Seville Part 4 – Convents, Cookies, and la Macarena

Seville was a delight to explore by wandering, its cityscape a web of ancient alleys that with every twist and turn slowly revealed the heart of this very old city to us. While the historic center of the city is a relatively condensed area that orbits around the Cathedral of Seville, the Royal Alcázar and the bullring, every bario in the ancient metropolois was fascinating to wander through. Spanish maps of the city from the 16th century hint at what’s to be found. In the 12th century, expanding upon an older Roman defensive wall from the first century AD, Seville’s Moorish rulers totally enclosed the growing town with a new and larger fortified wall.

It started at the Torre del Oro and ran north along the Guadalquivir River until it turned and headed inland in a huge arc that reconnected back at the tower. The old city walls originally had fifteen gates allowing entry into the city and were named for their function. Coal was brought into the city through Puerta del Carbon, while olive oil merchants used Postigo del Aceite to bring their product to town.  Puerta de Jerez and Puerta de Cordoba were the gateways through which travelers from those towns entered Seville.  Puerta Real was built for the exclusive use of the Spanish royals. 

The walls stood until a modernization of the city in 1868 required all the gates except for three be demolished. Today only the Puerta de la Macarena, Puerta de Cordoba, and the Postigo del Aceite remain.  Several small sections of the crenellated wall still stand along the ring road, Ronda de Capuchinos, that now follows the ancient edge of the city. Other parts turn up randomly across the city, where they were incorporated into the walls of newer 19th century buildings.

Roughly following the ring road, we would zig and zag our way through the old neighborhoods of the city that were once shielded behind its ancient wall.  Starting in the old Jewish quarter, now Santa Cruz, we followed the wall topped with an aqueduct along Calle Aqua and peered through locked gates, spying the lush shaded courtyards of the traditional homes. Buildings along this calle that back to the Jardines de Murillo use the old defensive wall as part of their structure. Veering into the center of the old Juderia we found some of the narrowest lanes in Seville. The thinnest being Calle Reinoso which leads off Plaza Venerables and is affectionately nicknamed “Calle de los Besos,” the Street of Kisses to visualize how intimate the passageway potentially can be.

After the Moors were defeated in 1248 every mosque in Seville was converted to a church. A similar policy ensued in 1492 when King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille issued the Alhambra Decree, expelling all of Spain’s Jewish population. But a century before the Spanish Inquisition began a rioting mob in 1391 was incited by the hateful rhetoric of a Christian Archdeacon, Ferdinand Martinez, blocked the exits from the Seville ghetto and set the Juderia ablaze. It was once a thriving community that hosted three large synagogues and twenty lesser ones.  Four thousand people died that March 15th. Survivors fled the city, or were forced to convert to Catholicism. The abandoned properties were redistributed by King Henry lll to Christian nobles. The Iglesia de Santa María la Blanca is a notable conversion of a synagogue built in the 13th century. Its stunningly ornate plaster work ceiling veils its tragic history.  A block away where Puerta de la Carne once stood, the street is now lined with umbrellaed tables in front of a mouthwatering assortment of eateries.

Blindfolded or throwing darts at the map, any direction you randomly choose in Seville reveals fascinating layers of history. We never passed the chance to explore a church if its doors were open. Admittedly that’s a huge number in Seville. And some visits are more rewarding than others, we learned upon entering the chapel of the Convento Santa María de Jesús.  The gilded 16th century baroque interior was beautiful. What we found just as intriguing (you get a little numb by the huge amount of gold-leaf in Seville,) though, was that the nuns, of the non-sequestered order of the Poor Clares, bake “Las Dulces,” cookies and pastries, in order to financially support themselves. They sell the tasty creations derived from centuries old, secret recipes from behind an iron barred window.

A half block away the Casa de Pilatos was a marvelous example of a 16th century Andalusian Palace that rivaled the workmanship of Real Alcazar.

It displays a unique juxtaposition of Mudéjar, Gothic, Renaissance and Romantic architectural styles that seamlessly blend into a kaleidoscope of color, shape and texture. 

There are also Roman and Greek antiquities on display that were collected by an early patriarch of the family when he served as Viceroy of Naples in the mid-1500s.  It has amazingly stayed in the same aristocratic family for 500 years and today the 20thDuchess of Medinacelli still has a private residence there.  Admission is free on Mondays after 3pm, but there can be a long queue.

