Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Legends’ Category

Seville | City of Opera

don juan

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.

1-photo 4 (2)

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.

1-photo 4

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.

1-photo 1-001

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 | Plaza Doña Elvira



elvira (2)Doña Elvira Square

Even in Seville, a city justly famous for its charming squares and other nooks, the Plaza de Doña Elvira in the Santa Cruz neighbourhood, even today still known as the old Jewish quarter, has to be one of the prettiest and most enchanting places you will ever see. It’s quite small, and is lined by orange trees and colourful tiled benches around an area of cobbled paving, flowerbeds, ornamental streetlights, and a central fountain. It’s reputed to be the birthplace (in what is now the Hotel Doña Elvira) of Dona Ines de Ulloa, the unrequited passion of Don Juan Tenorio, one of Seville’s most quintessential figures, immortalized first by Tirso de Molina, and later by Mozart in Don Giovanni.

elviratypical tiled bench

The approach to the Plaza along Rodrigo Caro street, around the walls of the Real Alcázar, is one of the most picturesque in the city, and anyone visiting the city should take the time to follow it. In Roman and Vizigothic times this area was outside the city walls, and was only enclosed by the Moors the ninth century. The pattern of narrow streets for which the Santa Cruz is famous, and which is typical of mediaeval Islamic cities, was created at this time, and the area of the modern square was probably occupied by a small block of houses.

elvira (3)After Ferdinand III reconquered the city for the Christians in 1248, he allocated this neighbourhood to the Jews and enclosed it with high walls (the only remaining piece can be seen in Calle Fabiola). There was often tension between the Jewish and Christian communities, but in the years following the Black Death (1349) and the great earthquake of 1356, these tensions mounted until in 1391 the Christians went on a rampage through the Jewish quarter, looting, burning and killing. Most of the remaining Jews fled, or were scattered around the city.

After the pogrom, Henry III gave the neighbourhood to Don Pedro Lopez de Ayala, and it was his daughter, Doña Elvira, who gave her name to the square. Their palace occupied part of the modern plaza, and had a small stable yard open to the street, forming a small square known as the Plaza de los Caballos. In the 16th century the yard was rented for the comedy theatre popular at the time (this was contemporary with Elizabethan theatre in England, with which it had much in common), and was known as the “Corral de Doña Elvira”.

Later, after the local authorities had banned the theatre performances, the yard was used as a warehouse, until in 1826, as part of a plan to revitalise the area, it was demolished, and the square enlarged to its present size (it probably acquired its current name at the same time), with the central fountain and benches. In 1924, as part of the preparations for the Spanish-American Exposition of 1929, the streetlights and flowerbeds were added, giving the square its modern appearance.

elvira (4)tiled plaque on the Doña Elvira house

We have a great selection of holiday apartments in this neighbourhood to give you the perfect base for exploring.

Seville | Barrio Santa Cruz

0054_santa-cruz-apartment-sevillePlaza Santa Cruz

Seville is said to have the largest preserved historic centre of any city in Europe, and the old core of the city is the neighbourhood of Santa Cruz, also known as the old Jewish quarter. Today it’s the most picturesque part of the city and a major tourist attraction, and although it’s not large, it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares, which have been inhabited since Roman times and even earlier. Julius Caesar, who was governor here in the 1st century BC before going on to invade Britain and meet his fate on the Ides of March, is credited as being one of the founders of the city, because he built the first stone walls around it.

santa cruz 019entrance to the Judería (Jewish quarter)

santa cruz 030the corner of Agua & Vida (Water & Life)

Although it has become rather touristy, with a lot of souvenir shops of variable quality, the Santa Cruz is still, with good reason, one of the places people come to Seville to see. It’s greatest treasure is probably the little plazas that are scattered through it, many of them of exceptional charm. My personal favourite is the elegant yet cosy Plaza Doña Elvira with its ceramic benches, fountain and orange trees, probably my favourite square in Seville. It’s also the supposed birthplace of Doña Inés de Ulloa, the impossible love of Seville’s favourite son, Don Juan. Don Juan’s statue can be found nearby in another classically pretty square, the Plaza de Los Refinadores, notable also for its palm trees and circular benches and the house with the huge glassed in corner balcony, designed by Anibal Gonzalez, who also designed the famous Plaza España. The Plaza Santa Cruz is the site of the original parish church, and before that of one of the Jewish synagogues, burned down in the pogrom of 1391. The painter Bartolomé Murillo is buried somewhere in the square, which now has its centrepiece the curious wrought iron sculpture known as the Locksmith’s Cross, moved here from its original location in Sierpes Street in 1921 as part of the urban renovation leading up to the 1929 exhibition. Other plazas include Los Venerables, bustling with bars and restaurants, Las Cruces with its three crosses, and the Plaza Alianza, once called the Plaza of the Dry Well.

santa cruz 026fountain against the Alcázar wall in calle Judería

santa cruz 050the Locksmith’s Cross in Plaza Santa Cruz

The narrow streets that wind from plaza to plaza help to block out the intense heat of the summer sun, keeping them at least relatively cool. Look for the tilework that adorns the undersides of many of the balconies and the seriously big wooden doors that guard the entrances to the most important buildings. If they’re open take a peek inside – there’s almost always one of those cool courtyards otherwise hidden from the world. Pay your respects to Susona Ben-Suson in the street of the dead, and pause a moment in Calle Fabiola by the last small remaining section of the wall that separated the Jewish quarter from the rest of the city. Last, but by no means least, spend some time in the bars with the locals, enjoy some tapas and a glass of wine or two. Bar Las Teresas and Casa Roman, both in the heart of the barrio, are two of my favourites for both quality and authentic atmosphere.

