I’m trying to capture some of my impressions of Seville, Spain before we move on in our trip. The Wife and I have wandered around here for almost four days, encountering the people and culture in various settings.
If, like us, you prefer to explore a destination by foot… peering into windows and catching glimpses of forbidden private spaces, Seville will prove as frustrating as most European cities. Space in Europe is constantly at a premium, so the local architecture is designed to ensure privacy and support family time. As a result the coy facades of buildings pressing against one another give the impression of life lived in dark, unwelcoming places. What the average passer-by is not privileged to experience, is the fact that most of these imposing and barren facades are simply the garage door and back gate into large multi-generational communities constructed around 2, 3 and even 5 story courtyards. The center of the space is the heart of the home and a way for the architecture to ensure natural light reaches into every level, and every room.
In most European cities, these “back sides’ of buildings are still a source of some care, embellished with tile, ornate iron work, and occasionally face-lifted with a bumped out sun room hovering lightly off the second story.
In Seville, they are often left untended and unkempt – perhaps to discourage the regular influx of tourists from hanging about. In fact, because the heart of Seville is built and rebuilt upon ancient foundations, streets designed to accommodate a horse and rider or a mule drawn cart, and old muddy foot paths (it’s not alone, you will find this in many older cities in Europe) – it can be positively hazardous to walk the streets. Automobiles thread these narrow passageways, and pedestrians are granted scant inches in many places to step out of the way. Your best bet, while visiting, is to scurry through the constrained blocks of residential buildings surrounding whatever tiny hotel you have found that allows you pedestrian access to the heart of town, to reach one of the larger boulevards. Once there however, it is no small challenge to make your way from one destination to the next… Google Maps for pedestrians notwithstanding. There are no straight routes, and wandering around looking for someplace interesting to explore, photograph, or shop – often leads to frustration and blisters. If you plan to use Google Maps and GPS to get around on foot, make sure to download the offline maps you need before you leave, and practice following the directions in a familiar place.
Another challenge for us was to find a reasonable meal for a reasonable price. Our options ranged wildly, from a healthy breakfast at the hotel for the price of a good bicycle, to tiny restaurants where… if we were lucky, we could buy a cup of coffee and a pastry, or the usual bar menu of beef and pork cuts cooked without much interest in sauces, side dishes, or repeat diners – for less than I’ve spent on a single cocktail in most US cities. It frequently took us an hour to find one that was serving food, taking orders, AND willing to serve us at whatever ungodly hour we chose to appear. Breakfast is hard to find before 10am, lunch doesn’t appear until 2pm, and dinner is best from 9pm to midnight. Nap accordingly.
Every now and then we stumbled onto a neighborhood bar or up-and-coming hipster restaurant where the food was actually enjoyable, if not terribly healthy. We started marking these places on our map to ensure we could find them again. Needless to say, these were not places on our printed map from the friendly hotel concierge.
I am not a native of Seville, and as such I have no business passing judgement. I can only convey my various impressions of the city, which is unusually unkempt and inhospitable for Europe, especially Spain. Construction sounds are everywhere, restaurant staff clang dishes around loudly, narrow sidewalks are covered in suspicious substances, pedestrians shoulder one another aside, over-worked bar / food tenders snarl at potential customers about kitchen delays, and roughly boarded up store-fronts and properties for hire are a frequent part of the landscape.
After bustling Barcelona and tidy Lora del Rio, we were particularly surprised by the impression that business was not thriving in Seville. The sidewalks are awash with fast paced pedestrian traffic, but that same energy did not infect places actually providing services or selling products. Empty store-fronts were not neatly contained and ready for the next tenant. They were, in fact, frequently blocked off with shaggy chunks of cracked marble, poorly constructed brick pillars supporting the upper levels, old construction material, and many seasons of weeds.
Store face lifts often involved painting over historical carved marble and the application of pseudo-historical half-brick facing on top of graffiti-laden ceramic tile. It is difficult to know whether this was a deliberate preservation of history, or a lack of ambition on the part of construction workers. Was this irony, or urban post-post modern design? No se. Painters neatly covered filthy surfaces with a fresh coat of paint, obviously more interested in completing the job than ensuring the durability of their work. No one washed sidewalks, constructed window displays to entice buyers, or attempted to ensure the beauty of building facades. Layers of dirt built upon the residue left from previous generations.