Continuing down the street toward the main boulevard we found Sevilla Vinos a small shop that specializes in local Andalusian wines and sherries. You can purchase wine here by the bottle or you can bring your empty bottles back to be refilled from large casks like the local folks do.

Farther along, the Almazen café was the closest we could find to an internet café in Seville aside from Starbucks. But what’s the fun of that when you can find a neighborhood gem instead. Mostly, taking your laptop computer to work in a public space just isn’t done in Europe from our experience. It seems to break the cherished protocol of separating work from pleasure, a refreshing practice here.

Out on Calle Maria Auxilidora we walked along the ring road to the Jardines del Valle where a long stretch of fortress wall separates the park from the barrio behind it.  That Sunday a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the park to cheer on the runners in the annual Seville Marathon. 

Farther down the avenue the arched door of the Moorish influenced tower-gate Puerta de Cordoba stands attached to the Church of San Hermenegildo. A legend from the 6th century tells us Hermenegildo was a young Visgoth Prince, son of King Leovigildo who followed a branch of Christianity, Arianism, that did not believe in the holy trinity. Upon marrying a Frankish Catholic Princess, Hermenegildo converted to Catholicism against his father’s wishes. He was eventually imprisoned in the Cordoba tower-gate and beheaded there on Easter Day in 585AD when he refused holy communion from an Arian bishop.  The relic of his severed head was passed for centuries between numerous monasteries and convents on the Iberian Peninsula before finding its final resting spot at the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid. He was canonized on the thousandth anniversary of his death. During the renaissance on the saint’s feast day, April 13th, the Brotherhood of San Hermenegildo would host jousts in front of the defensive wall that still stands next to the church. 

This is the longest stretch of ancient city wall still standing. It runs parallel to the ring road for seven blocks between the Church of San Hermenegildo and the monumental Arco de la Macarena, which stands next to the church of the same name. The last vestiges of a moat added in the 18th century are still visible here.  During the Spanish Civil War firing squads executed people against this arch. It’s believed this entrance was built by the Moors over one of the three original gates to the city constructed by Julius Caesar when he governed Andalusia in the first century AD.  The origin of the gate’s name is disputed with some historians speculating that it was named after a wealthy Roman property owner. Others think it bears the name of a Moor princess who lived next to the wall when the Arabs controlled the city. Popular belief is it was named in tribute to Macaria, daughter of Hercules, who is the mythological founder of Seville.

We stopped to see the Virgin of Hope, a venerated wooden statue draped in a gold embroidered robe covered with precious stones at Hermandad de la Macarena, and found her fascinating.  Entering the basilica is free, but there is a small fee to view, up close, the exquisite craftsmanship of the robe of the Virgen de la Esperanza de Macarena de Sevilla, (say that ten times fast!) from behind the altar.  The Virgin of Hope is the patroness of bullfighters and was famously re-dressed only once in a black robe to mourn the death, in 1920, of the famous Sevillano bullfighter, José Gómez Ortega, who was loved across Spain. 

To prevent looting of the icons during the Spanish Civil War, a caretaker secretly took the statue home and pretended he was caring for a bedridden sister. Later he pretended to be a stone mason and secreted the statue in the city cemetery within the ornate tomb of the bullfighter Ortega for several months to protect it.

Heading back into the city through the arch we eventually came to the ornately figured baroque façade of Iglesia San Luis de los Franceses.  This was a refreshing change from other baroque churches in Seville that hid their opulent interiors behind plain, almost barren exteriors that benefit from the phrase – “Don’t judge a church by its exterior.” This was clearly not the case with the Iglesia San Luis de los Franceses; it broadcast “notice me!” as if the exquisite stone figures were the 18th century mason’s version of a neon sign.  The church was built at the beginning of the 1700s for the Jesuits to use as a novitiate, but they were only able to use this elegant building for thirty years before the order was expelled from Spain and the rest of the Spanish empire.  Later it was used as a Franciscan seminary and convent, then factory, theatre, hospital for venerated priests and hospice. Eventually it was deconsecrated before being shuttered for many decades. After a ten-year renovation sponsored by the Provincial Council of Seville the still deconsecrated church is now a museum and local government office. Its four gilded baroque altars with their sixteen spiraling, solomonic columns that support the dome above are spectacular and in our opinion it’s one of the finest church interiors in the city.

