Story and photos by Betsy Marvin
One of the great luxuries of an extended stay is the spontaneous nature of discovery. Limiting a big city visit to three or four days necessitates rigid scheduling, if we’re to “see everything,” including personal preferences as well as famous landmarks and events. The sheer number of Seville’s essentials for visitors can be overwhelming in a brief stop, even with a guide.
But the prospect of several weeks stretching ahead gives a sense of leisure. Using information agencies, online sources, brochures and posters, as well as word-of-mouth from people we meet, we familiarize ourselves with what’s significant and make casual agendas, but for our first weeks, our walks stay relatively aimless. Or we may designate some goal, like finding used books or large coffee mugs or a paring knife or post office or a weekly market of some sort, and then see what happens en route.
The Santa Cruz neighborhood near us, formerly the Juderia, or Jewish quarter and very popular with tourists, is a rabbit-warren of cobblestone streets and tiny alleys. Having gotten lost twice on consecutive days there (while consulting a map!), we inquired and found that it’s a frequent activity for visitors, “Getting lost in Seville!”
But our inability to navigate Santa Cruz and beyond has afforded us delightful rewards, like finding the magnificent Countess Lebrija palace, one day exploring the shopping area looking for an artisan market. My habit in Spain is to glance into any foyer whose door is ajar, as many exhibit the typical extravagant tiled walls, ornate black or white closed gate and glorious potted garden room behind, quite a show. We’d come out from a nice lunch of salmorejo (a cold tomato-based soup, rich with oil and vinegar, bread, ham and egg), one street over from the fine retail Calle Sierpes, and glanced at the broad doors across the little street, opening to a grand iron gate, gingerbread archways, mosaic floors, and cupboards stuffed with ancient shards and pots.
Recognizing it as the noted Lebrija house, we eagerly paid the entrance fee (extra for the guided tour of the upper level). The Condesa, Doña Regla Manjón Mergelina, acquired this 15th-century treasure about 1900, and set about to restore the palace as residence and museum. A knowledgeable amateur archaeologist, she had become fascinated by the excavation of the Roman settlement Italica a few kilometers outside the city. Salvaging mosaic floors, tiles, and bits of ceramic vessels and statuary, she created a magnificent showplace, with airy downstairs rooms and comfortable living areas above. The Mudéjar style, characterized by complicated tiling patterns and ornate carving, is evident in the graceful arches and decorative walls. Up the beautiful tiled and marble staircase, itself rescued from another palace, a massive library and impressive paintings fill rooms of various styles.
Not so far from the palace in a stately former convent lies the Museo de Bellas Artes, the fine arts museum of Seville, where the focus is on works of Seville painters, including Murillo. El Greco is represented in two paintings, and numerous pieces by Zurbarán occupy a gallery. Established in 1836, the collection resulted from the confiscation of art works from neighboring convents and monasteries. It’s an especial pleasure on a hot day, cool and majestic.
Back in 1929, Seville hosted the Ibero-American Exposition, lasting only a few weeks, but with enduring structures in Maria Luisa Park, along the river. Participants included many of the countries of the Americas, Portugal and the provinces of Spain, and the effect on the city was planned for permanence. One day we walked over to explore the area and find out what was left. Gardens, boulevards and pavilions cover the area, and the centerpiece, we find, is the impressive Plaza de España, the arc of tiled homage to each of Spain’s traditional regions, with the arcade behind and towers at each end offering varied photo ops. Some of the pavilions are today consulates, while others house museums.
We wandered into the imposing and highly decorative Mudéjar Pavilion, now the Museum of Art and Popular Costume, where a high-school band presented its spring concert in the central courtyard. With full brass and percussion well amplified by the masonry walls, they delighted parents and grandparents, but we strolled past to the exhibits, artifacts of traditional local life. We saw lace and leatherware, ironwork and basketry, but most interesting for us was the display of ceramic tiles; while most were ornamental, our favorite was a yellowed and slightly cracked set that read, “PROHIBO BLASFEMAR.” Where could it have been posted?
And speaking of tiles, we took the bus one day across the river to Triana, the neighborhood where several tile workshops have produced the popular pieces for years. Cafés and restaurants line the riverfront, but behind, in the working-class neighborhoods, can be found tiny shops and eateries. We had a delightful lunch of four tapas at O’Tapas Albahaca, where we ate in solitary splendor. It was only one-thirty in the afternoon, much too early for locals! As elsewhere, markets and shops in Triana close for afternoons, but begin opening again at four or five, so we’ll return to look at colorful ceramics, and have another go at tapas another day!
We’ve peered into the superb Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, into side chapels that would be magnificent churches anywhere else, but have yet to do a thorough tour, including Christopher Columbus’ tomb and the lovely Giralda Tower. We’ve seen treasures from Italica, but need to find the bus and make the short trip. And what of the Flamenco Museum? So many places, so little time, the lament of the traveler, no matter the length of the stay!
To be continued…
Countess Lebrija’s Palace
Calle Cuna 8 (near Calle Sierpes)
Museo Bellas Artes
Plaza del Museo, 9
Museum of Popular Art and Costume
Plaza de América, 3
954 712 391
Top photo: Seville from the Isabel II Bridge from Triana.