Many decades ago someone I worked with said to me, “Spain’s only contribution to civilization has been the Flamenco dance.” I had never been to Spain–or Europe for that matter–and believed them. I had no idea that Flamenco is really only danced in Andalusia, and that the other regions of Spain–Galicia, Catalonia, the Basques, etc– have very different customs, food, dance, and music (even languages). When we moved to downtown Aix-en-Provence there was a Spanish cultural centre across the street from our daughter’s school, where Annie, the owner, sold artifacts from her beloved country, but also hosted concerts and gave flamenco dance lessons (she was from Andalusia). My education had begun. The kids loved it; and our new circle of Aixois friends became people who loved Spain.
Ever since then I’ve been a staunch supporter of Spain, and get there whenever I can (and Flamenco is much more than dance, I was to learn: it’s a Sevillian style of guitar, and singing, too). The small Andalusian city of Seville has long been on my list of Spanish places to visit, and I finally got there in this May, travelling with four childhood Canadian girlfriends.
The east (Triana) and west sides (neighborhoods of Santa Cruz, El Arenal, La Macarena) of the city are separated by the Guadalquivir River. Santa Cruz has the Cathedral and Real Alcazar (royal palace) and lots of touristy shops and restaurants; El Arenal has better, more authentic restaurants, plus the bull ring; and La Macarena is a more residential neighborhood with some historic tapas bars.
A street in La Macarena.
One of these bars, luckily just around the corner from our rented house (Casa Santiago, rented through homeaway.co.uk; highly recommended!), is El Rinconcillo, Seville’s oldest tapas bar, opened in 1670. Jamons (cured legs of ham) hang from the ceiling beams while old-fashioned waiters take your tapas and drink orders, marking your tab with chalk on the wooden bar. No music plays; the sound is of the patrons’ (mostly locals with some tourists thrown in) laughter and chatter.
Ordering wines by the glass at El Rinconcillo. The wines in Spain are as varied and regional as in France or Italy.
The tapas are fantastic; we shared shredded and slow-cooked torro (bull) wrapped in phyllo pastry, and chick peas with spinach. There’s a good choice of red and white wines, and my friend from Vancouver was astounded when her glass of beer only cost 1,20 euro. The interior is decorated in multi-coloured tiles (traditionally made in Triana, on the other side of the river), and it is in fact these tiles that, for me, became the decorative link that bound the city together, as they are everywhere: in churches, palaces, bars, parks, and private homes.
The Plaza de Espana; tiles galore!
We forgo visiting the immense Real Alcazar, preferring to visit smaller, more “intimate” palaces (we also gave sangria, and paella, a miss). The elaborately tiled Caza de Pilatos was a favourite, built in the 16th century by a nobleman and featuring over 150 different patterns of tiles, along with numerous tranquil courtyards and small gardens.
Just a tiny bit of the tiles in the Casa de Pilatos:
Casa de Pilatos
As luck would have it, across the street from the Caza de Pilatos is a small craft shop, Coco Sevilla, run by a Spanish woman, Maria, and her French husband. We chatted with Maria as we drooled over their hand-produced tiles and hand-printed silk scarves. She told us about gastronomic tours that she offers, usually in French, and after more conversation said she would be willing to give our party of five an English version. That night, under Maria’s wing, was a highlight of our week; we began by attending an intimate concert of Flamenco music and dance at the Casa de la Guittara; then off to a tapas bar that Maria had reserved (she ordered the sherry, and tapas, for us, and explained their origins and traditions); a second restaurant followed about an hour later: more tapas, and some fine red wines from south-east Andalusia.
LaBulla; Restaurant and Tapas Bar.
Stuffed, and happily rubbing our bellies, Maria asked us if we were up for some dancing. Quickly agreeing, we walked through El Arenal, across a bridge, and into Triana. Maria waltzed us into a tiny bar, La Neustra, where two musicians played lived Flamenco music and people of all ages danced Sevillian (in couples, as opposed to the solo dancers one normally associates with Flamenco).
A couple dancing at La Neustra.
A group of young university-aged Sevillians, seeing our enthusiasm, instructed us on the basics, and soon we were flying—inexpertly, but happily—around the dance floor. I wished that the person who had naively commented that Spain had nothing going for it could have been there.
If you’re going to Seville, you can contact me and I’ll give you Maria’s coordinates. And, I apologize to Spanish speakers; I can’t figure out how to insert Spanish accents on this blog setting. Sorry!