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Seville | Plaza España and the 1929 Exhibition

1-IMG_5240Plaza de España

Seville has played host to two major international exhibitions in the last 100 years, the 1929 Spanish American exhibition, mainly intended to promote the commonwealth of Spain and the former Spanish colonies in Latin America (but also including the US, Portugal and Brazil), and the 1992 Universal Exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

Perhaps surprisingly, given that it’s further back in time, it’s the site and remaining buildings of the 1929 exhibition that are of the greatest interest to the visitor. It is, of course, much closer to the city centre, but the site is also in and around Seville’s largest park, the Maria Luisa. The park was once the gardens of the Palacio San Telmo, but was donated to the city in 1893. Following the 1910 decision to hold an exhibition in Seville, the gardens were remodelled by the famous landscape gardener Jean-Claude Forestier, and in 1914 Anibal González, the architect in charge of the project, began construction work on the pavilions.

1-april102013 162Statue of Anibal Gonzalez

Eighteen countries took part, and although many of the minor buildings have gone, most of the national pavilions, many of which were intended to become consulates of their respective countries after the expo finished in June 1930, are still in use, together with some of the other principal pavilions, and can be found either in or near the park, and along the Paseo de las Delicias.

The park itself is Seville’s largest green space, and was designed as a “Moorish Paradise”, with ponds, pavilions and walkways, and the famous Fountains of the Frogs and the Lions.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was the Plaza España and the surrounding semicircle of the Spanish pavilion. Built in a mixture of art deco and neo-Mudejar (an early 20th century revival of late Moorish architecture), this held the largest Spanish exhibit, the Salon of Discoveries, about the exploration of the New World. Nowadays the building mostly houses government offices, as well as a small military museum. In front of the pavilion are the forty alcoves representing all the provinces of Spain, with illustrations in ceramic tiles of important scenes from their histories. The four bridges across the boating lake to the Plaza represent the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. Everything is decorated in a profusion of tiles showcasing the craftsmanship of Seville’s ceramics industry. Not surprisingly the complex has featured in a number of films, including Star Wars – Attack of the Clones, Lawrence of Arabia and The Dictator.

1-photo 2 (1)Plaza de España boating lake and tower

Other important buildings in the park include the Palacio Mudejar (now the Museum of Popular Culture), the Palacio Renacimiento (now the Archaeological Museum), and the Palacio de la Casa Real, all in the Plaza America at the far end of the park, and the horseshoe shaped pavilion of the Telephone Company (now the Gardening School), just beyond the Plaza España.

mudejarPalacio Mudejar

Prominent among the national pavilions, and worth looking out for, are those of Portugal (next to the Prado San Sebastian), Peru (now the Casa de las Ciencias), and those of Argentina and Mexico (both now used as schools) on the Paseo de las Delicias.

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Pavilion of Argentina

Preparations for the 1929 exhibition also included the building of new hotels (most notably the splendid Alfonso XIII for the Royal family and visiting heads of state), the widening of many streets, including what is now the Avenida de la Constitución, and the refurbishment of the old Jewish quarter as a tourist attraction. This area is a perfect place to rent an apartment to explore the old expo site and Seville’s other principal monuments.

Seville | City of Opera

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Statue of Don Juan

Did you know that there are more operas set in Seville than in any other city in Europe? As well as a number of minor works, three great stories have been the source of a huge number of operas (and books and plays, too). Who hasn’t heard of Don Juan (Don Giovanni), Figaro (the Barber of Seville), or Carmen, the gypsy girl who works at the Royal Tobacco Factory? The stories and the characters are timeless, and resonate through the ages, and even today new works based on them, and their themes of freedom, revenge, love and jealousy continue to be written. The great age of opera composition, however, was the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when some of the most famous works, such as those of Rossini and Mozart were written. By this time the “Golden Age” of Seville was already over, and these operas were set in a city that had become distant from the centres of cosmopolitan culture in Paris and Vienna, almost on the edge of the world, but still remembered for the time when it was the richest city in Europe. It was consequently a great stage, partly mythical, partly real, on which grand dramas could be played out.

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Commemorative Plaque in Plaza Doña Elvira

Seville today still has something of the same character. On the one hand it’s a modern, working city, a place where people live and work, but as you stroll around the narrow streets and pretty squares of the historic centre it’s another place, too, a place where the stories of the past linger on. Beautiful and historic, city of gardens and blue skies, dreaming palaces and rowdy taverns, bustling gateway to the new world, full of wealth and poverty, this Seville has captured the artistic and romantic imagination through the ages.

