Travel 2013. Day 9 (1). Carmona Seville

April 25, 2013.  Day 9. Carmona Seville.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, and a who’s who of those travelling. 

We were up early for a buffet breakfast in the parador’s dining room.  Paradores typically serve hearty and generous breakfasts, just what we needed before heading for Seville.  But we surprised by a long line-up at the door, something we’d never experienced in our years staying at paradores.  It turned out that there was a package tour staying at the parador, a new phenomenon in the state-run hotels we were told.

When the paradores were established in the 1920s, they were intended to attract more affluent Spaniards to visit lesser travelled areas of Spain and thereby provide a boost to the local economy. They specialised in renovating historical buildings, especially castles, which proved a master stroke. Who doesn’t like staying in a castle!  With the explosion of foreign tourism in the 1960s, they continued the same policy, with wealthier foreign visitors added to their clientele. Now, with Spaniards cutting back on travel and fierce competition with boutique hotels (many also in historical buildings), the paradores are in catch-up mode. If you are interested in the future of the paradores, see 

We finally got our table, enjoyed our breakfast, then set off for romantic Seville, the city of the archetypal lover, Don Juan, and the iconic temptress, Carmen.  We wanted to park as near as possible to the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) on the banks of the Guadalquivir River. Happily, the helpful personnel at the desk in the parador suggested parking under the Plaza de Armas bus station.

We took the N-IV, a flat road cutting, at first, through fields of wheat, sunflowers, and orange and olive groves. As we approached Seville, we met the inevitable urban sprawl that accompanies large cities … nothing romantic about that.  Following the instructions given to us in Carmona, and helped by “Olivia” our GPS, we found the bus station without much trouble.

Guadalquivir River and promenade.

It was just over a kilometre from the Torre del Oro, and we strolled to along a beautiful, tree-lined riverside promenade to get to it. We were so busy looking at the river traffic and the brightly painted buildings on the other bank that we missed the 18th-century Plaza de Toros –Spain’s oldest and one of its most prestigious bullrings– across the road from the promenade.  Luckily we caught it on the way back to the van.

The promenade is part of a massive sprucing up of Seville, which began when it was chosen capital of the autonomous community of Andalusia in 1982. Then in 1992 it hosted Expo 92, and large sums of money were invested in cleaning up the city and on its infrastructure: new bridges along the river, bus stations, and railway station to accommodate the super-fast AVE train from Madrid (completed 1991), and an upgraded international airport.

Since we were last in Seville, it has become something of a “green city.”  In 2007 a major pedestrianisation of the centre was undertaken, and bike-sharing –with dedicated bike lanes—and a sleek tram line were inaugurated. Two years later a subway line was opened connecting the centre with the southern and western suburbs and more lines are planned to be in operation by 2017. Also, you can rent an electric car. However, Old Seville is made for walking, and if your time is limited –as it was for us– most of what you will want to see is within easy walking distance from the Torre del Oro.

Looking at the twelve-sided Torre del Oro standing alone near the busy intersection of the San Telmo Bridge and the Paseo de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus), you might wonder what purpose it once served.

Torre del Oro to the right. The modern Pelli tower to the left has been criticised for spoiling Seville’s skyline.

It was in fact built in the early 13th-century by the Almohads from the Morocco as part of their defence system when they established their capital of al-Andalus in Seville. It was originally linked by chain to a similar tower on the other side of the Guadalquivir, in order to control river traffic and access to the inner harbour. Its name derives from the golden tiles (azulejos) that used to decorate it. After a colourful history and threats of destruction (which was prevented by popular opposition), it has become, like the Giralda Tower, one of the iconic symbols of Seville, and its future seems secure.  Now it houses a small maritime museum.

Crossing the road, we headed for the cathedral.  On the way we saw several horse carriages –all shining immaculately and with colourful blankets for added comfort — and decided spontaneously to take a 50/60-minute tour.

It was a lovely, warm day, and the chance of seeing something of Old Seville while relaxing in a buggy was appealing. Five of us shared the carriage and John sat alongside the driver.  It’s amazing how calm the horse was on those occasions when we entered traffic, even when negotiating busy roundabouts.

