Seville: Sites We Visited

Cathedral and Giralda: Seville’s 15th- to 18th-century cathedral is one of the three biggest in the world (along with St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London). The interior doesn’t feel so huge because the space is broken up by choir stalls, organs, altars (which are in the middle rather than at the end, as in Northern European cathedrals) and scaffolding for pre-Easter Week renovations.

However, several parts of the cathedral feel truly monumental. One is the immense main altar of carved wood covered in gold, nearly 100 feet high and 65 feet wide with more than 200 carved figures in 44 panels. It and a smaller (but still huge) pure silver altar attest to the riches that poured into Seville during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the city had the official monopoly on trade with Spain’s colonies in the Americas. There is also a large, weighty tomb of Christopher Columbus with four huge figures supporting a casket, all in bronze.

Next to the cathedral is the soaring Giralda belltower, the symbol of Seville. The first three-quarters of the tower are a 12th-century minaret from the grand mosque that was demolished to build the cathedral. The top quarter of the tower, including the weather vane (giraldillo), a statue of Faith, was added in the 16th century. For once, the mix of periods and styles is a harmonious one, and the tower is beautiful, especially lit up at night.

Chris climbed the tower, which offers marvelous views of the city and of the intricate towers and buttresses of the cathedral. The climb is fairly easy because it’s on a series of ramps, rather than stairs, which go up in quarter-turns around the tower. Originally, the design allowed guards on horseback to ride to the top, two abreast.

In the evening, Chris returned to hear a free organ and French horn concert in the cathedral. The organ’s sound was OK, but it didn’t come close to filling up the great space around it. Even so, it was pleasant to sit in the cathedral in the semidarkness and listen to Mozart concerti (although the main altar looks very dull when not lit up).

Museo de Bellas Artes: This fine arts museum was much larger and more interesting than we’d expected. Housed in a beautiful old convent building, the museum focuses on Spanish artists of the 15th to 20th centuries, especially those from Seville. Thus, most of the works aren’t well known to non-Spaniards.

The paintings and sculptures are mainly religious, though some of the 18th- to 20th-century pieces have other subjects (such as street scenes, still lives, or the death of a famous bullfighter). The museum lets you see the sort of art that usually hangs in churches and convents, but here you can get a much closer look, with better light.

When we were there, the museum had a special exhibition of paintings by El Greco, a highly original and innovative Spanish painter of the late 1500s and early 1600s. Melissa was very taken with some of his work; I’m not so sure I like it myself, though it is unquestionably striking. But it’s also fascinating how the “rediscovery” of El Greco’s work around 1900 (after it had been ignored for centuries) clearly had an influence on Dali, Picasso, and other Spanish painters of the early 20th century.

Museo Arqueologico: We thought the archaeological museum in Cordoba was impressive, but Seville’s blew it out of the water (even with half of the rooms closed for restoration). The highlight is artifacts from Italica, a Roman city founded in 206 BC by Scipio Africanus to house retired soldiers wounded in his battles against the Carthaginians for control of Spain. Four centuries later, Italica was the birthplace of emperors Trajan and Hadrian.

The ruins of Italica are located a few miles outside Seville, but we weren’t able to figure out the buses to get there. Luckily, many of the best pieces have been moved to the archaeological museum: incredible wall-sized mosaics and monumental statues of gods, goddesses, and emperors, carved from the warm Greek Parian marble so prized in the ancient world. Beautiful things, intelligently displayed. The museum is located in Parque de Maria Luisa; it’s the big gray classical-looking building opposite the big faux-Arab building (don’t expect to find signs).

Alcazar: This fortress/palace/garden complex next to the cathedral has been extensively expanded and rebuilt over the past 11 centuries, so it’s a mishmash of shapes and styles. But it contains a jewel, the 14th-century Palacio de Don Pedro.

This is Seville’s version of the Alhambra, but with a twist: It was built by a Christian king (Pedro I of Castille). An ally of the Muslim emir of Granada and an admirer of Moorish design, he imported craftsmen from the Alhambra to decorate his palace. It’s an amazing interweaving of two styles—decorative Arabic script next to the lion and castle motifs of Leon and Castille, for example.

The intricately carved plaster still has some of the brilliant blue and red paint with which it was originally decorated, which helps you imagine what the white walls of the Alhambra might have looked like in their prime. In some places the painting and gilding feels overdone, but in other spots it’s eye-poppingly beautiful.

The palacio is smaller and more constricted than the spacious Alhambra palaces. That feeling was heightened because on the day that we visited, the Alcazar was overrun by school groups (from kindergarten to college age), who get in free.

Parque de Maria Luisa and Plaza de Espana: This big park south of the old part of the city holds most of the wonderful buildings from the 1929 expo, two of which have been converted into the archaeological museum and the Museum of Popular Arts and Costumes (can you believe we didn’t have time to see that?!) The park, full of trees and flowers and fountains and follies, is a gorgeous place to stroll on a pretty day.

Just east of the park is the grandest, most fantastical of the expo structures: Plaza de Espana. It’s so huge and ornate as to be almost unbelievable. A vast semi-circular building of brick and colorful tiles, all towers and arches and painted ceramic finials. It fronts a plaza with a fountain and canals and little arched bridges—all a giant artificial stage set to proclaim Spain’s glory during the expo.

I don’t know what, if anything, the buildings are used for now (they’re obviously maintained, but they don’t look very occupied). But this is the ultimate place to wander and ogle. The best time for picture taking is just before sunset, when the late-day light illuminates the buildings. (Sorry for the lack of photographs; you’ll just have to see it for yourself.)

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