PRESS SECTION - The Daily Telegraph - Ultra Spain



Arriving in Seville is not unlike travelling through a time machine. I disembark from my GB Airways flight at one of the most ultra-modern airports in Spain, where all is shiny marble floors, vast expanses of glass and polished stainless steel, yet less than half an hour later I am in the middle of a labyrinth of tiny streets little changed since medieval times. I half expect to see a posse of horsemen galloping round the corner.

I was very glad I had taken a taxi from the airport and not tried to find my hotel on my own. It may be perfectly located, right in the centre of the city, but could prove difficult to find for the new visitor, as it is halfway along a tiny cobbled alleyway. We only just squeezed through when the driver folded the wing mirrors flat and persuaded his cab to hold its breath. Cities, even beautiful old Spanish cities, do not come much more atmospheric than this.

It is small wonder that Seville, capital of Andalucia and the fourth largest city in Spain, has found favour with so many over the centuries. It has in turn been the main city of Roman Baetica and the capital of the Visigoth kingdom. The Moors arrived in 712 and clearly liked what they found. It was some five centuries before the city was taken from them by King Ferdinand III of Castile. After the discovery of the Americas in 1492, Seville also made an ideal base from which the many expeditions to the New World set sail down the Guadalquivir. Spain’s only major navigable river, to the open sea.

There are signs of the rich and vibrant past everywhere you turn in this fascinating city. Foremost is the outstanding cathedral, the largest Gothic church in the world. Its bell tower, known as the Giralda, is all that remains of the original Almohad mosque which stood on the site. The upper levels of the town are reached via a series of internal ramps constructed, it is said, so that the Arabs could ride their horses right to the top.

Nearby is the Alcázar, or royal fortress, still used by Spain’s royal family when they visit the city, and countless other fascinating monuments just p0erfect for staring at while strolling around. The Barrio Santa Cruz, part of the former Jewish quarter, is made up of a tangle of tiny streets lined with atmospheric bars and small shops everywhere, even in winter, there is the scent of flowers and bitter oranges from the thousands of trees which cluster in every little square. Much of the fruit goes into our British marmalade pots, but look out for the tart fruit adding a piquant note to some local dishes too.

Down by the river the bullring waits for the next contest, while locals and visitors alike continue to debate the pros and cons of this ancient spectacle. Over the bridge in the Barrio area is where bullfighters and flamenco dancers once lived: this is, after all, the city of Carmen and Figaro. Now the small houses which line the streets here are home to artists, writers and poets; the colourful local bars and seafood restaurants which line the river bank echo the bohemian character of the area.

Back across the river, in the heart of the city, the open carriages offering sightseeing tours around the cathedral area and to the park are doing brisk business, while tourists and locals alike take advantage of the warm winter sunshine and opt for lunch outside the dozens of tapas bars and restaurants to be found on virtually every corner of every tiny Moorish street and lining each side of the many elegant squares.

Back at my bad, the tiny hotel Casa Numero 7, a delightfully refurbished 19th century townhouse which has only six guest rooms, I learn from the owner, Gonzálo del Rio, whose family also owns the González Byass sherry company, just how sweet life is in this part of Spain.

The city itself acts as a magnet for so many reasons. There are fabulous restaurants – such as the Taberna del Alabardero with its rooms leading off a central courtyard, specialising in traditional Spanish food but with an innovative twist, and the five-star Hacienda Benazuza with its restaurant, Bulli, which continues to draw the in-crowd.

Then there are the monuments and history, of course, the food and drinks and the sheer charm of the place. But then there is much more. There’s the art; the dance schools teaching perhaps the purest, most vibrant, form of flamenco in Spain; the theatre and the music, some of the best of which can be found at the new Teatro de la Maestranza on the Paseo de Colón, where performances range from jazz and film soundtrack festivals to opera.

But there are other gems to be found just a short distance away. The Hacienda La Boticaria, just a 20-minute drive from the centre of Seville and set in beautiful countryside, is worth a visit; then there is the Hacienda Alfares, originally an oil mill built in 865, with its cool gardens scented by jasmine and honeysuckle, perfect for some post-lunch tranquillity.

Slightly further afield, Jerez - just inland from Cádiz, and the home of sherry production - can be reached in about 40 minutes by train from Seville. Apart from some of the more obvious attractions such as visits to sample the products of the various bodegas, most of which welcome visitors with open arms, there is the fabulous equestrian school, Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre, which puts on displays of dressage most weeks, and the Museo de Relojes with one of the largest collections of clocks in Europe.

Flamenco is big here to. You can learn all about it at the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco within the 18th century Palacio Pemartin. And when you have had your fill of the dance, visit the Cathedral del Salvador to see its most famous work, Zurbarán’s Sleeping girl, then stroll on to the partially-restored 11th century Alcazar with its well-preserved mosque, now a church.

Granada, to the east, can also be reached easily from Seville, though it perhaps deserves a long weekend itself. The Alhambra palace and its fabulous Generalife gardens are among the main attractions here. It is a breathtaking place, with the Sierra Nevada mountains looming in the distance and the immense cathedral (which took almost 200 years to build) jostling the surrounding buildings in the old quarter. Small wonder that the guitarist Andrés Segovia called Granada a “place of dreams”, where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul”.

To the north-east of Seville lies Cordoba, historically one of the most important cities in Spain. It was the capital in Roman and Moorish times and to this day you can explore the eighth-century Mezquita, a mosque so large that it actually has a cathedral inside it. Close by is the Alcázar with its beautiful gardens with their water terrace and fountains. Look out, too, for the daily market in the 17th Century Plaza de la Corredera and, if you have the stomach for it, the Museo Taurino, the museum dedicated to bullfighting. There’s even the hide of a bull that won its fight and a replica of the tomb of its victim, the famous matador Manolete.

And then back towards Seville itself, only about 30 minutes drive away from the airport, you will find the delightful little medieval hilltop town of Carmona with its potent mix of mansions, churches and shady squares within the Moorish city walls.

Check into a hotel such as the Alcaza de la Reina with its inner courtyard filled with lush plants and fascinating artefacts, settle on one of the cool terraces with a cold drink and some olives while you contemplate a siesta, a stroll through the Plaza de San Fernando, then dinner and a nightcap somewhere cosy. You will soon start to feel the Magic of Andalucia.