Spain’s high-speed AVE train service has made the country more accessible than ever.
On a rail journey between Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, Cordoba, and back to Madrid, Irvina Lew reports on what happens when you get off the train to explore on foot.
Trains may be how my friend Cara and I traveled from Madrid to Seville, Granada and Cordoba, but we explored each enchanting, flower-filled city on foot.
Our mutual mission was to see the architectural wonders of the region: the Alcázar of Seville, the Alhambra of Granada, and the Mezquita of Córdoba. Each one is a legacy of the Moors who arrived from North Africa in the 8th century and called the peninsula we know of as Spain, Al Andalus.
To me, Seville is the most special of the three.
Previously: Trains in Spain: A High-Speed Rail Review.
Seville’s historic charm pervades from its city gates to the central plaza, from Carmen’s tobacco factory to the bull ring. As James Michener wrote, “If a stranger could inspect but one city in Spain … I think he would be well advised to spend his time in Sevilla …” It was true then. And it remains true for me now.
SOAKING IN THE LOCAL FLAVOR
To me, a city that you can walk is a city that you can embrace. Walking a city allows you to stop, look, listen and immerse. And do a short course in becoming a local. With no particular schedule or roadmap, it becomes a wonderful and pleasantly surprising voyage of discovery.
As we walked Seville’s orange-blossom scented streets and ancient alleyways, it took some adjusting. All too often we’d have to do almost a matador’s slow dance and step aside, our backs to the wall, when a car passed through the narrow space.
For more, don’t miss our Spain & Portugal travel section.
We stopped for tapas (tuna, eggs, fried potatoes, jamón), sipped Jerez sherry on the rooftop (pool) terrace of the Hotel Doña Maria and stared across at La Giralda, the iconic 12th Century Almohad minaret (one of three in the world). The tower—with its 16th century belfry—dominates the plaza next to a cathedral that was once a mosque.
But walking the streets took us to a live– and lively– Flamenco performance at Tablao El Arenal; Cara cringed at the sounds that I so love. Flamenco is such an integral part of Spanish culture that our appetizer to the actual performance happened on the street, as we heard the familiar guitar music from within cafés and bars. And when the distinctly rhythmic sound of castanets echoed on the street I turned to see a little girl—she might have been 7 years old—clicking rapidly and moving her hands with great gusto.
Also by Irvina Lew: Barcelona’s Hotels, Art & Architecture
A SENSE OF HISTORY
Many guidebooks will boast that certain cities are living museums, but Seville can claim that with portfolio.
It really started at the Hotel Casas de la Juderia, a collection of 18 authentic and mostly 15th-century houses hidden behind wooden entry doors. It’s situated on a labyrinth of cobblestone streets that are separated by four interior patios reached via arched pathways decorated with fountains, potted geraniums and greenery. Each room is individually decorated, some with high ceilings and four poster beds and all with jet tubs; each of ours had a sitting area.
The hotel is in the barrio Santa Cruz, the formerly walled Juderia ghetto where about 400 Jewish families lived (the hotel’s history says “under royal protection”) between 1250 and 1480. Next door, the church—Santa Maria La Blanca—was formerly the city’s oldest synagogue; it dates from the 12th century.
The Casas de la Juderia became our perfect walking hub — as we ventured past white stucco houses with iron gates en route to the town’s historic center. Here, we discovered the 16th-century Italian Renaissance Palazzo, the Casa de Pilatos, where intricate tiles decorate courtyard walls and flooring and a rose-covered arbor, potted urns and formal gardens bring the space to life.
More by Irvina Lew: Sleeping in Spain: A Madrid Hotel Guide
That’s where we stumbled upon the former home of John Fulton—the American bullfighter and painter (1932-1998). (Fulton’s adventures with his pals Ernest Hemingway and James Michener are described in detail in Michener’s book, Iberia.)
We couldn’t leave without a pilgrimmage to Alcázar, the Moorish fort turned exquisitely designed palace strewn with gardens and courtyards—one was sunken so an easy reach could fetch fruit from trees. Ferdinand and Isabella welcomed Columbus, here, Franco rebuilt its kitchen and Spanish royalty still uses the palace for royal weddings and receptions.
Sometimes history needs a point of reference, which we learned at dinner at the elaborate Hotel Alfonso XIII. The Alcazar is the real thing, but this hotel, which looks authentic, was built in Mudejar style for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. Anything less than 100 years old — at least in my book — is “modern” in Seville!
For nearby family fun, try Family Travel Through Spain’s Costa del Sol
Because Cara and I are both interested in Andalusian handicrafts, we needed to see Triana, a residential neighborhood on the far side of the Guadalquivir River known for its ceramic shops.
Beyond the historic center (Casco Antiguo)—where we had already admired handmade ceramics at El Postigo, a collective where a potter actually has a studio, and El Arenal, the stunning 200-year-old whitewashed bullring with its mustard-colored trim—we crossed the Triana Bridge facing a steady stream of pedestrians going to work. Their residential neighborhood appealed with its riverside street (Calle Betis), old market and low-rise, flower-bedecked, apartment buildings with busy shops and cafes on ground level.
The ceramic shops that we sought were crammed with decorative (though not one-of-a-kind) tiles, pots and urns. In search of finding something more artistic, we soon found it — a photography exhibit at the Andalusian Center for Contemporary Art—a modern complex on the site of a former monastery.
And finally, I grabbed a taxi, and crossed Calatrava’s stunning Alamillo Bridge. Eighteen years ago, I boldly walked across it to the Island of Cartuja when I attended Expo 1992. But even I have limits. It was time to rest.
By Irvina Lew for PeterGreenberg.com. Irvina Lew is a writer who specializes in travel and spas. She is also the author of Romantic Weekends In and Around New York.
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