Seville: Our horse and carriage.

The ride first took us past the luxurious Hotel Alfonso XIII, into the María Luisa gardens and then on to the Plaza de España. All three were built to receive visitors for the 1929 Ibero—American Exhibition.

Seville: Hotel Alfonso XIII.

The hotel was commissioned by the king himself to accommodate royalty, heads of state and other VIPs, and is still considered one of the most prestigious hotels in Spain. The façade is regal and impressive, a combination of classical Renaissance style and Moorish tile work and arches; both feature prominently in the history of Seville.

The María Luisa park was actually a development of a pre-existing smaller park donated to Seville in 1893. It’s huge, with numerous avenues, arbours, ponds and tiled fountains, and pavilions (many originally built to house displays from the various Latin American countries taking part in the Exhibition).

Mudéjar pavilion in Parque María Luisa.

What particularly appealed to us was its lush vegetation of magnificent palms and orange trees, plane trees and magnolias, as well as its flower beds and fountains.  Every now and again, we spotted parakeets and peacocks, and lots of doves, and the ponds were home to ducks and stately swans. It’s easy to see how popular this park is as an escape from the searing heat of high summer; it’s an oasis that enchants with varied colours, the tinkling of water, the chatter of birds and cooing of doves, and the aroma of oranges or flowers. There is no better way for you to experience the sights, sounds and aromas of the park than in an elegant horse carriage

Mudéjar pavilion in Parque María Luisa.

There was no time for the carriage to stop at the stunning Plaza de España which runs along one end of the María Luisa Park (familiar perhaps to fans of Star Wars Part I).  Time was getting short, and our driver was going to drop us off at the cathedral.  On the way, we passed the University of Seville, the main building of which is an enormous 18th-century neo-classical structure that once was the Royal Tobacco Factory, still believed to be one of the oldest industrial buildings of its type in existence in Europe. Aficionados of opera may recall that Bizet’s fictional Carmen, the fiery Gypsy, was a tabacalera (cigar maker) in this building before her death outside Seville’s bullring.

At the cathedral, we said good-bye to our driver and the horse, stretched our legs and got ready to enter the largest Gothic church in the world. Actually it is the largest church in the world, larger than St. Paul’s in London or St. Peter’s in Rome, according to a copy of a certificate from the Guinness Book of Records, proudly displayed near the entrance.

The cathedral was started in 1402, replacing the 12th-century Almohad mosque, and took over a hundred years to complete (in fact, some sections were not finished until the 20th century).

While the exterior is quite recognisably Gothic, the inside also contains a fair amount of plateresque and Renaissance classic styles.  All that is left of the mosque is the minaret (the famous Giralda tower) and the Patio de los Naranjos (Orange trees) where ablutions were carried out. Together with the nearby Alcázar and Archivo de Indias, the Cathedral of Seville is a World Heritage Site (UNESCO 1987).
Seville cathedral and Giralda

There was a fairly long queue to get in.  Once inside, we noticed how chilly and gloomy it was compared to the sunny warmth outside. It also took a while to get our orientation, because we entered from the side rather than from the main entrance at the back of the church.

Like most large Spanish Gothic churches, the Cathedral of Seville has a large enclosed choir in the middle of the central nave, cutting off direct view from the back of the church to the altar. It was difficult to get a sense of the length of the building until we stood at the end of one of the side aisles. Then we understood what the cathedral chapter is alleged to have said when they commissioned the cathedral in 1401: to erect a building so “magnificent in scale that posterity will believe we were mad.” That magnificence is conveyed especially by the height, with the central nave rising 130 feet (42 metres). The pillars supporting the pointed ribbed vaults are massive yet appear elegant thanks to their height and to the fluting that breaks up the solid mass of the surface.

Cathedral side aisle. Note fluting on pillars to the left. Organ to the right.

We all found the huge high altar –separated from the worshippers by a large ornate wrought iron screen (reja)— stunning but rather overwhelmingly flamboyant. Apparently, it tells the story of Christ’s life, but it is so elaborately worked and lavishly gilded that it was difficult to follow the details.  Small wonder it took almost a 100 years to complete (1481-1564)!

Cathedral High Altar.

