Seville Part 1 – Living in the Centro Historico

Our host had given us instructions to make our way to the Jardines de Murillo, past the historic monument commemorating Columbus’ discovery of the new world and then cross the park entering the Santa Cruz barrio through an old gate, under an elaborate balcony. It’s believed this balcony was the inspiration for a scene in Rossini’s comedic opera, The Barber of Seville, where Lindoro and his band of troubadours played a serenade below the window of the stunning Rosina.  We’d pass through this relaxing park many times during our time in Seville while heading out to explore the city or shop at the closest Supermercados MAS. An excellent small grocery store with bakery, meat, cheese, and fish departments. We signed up for their shopper’s club card!

“Continue down Calle Agua,” so called for the ancient aqueduct that ran atop the high wall that parallels its length and supplied water to Royal Alcázar of Seville, a former Moorish palace before the reconquest of Seville in the 13th century by the Castilians. “It turns and becomes Calle Vida.” A few steps down the lane Calle Judería veered off, a reminder that this was once the old Jewish quarter when the Moors ruled the city and continued until 1492 when King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella decreed that all Hebrews be expelled from Spain.

We continued straight as the high walls of the lane narrowed to a point where walking single file was required, and the clickety-clack of our suitcases reverberated off the shadowed stone walls. With a broad smile and “Hola!” a sample of freshly toasted snacks was enthusiastically offered to us by an energetic saleswoman. It appeared that her mission was to have every tourist who passed her station sample the tasty treats created at Sabor a Espana, the shop that anchored a corner on Plaza de Doña Elvira, our final destination. Centered with a tiled fountain and surrounded by fragrant Seville orange trees, the intimate plaza was an oasis of greenery amidst the ancient stones of the old town.

Our host was waiting as promised with keys and an orientation of the apartment which we would call home for the next six weeks. It was the smallest apartment we had rented during our travels, but it had wonderful rooftop access with a super view of the plaza below and the Royal Alcázar, which was close enough for Seville football star Jesus Navas to kick a soccer ball into, if he were so inclined.

We will be the first to admit that our travels have not been in an orderly systematic approach to working our way slowly around the world. Instead, we seemed to have adopted a hybrid pinballer approach for ricochet shots to select our destinations across the globe. We wanted a location that offered a warm winter but eliminated any coastal towns for concern that a February/March stay would be too cold or damp along the oceanfront. We opted for Seville, with a population of 700,000, as an affordable alternative to staying in Madrid or Barcelona. The city was the ideal choice for an extended stay with near perfect weather and loads of interesting things to do and see within minutes of our apartment in the center of the historic district. This would have been totally prohibitive with our budget if we had booked this during the high season, but traveling in Spain during the shoulder season was very budget friendly and allowed us to immerse ourselves into the city’s cycle of activity.

A wonderful daily ritual soon emerged, with greetings exchanged with the shop attendant as she swept the cobblestones every morning or was offering samples later in the day when we passed.  Of course, we shopped there; the sweet aroma was too enticing to resist and the snacks were delicious. “We’ll walk it off,” we laughed. Then there were the tapas! Two favorite spots were La Fresquita, a tiny standing room only bar, uniquely devoted to “all things Semana Santa.” This included the playing of classical church music and the occasional wave of a smoky incense-filled censer over the countertop.  The other was Las Teresas, an old school tavern decked with polished wood and whole legs of Jamon Iberico dangling above the bar. We walked everywhere in Seville; it was the perfect city to explore by foot. Every direction proved rewarding with interesting discoveries.

Small plazas held cafés. With their tables set in deep shade, they dotted the historic center and provided a quiet spot to just sit back and enjoy the old-world ambiance of this foreign city, with an intriguing mix of Moorish and Spanish architecture. Our “walk a little then café, then walk a little more,” approach allowed ample opportunities to enjoy the sunny days.

Minutes from our door an arched passage under dwellings in the old Jewish quarter opened onto the Patio de Banderas. It was once a courtyard for a tenth century Moorish palace. In the 1700s the buildings that lined it were used as an armory. Later the square was planted with orange trees and converted to a riding ring for the local gentry to use. At the far end another arched gate framed the La Giralda belltower of the Catedral de Sevilla as we exited onto the Plaza del Triunfo. Built in the twelfth century during the Almohades dynasty when the Andalusian region was still part of Muslim Spain, the tower was originally a minaret.