Associating convents with cookies led to a little misadventure one afternoon. We entered the side door of the Convent of Santa Isabel, located next to the Iglesia de San Marcos, and met a nun talking with a parishioner.  Looks of confusion crossed everyone’s face and heads shook, no, when I asked in very poor Spanish “Los dulces por favor.”  A few moments after leaving empty handed, the gentleman the sister was conversing with called to us and to our surprise presented two simple sandwiches.  We suddenly realized we had approached the convent’s food bank and they thought we were asking for something to eat. We thanked him and made a donation which brought a huge smile to his face and ours.

In this part of the city there seemed to be a church or convent on every block, and we had surely far exceeded the number of visitations to religious institutions to keep thunder and lightning at bay. Just wandering through the neighborhoods without a particular destination in mind was very enjoyable and let us follow any whim spontaneously, whether it was a flash of light from the journeyman knife sharpener as he held the blade to his grinding stone attached to the back of his scooter, or music emanating from an alley as a marching band rehearsed, or the cacophony created by the brotherhoods practicing with their weighted floats prior to Holy Week.

The farther we were away from the historic center of Seville the fewer tourists we encountered and prices in the barrio eateries dropped considerably. Los Coloniales was one such tavern located on a corner across from Plaza Cristo de Burgos. At the beginning of March the days were sunny and warm in the afternoon so dining outside was delightful, though sometimes it required a wait.  Leaving our name with the hostess we waited in the shaded park across the street until she loudly bellowed, “Craig & Donna!” We felt like locals as we hurried over.  The tapas and the ambiance of the setting were very enjoyable.

One afternoon as we walked back to the apartment from a late lunch, luckily I noticed a single black and white flyer tacked high on a tall double-wide door, while Donna had stopped way down the block to take a photo.  Hundreds of years old, the door had a smaller single door built into which was open. I don’t recall seeing a placard on the wall identifying the building, but the flyer had a picture of a tray of cookies! By the time I turned around and got Donna’s attention the door had quietly been shut and locked to our disappointment. Finding it on a map we established that it was the Convento de Santa Inés. Allegedly they baked bolletos, little round cookie balls with sesame and honey-glazed pestiños – dough flavored with orange zest, aniseed, olive oil, and wine, then fried. Determined, we returned earlier several days later and stepped over the ancient threshold into a spartan courtyard with no sign of activity or arrows to follow. But in the far back corner under a small portico there was a plain wooden cabinet built into the wall surrounded by a fading spiritual fresco and Azulejo tiles.  Taped to its door was the price sheet for the available, “Las Dulces.” The cabinet is called a torno and when you open the door there is a lazy Susan style turntable that allows the cloistered nuns to receive your payment and provide your cookies while remaining unseen. Over the centuries, convent tornos were also sadly used to anonymously drop-off unwanted infants in hopes the child would have a better life. Three decades ago, there were forty cloistered convents in Seville, today only a dozen remains, hosting an ever dwindling number of nuns.  Not all of them bake “Las Dulces,” but knowing now we wish we had searched for the others that still do.

Dessert was celebrated, back on our apartment’s rooftop, with a glass of sherry and the cookies from the Convento de Santa Inés, as we sat with our backs to the laundry billowing gently on a warm Spring breeze and waited for the sun to set. This was unfortunately one of our last adventures in Seville before the city entered its first lockdown of the pandemic in March 2020 and all tourists were ordered to leave Spain. We were sitting on the steps of the pillar at Plaza del Triunfo late one afternoon, amazed by the emptiness of the square. There weren’t any horse-drawn carriages or lines of tourists waiting for entry into the cathedral or the Alcázar. Two policemen approached. “The city is closed, you must go home.” It was a shocking eviction notice.

We thoroughly enjoyed our immersion into the nuances of living in Seville and would definitely recommend the city for anyone considering a long-term stay. The city simultaneously manages to be intriguingly historic and contemporary. There were many different ways to enjoy the city and aside from the moderately high price of museum admissions, the cost of living in Seville and dining out was very reasonable.  We walked mostly, but on occasion used the rideshare Uber which operated very well across the city. The weather was splendid in February and March, with cool mornings warming into delightful sunny afternoons.

Make plans, enjoy your travels!

¡Hasta luego!

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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