There is a general air of exhaustion about the city. Old town squares and public courtyards are untended, or at best… allocated a desultory smattering of red geraniums and magenta bougainvillea in aging pots – planted hastily and left to survive under the tender mercies of a hot summer sun. During school hours, very young men hauled patched-together wagons full of debris picked from large public trash bins and scrawled desperate tokens of their existence on steel store shutters in the later hours.
You can imagine this city several centuries ago, with a few wealthy families providing protection and employment to many workers who kept vast gardens and large private homes clean and beautiful. That wealth has vanished, the gardens have been turned into open parks, and the city’s tax payers cannot afford to keep the streets and public spaces clean and well-maintained. Although the center of town is filled with commerce and a visual history of grand sculpture and design, most of it is now geared to sustain the tourist trade. While I have no doubt there are artisans, musicians, sculptors, painters and other creative spirits all over Seville, there appears to be little outlet for that artistry in Seville’s day to day life.
We stumbled across a number of places where current inhabitants of this city clearly struggled to reintroduce the idea of public art and civic pride. But the efforts were dying, ignored by a population bent on the struggle to evolve and grow amidst a social emphasis on historical traditions and symbols.
Flamenco, a cultural artifact borrowed from Gypsy tribes, is discovering a resurgence thanks to its arresting visual short-hand and lingering fringe of creative pride. Cynical fashion designers have stuffed the local department store with a section of mass-produced replicas of the Flamenco dance dress – flattering to a small-subset of females of marriageable age, and rather appalling on little girls, mothers, and the occasional grandmother seeking to relive that ‘princess’ moment with silk flower hair decorations, cheap lace shawls and a plethora of ruffles in synthetics so cheap even a proper dry-cleaning cannot give it a patina of sophistication. It’s a bit like Halloween in the US, if the only acceptable “costume” was expected to reflect a once-cool dance style from a hundred and fifty years ago.
Finding a place to stay close to the bulk of the tourist attractions is of particular importance. Although Uber drivers are operating here, you cannot depend on the pricing, and it can be cheaper to take a standard taxi wherever you need to go. Beware the buses – signage and announcements are not reliable and anyone unfamiliar with the city will find it difficult to get around using public transportation. All of the Uber and Taxis we have used were clean and the drivers polite. The advantage of Uber is, of course, the fact that they use GPS to determine their route to your destination, so you can be sure they are taking the best route for the moment. We still aren’t certain that the first taxi driver took us on the shortest route given pricing from other rides, but as strangers to the city, it is impossible to be certain.
Since Spanish wineries are subsidized by the government, there is less motivation to perfect the product than in some countries and locations famous for alcoholic libations. Beware white wines, which are frequently “semi-dulce” (sweet) regardless of their underlying grape varietal. Red wines tend to be dry and high in tannins. That being said, you can get a litre of cheap tinto (red) or blanco (white) to make a Sangria for somewhere around 2 euros, and bottles of slightly better grape for less than 5 euros. Alcohol in general is far cheaper in Spain at the Bar-Restaurants than Americans encounter at our equivalent businesses. The wife enjoyed a double shot of Dewars for 2.5 euros. Of course, the fact that she drinks it neat did impress the bar keep, so that may be part of it. Mine, including half the alcohol because I prefer it with ice, cost the same.
While customer (and tourist)-facing Spaniards in Barcelona often speak more than a smattering of English, you will need to bring a pocket full of Spanish phrases to get around Seville… even in high end hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. The gratitude of staff here when I strung together my rough Spanglish was more than a little surprising. Because I did speak some Spanish (un peqeno), they often mistook us for Germans, Swiss, or tourists from other EU countries. This doesn’t say good things about Americans, so for the love of all that is good about the US of A, buy Level 1 Spanish by Pimsleur and play it in the car while you run errands for a few months. I promise you it will come in handy.
Hable Castilliano? Un poco? Si? Do you love Seville? Why? What is your favorite memory? Drop a line in the comments for the rest of us.