Its square design is based on the Moorish architecture of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. The interior does not have a traditional set of stairs for the muezzin to climb to the top for the call to prayer. Instead, it was built with a ramp wide enough for the muezzin to ride a donkey to the summit of its 167ft height. I imagine they would have had a high muezzin turnover rate if this accommodation wasn’t made to facilitate the five times a day call to prayer. After a sixteen-month siege that ended in November 1248, the Muslim forces in Seville surrendered and originally wanted to destroy the minaret before their forced relocation from the city, to prevent its repurposing for another religion. Upon hearing this ing Ferdinand III of Castile included in the terms of surrender a passage that threatened “they would all be put the sword” if the beautiful minaret were defiled in any way. In the sixteenth century a new top third was added with renaissance architectural influences that expanded its height to 337ft and included space for its array of 24 bells. Giralda, “she who turns,” is the name given to the weathervane atop the belltower, with the heroic female statue representing the triumph of Christianity. The exterior of the tower blends Islamic decorative relief sculpture, featuring floral forms, intricate geometric shapes and stylized calligraphy, with Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. This is referred to as Mudéjar style and is prevalent in many of the historic buildings in Seville and throughout Andalusia. It is an enchanting blending of cultures and a signature of the region.

The lower part of the belltower and the Mudéjar style Puerta del Perdón gate into the Patio de los Naranjos courtyard filled with perfuming oranges is all that remains of the grand mosque that was repurposed as Seville’s first Christian cathedral after the reconquest. The old building stood until 1401 when construction started on the Catedral De Sevilla, with the mission to illustrate the city’s emerging importance and wealth as a trading center on the last navigable stretch of the Guadalquivir River. The church elders offered the following inspirational instructions to the builders: “let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we are mad.”

The inside of the of the church, also known as Santa Maria de la Sede, is cavernous with eighty side chapels and a ceiling that soars 138ft high. It is the third largest Christian cathedral in the world. The grandiose Gothic woodcarving of the Retablo Mayor, altar piece, is the life work of one artisan, Pierre Dancart, and gilded with an amazing amount of gold from the then newly discovered Americas.

Statues representing four kings of Spain from Aragon, Castile, Leon and Navarra are pole bearers for Columbus’ tomb, belatedly acknowledging that the explorer, who died in poverty, had made a major contribution to the Spanish Empire.

Always up for a climb, we signed on for a rooftop tour of the cathedral. Following our guide, we climbed stairs worn smooth over the centuries through ancient passageways hidden in the walls and towers to the top of the church for a beautiful view across Seville. We were grateful that we didn’t pass up a chance to walk amid the Gothic spires, flying buttresses and gargoyles that adorn the inspirational structure.

When the tour ended, we rested across from the church, on the steps of the Monumento a la Inmaculada Concepción in Plaza del Triunfo. It seems to be a rite of passage for visitors to Seville, to sit here in the heart of the historic district and soak in the ambiance of this beautiful city.

We let your minds imagine life in Seville centuries ago as horse drawn carriages, filled with tourists now, clattered across the cobblestoned square in front of the Royal Alcazar of Seville. Despite the fact that we were visiting in February, every day the queue for the Royal Alcázar of Seville was always exceptionally long, so we opted to buy our tickets and reserve an entry time online.  The same option is available for the Catedral De Sevilla.

The Plaza del Triunfo sits on what was once Seville’s ancient river port until the 900’s when the area was filled, and the Caliph of Cordoba ordered the building, adjacent to it, of the Royal Alcázar of Seville to accommodate offices of the Muslim government and the Caliph’s residence.

It’s been expanded and renovated numerous times over the centuries by both Muslim and Christian rulers. But surprisingly each successive regime savored an appreciation of the previous ruler’s Islamic architecture, intricate wall and ceiling decorations and quiet, lush oasis-like gardens. All are designed to create a sense of wonder, a key element of Islamic art. The Spanish Kings and Queens continued to admire the Muslim architectural style and imported Mudéjar craftsmen from Toledo and Granada to enhance their newer constructions which favored European Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architectural styles. 

The importance of the Alcázar evolved significantly as Spain’s colonization of the Americas saw the country grow into the world’s first global empire, all of it directed from this seat of power in Seville. It’s an amazing place is the best way to sum it up.  Today the Alcázar of Seville is still occasionally used as a royal residence by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia.

Flamenco is synonymous with Seville and one of most enjoyable ways to watch it was to find a street dancer or group busking. Our favorite dancer was Charli La Tornillo. She entertained crowds many afternoons with a passionate, fiery routine near the fountain in Puerta de Jerez Square, located on the tram line not far from the Alcázar. The Jardines de Murillo and the Plaza de España were also reliable spots to find Flamenco dancers.

One Saturday morning we decided to take the tram from the Prado De San Sebastian metro station into Plaza Nueva to start our morning, a relatively short trip in a modern coach through the pedestrian only historic center on a route lined with ancient stone and fin-de-siècle buildings.

It passed Seville’s 15th-century Exchange that now houses the Archivo de Indias, which contains centuries worth of records pertaining to Spain’s colonies in the new world. We first noticed a group of elegantly attired women wearing unique fashionable hats called tocados, or fascinators, walking along Av. de la Constitución, not far from city hall, our final stop. Saturday mornings, it turns out, are when civil weddings are performed in Seville.

