On Palm Sunday in Seville, Spaniards walk the cobbled streets in their church best. Children are neatly dressed in knee-high socks, ladies wear high heels with colourful dresses, and men match smart blazers and beige chinos with sunglasses. Many carry palm or olive branches to mark the start of Holy Week, as they walk past the spectacular architecture, including baroque, neoclassical and gothic styles, and Andalusia’s citrus trees.
At home everyone is preparing for Pesach and one set of traditions. But on a short break away before it begins, I discover another set of rituals, some dating back over a thousand years. Seville has long been said to be the best place in Spain to watch the Holy Week celebrations.
Sitting on the Hotel Inglaterra’s terrace — which serves a bowl of nuts alongside a cool Gin & Tonic — we watch a procession in Plaza Nueva, where elaborate floats carry carvings of holy figures. The celebrations go on until the early hours.
Because the rituals practised by generations are key to the city’s identity, something that’s reinforced as we take a walking tour of the 2,200-year-old city with our guide from the Seville Tourism office, Alejandro. We start in the Old Town, home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Alcazar Palace, the Cathedral and the General Archive of the Indies.
Constructed over several centuries, the Alcazar Palace — still used by Spain’s royal family — reflects the Muslim, Christian and Jewish styles of the architects who designed it and the workers who built it. “It was so beautiful, it became the inspiration for the Alhambra Palace,” our guide explains.
Lemon and orange trees line the spectacular gardens, while around the palace, peacocks and ducks roam freely. There is a maze garden, and beyond that, the only working hydraulic organ in Europe, restored in 2006. Powered by water, the organ plays a tune for five minutes once an hour. Walls are lined with paintings, some now faded.
At its core, it’s a romantic place. As I think this, Japanese newlyweds, the bride dressed in white with pale pink Christian Louboutin shoes, walk by. This is also a place so scenic that producers from the award-winning Game of Thrones chose it for filming, with location tours now running for fans.
But amidst the spectacle, you’ll see Jewish symbols everywhere. Pebble floors are decorated with Magen David shapes. A Star of David is emblazoned on iron gates. “The Jews, Muslims and Christians built this palace and put their signs throughout. That’s why you see the Jewish iconology. That’s why you see the turquoise blue colours of the Middle East,” explains Alejandro.
We cross the square to the Cathedral of St Mary of the See, a former mosque. Taking his advice, we first climb the La Giralda bell tower to drink in spectacular views of the city (the south and west views are best). Designed by the Arab population who travelled largely on horses, there are no stairs — you walk up 35 floors of slopes.
Inside the Cathedral, the third largest in the world, lie part of the remains of Christopher Columbus, along with the largest Gothic Cathedral — not currently in use, 7,000 pipes were used for its construction.
Later, we walk to the streets of San Bartolome, originally part of the city’s Jewish quarter. Today, the neat rows of colourful balconied homes leave no trace of their former Jewish owners.
There is one place — a hotel — that does pay homage to the old community: Las Casas de la Juderia. “This used to be 17 Jewish houses. The big houses have a tunnel connecting and running through them, so if the Jews needed to suddenly escape, they could and they could tell each other.”
The manager allows us to walk through. Guests from across the globe follow bell-boys as they wheel their suitcases around the tunnels, not knowing their significance. On one wall is a map, a sketch of the houses and the tunnels.
I find myself imagining the lives of the Jewish community who once lived here, increasingly persecuted after the start of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, before being formally expelled in 1492. Next door, a synagogue dating back to the 13th century, was converted into a church after a pogrom, the Iglesia Santa Maria La Blanca.
We walk on through the bustling Santa Cruz area, Seville’s old Jewish Quarter before strolling around 15 minutes to the iconic Parque de Maria Luisa, popular with locals and tourists for a Cyclotour — a self-peddle rickshaw — around the gardens.
Our own hotel, the Barcelo Sevilla Renacimiento, sits on the banks of the Guadalquivir River — 20 minutes’ drive from the airport, and 10 from the Alcazar.
With all the essentials, not to mention a coffee pod machine, it was more business-oriented than luxurious (unsurprising given the conference centre next door) but comfortable, and popular with families for the pools and water park nearby.
A 15-minute walk away lies the nightlife of the Alameda De Hercules strip, plus there’s La Santa Maria restaurant in the hotel itself for dinner — with a great selection at breakfast, including an egg bar for omelettes, chocolate fountain and range of doughnuts. Clearly a Seville favourite, people snack on them as freely as a Brit would pick at a packet of crisps.
As evening falls, it’s time for us to discover another tradition, buying tickets for a flamenco show. It is after all a local music and dance form performed over generations so we head to the well-reviewed Baraka Sala Flamenca. The performers are talented, a four-piece show made up of a guitarist, singer, male and female dancer.
But as I sit among English tourists sipping Sangria, I found myself wishing I was in the two tapas bars outside. Perhaps it’s a generational difference, those around us enjoy the show.
Happily I got to sample both: my secret to enjoying Seville is good tapas so after visiting a well-reviewed, but truly terrible spot, I asked Alejandro’s advice.
“The more detailed the boards outside the restaurant are, the less authentic it is,” he says, suggesting Taberna (near the Cathedral), and Las Golondrinas and Tipico in Triana. In a city where ‘jamon’ is king, we find delicious kosher-friendly tuna tartare, slow-cooked cod and an array of vegetarian options. Nine dishes still only sets us back around £25.
Another Seville tradition I was very happy to discover.
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