Along the banks of the river Guadalquivir lays Seville, one of the most important cities in Spain and the capital of Andalucía. Like many large cities it owes much of its development to its connections by river and the trading links consequently created. As with many of the towns of Andalucía was founded by the Phoenicians before being inhabited by the Romans. Its name at this time was Hispalis and the river was known as Baetis. When the Arabs arrived they named the city Isabillat and the river Guadalquivir. Alhomad Alcázar ruled the area during the 12th century until Ferdinand III of Castile conquered it in the 13th.
Seville is a complex, yet relaxing and very charming city. Today it has a population of over a million and during the summer hundreds of thousands of visitors come to view some of the city's most impressive structures.
Seville really came into its own as the cultural centre of Europe when the 1992 World Expo was held here. It was a particularly monumental event for Spain as it also celebrated the 500th anniversary of the voyage of the Niña, La Pinta and Santa Maria to the New World. The preparation for the event saw new growth and development and Seville's boom continues today.
Like the best of European cities, Andalucía's capital combines everything that you could possibly demand, from a wealth of monuments and history to its contemporary business facilities and shopping centres. Seville became the wealthiest city in Europe during the voyages of discovery, as many treasures and artefacts were brought back here by boat.
Another aspect of this city is its wealth of religious buildings, most of which were erected by Ferdinand III and Isabella and Ferdinand as a way of architecturally overshadowing the earlier Moorish presence.
Seville is divided into several areas of interest known as El Arenal, Santa Cruz, La Macerena Parque Maria Luisa and Triana.
On the bank of the river Guadalquivir stands the historic area of El Arenal, where you will find many of the city's most important historical monuments. At one time this area was Seville's port and its industrial heart with bustling shipyards and munitions factories. The port fell into decline during the 17th century, but it was once again made navigable when it was converted to a canal just before the 1992 World Expo. The two most distinctive landmarks in this area of the city are the Torre del Oro and the beautiful White Bullring.
The shipyards have long since disappeared and have been replaced with a picturesque, tree-lined promenade that stretches the length of this area. Quiet and romantic, it makes an ideal walk in the cool summer evening. At the southeast end of this walkway stands the Torre del Oro, a 13th century Moorish construction built to guard the port.
Originally a twin tower stood on the opposite bank and a mighty chain would be stretched from one side to the other to prevent ships sailing up river. Like a timeless sentinel, who has watched history unfolding, the Torre del Oro has served many purposes, from being the location at which treasures from the New World were off-loaded to serving time as a prison. Today it houses a maritime museum and offers visitors an unmissable photo opportunity.
The other feature of this area is the magnificent Plaza de Toros de La Maestranza, built in the 18th century. It is one of the oldest, largest and perhaps the most famous in Spain with the possible exception of Ronda's famous venue. Over 12,000 spectators can be seated in the main arena and guided tours are hosted daily around the main building and the museum of bullfighting. Other points of interest are the chapel, where matadors pray for victory before the event and the Puerta del Principal gate, where a sea of fans often carries off the bravest and most successful matadors after a good victory. Every year during the bullfighting season El Arenal becomes a hive of activity, with bars and restaurants in the streets around the bullring packed with locals and tourists anxiously waiting for the corrida.
The rest of the area is full of fascinating little streets, each of which has unique features. While exploring you will probably come across El Postigo, the local arts and crafts market and the Baroque church of La Caridad, now a hospital for the elderly, which is decorated by Murillo paintings.
One of the more recent additions to this part of Seville is the Teatro de La Maestranza, a 1,800 seat theatre and opera house that regularly shows popular theatrical and dance performances by many of the world's most famous companies. The opera house is another aesthetically pleasing building that was constructed in the run up to the 1992 Expo. Opera is an important art form in Seville, hardly surprising when one considers that "Carmen", "Don Juan", "Fidelio", "The Marriage of Figaro", "The Barber of Seville" and "La Forza del Destino" (to mention just a few examples) are ALL set in this city!
Located away from the promenade you will find the Museo de Bellas Artes, one of the best fine-art museums in Europe. Built inside the former Convento de la Merced Calzada, this museum features works both past and present by some of Spain's foremost painters and sculptors, including Murillo, Zurbarán and Juan de Valdéz Leal. The museum has many small gardens within its grounds that were features of the original convent, but the centrepiece of the actual building is the decorated domed ceiling, which was painted by Domingo Martinez in the 18th century.
This area of Seville is a maze of passageways and streets dwarfed by the huge Gothic cathedral, which is Seville's most visited monument. Built on the site of a 12th century mosque, Seville's cathedral is the largest in Europe. Its most outstanding features are the La Giralda bell tower and the Patio de Los Naranjos.
La Giralda was built during the Moorish occupation and was originally topped by a minaret. When the Catholic monarchs re-conquered Seville they removed the minaret and replaced it with a Christian structure. In 1568 the tower was rebuilt again with a Renaissance belfry. Perched at the very top is the bronze weathervane named giraldillo, which has given rise to the tower's modern name. If you visit the cathedral you can climb to the top and see some of the most extensive views of the city.
The Patio de Los Naranjos is a large open courtyard where, in Moorish times, worshippers would wash their hands and feet in the fountain under the orange trees before praying. This ornate fountain still sits in the middle of the courtyard and is open to visitors.
