Seville was the perfect city to continue my trend of free walking tours. Picked up by the guide at our hostel, Victoria and I headed towards the meeting point located in the square outside of City Hall. We had been hoping for a small group, but as we drew close we saw that there were close to three dozen other travellers waiting in the same area. The guide had seemed engaging when he picked us up but once he was faced with a large group he started to really ham it up.
It was good to visit a lot of the main sights in Seville during an efficient morning walk, however there were a few moments on this tour where things bordered on uncomfortable as the guide really played things up for the crowd. He mentioned how “horny” the King was, for example, complete with thrusting motions. It seemed as though he was performing versus guiding and while I understand that the demographics of this walking tour skewed young this was the first time I had a guide act like this. I’m not sure which company it was, but they picked up at some of the best reviewed hostels in Sevilla. Victoria told me that she really enjoyed the evening tour and that the guide was much more sedate, but I wasn’t really interested in doing another tour with the company after this one.
Between the acting, however, there was a fair bit of information passed along. Seville had a monopoly on trade from the Spanish colonies during the “Golden Age” of the city and everything had to come through the city before distribution elsewhere. Seville was a cosmopolitan, bustling city in the 16th century and it was easy to imagine the wide, clean streets full of sailors, merchants and nobility eager to see their fame and fortune.
The historical position of Seville, however, has led to what almost seems like guilt. In 1929, shortly before the start of the Depression, Seville hosted the Ibero-American Exposition, a sort of world’s fair, with the goal of improving relationships between Spain and the countries in attendance – many of which were former Spanish colonies. Our guide told us that many of the buildings constructed for this event tried to include elements of design from the former Spanish colonies, a way of acknowledging the mistakes of the past.
In my opinion, the most impressive building was the one surrounding the Plaza de España, located in the Maria Luisa Park. Its purpose was to showcase Spain’s technological and industrial exhibits, but I have trouble believing that anyone could look past the structure itself. It even had a small canal, where someone with a bit too much disposable income and extra energy to burn in the heat could rent a boat and float around for a bit. Along the front of the building were numerous small alcoves, each dedicated to a different Spanish province and decorated with appropriately painted tiles.
The Plaza de España is also movie famous, having been used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia, as part of planet Naboo in two of the latest Star Wars movies and even as a dictatorial palace in The Dictator. I could easily see why location scouts chose this area – between the architecture and the expansive square it would be nothing short of impressive on film.
We finished the walking tour outside of a building belonging to the University of Seville. Once upon a time, however, it was the Royal Tobacco Factory and the second largest building in Spain. Seville, due to its privileged position during the Golden Age of exploration, had the first tobacco plants in Europe. The plants would arrive from the Americas and be turned into snuff, with cigars gaining in popularity during the 19th century. I found it interesting to learn that the tobacco industry was always regulated by the government and that concentrating the tobacco factories in one geographic area made it easier to regulate the industry.
After lunch, I visited the Alcazar with Victoria, Eleanor and the French-Canadian guy. This is the oldest royal palace in Europe and it still contains apartments for the Spanish royal family that are used whenever they visit the city. Like most of Southern Spain, the Moors had an influential presence in Seville and the Alcazar was once a Moorish fortress. It reminded me of the Alhambra, especially with the architecture, but it was much easier to visit. There was no need to buy a ticket in advance as we just walked up to the ticket booth – no lines! It’s also located in the historic centre of the city, across the road from the Cathedral and on a flat piece of land – no hills to climb! It didn’t have the commanding views of the Alhambra, however, which is probably why the Alcazar doesn’t hold the same place in the imagination.
I opted against paying for an audioguide since I was visiting the site with three other people and didn’t want to appear antisocial. There was a booth set up for their rental just past the main entrance and it seemed as though they had more stock than the Alhambra. There were a lot of informational plaques scattered throughout the rooms, buildings and gardens however there were a few… quirks in the translations. One of them said, and I quote, “…it was in this room where the queen Elizabeth I gave birth to Prince Juan, your ruined heir, on 30 June 1478.” Confusing, yes? It definitely led me to pause for a few seconds as I puzzled over what, exactly, the plaque was trying to tell me.
Fortunately I read Spanish and have a bit of an understanding of history, so it was pretty clear that the narrative was talking about Queen Isabella, the Spanish Queen… and not Queen Elizabeth I, who was a) English and b) born in the 1500s. Prince Juan wasn’t really ruined, he just died at an early age and the unusual quirk of translation was simply the result of using a Spanish word that could be interpreted several ways.
The Alhambra seemed to be obsessed with water and there were lots of fountains and canals. The Alcazar, meanwhile, had the fountains in place and some pools, but the water in the ponds and pools were mostly stagnant while the fountains had a trickle, at most. I’m not sure if there are drought issues in Seville, but the small bubbles of water in the fountains were a little sad. I think it would have been a bit better if the fountains had been cleaned at some point in the recent past, but they were just a bit dirty and empty. The gardens themselves were still beautiful and worth of a wander, but the water features were a bit of a letdown.
There are several maps of the site scattered at random points during the visit and, if one were to look at the map, they would think that the site is much bigger than it actually is. A couple of hours is more than sufficient for a visit to the Alcazar, no matter how sprawling it appears on the official visitor’s guide.
One you leave the Alcazar you are right downtown, in the midst of the hustle and bustle. You can visit the Cathedral, which charges an entrance fee of €8 (and that I didn’t want to pay), or you could take a horse drawn carriage ride through the streets or you could do what I did and just walk around.
Wandering through the streets of Seville is a pleasant way to spend a late morning and early afternoon and, if you engage in the Spanish siesta tradition, the evening hours are when the locals re-emerge from their houses. Less shops and restaurants closed in Seville during siesta but you could still tell that the city was operating at less than its maximum capacity. There are a lot of small alleyways and narrow lanes to explore and although my hostel was only a 10 minute walk from the Cathedral, I managed to stretch it out by taking wonderfully convoluted routes home. The architecture in Seville is quite stunning, the streets are clean and the buildings seem to be in excellent shape.
Planning to visit Seville? Avoid the tourist bus, lace up your shoes and see it from the ground. I promise that it’s worthwhile!