summer, the temperatures sail past 40C – past 50C at their worst. What to do on days like that? The freeloader knows. Stay in the shade and eat: he (or she) is strutting over hexagonal tiles on the street outside Antigua Abacería de San Lorenzo, pecking at morsels fallen from the canopy of tables above.
Nearby, a baby cries as a boisterous moped hurtles past. A waiter gulps from a perspiring glass of water. They’re trying to do too much – I’m taking the freeloading pigeon’s lead: eating and watching, watching and eating.
San Lorenzo is the kind of place found across Seville, a tapería with tables inside and out, and a menu that seems too affordable for a modern European city. How can roasted Iberian pork loin baked with onion confit be only €3? And a whole puck of goat’s cheese €2? A bottle of rioja here costs as much as a single glass in London. Within a few hours of arriving, Seville makes me resent living in the UK.
Located just west of the popular La Alameda area, San Lorenzo sits in the shadow of an old church, but it is hardly unique in that – there are a great many churches casting a great deal of shade in Seville. Lanes twist and turn, widen and narrow, then explode out to grand thoroughfares and plazas.
Sevillian civilians are understandably delighted with their lot. As well as their wonderful weather and food, it’s a city dedicated to cycling (only Amsterdam has a greater number of cycle lanes) and the sanctity of its historic buildings. Unsurprisingly, UNESCO heavily endorses Seville.
To study the Andalucían capital’s history is to study all of humanity’s. I’m given a crash course while cycling around the city with the excellent Seebybike Tours. As my guide, Justo Lora, explains everything to me, it feels as though every history project I ever did at school rushes back at once.
HISTORY, REAL AND OTHERWISE
Legend has it that the city was founded by the Greek demi-god Hercules, before being further developed by Julius Caesar. Later it was conquered by the Moors, who themselves had to repel Viking raids. The Christians then won the city back from the Islamic invaders, and immediately began preparations to send out conquistadores of their own. Running through the heart of the city, the Guadalquivir River carried them all.
We cross the river to the Triana neighbourhood, then back again, and inside the walled city, Justo tossing historic nuggets over his shoulder as we approach a gigantic cathedral.
With Seville booming, the Catholic kings spent literal fortunes on building the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede. It took 105 years to complete and today is the world’s third largest cathedral. Christopher Columbus planned all four of his transatlantic voyages from Andalucía; each time he returned he’d have noticed the cathedral’s grand roof had grown a little higher. Today he examines it from inside, from the vantage of his golden coffin, in which he is carried aloft by four knights representing Spain’s ancient kingdoms.
Almost all Western history leads back to Seville, real and imagined. The Roman Emperor Hadrian was also born in this province. One day he decided to build a wall at the edge of his vast empire, in a place now called Britain. Over 1,800 years later, a portly American writer stood on that mighty wall and wondered what would compel an unstoppable force like the Romans to build such a barrier. What did they seek to keep out?
Wondering became imagining and the fat man conceived a novel. One book became several books and they became a television series called Game of Thrones, the biggest TV show ever made. Part of its enormity comes from being filmed in locations around the world, fantastic places dressed just a little to become fantasy. Consider Dorne, for example, a hot land of hot people doing hot things. When HBO needed somewhere to play the ornate Dornish capital, where did they come? Why to Seville, of course.
Those scenes were filmed in the very tangible palace complex of Alcázar. Over the labyrinthine history of the city, different rulers indulged varying degrees of cultural and architectural appropriation; temple sites became mosques and they became churches and cathedrals. Today, if you start digging down in any part of the old town, you’re likely to find traces of all three. Seville’s Alcázar is one of the best examples of that. A royal network of gardens, residences, and churches, much of the design is Arabic, yet covered in seals and sigils bearing the images of a castle and a lion.
The quartered coat of arms that represents the united kingdoms of Castile and León was perhaps the first global marketing exercise. It was these symbols Columbus and his sons carried west to a new world. The legendary, doomed explorer Magellan bore them too, from here all the way to the Philippines, where the warrior-king Lapu-Lapu promptly introduced him to the business end of a spear.
As riches returned from the newly plundered Americas, Seville became a city gilded in blood. As my bike bumps along cobbled streets, I see the colours of gold and red are common still, but the cruelty they represent is instead domestic.
Sevillians talk about the romance of the 250-year-old Maestranza bullring, of the heroism of the master matadors, of red blood spilled across orange dust as the merciless sun shines ever on. But whether it’s a fox being ripped apart by an Englishman’s hounds, or neighbourhood kids attaching fireworks to a street cat, or a Spaniard prancing around stabbing a bull, I cannot think of humans torturing other mammals to death as glorious.
Brutally authentic, bullfighting isn’t for tourists – it’s for the city and her traditionalists. If you go, you will see some honest, unvarnished version of Seville. The same is true of flamenco, so long as you know where to look.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Seville annually, determined to see ‘genuine’ flamenco shows in the heart of Andalucía, the dance’s birthplace. In most instances, they’re paying to watch highly trained performers who have rehearsed for years. The dancers’ athleticism and coordination are undeniable, but to see one of those shows is something like going to watch Riverdance in the hopes of seeing local Irish dancing.
