Head to La Macarena district, a little-visited corner of Seville, for a glimpse of an older Spain
We all have our favourite bars – the places we head for when we return to a particular town or city; somewhere that provokes an inner smile when we walk through the door after an absence of days, weeks, even years. You’re spoilt for choice, of course, in Spain – the country with more bars than any other in Europe. In fact it sometimes feels like every Spanish city has more bars than any other country in Europe, and Seville is no exception.
Hardly surprising, as one of the world’s great tourist destinations, that it should cater to the needs of millions of visitors a year. The stunning, outsized cathedral, the views from the Giralda tower, the beauty of the Alcázar palace and Jewish quarter, and the grandeur of the Parque Maria Luisa will leave these visitors breathless – and probably gasping for a drink.
There’s a seemingly endless choice of restaurants and bars on the streets filled with orange trees and year-round warmth. But I doubt that many of the thirsty travellers find their way to the Bodega Bar Casa Julian in the heart of La Macarena district. The word ‘bar’ doesn’t do justice to this splendid establishment. Casa Julian is closer to a temple dedicated to sherry and wine, though one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The shutters are thrown up early every morning, the glass and wooden doors thrown open and the stage set for patrons to grab a street-side table and watch life in this vibrant city acted out until late at night if they so wish. All you need are a few euros for the occasional drink and a tapa or two, and the time to take it all in. It’s not just Casa Julian’s location that appeals. The bar itself is a grand, curved piece of work, the cool interior tiled, the staff cheery, noisy and professional. But it’s that indefinable thing, atmosphere, that keeps bringing me back to my favourite haunt on Calle San Luis, the road that links La Macarena with the city centre.
That, and the clientele. Mostly I’m content to watch and listen to them playing out their theatre but occasionally I’ll talk to one of them. One old man, in particular, is always up for a chat. Álvaro recognises me now and likes to know where I’ve been. He marvels at my travels but his most obvious surprise came when I told him I’d spent a day in the old gypsy district across the Guadalquivir river, which splits the capital of Andalucía in two.
“You’ve been to Triana?” he said. “I’ve been there a few times, but I like to stay here, in La Macarena. We keep to ourselves, but we also like people to visit us.” It’s hard to comprehend a mentality like that, but La Macarena does have a very definite air and life of its own within the city.
It may be only minutes from the retail heaven of Calle Sierpes, but this is a glimpse of an older Spain. You only have to wander a few yards off the main thoroughfare, down the mazy, whitewashed, cobbled streets and alleys, to find wizened, berry-brown women sitting outside their doors watching the world go past. And outside the area’s many churches and convents, little old men with bad teeth and broken glasses, but dressed in jacket and tie, hold out tin bowls or caps for change, managing to maintain their dignity as they do so.
Back on Calle San Luis, the church that gives the street its name is a revelation. There may be seating for no more than 50, but the tiny basilica is almost surreal in its over-the-top use of gold leaf, plaster flourishes, marble columns and statuary.
But it’s another church that has made this district renowned throughout Seville and beyond. La Macarena might be best known as a worldwide, one-off novelty hit for a couple of middle-aged, guitar-strumming Spaniards in waistcoats and wide-brimmed hats, but here it means something quite different. This is the home of the Virgen de la Macarena, the most revered religious image in the city and one that thousands strive to touch or even glimpse during its parade around the streets of the city during Semana Santa. Outside of Holy Week, the gold-gilded virgin resides in the Basilica de la Macarena.
This is a working class barrio, shoehorned in between the centro and the middle-class suburbs, but it’s also where everyone, rich or poor, wants to get married. Every Friday and Saturday the wedding cake basilica throws its doors open to a string of couples tying the knot and the streets around fill with guests grabbing a quick pre-ceremony fino sherry in one of the dozens of tapas bars. Proceedings at an end, the wedding parties head off to other parts of the city to begin their lavish celebrations. Back at Bodega Bar Casa Julian life goes on as normal. Reassuringly unchanging. Just like the rest of La Macarena.
WHERE TO STAY
NH Plaza de Armas sits on the riverside at the edge of La Macarena, a brisk walk or short taxi ride from the city centre and all its sights. Always good service and standards from this well-priced chain.
Tryp Macarena Hotel, another big, reliable chain hotel, sits just across the road from the famous basilica. Good deals available.
Hotel Patio de la Alameda is a well-converted 19th-century townhouse at one end of the Alameda de Hércules.
Just off the alameda is the great value apartment hotel Patio de la Cartija. It's a thoughtfully restored property overlooking a long patio in a quiet street yet within crawling distance of the action, and at very good prices,
Music-lovers and others will enjoy Hotel Amadeus, another conversion from an old building, set around a central patio. The roof terrace is great for chilling out and there are occasional piano and harp sessions!
Hotel Monte Triana is just across the river – well located for Triana, La Macarena and the centre.
Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza is smart and intímate. A bit more costly but worth the money and well located on the edge of La Macarena.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
La Albahaca (00 34 954 220 714) serves traditional Andalusian cuisine in a lovely setting deep in the Santa Cruz district.
Rio Grande (00 34 954 273 956), on Triana’s riverside thoroughfare, Calle Betis, has good fresh fish and great city views.
Pando (00 34 954 225 052; www.pandorestaurantes.com) combines innovative cuisine with a central location and an inspiring setting in a tastefully restored 19th-century townhouse.
You can opt for tapas or more formal dining – both are great options – at Bodega Paco Gongora (00 34 954 214 139).
Eslava, on Calle Eslava, gets busy but that’s because the food is so good. Get your name on the board early for a table at the back.
Alcoy 10, on Calle Alcoy, has inventive tapas at prices aimed at locals rather than tourists.