When it comes to traveling in Spain, Madrid and Barcelona get most of the press. But if you have the time, make your way south to Seville, once one of the richest cities in Europe and today still an incredible outdoor museum of old streets and architecture ranging from Roman to Moorish to Baroque and Gothic. Here are five takeaways from my brief time there.
1. Its old quarter district is a seemingly endless labyrinth.
I remember reading that Casco Antiguo, Seville’s historic old quarter, is one of the largest such in Europe. I believe it. My first night there, in spite of my best efforts to pay attention to landmarks, I got hopelessly lost. My first mistake was to use the old churches that often mark tiny squares as landmarks. After a while, one church looked no different from the next. Looking at Casco Antiguo on the Google Maps app on my phone was like staring at a drawing of a large intestine. Eventually I realized I was only making things worse for myself, so I started asking directions. Even the locals I asked seemed not to be able to wrap their heads around the network of narrow, winding streets and alleys. They seemed just as confused as I was. Eventually I made it back to my hotel, but I chalk that up to dumb luck and being able to find a major boulevard outside of the ancient barrio.
2. Its Roman aqueducts were still in use in the 19th and possibly early 20th centuries.
As you’ll see when you visit, there are three remnants of an aqueduct in Seville, adding a great Roman flair to this heavily Moorish-looking city. The structure was built around 65 B.C., and later renovated during Spain’s Islamic period. Incredibly, the Caños de Carmona aqueduct was still at full functioning capacity prior to its demolition in 1912. I couldn’t find information on why it was torn down – progress? malaria? – but it was through the efforts of the Marquis of San José de Serra, one Carlos Serra Muños de Priego, that portions of the mighty structure were preserved. In case you thought wealthy Europeans with fancy titles simply sat around counting their gold and serfs, here was a guy who saved something historic that we can all enjoy.
3. The University of Seville’s main hall is a beautiful old tobacco factory.
I wish I’d studied here – what a beautiful university. It’s situated just outside Casco Antiguo, and the crown jewel of Universidad de Sevilla is its main hall, which once was a processing plant for one of the American cash crops from which Spain amassed her wealth. “The Old Tobacco Factory” was built in the 18th Century and its use stretched into the 1950s. (Sensing a trend here? Things used to be built to last, though I suppose we should be thankful that decline in tobacco use may have had something to do with its closure.) The edifice was also the setting for the opera Carmen.
4. Though the historic center is extremely touristy, you don’t need to venture far to find a “local” tapas place.
There were throngs of tourists just like me walking about the Casco Antiguo, and rightfully so. It’s a charming, beautiful, and fun place to be, with plenty of places to find beer, wine, tapas, ice cream, Arab baths, churches, etc. Not to mention the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and a well-preserved Moorish palace nearby. But all those crowds can leave one longing for something quieter. I took the advice of a Finnish tourist and crossed the Queen Isabel II Bridge to the Triana neighborhood, which had a smattering of tourists amidst locals going about their business. That’s where I had cheap tapas and beer at La Antigua Abaceria, a simple meat-and-cheese joint down a narrow street not far from the bridge. It was a great place to relax and recharge.
5. It’s hot as blazes in summer.
File this under “duh.” Seville is one of the sunniest places in Europe, logging around 3,000 hours of sunny weather per year. I was there during the long days of June, and even though I accept the objective fact that it’s better to be warm than cold, even I had to seek refuge from the fierce Andalusian sun. No wonder these people take siestas at midday. Cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating had awnings lined with misting pipes to keep customers comfortable. I downed several bottles of water per day and sweat most of it out. And as it was nearly the solstice, the sun hung in the sky until around 9 or 9:30 at night; there was still a twilight after 10 p.m. Bring sunblock, drink water, and find shade in the afternoon.