Sunday, 14 December 2008

Andalusia - Day 3, Palaces & Bullrings

It rained very heavily in the night and the hotel’s internal courtyard was awash with water but by breakfast time the sky had cleared and the sky was blue so it looked as though we may be in for a better day. The Goya was closed this morning so we had exactly the same breakfast at the Bar Plaza instead and debated our itinerary for the day and agreed that today on account of the unpredictable weather that we should drive to the capital of Andalusia and see Seville. The city of Seville is the fourth largest in Spain after Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, it is the city of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro with a reputation for romance and theatricality and therefore we set out with very high expectations.

It was only a short drive along the Autovia and as this was Saturday the traffic on the streets was quite light. And this surprised me, but the Spanish drivers were generally well behaved, patient and polite which made motoring a very pleasant experience. Whilst driving was fine parking wasn’t nearly so easy and all of the on-street spaces were taken and we really struggled to find signs to a visitors car park. This seemed ridiculous, big city, lots of visitors, nowhere to park the car and after fifteen minutes I was beginning to run out of patience. I had almost reached the point of saying that if I have gone to all this trouble to visit Seville but Seville couldn’t bother to organise a parking space for me then I’ll just drive straight back out again, when we spotted a sign for an underground car park and we pulled in and finally we had our car parking spot and a crisis was avoided.

It was quite a long walk to the old town but at least the sun was shining. We walked along a couple of busy main roads and then following a route to the centre of the city we turned off into a tangled web of narrow streets and alleys that criss-crossed and dog legged in a most confusing way and made following the street map with any degree of certainty almost impossible. And you certainly had to keep your wits about you because these streets were not designed for vehicles and pedestrians to use at the same time and the narrow pavements were dangerously close to the traffic. We were in the district of Santa Cruz, which is a maze of whitewashed buildings and alleyways all leading eventually to the centre and La Giralda and the Cathedral that is built on the site of a former Moorish mosque. The Cathedral is the largest in Spain and the third largest in the world, after San Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s in London.

Some disappointing grey cloud had swept in rather quickly so we were tempted to go inside but there was a long queue so we investigated the Palace Real Alcázar opposite but there was a long queue for that as well so we abandoned both options for the time being and walked down to the river through the district of El Arenal. The Guadalquivir is the only great navigable river in Spain and currently it is possible to go from the sea up as far as Seville, but in Roman times it was navigable to Córdoba. We walked along the embankment and as quickly as it had arrived the grey cloud disappeared again.

After Madrid, Seville is the second most important centre for the national sport of bullfighting and after a few hundred metres we left the river and came up outside the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, which is the oldest bull ring in Spain. The origin of modern day bullfighting on foot (rather than horseback) can be traced back to here and Ronda, also in Andalusia. It is one of the most charming bullrings in the country and although its capacity is only fourteen thousand spectators, which makes it rather small (the bullring in Madrid has a capacity of twenty-five thousand), it attracts the country’s finest bullfighters.

All of us except Christine, because she loves animals, paid for and joined an informative and entertaining thirty-minute tour of the arena and the museum. We learned that bulls from an ancient bloodline are specially bred to fight and Spain is now the only country in the world to preserve this particular species of “toro bravo”.

Normally six of these noble fighting bulls are slain in an afternoon or evening fight and the event involves three matadors with their band of attendants, the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes. The final act of the three-part corrida involves a series of intricate moves and daredevil passes by the matador before he makes his final lethal thrust between the bull’s shoulder blades. If the spectators approve of the matador’s performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the fight’s president that he should reward him with a trophy, one or both of the bull’s ears and/or its tail. It is called a fight but it is far from fair and the statistics show that in two hundred and fifty years only three matadors have died at the Seville bullring but they have dispatched almost two hundred and fifty bulls a year to the abbatoir, so I can’t imagine that a lot of money changes hands betting on the outcome of the competition.

We walked back towards the Cathedral along cobbled streets with balconies and flowers and full of the sights and sounds of Spain and it was lunch time now so we found a traditional bodega serving sherry and tapas and went inside for lunch.

According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castille, Alfonso the Wise, visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the drink from getting dirty. The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first. This evolved into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.

In the Bodega the menu was entirely in Spanish and that made it exciting,; ordering items from the menu with little or no idea what they might be. Thankfully we didn’t get any shocks and a couple of the dishes were so good that we ordered seconds. It was a great place and it felt as though we were eating in a traditional way and not in a place created for tourists.

We returned to the Cathedral Square, the Plaza del Triunfo, and had to make a choice between visiting the Cathedral or the Palace and because of Micky’s aversion to churches we chose the Palace. It was a good choice because the fourteenth century building was a jewel box of patios, halls and gardens. It has been the home of the Spanish Monarchy for seven hundred years and the upper floors are still used by the royal family today as its official Seville residence.

When we paid the entrance fee it was still overcast but by the time we had been around the interior the sun was out again and we had a very enjoyable hour walking around the extensive gardens and the wall top walks. When we had finished we left and walked back to the Cathedral and then back into the network of narrow streets to make our way back to the car park. The map was a little confusing and I managed to take us the wrong way, which could have been a problem because we strayed into an area of shoe shops by mistake and only just made it through before credit cards were drawn and used in a shopping frenzy.

We wanted to stop for a drink but the bars were all full to overflowing and it was only when we were out of the centre that we found an unattractive back street sort of place where Christine used the men’s toilet by mistake and Micky had a short conversation with a young girl trying to cadge a cigarette. He dismissed her brilliantly with the one liner ‘I don’t know what you are talking about, I don’t even speak Spanish’

Back in Carmona we rested and changed and went for a pre dinner drink in a lively family bar called the Forum and joined the residents of the town out for an evening and noisily watching a football match on a big screen TV. Later we returned to the Bar Plaza and ordered paella but there was none so instead we had a very similar meal to the previous evening. We were the only customers in the place and the owner must have been glad of the company. Actually the Plaza was the only place open and we worked it out that because it was out of season the owners were probably operating a cooperative rota system and we thought that was clever.

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