Dancing in the fountain: The windy road to the 'real' Seville
You have to discover the city of Hercules via inscrutable maps, narrow streets and residents who like to sing loudly in the early morning hours.
It’s common knowledge among the locals that Seville was founded by Hercules — yes, that Hercules, the demigod son of Zeus (or Jupiter, if you happen to be Roman rather than Greek). Over the next two thousand years, the city was shaped by a who’s who of ancient civilizations, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths and the Moors, until 1248, when King Ferdinand III retook the city in the name of Christian Spain and got himself canonised for his efforts.
Then in 1492, Isabella and her Ferdinand chose the city to stage the sendoff of Christopher Columbus. In one of its rare shrewd business moves, Seville somehow parlayed this into a contract to receive everything Columbus and all future expeditions would bring back to Europe from the New World. Overnight the city became rich beyond its wildest dreams, and Sevillanos spent the next 150 years happily commissioning lavish palaces, churches, convents and works of public and private art in the exuberant styles of the day.
Eventually, due to the usual mix of corruption, infighting and sloth, Seville lost the contract, and without New World treasures pouring in the city soon sank back to its former status of economic backwater. While the locals naturally view this as the worst sort of luck, the rest of us are delighted with the results.
Twenty-first century Seville is an affordable, peaceful and safe city, with lively street life at all hours of the day and night, set against a backdrop of magnificent old buildings. While urban sprawl and 60s-style monstrosities blight the outskirts, as they do everywhere in these architecturally challenged times, the heart of Seville retains much of its ancient charm.
I say you can walk across the city in half an hour — I’ve done it myself, countless times — but the chances of you doing this on your first visit are astronomically small. One of the first things you discover upon arrival is that the city’s layout is byzantine in its complexity, with narrow, cobbled streets winding charmingly, but maddeningly, in every direction but the one you want to go.
The next thing you’ll learn is that all the city maps are wrong. Over the years, I’ve consulted dozens of maps created by the tourist bureau, the major department store, various hotels and a host of bars eager for my business. Every one of them contains wild inaccuracies about the size, relative position and even existence of various streets. The maps are not completely useless but it’s best to approach them the way you would a route that your Uncle Louie sketched on the back of a napkin while sitting in a pub: better than nothing, but certainly not up to GPS standards of accuracy.
My theory is that local mapmakers feel they wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t help you along with a few hints to give you a richer and more nuanced understanding of the city’s geography. For instance, if there is a useful little alley linking two busy streets, they’ll make sure you don’t overlook it by drawing it three times its actual size. This often leaves more literal-minded visitors seeking a major thoroughfare when in fact the alleged street is a pedestrian alley so narrow you can’t get down it with your umbrella up.
None of the maps include a compass mark indicating true north because it’s plainly irrelevant. In this serpentine city, people orient themselves by plazas and landmarks; like spaceships, they rely on the gravitational force of these larger bodies to draw them in, swing them around and shoot them off in the next direction they want to go. Ask locals how to get somewhere and they’ll explain how to find the next plaza and tell you to inquire again from there.
The local guidebooks attempt to pass this off as an advantage, saying blithely, 'Allow some time for losing yourself in the quaint back streets of the city, where you’ll discover the real Seville'. This is true, in its way. The real Seville isn’t the magnificent 16th-century buildings listed in our guidebook but rather the convivial groups of locals clustered in cafés and tapas bars, drinking beer and nibbling on olives and ham, chatting vivaciously and smoking one cigarette after another.
The Sevillanos consider it their God-given birthright to enjoy themselves and their city. They fling themselves into their social lives with the same zeal Americans devote to their careers. Just meeting a friend for a café con leche can take two hours, not counting the preliminary debate about where to go for the best coffee at the best price. Lunch is even more time-consuming; my record so far is seven hours one St. Patrick’s Day in an Italian restaurant on the Costa del Sol. Dinners may last until 4am.
Late nights can run until dawn and not infrequently include walking home through the silent streets, arm in arm with friends, and (if I am to be totally honest with you) singing a medley of old show tunes, Beatles hits and Besame Mucho. The neighbours put up with it because they know that next time, they could be the ones serenading the barrio.
Karen McCann / Expatica
Karen McCann is an American expat living in Seville, Spain. Her blog, Enjoy Living Abroad, provides stories and survival strategies for those living and travelling in foreign lands. Her transition to expat life is chronicled in her book Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. Her three-month train journey became the Amazon best seller Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home. She shares her packing secrets in the small guide Pack Light. For more, visit her website EnjoyLivingAbroad.com.
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