We recently visited three cities in Andalucia: Seville, Cadiz, and Jerez de la Frontera.
Seville is famously hot in summer, which is why we visited in the spring. Unfortunately, even in early May it was already 95 degrees. Fortunately, it wasn’t too humid, so we stayed in the shade a lot.
The origins of Seville are murky, but it is clear that the area was occupied by the Carthaginians by the 3rd C BC. In Roman times, it was a military base known as Hispalis. It was conquered by the Moors in the 8th C, and retaken by Christian kings in the 13th C. The city achieved its greatest prosperity during the 16th and 17th C, when it was the destination for the ships going back and forth from Spain’s colonial possessions in the New World. The city went into decline in the 18th C, when naval operations moved to Cadiz. These days, it’s hard to imagine the city as an important naval center – we saw a fairly large cruise ship docked on the river, and wondered how it was going to turn around.
The number one attraction in Seville is the Alcazar, originally a Moorish castle dramatically expanded by Christian kings beginning in the 13th C. The building retains many of the most beautiful Moorish doorways, fountains and (especially) ceilings. The castle was used by Ferdinand and Isabella to receive important visitors, and it was the place where Columbus received his fateful trans-Atlantic commission. The palace is also justly famous for its magnificent gardens. In modern times, the building has been used as a film set for Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and, most recently, Game of Thrones.
I didn’t find much to like about Seville’s Cathedral. Despite some wonderful art, the overall impression seems to have been intended to communicate power, not faith, so it left me cold. I did like the graceful Giralda (bell tower) though – a remnant of the mosque that once stood on the site.
There is a lot of artistic beauty elsewhere in Seville. The Hospital de los Venerables, built as a rest home for older priests, boasts four masterpieces by Velazquez and Murillo. The most famous is Velzaquez portrait of Santa Rufina, a 3rd C martyr and patron saint of the city. According to legend, Rufina was a pottery maker, and Velazquez paints her holding a ceramic cup and saucer, whose iridescence dominates the painting. I also liked his Immaculate Conception, depicting Mary standing on a transparent globe. The two paintings by Murillo, of St. Peter and St. Catherine of Alexandria, are noteworthy for their intensity – they may depict saints, but the painter was clearly working with human models. These four paintings, presented in a small room where you could view them at close range (and, at least when we were there, no crowds) were, by themselves, worth the entire trip to Seville.
We also visited several aristocratic homes, now open to the public, which featured a hodgepodge of decorative arts, from Roman mosaic floors to Moorish tiles and ceilings to 20th C flamenco and bullfighting posters. Much of the older art was “repurposed” from older buildings, often decommissioned convents and monasteries, whose works were put up for sale in the 19th C, when concepts of historic preservation were different than they are today. However the art was acquired, though, these houses have themselves become historic buildings, and are well worth a visit.
We were lucky enough to visit Seville at the time of the annual spring fair. Normally this fair is held in April, but it was held in May this year because Easter occurred in late April. The fair originally began as a horse market, but these days it is mostly a parade of gaily decorated horse carts and social events featuring impromptu amateur flamenco.
The Feria also an opportunity for the women of the city to get dressed up in fancy flamenco dresses, whether or not they can dance. We saw stores selling flamenco dresses all over town, although some are clearly hand-made. The little girls get dressed up, too. We even saw one toddler, clearly too young for ruffles, with a Feria flower decorating her stroller.
Speaking of flamenco, we caught a fabulous performance at the Casa de Flamenco, a small venue run by a hotel operator who is passionate about the dance form. Nobody is really sure where flamenco came from. The women of Andalucia were famous for their dancing in Roman times, but we don’t know what their dances looked like. The Roma people (gypsies) didn’t invent it, but many aspects of the dance (especially the stylized hand movements and the non-Western musical scales) seem to be related to the probably Indian origins of the Roma. About the only thing we know for sure is that the dance form has little to do with northern Europe, even though “flamenco” literally means Flemish.