The cathedral itself is immense (larger than St. Peter's in Rome) magnificent and splendidly decorated and the Capilla Mayor, surrounded by its iron gates, is one of the most impressive sights that Seville has to offer.
Nearby you will find the Reales Alcazares or Seville Royal Palaces. In 1364 Pedro I ordered their construction within the palaces previously constructed by the Moorish ruler Almohad. Other monarchs added their own touches to this building and its internal beauty is matched by an equal number of splendid gardens and fountains in and around its various courtyards.
It would be difficult to decide which part is the most beautiful, since it is this mélange of styles that makes it unique. However, some of the more important historical features are the Patio de la Monteria, where members of the court would meet before going hunting and the Patio de Yeso, which retains features of the 12th century building. The palace includes extensive gardens, which provide a romantic setting and shade from the hot midday sun.
In Santa Cruz you will also find the Calle de Las Sierpes, which is Seville's major pedestrianised shopping area. Here you will find numerous gift, clothes, and bargain and souvenir shops selling every Seville-related item that you could possibly desire. Most Spanish shops usually shut during the early afternoon because of the heat, so the best time to go shopping is in the early evening. Santa Cruz is packed full of lovely side streets, shops, tapas bars and restaurants, so enjoy a quiet stroll around the area as a reward for all your historical explorations!
The cathedral is undoubtedly Seville's greatest Christian building, but the Iglesia del Salvador, located close to the Calle de Las Sierpes in the Plaza del Salvador, and is also bigger than most conventional churches. Built on the site of another Moorish mosque, this Christian church fell into disrepair until it was redesigned by the famous Baroque architect Esteban Garcia. The new structure was completed in 1712 and its interior incorporates fine statues as well as the ornate capilla. Located nearby is the Plaza de Salvador, which has become a meeting place for Seville's youngsters.
The northern part of Seville outdoes El Arenal and Santa Cruz for quaintness and is filled with churches and monuments. Its name is believed to have been derived from Macaria who, according to Greek mythology, was the daughter of Hercules. This area is not as tourist orientated as the rest of Seville and will be of more interest to those who have an interest in ecclesiastical architecture, since its churches combine a variety of styles from Gothic to Baroque.
Perhaps the most notable is the Iglesia de San Pedro, in which the artist Velazquez was baptised, although the Iglesia de San Marcos is also a fine example of a 14th century church built, like so many of the others, on the site of a mosque.
The Almeda de Hercules is a tree-lined promenade that was created in 1574 for use by locals and today provides the venue for the Sunday market. At its end stand two marble columns, at the top of which stand the figures of Julius Caesar and Hercules. There are also many interesting shops and tapas bars in this area of the town, so it provides an ideal opportunity to have a walk before enjoying a drink in the afternoon sun.
Parque Maria Luisa
The southern part of the city is dominated by Seville's largest gardens, the Parque Maria Luisa. A highly popular spot both for locals and tourists, the vast leafy foliage can remove the heat from the hottest of Seville's summer days. Seville's summer temperatures are the highest in Spain and in mid-August can reach 47ºC and above. The gardens were originally built as part of the grounds of the Palacio de San Telmo in 1682, but in 1893 Princess Maria Luis de Orleans donated part of them to the public. Jean Claude Forestier, the director of Bois de Boulogne in Paris in 1929, designed the park to create the perfect setting for the pavilions of the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. The Exposition was an attempt to boost Andalucía's economy, but unfortunately it coincided with the Wall Street crash in America. Today the gardens serve as a purely recreational area with cool fountains and statues and, if you look carefully among the mature trees, you can also find many examples of ceramics decorating the benches and floral urns.
Within this area are the Hotel Alfonso XIII, Seville's leading hotel and home to visiting celebrities. It is highly decorated with 'azuelejos' (tiles) but the main feature is the patio, which is filled with orange trees and a fountain.
You will also find the University of Seville, a huge 18th century building that was formally a tobacco factory. In the late 19th century this was a popular tourist spot associated, as it is, with Prosper Merimee's tale of Carmen, which was even more famously set to music in 1875 by Georges Bizet. "Carmen" tells the tale of how this hot-blooded and passionate woman turns her affections from her soldier lover to a bullfighter. It is a tragic story in which the spurned former lover murders her out of spite. Despite its almost laughably hackneyed plot and the damage wrought upon it as a dramatic work by comedians from Benny Hill to Morecambe & Wise, this tale remains for many the epitome of all that is Spanish.
The other feature of this area is the famous Teatro Lope de Vega, a theatre that was named in honour of the prolific Spanish playwright, Lope de Vega (1562-1635) who in his life wrote more than 1,500 plays. It was also used as a casino for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 and is still used today as a venue for exhibitions.
Across the river on the west bank of Seville you will find Triana, the area that was the site of the 1992 Expo. Today the pavilions have been converted into theme parks, which display exhibitions of science and technology. The other feature of this area is the 15th century Monasterio de Santa Maria de Las Cuevas, an immense building which was a monastery until 1836. It was then re-opened in 1941 as a successful ceramics factory, which only ceased production in 1980 and was then restored as an exhibit in the 1992 World Expo.
Seville is a city in which lovers of European culture could spend weeks without managing to see everything. Even if you don't appreciate architecture, gardens or museums you cannot help but be impressed by the magnitude of it all.