Weekend in . . . Seville

Charly Wilder succumbs to the extravagant architecture and drama of the Andalusian capital


You don’t have to spend long in Seville to see why so many operas have been set there. A sense of drama pervades the Andalusian capital, from its Moorish royal palaces and extravagant Catholic festivals to the way the strum of a guitar tends to send a whole room into syncopated clapping. Maybe it’s this penchant for pomp that keeps the city dynamic. At contemporary-minded shops, restaurants and arts spaces that continue to open among Seville’s tangle of narrow stone alleyways, a friendly localism seems to rule the day.

1 Under the Grid

Seville has been home to several high-profile architectural projects in the past decade, but none has got more attention than the Metropol Parasol, an immense mushroom-like gridded structure designed by German architect Jürgen Mayer-Hermann that hovers over Plaza de La Encarnación in the old quarter. It was completed in 2011 after considerable public controversy over design, location, delays and cost overruns. The structure includes an archaeological museum, bars, restaurants and a balcony with a panoramic view of the city centre – a great place to get one’s bearings.

2 Double Vintage

Youth unemployment may be sky-high in Seville, but many of the city’s most interesting new openings cater to its younger residents. Red House Art & Food, a combination bar, restaurant, performance space and gallery, opened in a former storage facility in late 2012. There, the city’s gainfully unemployed sip espressos on mid-century sofas and read under retro-futuristic, 1960s light fixtures, all of which are for sale.

Down the street, Wabi Sabi, a smartly curated shop and gallery opened by the Seville-born graphic designer María López Vergara in November 2011, takes a more upmarket approach to repurposing. You’ll find everything from lamps made from vintage soda bottles and collage works by local artists to a 1920s French Art Deco table carved from oak root for €2,100.

3 Tapas Crawl

In Seville, dinner is rarely a single-setting affair; a meal can stretch all the way across town and well past midnight. Begin at Casa Morales, a dusky, time-honoured tapas joint in business since 1850, for a dish of salchicha al vino blanco, sausage cooked in white wine to juicy perfection (€2 for a tapas portion). Immense haunches of Serrano ham hang from the ceiling, and sardonic, battle-scarred barmen siphon wine from wooden barrels built into the wall.

Next, head for Bodeguita Romero for a succulent pringá montadito, a toasted mini baguette sandwich of slow-cooked beef, chicken and sausage (€2.50 for a tapas portion).

Finish at atmospheric Las Columnas, where your order is scrawled in chalk on the bar in front of you, and a convivial local-tourist mix washes down pinchito kebabs and manchego cheese with cold glasses of Cruzcampo beer under the columns that are its namesake. About €6 for a beer and snack.

4 Floats and Highballs

No Spanish city does Catholicism with quite as much gusto as Seville. During Semana Santa, or Holy Week, which began this year on April 13th, leading up to Easter, hundreds of thousands of believers flock here to witness the famous processions of pasos – floats bearing lifelike wooden sculptures depicting the Passion in all its rapturous detail – that take place throughout the city.

This fervour finds its campy, gin-soaked mirror image at El Garlochi, a velvet-draped haunt done up entirely in lavish church kitsch: brass candelabras, Madonna shrines, plastic funeral bouquets, oil portraits of weeping saints. Though it’s been colonized by tourists in the past few years, the local regulars – mostly gay men rakishly approaching middle age – can still be found nightly at the bar clinking highballs under a cloud of incense.

5 Moor Fun

Seville is known for its stunning examples of the Mudéjar style, an Islamic-Christian architectural hybrid most famously embodied here by the Alcázar, a royal palace that was once a Moorish fort. Last year, a permanent exhibition devoted to the style opened in the recently restored Palace of the Marquis of la Algaba, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Known as the Interpretation Centre of Mudéjar Art, the modest English-translated exhibition puts the style into historical context, introduces the city’s main Mudéjar sites and includes pieces from the Archaeological Museum of Seville, as well as from several monasteries throughout the city. Entry is free.