We enjoyed the food in Seville a lot. There is quite a bit of seafood here, which is interesting because it’s not that close to the water. There are conventional restaurants in Seville, but many people prefer to take their meals at tapas bars, which range from simple places offering slices of jamon iberico to more upscale places featuring foie gras, white asparagus, and seafood with clearly Japanese-inspired presentations.
Jerez de la Frontera
Jerez is the center of the “sherry triangle” where all of the country’s sherry is produced – in fact, the word sherry seems to be an English mispronunciation of the Spanish Jerez.
In Seville, we had eaten at a restaurant that featured a wide selection of sherries. They suggested we visit a small sherry producer in Jerez, Fernandez-Gao. We called them while we were on the train, and luckily enough they had an English-speaking guide who was happy to give us a tour.
We learned that there are 5 types of sherry, only one of which, Pedro Ximenez, is naturally sweet. (The “cream sherry” known internationally is a product created primarily for export.) All the other sherry types are made from the Palomino Fino grape, and range from bone dry to medium sweet, and they can be done throughout the meal.
At the end of the tour, our guide recommended a nearby restaurant, La Carbonara, which offered dozens of sherries by the glass and where they prided themselves on matching different sherries to individual dishes. It was one of the best meals of our trip.
We also visited the Fiera of Jerez, which is always held in May and this year overlapped the one in Seville. This fair was more horse-focused and featured a cavalcade of riders in traditional costume, including women riding side-saddle, which always fascinates me. (How do they do that?) There were also dressage exhibitions which we might have had time for if we hadn’t spent so much time drinking sherry.
Cadiz was founded by the Phoenicians nearly 2500 years ago, and is one of the oldest if not the oldest city in Europe. Although you can see the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and some Phoenician sarcophagi in the city museum, these days there are few reminders of the ancient city.
The city was burned nearly to the ground by an attack by English and Dutch forces in 1596, so most buildings date from 1600 or later. Interestingly, though, the old part of city hasn’t changed much since the 18th C – a late 18th C scale model of the city, beautifully executed in mahogany and ivory, is still remarkably accurate.
The cathedral in Cadiz has a wonderful exterior, but the best art is found elsewhere. Several smaller sites featured works by Murillo, Goya and El Greco. Surprisingly, these sites were not listed in standard guidebooks – we found out about them from a guide leading our walking tour.
For reasons that are not clear to me, many of the religious statues in this part of Spain are dressed in sumptuous clothing. In Cadiz, some of the Madonnas also had real hair. More traditional baroque sculptures are executed with a special vibrancy here, including one Madonna who seemed almost like she was dancing.
Despite its geographical location, Cadiz is a city that has long gone its own way. Unlike other cities in Andalucia, it does not have a Feria, and you will see few stores offering flamenco dresses. They do, however, have an active flamenco culture, here often in small bars rather than designated flamenco venues. And, unusually for Spain, they celebrate Carnival in the old Roman manner, using it as an opportunity for political satire. Sounds like Ascoli! They also have a song contest during Carnival, featuring performances at the theater named for the composer Manuel de Falla, a native of the city.
The city was most prosperous during the 18th C, after it became the main port for Spanish trade with the Americas. The same museum that housed the 18th C scale model also featured portraits of notable citizens of the town in the 18th and 19th C, including gentlemen with names like O’Reilly and O’Crowley. Apparently many Irish Catholics, prevented from owning land in 18th C Ireland, came to the thriving port city to make their fortune (with some success).
During the Napoleonic wars, the area around Cadiz held out against the French blockade. After the Napoleonic era, however, the city went into decline, as the British became the major naval power in the Atlantic.
These days, the main industry is tourism, although Cadiz remains a fishing port. The food is amazingly good here, and surprisingly creative. We enjoyed a number of things that are hard to get in Ascoli – oysters, deepwater tuna, and guacamole. We even had a deer salad with a pumpkin-based dressing (fortunately not too orange). All this for prices that were low even by Ascoli standards. We’ll be back!