Heart-wrenching operas, scorching summers and heated flamenco - it's not surprising that the city of Seville is considered to be one of the most passionate places on earth
As the capital of Andalucia, Seville has a rich Arabic history. It has also been the inspiration for many famous operas, including Figaro, Don Juan and, perhaps most famously, Carmen, the story of a gorgeous gitana (factory girl) who worked in the cigar factory and fell in love with a corporal, Don José. All did not end well. When jealous Don José found out that Carmen had fallen for a hunky bullfighter,, he stabbed her to death outside the bullring. Today a statue stands beside the bullring in her honour.
All this talk of blood-boiling, burning jealousy made me wonder if the fact that almost every other building in the city was coloured reddish pink, and sometimes gold, could be representative of the city’s fiery persuasion. I asked a local historian. She told me that the yellow (known as ocre) symbolises gold, money and power, from the period after the discovery of America, and the reddish pink shade (known as almagra) became the city’s emblematic colour after an almagra ceramic tile was found close to the Guadalquivir River.
It wasn't quite the romantic explanation I had been expecting. Pushing away all thought of insanely hot-headed, murdering bullfighters, I started on my tour of the city. Seville is easy to get around by foot so I set off in the winding alleyways of the medieval Jewish quarter, Santa Cruz. Each of the barrios (districts) has a unique and individual charm. In Santa Cruz, for example, the doors are extraordinarily tall. This was so that men on horseback could enter without having to get off their horses.
I marvelled at the whitewashed houses, which seemed indecently close together. Apparently, they were built this way to keep the houses (and people inside) as cool as possible when the heat of the burning summertime sun arrived. All the windows had iron grilles on them. I assumed this was so that they could safely leave windows open in the summer but, finally, I received a romantic explanation. The grilles were assembled by fathers to prevent amorous young from kissing their daughters - instead of getting her sweet lips, they would get a mouthful of iron!
Once the poorest part of the city, the district of Macarena's 17th-century beggars and urchins were models for the artist Murillo’s paintings. The area has come up in the world somewhat and is now the official seat of the Andalucian parliament, as well as home to many stunning churches, like Santa Catalina.
I stopped for lunch at the city's oldest tapas venue, El Rinconcillo (Plaza de los Terceros). That afternoon, as I walked about the city, I realised that as well as having a beguiling array of Renaissance mansions (most popular is the Casa de Pilatos in Santa Cruz, thought to be an imitation of Pontius Pilot’s house), Seville also has many modern buildings, bridges and monuments. Many of these buildings were erected to coincide with two major international exhibitions that the city hosted - the Ibero-American fair in 1929 and Expo 1992, which marked the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discoveries.
Arts aficionados will be pleased to know that the Museo de Bellas Artes (the fine arts museum, built in a former convent) is Spain’s second most important art gallery after the Prado in Madrid. Given the choice of location, you'll not be surprised to see quite a religious theme inside. Housing a grand collection of Murillo’s works, including the famous 'Virgin and Child', which is known as 'La Servilleta' because it was allegedly painted on a dinner napkin, it also exhibits Gonzalo de Bilbao’s 'Las cigarreras', which shows Sevillan women working in the city’s cigar factory with their babies beside them.
If you're looking for some peace, quiet and shade the Parque del Maria Luisa has some interesting monuments and buildings inside, including the Royal Pavilion, the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Arts and Popular Customs. Its centrepiece is the Plaza de Espana, which is surrounded by some spectacular water features. Self-respecting shopaholics should head to Calle Sierpes in the Centro district to snake their way around the adjoining shops and alleyways for attractive antique, designer, and high street bargains amid historical Renaissance, Gothic and baroque architecture.
My guide informed me that the top three cultural essentials are the cathedral, La Giralda and the Alcázar, all located in or around the Plaza de la Virgen de los Reyes, and you can join a tour or book a guide to talk you through the background history of these buildings in the square.
Built upon the huge rectangular base of a 12th-century mosque, the cathedral is the largest Gothic temple in the world and the third largest cathedral after St Peter’s in the Vatican and St Paul’s in London. The main altarpiece and choir near the main chapel are highlights, as is the art collection and the infamous tomb allegedly holding the remains of Christopher Columbus.
The cathedral’s minaret, La Giralda, was built in 1184 by the Emperor of Morocco and at 298 feet high is the city’s famous landmark. If you're feeling energetic, it's well worth climbing (or panting) up the 40 floors of concrete ramps (built this way so that the muezzin could ride up on horseback to call prayers) for panoramic views of the city
The Alcázar (Plaza del Triunfo) is a series of palaces built in the 10th century and adapted by various kings. The finest are those built for Pedro the Cruel in the 14th century. In the Patio del León, Pedro, known as 'the Just' or 'the Cruel' depending on his mood, gave his judgement. The Salón de Embajadores, with its wooden dome of red, green and gold cells, and ceiling dripping with gilded stalactites, is spectacular.
Before you leave the city, don't forget to nip across to the other side of the river to Triana. Formerly the heart of the city’s gypsy community, this is the hottest place for spontaneous, passionate, uptempo flamenco. But before your flamenco session begins, enjoy dinner beside the river at Calle Betis for fabulous views of the Torre del Oro (Golden Tower), La Giralda and the Maestranza Theatre.
As far as flamenco experiences go, you can either spend lots of money on an organised show at Los Gallos (Plaza de Santa Cruz) or El Arenal (Calle Rado 7) or enjoy a freeform experience at Anselma at midnight (Calle Pages del Corro 49). The lights are dimmed, the chairs turned into a circle and the first few moody steps of impromptu flamenco dancing begin to great applause. Not to be missed.
Where to stay
The three-star Hotel Abanico (Calle Aguilas 17) is a beautiful, quiet hotel set in a converted 19th-century palace, close to Santa Cruz and ideal for seeing the city. From €25 per person per night.
When to go
The city is renowned for its festivals, so if you like a good party don't miss the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, after which follows a week-long party at the Feria de Abril, the official start of the bullfighting season.
If you're not too keen on hot temperatures, you'd be best to avoid July and August, when temperatures soar into the late 40°s.