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The Prison of the Royal Tobacco Factory

To be sure, you don’t need to have a great knowledge of opera, or even to have actually watched any of the operas that are set here, to follow in the footsteps of legendary characters. As you walk around Seville you may have noticed brass plaques bearing the legend “Seville city of opera” set into the pavement, and white china “plates” with operatic information on them placed nearby. These are part of a local initiative to introduce visitors to the magic of Seville by means of self-guided tours around the city’s operatic locations.

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White China Information Plaque 

For me, Seville is always an uncompleted work of the imagination, stretching into both the past and the future, and walking these routes is less about the operas themselves than about thinking yourself into the life and times of these characters from Seville’s mythic past. The itineraries can be found online here, together with background information about the key operas and places. For some light and entertaining operatic performances, Sevilla de Opera  have a venue in the Arenal Market, with a show of excerpts from popular operas.

But don’t take it all too far. Unlike opera characters, who often find themselves in uncomfortable situations, you can retire at the end of the day to one of our very comfortable apartments without leaving the picturesque streets of our historic city.

Seville | El Centro

Often overlooked for the more obvious tourist neighbourhoods around the Cathedral, El Centro, the commercial hub and main shopping area of Seville, has a surprising amount to offer the visitor. It starts with the shopping, of course. Seville’s two main shopping streets, Sierpes and Tetuan-Velazquez run parallel from La Campana (the bell) to Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Nueva. They tend to be dominated by international names these days, but Sierpes still has a number of “Sevillano” shops like Juan Foronda, where you can pick up a nice handmade fan or shawl, and SohoBenita around the Metropol Parasol is the up and coming area for trendy boutiques. At weekends browse the street markets in Plaza del Duque or Plaza de la Magdalena. And of course there are always lots of shoe shops.

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The limits of El Centro are set in a rough triangle by three of the city’s most important buildings (after the Cathedral and Alcázar). The splendid and ornately carved (on one side) edifice with plazas to either side at the end of the Avenida de la Constitución is the Casa Consistoriales, which houses the ayuntamiento (city council). The original casa was built in the early 16th century along the outside wall of the Franciscan friary, which occupied what is now the Plaza Nueva, and gave its name to Plaza San Francisco. The archway at the end of the building was originally the entrance to the friary. When the friary was demolished in 1840 to create the new square a new facade and main entrance were built. The sculptures by the archway include the figures of Hercules and Julius Caesar, the “founders” of the city.

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To the west of El Centro is the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum). This is one of the most important collections of (mainly) classical age art in Spain, housed in the lovely old Merced convent. Outside is one of those pretty plazas that Seville is so good at, where you can relax in the shade of a pair of enormous fig trees. It also has a local art market on Sundays. Buy a painting, put it in your attic, and who knows – in a few hundred years your descendants might suddenly become very rich indeed.

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To the east is Seville’s contribution to modern architecture, the Metropol Parasols, the world’s largest manmade wooden structure. Completed four years ago, after a long period of gestation (the old Encarnación market that stood here before was demolished in 1973), there was a lot of controversy about both the design and the cost of its construction, but now it’s done it’s one of my favourite places in Seville. Come here during the day to visit the market and the Roman ruins in the basement, and take the lift up to the walkways on top for a bird’s eye view of the city. Come after dark to see it lit up like a scene from Close Encounters.

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Other things to see in El Centro include the Motilla Palace (you won’t find it in the guidebooks as it’s still a private residence, but it’s the Italian style palace with the tower on the corner just down from the Parasols), the elegant Baco 2 and the Casa de la Memoria just across the street, the Casa Palacio of Lebrija and the El Salvador church. This was built on the site of the old Grand Mosque (and the Roman basilica before that), and still has original Moorish archways and minaret (now the belltower).

Veoapartments have a wide range of apartments in this central neighbourhood that cater to all budgets and numbers, and give you an excellent central base to explore the historic centre of the city.

Seville | Town Houses

Glued to Downton Abbey? Big fan of Upstairs, Downstairs (at the risk of giving away your age)? Ever wondered what it would be like to live the lifestyle? Well, we can’t offer you the mansion in the country, but if you’ve ever wanted to live in a genuine Town House, we can offer you one of those (even if it’s only for a vacation), and in an exotic location in sunny Seville that will make it the holiday of a lifetime.