It was an interesting morning watching the various fancifully dressed wedding groups queue in the plaza before their assigned time. Unlike civil ceremonies in the states, which usually are lowkey events, civil weddings in Spain are occasions for fashionistas to dress to the hilt.

After the ceremonies, friends and families escorted the bride and groom to nearby restaurants to continue the celebrations.

Seville is also a popular destination for joyful, outlandishly boisterous hen parties. Participants parade through the streets, dressed in quirky outfits, to celebrate their friend and bride to be.

Seville packs a lot into a small space and every direction we headed offered something interesting. The Hospital los Venerables was just a few steps away from our front door, down the narrow Calle Gloria that opens to the aptly named Plaza Venerables. 

It was built in the 1600s as a retirement home for poor, elderly or disabled priests.  The very austere exterior deceitfully hides a wonderfully ornate Baroque chapel and interior, as well as various tranquil courtyards. Today the building is used as a museum dedicated to the Sevillian born (1599) artist Diego Velázquez.  A collection of paintings by 17th century artists Francisco Pacheco, Murillo and Bartolomeo Cavarozzi are also on display.

There was an amazing amount to see in Seville as we wandered all over the city.  We’ll share our walks across this intriguing city in a number of future blogs.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Charmed by Alfama

Our driver hurried to unload our bags to the sidewalk as the famous Tram 28 waited patiently behind us, its tracks blocked by our taxi.  That’s the way it’s done on Lisbon’s narrow streets. Never the sound of frustrated drivers impatiently honking their horns, just folks courteously understanding the limitations of their intriguing city, built before anyone dreamed of modern transportation.IMG_9659The winding alleys and stairways of Alfama still retain their ancient charm as they work their way steeply uphill from the bank of the Tagus River to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the highest point in Lisbon. Spared the devastation of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the bulk of Lisbon, the meandering lanes and plazas of medieval Alfama haven’t changed in a thousand years. Alfama is the second oldest neighborhood in Europe, after one in Cadiz, Spain. Archeological excavations next to the Castelo de Sao Jorge have revealed evidence of a Phoenician settlement that dated to 1200 BC, a Roman amphitheater, and walls built by the Visigoths before the Moors arrived.  Today the rumbling sound of wheeled suitcases on the cobble stone alleys echoes, almost continuously, off these walls weathered by time. Tourists make their way to newly renovated Airbnb’s, as we did, much to the concern of older residents of Alfama who worry about being gentrified out of their homes.“This part of Alfama is restricted to residents’ cars only. Your street is just two blocks down that lane,” our driver said as he pointed across the tracks. We sighed in relief, as the street to our right was very steep and we weren’t sufficiently caffeinated yet to attempt an ascent, without sherpas, of what seemed liked the foothills of the Himalayas.IMG_7194The winding alleys and stairways of Alfama still retain their ancient charm as they work their way steeply uphill from the bank of the Tagus River to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the highest point in Lisbon. Spared the devastation of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the bulk of Lisbon, the meandering lanes and plazas of medieval Alfama haven’t changed in a thousand years. Alfama is the second oldest neighborhood in Europe, after one in Cadiz, Spain.IMG_7680 Archeological excavations next to the Castelo de Sao Jorge have revealed evidence of a Phoenician settlement that dated to 1200 BC, a Roman amphitheater, and walls built by the Visigoths before the Moors arrived.  Today the rumbling sound of wheeled suitcases on the cobble stone alleys echoes, almost continuously, off these walls weathered by time. Tourists make their way to newly renovated Airbnb’s, as we did, much to the concern of older residents of Alfama who worry about being gentrified out of their homes. 