6 Play the Market

Dating from the early 18th century, the picturesque Feria Market, one of the city’s oldest, comprises two light-flooded buildings separated from the 13th-century Omnium Sanctorum Church by a narrow alleyway.

Greengrocers and butchers conduct business out of white-tiled booths, while fishmongers sell an array of briny, fresh-caught seafood in an open space as shoppers stream in through wide arched entryways. Make like a local and grab lunch at the market’s excellent tapas bar, La Cantina, known for seafood offerings such as grilled sardines, bacon-wrapped prawns and fried chocos, Spanish for cuttlefish and a Sevillian favourite. Lunch is about €20.

7 Shopping Regina

Just north of the Metropol Parasol, in the newly revitalised Regina Market neighbourhood, you’ll find some of the city’s best new independent boutiques lining Calle Regina. Pick up local produce and Andalusian olive oil and bitter orange marmalade at La Despensa Ecológica.

Verde Moscú, a shop specialising in certified organic, fair-trade clothing, carries everything from athletics shoes made by local designers to organic wool sweaters knitted by a women’s co-op in Nepal. Then browse through the colourful art books, experimental Spanish novels and Marxist theoretical tomes at Un Gato en Bicicleta, a left-leaning bookshop that hosts art exhibitions, talks and concerts.

8 21st-Century Tapas

At La Azotea on Calle Mateos Gago, families and off-the-clock professionals pack into the small, modern dining room to sample tasty cross-cultural concoctions such as soy-marinated tuna belly topped with black olive tapenade, and pork cheek in red wine sauce with sharp goat’s cheese gratin.

La Azotea has added two central locations and an abacería (food shop) with drinks and tapas. Lunch for two, about €40.

9 Backroom Flamenco

Walk in any direction and you’re bound to stumble on a touristy flamenco show, but for something with a bit more grit, head across the Guadalquivir River to the old gypsy district of Triana, which was a major hub for the development of the musical style. Join the line of locals outside Casa Anselma, the salon of a celebrated local dancer who works the door herself when it opens at midnight. Those who make it past her are packed in for a wonderfully raucous unplugged back-room show of foot-stomping, booze-fuelled flamenco. Entrance is free, but buy a drink or risk the wrath of Anselma.

10 Convent Cookies

As rosary sales have fallen off, many of Seville’s lovely monasteries have found alternative sources of income by selling baked goods, often made from recipes handed down for centuries.

The Convento de San Leandro is famous for its yemas de San Leandro, sugary pastry balls made with egg yolk and a hint of lemon, a recipe said to date back to the 15th century. Try the rich dulces de chocolate or pestiños, a traditional Holy Week pastry of dough fried in olive oil and glazed in honey, at the 17th-century Convento de Santa Ana, also known for its 1627 wooden altarpiece depicting Mary and St Anne made by Juan Martínez Montañés, an important Sevillian sculptor known as the “God of Wood”.

Finally, stop into the Convento de Santa Paula to admire its 13th-century Gothic tower and take home a jar of delectable quince or fig preserve. At any of these places, you won’t pay more than €6 for a treat.

11 Time Travel

Headquartered in the Metropol Parasol, Past View takes a high-tech spin on the historical walking tour. Donning iPhone-rigged video glasses, you’ll be guided by a history scholar through the old centre of Seville, where hologram projections and site-specific video re-enactments offer you an “augmented reality” experience, imbuing the ancient squares with the long-dead protagonists and world-historical events of their past.

You’ll visit the Plaza de San Francisco in 1597 as the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes is thrown in prison for embezzlement (an inexplicably Irish-accented Spaniard offers a play-by-play of the action) and view Alcázar palace in 1198, when the city was part of the medieval Islamic state of Al-Andalus. A two-hour city tour costs €15.

© The New York Times 2014, distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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