From Madrid, on Christmas Eve, we hopped on a train that took us in three hours to the warmer and sunnier city of Seville. Traveling on Christmas Eve is always interesting because you’re surrounded by families going to see other families. It’s not all that common to see fellow travelers. But on the train, Jeff and I sat in our reserved seat and pulled out our books and music to see two parents sitting apart from their kids.
In quiet tones, Jeff asked if they would rather sit with their children or if they were looking forward to some quiet time. You can never tell the stage of the vacation and if people are craving alone-time or craving together-time. We did our good deed by switching seats with some fellow Americans on the same train to Seville.
We arrived in the city of oranges and walked the quick half mile to our AirBnB on the east side of town. The narrow and hidden alleyways gave the city a completely different feel to the bustling metropolitan city of Madrid. We looked at each other hoping we had made the right decision. But it was a no-brainer once we made our way the mile south to the Old Town.
The best way, from where we stayed, to the Old Town was through The Gardens of Murillo where a gorgeous and tall monument to Christopher Columbus stands tall with the names of Isabel and Ferdinand on either side. But a quick detour through the lush, green palm trees and trunks of sprawling trees that would take five people to hug, we found ourselves in historic and romantic narrow alleyways (very different than those in our neck of the woods) passing vendors for tea, tapas bars, and more orange trees than we have ever seen.
Much to our surprise, these orange trees were brimming with ripe fruit. I was so tempted to grab one off the tree for a road side snack, but after a little investigation, we learned they are sour and bitter. They were planted for ornament only. We noticed dotted along our path, other tourists have found this out the hard way. It was like a minefield side stepping discarded oranges and evidence of the many dog owners in the city.
The first monument we made sure to check out was the Real Alcazar, the oldest still-functioning palace in Europe with the royal family still using the upper levels as a residence. We did not see any royals on our trip, but we did find ourselves open-mouthed as we walked through the Moorish architecture and Game of Thrones backdrops (see the city of Dorne for the fellow HBO fans).
The palace was originally built by Moorish Muslim kings in 1181 and changed many times through the medieval perior through the Renaissance. When the Muslims were overtaken by the Castilian conquest in 1248, the palace changed hands and it became the Castilian royal residence. Slowly, over the next hundred years or so, the synagogues were closed and made into Catholic churches effectively eliminating Judaism from Seville. The south of Spain had effectively turned completely to a Catholic nation.
Walking around the Real Alcazar, you are floored by the detail in the walls and mosaics, but it was a relatively small interior. There wasn’t a lot to see besides the framework of the famous palace. What was more astounding was the exterior gardens. These massive plots full of orange trees and fountains make it very easy to get lost.
We wandered around lazily enjoying the sun and blue skies (a rarity these days in London). The first fountain you see when you step outside is the large Mercury Hermes Fountain complete with spilling water from a roof-top gutter and massive koi swimming around the pool. Just on the other side of this massive watering hole was a much smaller wall fountain with a sign promising a one o’clock show. Not one to miss fireworks, we sat down on some benches and waited the ten minutes. When those ten minutes became fifteen, we hung our heads in disappointment and started to walk away.
We turned a corner and then suddenly, some chimes alerted us that we gave up too soon. We raced back to watch trickling water and hear a plinky piano ring out an unfamiliar tune. Just as quickly as it began, it was over, and we continued our way through the labyrinth.
Right across the plaza or square from Real Alcazar was the Seville Cathedral, the third largest church in the world and the largest Gothic cathedral still standing. A quick note is to check the hours ahead of time if you’re planning on seeing the inside. We were lucky that we were staying an extra day, but if we hadn’t, we would have missed this famous attraction due to the holidays.
The cathedral was completed in the 16th century and is the burial site for the well-known Christopher Columbus. It was pretty remarkable for us to see his tomb surrounded by four massive statues when we had seen Genoa, the city he was born in, last August.
What we found pretty interesting in this massive church was the tower. Most of the towers we have climbed in Europe are all stairs: The Duomo in Florence, The Arc d’Triumph in Paris, The Church of St. Peter in Munich. But this time, The Giralda, at 343 feet, was a massive ramp.
The former Muslim minaret was built to resemble a mosque in Morocco, but was converted to a bell tower under Catholic rule, and it was under that rule that horses would climb the tower. We tried to envision horses going up and down this massive monument to watch the city perimeter, but it did make climbing easier (but not going down, ironically enough).
In the north courtyard of the cathedral is the Court of Oranges, a gorgeous orange grove sprouting out of concrete stones. It is the only remaining thing from original mosque, but it is still beautiful to see from the height of the tower. The sprawling city is below you with a carved out corner or historic orange trees.
Two incredible things to see in the city are pretty close to each other: The Torre d’Oro and the Plaza de Toros, the famous bullfighting ring. Both of these were closed for the holidays, but we did take our time to look at the facades of both and admire the rich culture along the Canal de Alfonso XIII. The Plaza de Toros was built in 1749 and is is filled to the brim in March/April to September of every year for the bullfighting season.
The Torre d’Oro is a magnificent watchtower right on the river that overlooks each side to control access to the city. Constructed in the early 1200s, the role of the tower went from prison to timeout chair as some people were sent there for watch duty as punishment from the king. Over time, it became a burden to the city after it sustained much damage, but when Marquis de Monte Real proposed to demolish it in 1755 after the Lisbon earthquake, the citizens rose up to protect the golden monument to their rich history.
The last place we visited in Seville before leaving for Granada was the Plaza de Espana. The gorgeous and massive square is located in the Parque de Maria Luisa (which awesomely-enough contains a statue of Dante Alighieri) is almost hidden behind a wall depending on how you approach the square.
We walked in via the Parque de San Sebastian not expecting what we saw. Each step was like unveiling a masterpiece of art, architecture, and history. It was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition in 1929 and was to showcase the industry and technology of Seville. Today, it’s mostly government buildings, but save that, the mosaic “paintings” around the perimeter show an image representing every Spanish city, and there is a literal moat in the middle that you can row in.
A fun fact about the Plaza is that it’s where the Planet Naboo was created in Star Wars episodes I and II.
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While we were only in Seville for three days, we were floored by the history and warmth of the city. We had amazing food, incredible wine, and took in some astounding sights. From here, we headed to the last city of our Christmas tour: Granada. Stay tuned next week for our Tales from the Alhambra.
But first, here are more pictures from around Seville.
Travel Tip for Seville: If you need luggage lockers for storage, at the Plaza de Armas bus station, you can store bags up to 24 hours for €3.50.