Our home for the month of February was a small, one-bedroom apartment, with a college dorm sized refrigerator above a Fado restaurant, just a few guitar chords away from Miradouro Santo Estêvão Belvedere that offered views of Alfama and the Tagus river below. IMG_6896 Like our neighbors, we hung our laundry from our windows to dry.  Most evenings the melancholic melodies of traditional Fado music drifted softly down Alfama’s alleys from several restaurants nearby.IMG_7935While walking downhill was initially a good thing, it eventually led to us walking uphill and in Alfama it’s impossible to avoid.  Older folks walking with canes was a common site, since the cobblestones are so uneven and treacherous to walk on.  Choosing a career as an orthopedist almost guarantees success in Lisbon!  Fortunately, around every corner there seemed to be a mercado that carried basic items and catered to residents who didn’t want to leave their block.  We preferred to walk to the Graça district to shop at Pingo Doce, a terrific small supermarket chain, which was half a mile away.  It’s good we walked so much, as there wasn’t a bakery or pasteleria we couldn’t resist trying. They were so affordable, with prices at least seventy-five percent less than back in the States. We had a favorite butcher’s shop and seafood store.  An amazing variety of seafood was available, but our tiny kitchen barely had any prep room. One night as we prepared fish, we were surprised learn that our stove would trip the circuit breaker and plunge us into darkness if the electric heater was also on.  “Oops!” was not the word that we uttered that night as we fumbled for the circuit box in the dark.IMG_3463[31065]The wine and cheese produced in Portugal are exceptional, and an extremely good value, with each region renowned for a specialty. A very good wine can be purchased in the 10€ range, and a delicous bottle of Vino Verde, a young green wine, can be bought for less than 5€. We made destinations of recommended cheese shops, Queijaria Naçional and Queijaria Cheese Shop, and made a day out of the shopping expedition.  For chocolate lovers, a visit to the tiny shop of Bettina & Niccolo Corallo for a sweet treat and coffee is a must. Lisbon scored very high on our cappuccino, beer and wine test. The former were in the 1.50€ range, and the latter a reasonable 3.50€ a glass.  This was much more affordable than Antigua, Guatemala.  We found meals and drinks to be fairly priced all over Lisbon, even at the miradouros, the scenic overlooks.  At the famous Pastéis de Belém, where tourists would have willingly paid three times as much, the sweet pastry was less than 1.25€.

Wonderfully, tourist trap pricing seemed to be unheard of.  (We experienced only one incident of price gouging while in Portugal,  in Porto at the highly over-rated Café Majestic.) For dining in our Alfama neighborhood we tried Beco a Serio, Taberna dos Clerigos (Tavern of the Clergy), and Alfama Cellar, which was our favorite. Lisbon was culinary heaven and extremely gentle to our food budge with comparable lunches and dinners costing 50 – 60 percent less than in the States.

Considering we’ve been on the road over 250 days we have been relatively healthy.  But for Donna, a persistent sinus infection led to an ear infection and the challenges navigating the Portuguese medical system.  New to Lisbon and not knowing where to go for treatment we asked our host for recommendations.  “It will take longer to get treated at public clinic, but there is one nearby in Graça, or a private hospital.”  Arriving at Unidade de Cuidados de Saúde Personalizados (Mónicas) to a full waiting room at the clinic, the receptionist told us it would be better to come tomorrow at 8:00 in the morning to get in queue, as the day’s schedule was full already.   By chance as we were walking home, we noticed a doctor’s plaque on a door, walked in and waited patiently for the receptionist to address us.  Luckily, the doctor could see Donna later that day.  The office visit cost 65€, with a free follow-up visit, and the prescriptions only 20€.  Unfortunately, the ear infection did not clear up after the first round of antibiotics and we were advised to go to the walk-in nurse practioner clinic Centro de Enfermagem da Graça, nearby on the plaza to have the blockage evacuated.  With still no relief, the doctor sent us to an ENT, an ear, nose and throat specialist, at CUF Descobertas Hospital, a private hospital in Braco De Prata.  Outpatients enter through the emergency room and are directed to take a ticket, like in a bakery, and watch for the number to appear on the large overhead monitors in the waiting area.  Initially, we were called to the bursar’s counter to give all our information and passport number, plus a 500€ credit card deposit to secure services.  Back to the waiting area to be called to the triage room to be assessed correctly and then sent to a different waiting room, deeper in the hospital, before being called by a nurse and led through many corridors and elevators to the ENT waiting area.  A short time later we met the ENT specialist who provided a thorough ear exam, diagnosis and treatment plan.  Total – a whopping 140€ for a visit to a specialist!  This could not happen in the States even with health insurance.  Finally, back to the bursar’s counter where our credit card was refunded the unused balance.  Note: keep all your medical invoices. Our travel insurance provider World Nomads reimbursed the hospital and doctors’ visits along with all prescriptions.  Processing the claim went flawlessly online and our refund was electronically deposited. 

Exploring the different areas of Lisbon was a breeze using the tram and subway system.  Tram 28, famous only because it is the longest line in the city and hits most of the top tourist sites along its route, had several stops close to our apartment.

Purchasing a Viva Viagem transit card allowed us to pay the same rate for a ride as Lisboans.  A single use ticket on the tram was 3.60€, with the Viva Viagem card it dropped to 1.40€.  It also reduced the fare on the funiculars and Elevador de Santa Justa.  You can purchase the Viva Viagem at most subway stations that have a staffed ticket office.  We also used Uber and the local taxis; both were very reasonably priced with a trip into the city from the airport costing under 10€.  IMG_7493Residents told us this past February was unseasonably mild.  We enjoyed eating outside in the warm Spring sun as did many other tourists.  The streets seemed very busy for the “off season,” not overly so, but we couldn’t imagine what it would be like during the summer crush. 

We will share our day explorations around Lisbon in several future blogs.

Till then, safe travels.  Craig & Donna