Surprising Seville

This former Gateway to the Americas beckons weary Americans anew

Seville is hot, and I’m not talking about the brutal Spanish summers where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. Nor am I adding my praises to such magical attractions as the Moorish Alcazar; the third-largest cathedral in Christendom; the narrow, winding streets of the Jewish Quarter; flamenco; Holy Week processions; or a flourishing tapas scene — all of which are thoroughly described by professional travel writers in numerous guidebooks.

What I want to catalogue instead are Seville’s lesser known charms, all of which could be about to trigger a new kind of tourist boom among gloomy Americans, worn out by twitter storms and political corruption.

Seville’s cafes are an integral part of everyday life

Thriving café and street culture

It might be too much of an overstatement to call Seville an antidote to the individualist isolation of the peculiarly American kind. But the sense of vibrant community that Americans are abandoning for the cool touch of technology, remains on proud display in this capital of Andalusia.

It helps that Seville is a walking and cycling city. Small cars squeeze through narrow streets. Everywhere, people are on the move and in constant conversation. Face-to-face interactions and frequent festivals are the city’s lifeblood, a legacy one proud Sevillano explained that hails from Roman times when real life meant life outdoors. The city’s plazas, which act as mini-hubs connecting different neighborhoods and districts, hum with the sound of human connection. The Plaza de la Alfalfa is a particularly vital crossroads where families and friends gather, children play, and restaurants pulse. There are no monuments to gawk at, no postcards to buy; the scale is small and warm. Generational cohesion and conviviality are the marvels here.

Seville is also home to countless cafes and tapas bars. Most of these establishments are comfortably full and no more than a 25-minute walk from the city center. While not everyone you see shares in the good vibe, there is an inescapable sense of continuity that is reassuring.

Tomb of Christopher Columbus

Deep, proud, and conflicted history

Christopher Columbus’ remains reside in a golden coffin in Seville’s giant cathedral. Seville celebrates his discovery, which starting in the 16thcentury, transformed this river city into the Gateway to the Americas — a financial and commercial capital of the Old World built on the wealth and blood of the new. The seeming disregard for the genocidal consequences of La Conquista can be cringeworthy. Yet while acknowledging the crimes, Seville wraps itself in the cultural influence of a different sort. Because of Spanish explorers, 500 million people now speak Spanish worldwide, making it humanity’s second most widely spoken language. Indeed, one of Seville’s most beautiful monuments, the Plaza de Espana, was built for the 1929 International Exposition that celebrated this enduring Ibero-American connection.

This is just another way of saying that old cities that have known glory and grief develop a long view of history. That’s particularly true of Seville, which carries the imprint of Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Vikings, and Moors. Among its many reference points are the 9thand 10thcenturies, when Moors, Jews, and Christians lived in relative harmony. This contrasts with the early Inquisition in the 16thand 17thcenturies, when presumed heretics were burned at the stake at Plaza de San Francisco.

Seville’s architecture and outdoor spaces speak of a different kind of juxtaposition. Buildings and decorative elements combine Christian and Moorish elements in classic mudejar style. Moorish gardens, built to resemble paradise, and their quiet, gurgling fountains intended to encourage reflection, contrast with noisy, Christian-era jet sprays designed to attract attention.

Americans are taught to take the short view of everything. That’s not possible in Seville. With a foot in nearly every door of Western and Middle Eastern cultures for the last 3,000 years, Seville comforts us with the reality that the present is merely an episode in an epic human story that is still being written.

Plaque outside Washington Irving’s residence in Seville

Washington Irving

Who knew that the writer who gave us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkleis a cultural hero in southern Spain, particularly Seville, where he resided for a time in the late 1820s? Now relegated to the literary shadows, the prolific Irving was widely read in his time and his leisurely, wry style often copied. But it was his history of Christopher Columbus and his Tales of the Alhambra that catapulted him to Spanish celebrity and ensured that his one-time home in Seville’s Santa Cruz district would be an important tourist stop today.

It is a welcome pleasure to share in this fellow American’s halo along Seville’s Calle Agua. Sevillanos explain that Irving’s Tales, which elevated and popularized Andalusian folk stories and romanticized Granada’s Alhambra in loving detail, sparked the preservation of this now World Heritage site.

It was not a one-sided exchange. Irving was enthralled by “fair Seville” and much impressed by the heroism, moderation, and “graces and refinements” of the Moors, successful immigrants who “severed from their native homes, loved the land given them.”

But it is in his descriptions of how to travel that today’s dispirited Americans should find fresh inspiration: “But above all we laid in an ample stock of good-humor, and a genuine disposition to be pleased, determined to travel in true contrabandista style, taking things as we found them, rough or smooth, and mingling with all classes and conditions in a kind of vagabond companionship.”

This is the young, adventurous, egalitarian America speaking, a voice that in honoring Washington Irving, Seville has gifted us.

Italica

For all of Seville’s many surprises — including cloistered convents offering baked goods for sale via speakerphone — the nearby ancient Roman city of Italica tops the list. Founded in 206 BC and the birthplace of two notable Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, Italica was a luxurious provincial town with all the amenities — from amphitheater to sewer systems– that signaled imperial favor.

Although it’s possible to tour the site on your own, having a guide is a far more enriching experience. With little explanatory signage, how else would you know that the public entrance to the 25,000-seat amphitheater follows the trail of ancient gladiators? Or that the geometric image scraped into the stone was a game board where anxious gladiators played before awaiting combat? Or that the tile with three pairs of feet drawn in alternate directions was where gladiators asked the goddess Nemesis to spare them from being carried out of the arena feet first?

Gladiators’ game board at Italica

It is precisely this accessibility and intimacy that stamp Italica as special. On the stone-paved main avenue, which still shows evidence of a major earthquake in the mid-third century, a number of large houses of wealthy residents have been excavated, revealing their original floor plans. And while what are considered the best of the residential floor mosaics now reside in Seville’s Archaeological Museum, what remains in place after nearly two millennia is a powerful reminder of the beauty and allure of Roman art. Seeing these mosaics side-by-side, as they were intended by their designers, also offers a rare glimpse into how they functioned in a real Roman household.

Other mosaics surely await discovery in the still unexcavated parts of this prosperous city, a tangible reminder of what the extension of limited Roman citizenship to conquered peoples meant in the ancient world. Rome understood that granting citizenship helped to ensure loyalty and peace. And, as Spain’s role in feeding and later leading the empire showed, it also meant rejuvenation. For Americans strolling in Italica, it is a lesson worth remembering.

Culture writer with an eye for history, science, sports, art, politics, photography, travel, and the original story between the lines.

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