Lose yourself in searing Seville
Cheap delicious tapas, sizzling heat, unique shops and hidden treasures all around – the Andalusian capital has it all
Plaza de España, Seville
A corner of the famous Barrio Santa Cruz in Seville, with its typical orange trees
Late night tapas
Salmorejo cordobés: cold tomato crème topped lightly with ham and scrambled egg
I always knew I was a late bloomer. For starters, I’m a November baby, I was practically the last of my peers to leave home, and I don’t yet possess a driver’s licence, so it’s no wonder that I paid my first ever visit to Spain in my early thirties.
My Iberian education began with Moorish Seville, accompanied by Miguel López de Sagredo – my friend and guide. His family’s relationship with the Andalusian capital dates back 150 years. Had I been a paying punter, I would have got my money’s worth – for we ate and marched our way through the city over three days.
Many introductions to Spain start with the colourful Costa del Sol, but I never exactly followed the crowd. However, I was determined to stay in a hotel with a swimming pool and buffet bar – a tricky find in a land-locked city. Luckily the Silken Al-Andalus Palace, a 10-minute drive from the city centre, provides both.
Our walking tour commenced from Paseo de la Palmera, which I could easily have mistaken for Beverly Hills, with its endless high gates fronting imperious mansions. Hardly surprising given Spanish architecture’s influence on the Californian blueprint.
We soon entered the Pairc Maria Luisa. This breathtaking space is thrice the size of St Stephen’s Green and packed with exotic landmarks, bicycle rentals, ice-cream stands and mini bench libraries, where books are left for visitors to peruse. Horses clop by at every turn, pulling tourist-laden carriages – such sights are part of the city’s rich tapestry. The central attraction is the Plaza de España, a dramatic sweeping crescent, covered in Seville’s iconic ceramic tiles. This magnificent building was used in the Cairo scenes of Lawrence of Arabia. On its fringes I clocked protesters defiantly clutching the Catalan flag. Spain’s political unrest had yet to erupt, but I could already sense friction.
From the beginning of our adventures, I asked De Sagredo to order for me, as my palette desperately needed to abandon its comfort zone. In doing this I quickly observed that Seville cuisine is light but full of flavour, and more fish-focused than expected. At the Casa La Viuda, at Calle Albareda, we sampled salmorejo pan (serrano ham on toast with tomato crème), followed by roulade de foie y cabra (fois gras).
Seville tapas are wonderfully inexpensive, with small plates ranging from €2 to €4 apiece and larger rations €10 each. The local brew is Cruz Campo, which is prolifically available. Wine is reasonable, with a glass priced at €2-€4 – and not a drunkard in sight.
Into the frying pan
On day two we had lunch at Ignacio Vidal on Avda Finlandia, in De Sagredo’s locale. We purposely sat in the shade, as Seville was experiencing a late heat wave – they don’t call it “the frying pan of Europe” for nothing. Throughout the city centre, bars and restaurants spray a calming mist outside to help people cool down during such times.
Here we tried the region’s signature dish: salmorejo cordobés, cold tomato crème topped lightly with ham and scrambled egg. I’m told it’s the ultimate sun survival dish. I nervously sampled adobo (fish carpaccio) – refreshing and with no digestive ramifications.
Afterwards we wandered the peaceful banks of Canal de Alphonso XIII, near the world’s oldest bull ring, The Maestranza. We were off-season, but I grasped the general mood in Bar El Baratillo on Calle Adriano, which boldly displays bull heads with brass plaques, bearing their names and what year they heroically/tragically died. The plaques nearest the door were partially defaced. At the similarly themed Taberna Pepe Hillo down the road, we had Galician boiled squid (I quickly gulped down the tentacles) and signature Iberian pork medallions with a goat’s cheese sauce.
On day three, we chatted over coffee in the prestigious Circulo de Labradores, a social club on Calle Pedro Caravaca. The former monastery once frequented by farmers and landowners oozes regal elegance, topped with the grandeur of a stained-glass ceiling and seldom-touched antique chess tables.
On Calle Sierpes, one street away, I found two retailers worth a visit. The first is Papeleria Ferrer, a stationery lover’s dream, which is stuffed with everything from writing sets to ink wells and quills. It’s a family business, established in 1856. The other is classic confectioner La Campana. Its signature tins filled with homemade cakes and shortbread start at roughly €21 and are perfect for transporting home.
“Seville is a mix between modern and old,” De Sagredo said as we strolled. “You can find something cutting edge if you go to the right places. And then you come way back into the Middle Ages in a mile radius.”
As we inched upwards towards the San Marco and Alameda neighbourhoods, I wholeheartedly agreed, as the sights are very different. The streets are narrower, yellower, and full of bohemian cafes with uber-hip clientele. We have tea in the ultra-modern Librería Café on Calle José Gestoso, which contains a sprawling bookshop and installation art. On Calle Amor de Dios, I admire the impressive vintage Cervantes cinema before wandering into a discreetly hidden artist’s yard.
The San Marco, Alameda and Macarena areas are slightly shabbier than the moneyed centre of town, but they’re in ways more homely and real – a sleepier change of pace, where small churches envelop the streets at every turn.
We stopped at El Rinconcillo, on Calle Gerona, which dates from 1670. It stocks an exquisite wine and whiskey selection, while cured meats dangle behind the counter and the grumpy proprietor tots up your bill total on the counter in chalk. As we headed along the Calle San Luis, I noticed a striking but dishevelled townhouse covered in graffiti. While technically derelict, the place is apparently lovingly maintained by peaceful squatters. It would seem that Seville is a place where edgy rubs elbows with the antiquated and the two worlds get along swimmingly.
“It’s a great place to get lost,” my guide tells me. “Seville is small enough not to worry if you’ll be hours in the same neighbourhood, but it has lots of small, lovely places to discover. Don’t just buy a bunch of tickets and go to the Seville Cathedral. Get yourself lost in the city centre and find a way out.” His words ring true – later on I find myself way up at the Basilica de Macarena without a clue how I got there, but I enjoy picking my way back.
That evening we met at La Vespa, a bustling open-air restaurant at Avenida de Alemania. Friday is a family affair in Seville, where children and adults dine until late. If you happen to know a native on your travels, I highly recommend getting in touch.
Silken Al-Andalus Palace
Avenida de la Palmera
Rooms from 70 euro per night
Hotel Simón - Calle García de Vinuesa
Rooms from 80 euro a night
Ryanair – Dublin direct to Seville Airport from €100 return
Aer Lingus – Dublin to Malaga Airport from €120 return
Trains from Malaga to Seville from €25 return