Flamenco, at its core, isn’t like that – it’s a barely controlled mayhem for troubled souls with no better outlet for their passion and fury. And it lives on in Seville, away from the stage, away from the box office, in gloriously dilapidated dive-joints like Bar Gonzalo.
Literally held up by scaffolding and together by the community, from the outside it looks like the sort of place you wouldn’t want to enter without someone holding your hand. The Seebybike team are the ones holding mine. The performance is already well underway when we squeeze in and order some drinks. Men are arrayed around a far table, some holding guitars at high angles like soldiers on patrol. Others slap arthritic hands together to keep time. They take turns at singing, their pained expressions mirroring religious iconography behind them. The walls also house portraits of dearly departed dogs, paintings of matadors in fatal full flow, and photos of serious-looking men in suits seriously too large for them. There are ads for beers that haven’t been brewed for decades, and graffiti that appears to have been there just as long.
I’m told this music is the Spanish equivalent of blues: “I can’t understand most of the words, but they’re complaining – about love, about work,” says Justo Lora. Bar Gonzalo is a hot mess, packed full of sweaty Sevillians performing as though their lives depend on it, and as the cold beer splashes into my stomach I wonder if it’s also the greatest bar in the world. I wonder too how long things like this have been going on in Seville – and how long it can all last.
As the music builds, a small scruffy man with thick glasses and a pronounced limp seizes his moment, screeching with minimal skill but maximum commitment. I’m later told that he lost his job when he became partially disabled after jumping from the third-storey window of a burning building. He’s been homeless since. He, then, really does have something to complain about, the broken embodiment of true flamenco.
There was something elemental in his performance, something so obviously authentic that the next morning I find myself unable to think of much else. Seville is well-prepared for mass tourism, but unlike comparable, historically rich European cities (Rome, Edinburgh) it has retained more of its unfiltered essence. The same seems to be true across the surrounding region.
As the heat eases and evening approaches, I head out to Villamanrique, a small village about half an hour west of Seville. For much of the year, this old agricultural community is virtually dormant, but then festival season arrives and all must be ready for what happens next.
The largest is the Feria de Abril, which comes around the same time as Seville’s 40,000 orange trees blossom, the spring breeze perfuming the entire city. The Feria is marked by holidays, revelry, and the gory demise of several bulls. It matters round here, it really does, but out in the countryside, the focus is more on El Rocío and a grand pilgrimage leading almost 60km southwest to a village bearing that name. These annual migrations aren’t mock processions designed to imitate the old days – they are as they have always been. For 700 years, people have marched to El Rocío to worship the Virgin of the Dew.
In Villamanrique, locals are preparing for the great parade by dancing flamenco to an infectious rhythm set by pipe and tabor players. In front of old thatched-roof farm buildings, girls with heavy, expert make-up move to the music, control just winning out over chaos. The artificial flowers in their hair cope admirably as they spin and flourish in the warm dusk. One dancer takes her shoes off to dance barefoot on the grass; another in a polka-dot dress sits atop a horse which appears to dance too. On and on the drums and flutes play. Then, in the middle of it all, a skinny woman with a long neck and huge golden hoops through her ears begins dancing to a slightly different rhythm. The rest stand back in something like awe. “She’s part gypsy,” my guide whispers conspiratorially in my ear.
Gypsy history is important in this region, and nowhere more so than in Triana, the Bohemian neighbourhood on the west banks of the Guadalquivir River. When the Romani were expelled from Seville in the mid-18th Century, they settled here. Before long, their suffering found release in music, and bullfighting, and pottery. Those distinctive blue-and-white ceramics are still found all over the city, covering bridges, decorating palaces. “Triana is a factory of artists,” Justo Lora said to me a couple of days earlier. “All of the greatest dancers and matadors came from here.”
On my last night in Seville, I am alone in Triana, a little unsure what to do with myself. The maze of lanes and avenues doesn’t make planning easy, and while there are attractions on this side of the river (including Santa Ana, the oldest church anywhere in Seville) it’s obviously not as historically rich as within the city walls.
I’m considering heading back to the centre when I turn a corner and am met with a loud parade. A quirk in the alley’s acoustics almost muted it, but now in front of me a 50-strong brass band erupts while drummers hit their skins so hard spectators’ eyes blink involuntarily.
This is all in honour of Catholic children marking their first holy communion, but in this city of festivals, that’s justification enough for music and the parading of a huge paso (float) carried by 10 strong men. The thing is so heavy that they can only manage one song before needing a break. During one such rest, a kid catches a telling-off from her mother for twirling her holy candle like a majorette’s baton, but mostly the parents look on adoringly, cooling themselves with lace fans as incense wafts up the street.
Before long, there’s a knock from inside the paso that says they’re ready to lift again. The thing jerks up, candles quiver, drums thunder, horns blast, and the Sevillian parade marches ever on.
A version of this piece was published in National Geographic Traveller in October 2017