0054_plaza-santa-cruz-b-02courtyard of our Plaza Santa Cruz B apartment

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not hard to find apartments for rent for a reasonable price in this part of the city, which is also handy for shops, markets and the main monuments. And it’s all so quintessentially Spanish!

Seville | The Crocodile in the Cathedral

This week we have another guest blog post by history buff, tour guide and long-time Seville resident Peter Tatford Seville Concierge. As usual, Peter has a story to tell.

cathedral giralda

It is only to be expected that a city as old as Seville, that at different times has had close connections with many other parts of the world, will have acquired its fair share of unusual objects. One such is the Lagarto, or lizard, actually a stuffed crocodile, which hangs from the ceiling in the corner of the Courtyard of the Oranges beside Seville Cathedral, and gives its name to the Gate of the Lizard, the old Moorish gate with the typical Visigothic horseshoe arch next to the Giralda Tower. Despite its size and location, it’s surprisingly easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. But when you do see it, the obvious question springs at once to the mind. “Why is there a crocodile just outside the Cathedral?” There is, of course, a story…

Once upon a time (in the Middle Ages) there was a king of Castile (the central region of Spain) called Alfonso X, also known as the Wise because of his love of learning, especially esoteric learning. His father, Ferdinand III, had conquered Seville from the Moors in 1248, and made it the capital of the kingdom, which Alfonso inherited in 1252.

Now, this being a once upon a time story, Alfonso had a beautiful daughter, named Berenguela. Actually, we don’t know if she was beautiful, but we do know she was illegitimate, so it’s as likely a reason as any for why the Emir of Egypt wished for her hand in marriage. To this end, the Emir sent a magnificent embassy to Seville with rich and exotic gifts for the king and princess. Among these gifts was a live crocodile, whose size astonished the Spanish. I’ve heard it said that the crocodile lived for many years and converted to Christianity, but a second version of the tale, that the crocodile languished in its captivity and shortly died, seems more likely. In either case, a wooden model of the beast was carved, and covered with its skin, and this was hung in the corner of the Courtyard of the Oranges, where it can still be seen today. And the Emir never got the girl.

cathedral crocodile

Charming though the tale may be, there are those who see a deeper meaning in the crocodile. In ancient Egypt the crocodile God, whose name was Sobekh, was of great power, as a savant like Alfonso would certainly have known. He was important to the cycles of fertility and vegetation through his connection to the Nile, and devourer of the souls who failed to pass the judgement of Osiris after death. More importantly, he was able to protect against the evil eye, and the placing of a crocodile over the entrance to the cathedral was probably intended to help to keep the forces of evil at bay.

And there he has been ever since, through several earthquakes and the complete rebuilding of the cathedral in its modern form, a kitsch oddity and surprise for the eyes of children.

Right nearby are our Giralda Terrace apartments, three superb modern apartments in a fantastic location next to the cathedral.

The Bonfires of Saint John

Next week, on the night of Monday 23rd June, the shortest night of the year, towns along the coast of Spain will be celebrating La Noche de San Juan, Saint John’s Night, the eve of Saint John’s Day. Despite the name, it is, of course, an essentially pagan festival marking the passing of the summer solstice, and is a time for rituals of purification, renewal, and the assurance of good fortune for the coming year.

bonfires la corunaLa Coruña – photo courtesy of The Telegraph

Preparations for the festivities may go on for several days beforehand, particularly the building of the bonfires that give them their popular name, Las Hogueras, or the bonfires of Saint John. These are traditionally made on the beach, mostly of driftwood, but including old furniture, or indeed, anything else that you want to ritually dispose of. They are lit at dusk and often kept burning until dawn, and from a distance the sight can be both impressive and a little eerie. It’s also common to burn an effigy of Judas Iscariot, a Christian touch added to the original, and in Alicante satirical models of local figures that are specially made for the occasion and paraded around the streets before being added to the pyres (although influenced by it, this is not to be confused with the Valencian fallas festival in March). As with all such celebrations (especially in Spain), this is the time for families and groups of friends to gather round the flames, sharing food, drink and the communal spirit.

When the fires have burned down sufficiently, you are supposed to jump over them three times. This is said to purify and cleanse you, and to burn away all your problems, but if bonfire-jumping seems too risky, don’t worry, there are other ways to achieve the same effect. Women can prepare perfumed water, made with the scents of seven plants, including roses, rosemary and laurel, for washing or bathing. Most common is to take a dip in the sea at midnight, washing away your cares and making a new start for the new year. In many places it’s considered to be bad luck to bathe in the sea before Saint John’s Eve, and in a climate like Spain’s this may be why people are so enthusiastic about this particular ritual!

San-Juan-festival-in-MalagaMalaga – photo courtesy of The Guardian

One of the biggest Saint John’s Night parties is in Malaga, and thousands of people will spend the day preparing the bonfires, and everything else you need for an all-night beach party. If you’re in town it’s an unmissable experience, especially after midnight when the serious revellers get going in earnest, singing and dancing in the dying light of the fires. You may even end up sleeping out under the stars, but if not, you have a comfortable apartment to go back to.

In some parts of Spain it is customary for to go to sleep on St. John’s Eve with three potatoes under your pillow – one peeled, one half-peeled and the other unpeeled. When you wake up take one of them out without looking. If it’s peeled, you’ll have money problems, half-peeled signifies a year of ups and downs, and unpeeled means a year of prosperity and good health. No cheating now.