We were all interested in finding Christopher Columbus’s tomb, which we eventually did near one of the side entrances. The coffin is not buried but actually carried on the shoulders of four figures, each representing the regions of Castile, León, Aragón and Navarre, which made up the bulk of the forces that conquered Seville in 1248. There is dispute about what happened to Columbus’s remains: he died in 1506 and was buried initially in Valladolid (Castile). His remains were then transferred to Seville. Now things get complicated: respecting Columbus’s wishes to be buried in the Americas, members of his family asked that his remains to be transferred to the cathedral at Santo Domingo in Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the site of Columbus’s first landing in Las Indias. His coffin was accompanied by that of his son Diego. Later, his grandson, Luis, was buried in the same cathedral. In 1795, the French took over Hispaniola and Columbus’s remains were transferred to Cuba to stop them falling into French hands. When Spain lost control of Cuba in 1898, the coffin was returned to Spain, ending up where it is now.

Columbus’s tomb.

However, in 1877 another coffin was unearthed in the cathedral of Santo Domingo bearing the name of Columbus, which leaves us with the vexing question of authenticity.  DNA samples taken from the Seville coffin in 2002 match closely the DNA of Columbus’s brother, Diego, also buried in Seville’s cathedral; the Dominican Republic has refused to submit its remains to a similar test.  As some observers have commented, it is possible that bits of Columbus’s bones may have ended up in both coffins, so that both claims might have merit.  However, until the DNA of Santo Domingo bones are examined, Spain has the better claim.  Whatever the case, Columbus seems to have travelled almost as much after death as during his life.

After having tracked down Columbus’s monument, it was time to move on to the Giralda.  There were still numerous side chapels to see, paintings to contemplate and treasures in various parts, but we were getting close to information overload.  The one chapel that I especially did want to look at: the Royal Chapel (Capilla Real) in the apse behind the High Altar.  Unfortunately, it was open only to worshippers and its entrance closed off. I was particularly interested because it was the resting place of Fernando III of Castile, who won Seville back from the Moors in 1248, and of his son, Alfonso X “el Sabio (the Learned).  In the vault beneath the chapel are buried Pedro el Cruel and his mistress María de Padilla. All figure prominently in the history of Spain.

Disappointment over, we headed to the Giralda, whose entrance is in the north-east corner of the cathedral.

La Giralda. The tower takes its name from the bronze weather vane representing La Fe (Faith). It was added in 1568

The Giralda is perhaps the most famous monument of Seville, and is for the city what the Great Mosque is for Córdoba and the Alhambra for Granada.  Built in the late 12th century, the Giralda, formerly a minaret, became the church bell tower after the reconquest of the city in 1248. The narrower upper parts were added in the 16th century (1568) and topped by a bronze weather-vane called “The Triumph of Faith,” giving the tower a total height of 94 metres (308 feet). It is from the weather vane that the Giralda gets its name (from “girar“: “to rotate”)

We joined dozens of others climbing up the gently sloping ramps which are just wide enough to allow two way traffic. There are window alcoves you can stop at for views or a break.  Near the top, you meet a few stairs and then you are out in the open where you get stunning views of the city, the roof of the cathedral and below you the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees).

View from top of the Giralda. Cathedral roof and Patio de los Naranjos in foreground; the Pelli Tower in the distance.

Towards the west, and across the Guadalquivir, you can’t help noticing a 180 metre (590 feet) skyscraper dwarfing everything around it. This has caused a lot of controversy, even threatening Seville’s UNESCO’s World Heritage status (at a meeting in June 2012, UNESCO withdrew its objections, but sought assurances that no more skyscrapers would be built in Seville. See  Until the construction of the skyscraper (aka Pelli Tower), the Giralda was Seville’s highest building.

With the visit to the cathedral and the Giralda over, we still had a fair amount of walking to do, but first a break for lunch was in order (and I need a break from writing this page!!). For a continuation of our visit to Seville, see: Travel Seville 2

Image of Hotel Alfonso XIII by I, Kilezz in
Image of arbour by Manuel Ramallo in
Image of Altarpiece by Shawnlipowski in
Columbus’s tomb by Miguel Angel in