Adjust your body clock and join the locals as they party through the night in Seville’s up-and-coming Alameda district
Almost midnight on a Saturday evening, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the mythical Spanish nightlife is just that – a myth. It’s just me and the barman in the small, unnamed cerveceria on the east side of Seville’s Alameda de Hércules and frankly, I’m not impressed. I’m here because – so the guidebooks, blogs and even the locals tell me – this is the place to be in Seville, the party city of southern Europe. So far, it’s looking like they forgot to send out invitations. “Bit quiet tonight,” I suggest to the barman as I nurse my beer at the beautifully-tiled bar. “That’s because it’s early,” he shoots back. “If you’re still here at three you’ll see some fun.”
Well, azulejos (tiles) or not, I refuse to sit around for three hours waiting for the locals to turn up so I do what any self-respecting sevillano would do: I finish my drink, go back to my nearby hotel, doze for a couple of hours then prise myself out of an armchair and head back to the broad, pedestrianised, tree-lined alameda. Until a few years ago, this was the city’s red-light district. But a clean-up campaign (and the arrival of new police headquarters at the far end of the avenue) forced the working girls into the back streets and a host of bars, cafes and restaurants have replaced the run-down apartment blocks that line the park.
Visitors may flock to the tapas bars of the beautiful Santa Cruz district across the city, but this is where the locals come to drink and dance – in the clubs and on the street – and by 2am on a Sunday morning, there are hundreds of them doing just that. It’s not about getting drunk here. Alcohol is just a part of the equation, together with the warmth, the friendliness, the impromptu dancing and singing, which combine to heady effect.
If you were to have even a small caña at every stop on the alameda, you wouldn’t even make it halfway up one side. As it is, I stroll, stop off for a bite at an Italian café, sip a cocktail in a minimalist, white cube of a bar, a few more beers at more traditional bars and congratulated myself on my staying power as I crawl into bed just before 5am.
My ego takes a bit of a knock next morning, though. It’s not so much the headache, more the breakfast waiter who tells me the alameda was still packed as he made his way to the hotel at 8am. Oh well, I guess they’ve had a lifetime of it.
I take my aching head and bruised pride off to Seville’s city-centre castle to recover. The Alcázar, the Moorish fortress, sits opposite the vast bulk of Seville’s cathedral. This is the biggest church in the world in terms of volume, and it feels like it as you wander through its half-lit, vaulting interior.
But this isn’t a day for gilded altarpieces and icons – not even for the stiff pull up the 82 metres of the Giralda tower, with its amazing views across the city. Instead, I slip into the Alcázar and wander around the thousand-year-old state rooms, all intricate tiles and decorative plaster ceilings, and the tranquil patios that connect them. It’s all very beautiful and inspiring, but best of all are the gardens: pools, fountains, shaded seats and tree-lined walkways. The perfect place to spend a lazy, sunny, Sunday morning, with just the occasional car horn to remind you that a city of a million souls is going about its business just over the sturdy wall.
Time for lunch, and a walk across the Guadalquivir river, which borders the city centre. Most of monumental Seville lies on its eastern bank: the cathedral and Alcázar, the shopping district, the mighty Maestranza bullring and the Torre de Oro, which once guarded the riverside entrance to the city. Over the river the tourist numbers thin out. This is Triana – former gypsy quarter, centre of the city’s ceramic tile industry and home to any number of local bars where the drinks are cheaper and the atmosphere a lot more authentically Andalusian than in the more popular districts you’ve just left. Restaurants line the riverbank, among them the Rio Grande, where the sea bass and bream and shellfish are fantastic and the views over the Guadalquivir makes you realise even Walt Disney couldn’t have dreamt up a cityscape like this one.
It’s all accessible on foot – though from mid-2009, a new Metro system will be up and running – and in a city where the important things in life appear to be enjoying yourself and doing so at a leisurely pace it’s best to screw up the map and see where your fancy takes you. There are quiet, cobbled streets and picture-perfect squares everywhere, but the prettiest of all make up the Barrio de Santa Cruz, the old Jewish quarter. You won’t find many deserted spots here. But you will find bars on every corner and plenty more in between, serving bone-dry fino sherry and juicy wines from across Spain.
And in the city that invented tapas, the choice is as wide as your imagination, though personally I think you have to go a long way to beat a plate of succulent jamón iberico (dry-cured ham) to accompany your top tipple. You could even take a ham home – though maybe a better souvenir is a slightly fuzzy head and a camera-full of memories from this stunning city of light and warmth and vivaciousness.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Patio de la Alameda is a well-converted 19th-century townhouse at one end of the alameda.
Just off the alameda is the great value apartment hotel Patio de la Cartuja, a thoughfully 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 Goya is not the most beautiful place to rest your head, but it has everything you need, including good, big beds and bathrooms, and the location is great.
A long way upmarket is the Hotel Alfonso XIII, built by the then King of Spain as his personal headquarters for the city’s trade fair in 1929. Luxurious, opulent, and a feast for the eyes with lovely patios and lounges.
Another classy option is Cassa No 7, a converted 18th-century palace with rooms set around a patio.
Eme Fusion Hotel, right opposite the cathedral, is causing a stir in the city: newly opened, and the result of 14 properties converted together, it’s a modern style masterpiece but manages to be comfortable at the same time.
Casa Romana Boutique Hotel, close to the shopping district, is a well restored urban mansion and boasts a roof solarium with hot and cold Jacuzzi (depending on the weather of course).
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
There are hundreds of bars and restaurants within a few minutes’ walk of the alameda. Here are a few to try...
Ego has an impressive menu of modern cuisine and a drag queen serenading diners. Close to the alameda, popular with gays and a young crowd. Lively atmosphere.
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 the locals can stomach
Jan Al Jalily at Calle Trajano 49 is a great Moroccan restaurant. Try snacking on delicious hoummous; couscous dishes are just as good.
Diablito, at the south end of the alameda, serves light food such as pizzas and excellent salads.
Casa Paco, Alameda de Hércules 23, is always busy so eat early or late. Solomiillo (fillet), stuffed chicken and vegetarian dishes are really good.
Baduluque, at the northern end, serves pizzas, hamburgers and also traditional Spanish dishes.