This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Rich with the spoils of Spain’s American empire, Seville is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. But wealth is unequally distributed, the once-great river port is silting up, and thieves, floods and public executions can turn the streets into dangerous obstacle courses.
When to go
The best time to visit is when a transatlantic fleet is in port. The weighty Veracruz and Cartagena convoys meet up in Havana and normally arrive in Seville in early September, although larger vessels are increasingly docking in the deeper waters of Cádiz.
Heaving with exotic cargo from the New World, the ships pull into Seville’s Arenal quarter where the whole city gathers to celebrate. Expect music, commerce, gossip, festivities and a diverse multitude of people. It is a truly incredible spectacle.
What to Take With You
A wide-brimmed hat is essential to mitigate the debilitating effects of the strong Spanish sun. Gentlemen are also advised to pack a good pair of stout boots. Although Seville experiences very little rainfall, the Guadalquivir river regularly bursts its banks, an event that turns the streets into muddy and barely navigable quagmires.
Costs and Money
Spain’s finances are weak, and wild fluctuations in food prices can be triggered by natural disasters such as flooding. Many locals rely on charitable handouts.
The Spanish currency is the much-sought-after escudo. Gold escudo coins come in several denominations and are used only by the wealthy. The wider populace uses silver reales.
Sights and Activities
Any visit should start in Seville Cathedral, a magnificent Gothic structure originally conceived in 1401 but still busy with sculptors, architects and artists adding embellishments to its ornate interior.
Unless you’re a visiting Habsburg, it’s unlikely you’ll be invited inside the Alcázar (royal palace) where the boy king, Carlos II, often lodges, but you can admire its unusual Mudéjar architecture from the outside.
The golden age of Sevillan art shows no sign of abating. The mantle of the late master Velázquez has passed to another Sevillano artist, Bartolomé Murillo. Señor Murillo has been busy since the 1650s, opening an art academy to nurture new talent, and working on a brilliant canvas of Saint Anthony inside Seville Cathedral. With luck you may get to admire his latest project, a series of six paintings on the subject of ‘Mercy’, in the recently inaugurated Iglesia de la Caridad.
Dangers and Annoyances
The gulf between rich and poor is huge. The back streets, particularly around the port, teem with vagabonds, thieves and rogues known as pícaros.
Refrain from commenting on matters of religion. The Inquisition Court, based since 1481 in Seville’s Castillo de San Jorge, is not known for its religious tolerance; autos-da-fé (public penances) are sometimes meted out. Avoid public executions, especially burnings at the stake, when an unpleasant mob mentality takes over.
Prepare to flee the city should you hear any reports of infectious disease. The last plague to hit Seville, in 1649, wiped out a large proportion of the city’s population – an estimated 60,000 citizens.
Seville’s Roma inhabit the rambunctious Triana quarter on the less-desirable side of the Guadalquivir. Their esoteric folk music involves much yodelling, foot-stamping and clapping of hands. The curious and brave can cross the city’s wobbly pontoon bridge to seek it out.
The fine local wine is much sought after, especially by the British who refer to it as ‘sherris sack’. Rumour has it that Francis Drake made off with several thousand barrels of the stuff when he ‘singed the King of Spain’s beard’ at Cádiz in 1587.
Seville’s newest bar, El Rinconcillo, opened earlier this year and is causing quite a stir. Inside, one can barely move for the crowds. Regulars are confident it has staying power.
Strange foodstuffs are offloaded quayside from ships freshly arrived from the New World. Visitors are advised to view them with suspicion. The small red fruit that the Spanish call a tomate is sometimes eaten in restaurants, but is more commonly used as a table decoration. So-called chilli peppers are best left to monks, who grow them in their monasteries as scientific curiosities. Safer for European palates are excellent local dry-cured hams and fresh seafood.
Hire a horse. Andalusian horses are, without question, the noblest and most elegant mounts in the world.
Brendan Sainsbury has written Lonely Planet country guides to Cuba, Italy, Spain, the US, Peru and Mexico
Though no longer wealthy in colonial spoils, Seville remains one of the world’s great treasures. The Andalusian capital is bathed in sunshine and rich in historical highlights. Two of the city’s stand-outs – the cathedral and mighty Alcázar – are, if anything, even more impressive than they were in 1670 when they towered over the city; they’re especially eye-catching at night, when they are illuminated. In the summer, the great palace hosts nocturnal concerts.
But you can still be entranced by Seville having seen neither of these places. Simply walk the streets of the medieval judería (Jewish quarter), today the Barrio de Santa Cruz, and take in the atmosphere of the tiny lanes and flower-strewn plazas.
Seville also has a lovely waterfront, busy shopping centre and, of course, the parades and parties of Semana Santa (Holy Week). The stalls and socialising of the Feria de Abril make that another excellent time to be in town. You could do as locals did in 1670 and flock to El Riconcillo, then the newest bar in town, today the oldest – but still as much fun.
For another Andalusian gem, head to the old city of Cádiz, thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe.
Tom Hall, travel editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of his articles at the website