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Report 856: The Romance of Moorish Spain

By janie and geoff from Canada, Fall 2004

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Page 8 of 13: Seville, the Real Alcazar, Worlds Most Expensive G&T and Star Wars

photo by Sandy Gant

Fountain in Real Alcazar gardens


First thing we did was to find an open café for breakfast, and we found that the Bar Giralda on our street, the Calle Mateo Gago, was serving croissants, coffee and juice. Then I glanced at my guide book to find that the bar was a featured spot, due to the fact that the vaults and arches of the restaurant used to be part of some Moorish baths.

There we stood at the Puerte del Leon of the Real Alcazar, waiting for the ticket gate to open. This was our first experience of a major Moorish palace and we were in awe of the delicate plasterwork decoration, the arches, the water features. These palaces are ongoing construction projects that take centuries, depending on what the king in power wants to do. The first section of the Real Alcazar was built in the 10th C and the parts that remain include 12C Almohad, 13C Gothic, Mudejar, and Baroque. It is a mixture of military and royal palace and the unexpected thing is that there are vast gardens within the walls of the Alcazar. Also unexpected were the beautiful tiles and tapestry in the Carlos V section of the palace, of New World jungle themes, brightly coloured still and vicious in their depiction of nature and conquest.

The main façade of the Palacio Pedro I is considered the purest, most beautiful example of Mudejar architecture, and it is interesting to see this synthesis of Muslim and Christian Gothic architecture and decoration. In the Patio de las Munecas, Leslie and I looked around for a pair of doll’s heads decorating one of the pillars. These are the dolls that give the patio its name, and apparently if you can find the heads, you’ll be lucky, and so we found them!

Geoff and I bought extra tickets to view the royal residence, the official residence of the royal family when they are in Seville (but I”ll bet the Alfonso XIII hotel is more comfortable). It was worth it just to be able to look down into the courtyards from the apartments above, and to see the view of the cathedral. I also found the private chapel of Isabel the Catholic Queen very interesting, because there is no sculpture or painting in the chapel, it is an altarpiece entirely made of polychrome tiles decorated with a scene of the Virgin.

The crowds at the Real Alcazar were pretty heavy, but what can you do? At least the heat and dryness ensures that the plasterwork doesn’t deteriorate as quickly; however it’s also pretty obvious that the Alcazar is a non-stop restoration project, it’s been under constant repair since the 19th century.

We then went to see the Cathedral, which is huge. Supposedly it is the third largest in the world and the largest in terms of floor space. There are chapels galore, and a truly unbelievable monument to Columbus. His coffin is carried by four larger than life pallbearers representing the provinces of Castile, Leon, Navarre and Aragon. The poor guy doesn’t even get a quiet niche somewhere in a crypt or a cemetery, he’s up in mid-air like a Holy Week processional saint. Anyhow, there is a lot of debate over whether or not these are his bones anyway.

We dutifully made our rounds of all the chapels and altars, and noted that there are double organs in this cathedral. We are beginning to see that this is a very Spanish thing to have the double organs. Concerto for Two Organs. Theme from Deliverance.

Our next destination was the archaeological museum. By this time we were getting wilted and insisted on hopping in a taxi. The driver insisted that the museum was closed, but he was wrong. The museum was unexpectedly good in that it contained Roman artifacts from Italica, the really good stuff that they didn’t want to leave outdoors. There were some excellent murals that would have been centerpieces of any North American museum, and rooms containing the Tartessian treasure and relics of the Iberian Turdetanian people, neither of which we had ever heard of anywhere. One detail we found intriguing – lucite boxes containing small dishes of scented ointments. They were reverse-engineered from materials found in archaeological sites, reproduction perfumes. What an idea to be able to sniff the scents of the past!

And then we discovered the ice cream vending machines, conveniently located under the shade of the front porch of the museum, beside some big comfortable wooden benches. The machine delivered a cardboard canister, which you opened and it contained a wrapped ice cream cone or popsicle and also a packaged napkin.

Since the museum was at one end of the Parque Maria Luisa, we decided to walk through the park, which was leafy and shady, and hopefully cooler than being out on the paved city streets. But it was still very hot, about 36C. The parkland was given to the city by the Duchess Maria Luisa back in 1893 and a lot of it was used for the 1929 World’s Fair. We admired from the outside the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populaires, built in the Mudejar style for the 1929 World’s Fair. We cut over to have a look at the Plaza de Espana, built in 1929 for the World’s Fair. It’s a semi-circular building that surrounds a D-shaped canal, with ornamental bridges joining the plaza inside the D to the terraces of the palace. The palace itself is in a Mudejar style, and was used in the Star Wars I movie, the scene where the submarine pops up to Naboo. It was really beautiful, despite how the description reads. It is now extremely hot and our feet are extremely tired, so we crossed the Avenida de Maria Luisa, walking past the University that was previously the national Tobacco Factory whose female workers were the inspiration for Carmen, and the Palacio San Telmo, the former marine university. We flopped into the lobby bar of the Alfonso XIII hotel, also built in 1929 for the Worlds Fair and ordered the world’s most expensive gin and tonics, but they were worth it. We pretty much gave up on touring at this point because of the heat, and headed back to the hotel.

On the way back, we passed by an arcade of stores that seemed very quiet, with interesting arches, so we went in. There we found a convent store that sold pastries and sweets made by nuns, and small (expensive) embroidered baby clothes. We bought some cookies then I poked around in an antique store and looked at 18th C tiles. I also spotted a bullfighting handbill with the name “John Fulton” on it, and of course this was interesting because Fulton was the American bullfighter that James Michener befriended (book: Iberia), and who made his living as an artist so that he could fund his bullfighting career. It turned out that the owner of the store knew Fulton, his father had also been a bullfighter. And so we haggled a bit, and I bought some tiles and the handbill. In the meantime outside the antique store, Geoff was chatting to a man who told him that John Fulton used to babysit him and his brother, they were friends of the family.

We had dinner at a tapas bar, an ORGANIC tapas bar no less. Fended off some gypsies, and people-watched.

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