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For two hundred years after the discovery of the New World, Seville was the richest city in Europe, and wealthy merchants and aristocrats built themselves grand residences here, and some of these still exist. So here are six classic Sevillano town houses that are now available for holidays.

Betis Terrace is an 18th century town house on the Triana side of the river, complete with 3 bedrooms and bathrooms, and a split level terrace with views across the river to famous landmarks such as the Cathedral, Maestranza Bullring and Torre del Oro. Although refurbished to the highest modern standards, it still retains many traditional features and furnishings such as tile floors, wood beam ceilings and wrought iron work.

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Salvador Terrace is in a magnificent location in one of Seville’s main squares, the El Salvador, which has been an important centre of life in the city since Roman times. Luxuriously furnished, and with air conditioning and marble flooring throughout, its 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms will accommodate up to 8 people, and with two terraces overlooking the square and the El Salvador church it’s a perfect place to relax with a late night cocktail.

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Pedro Miguel is a superb 4 bedroom town house in the famous Macarena neighbourhood, with bright, modern interiors and a private terrace its perfect for large families or groups of friends.

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Also in the Macarena is Quintana Terrace, another 4 bedroom house with a private terrace and a central patio. With wood beam ceilings, exposed Moorish-style brickwork and colourful ceramics it retains its traditional feel while incorporating all the modern conveniences you look for.

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As its name suggests, Cathedral Terrace is right by Seville’s famous Cathedral and faces the Giralda Tower, the minaret of the Grand Mosque of the late Moorish period. The luxury of the interiors matches the perfect location, a combination of modern comfort and traditional high style that includes a patio, a cierro window (a glassed in or closed balcony) in the living room, and a split level terrace with a circular wrought iron staircase. It really doesn’t get better than this.

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Except…

Perhaps it does. Monsalves Terrace is a 5 bedroom, 5 bathroom mansion near the city centre, with 2 living rooms, 2 terraces and a patio, that will play host to up to 12 people. Every part of this house has been lovingly restored to include modern comfort and convenience alongside antique furniture and decoration. Wood beams, hand carved wooden doors and ceramic tiling in light, spacious rooms will make you think you’re living in a palace. Which you are. I could get used to this.

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To Beer or Not to Beer

A spell of warmer than usual for the time of year weather (which is to say, HOT) has got me thinking about my favourite hot weather tipples, especially for the middle part of the day. Wine is fine for the evening, and Spain has plenty of good quality wines to choose from at very reasonable prices, but during the day you may want something that’s a little more cooling, refreshing and hydrating to keep you going. So here’s a quick guide to how the locals do it.

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First of all, of course, drink plenty of water. Visitors are sometimes wary of the local water (everywhere), but the tap water (agua de grifo) here is fine, and of course it’s free – unlike mineral waters, which are generally rather pricy. Ask for un vaso de agua (glass of water) and whatever else you’re eating or drinking start with that. It’s not only good for you, it clears the palette and helps avoid overdoing it with other fluids. The other alternative to alcohol is soft drinks. Most of the international brands are available, as well as some local varieties.

Then there’s beer. In Spain, beer is loosely regarded as a soft drink and so is available pretty much everywhere. Local brews include Cruzcampo (Seville), Victoria (Malaga) and Alhambra (Granada), and people can be quite passionate about them, but they’re all lagers, and need to be drunk really cold. Beer is usually served in a small glass (ask for a caña) so it doesn’t get warm before you drink it. One or two of these will keep you going while you’re out and about.

sangria

And so we come to the vexed question of sangria. Everybody’s heard of it, and for a majority of visitors it’s perceived as the quintessential Spanish drink. It’s a red (usually) wine based “cocktail” with a soft drink/fruit juice mixer and chopped fruit, often fortified with brandy or other spirits. Precise recipes can vary considerably, depending on who’s making it. But the truth is the Spanish regard it as something for the tourists, and rarely drink it themselves. It also often has a higher alcohol content and isn’t the wisest option for a hot weather drink.

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So, if you want to join the locals, go for our final option, the Tinto de Verano – red wine of summer. It’s simple and easy, being a roughly half and half mix of red wine and a sparkling soft drink with ice. Choose either tinto con limón (with sparkling lemonade) or tinto con blanca (a 7-up type Spanish soft drink). It’s light and refreshing, and the lower alcohol content won’t leave you feeling wrecked mid-afternoon.

All of these can be also bought or prepared at home, and consumed on the terrace of your apartment, a great way to finish one of those perfect Seville days.