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Seville | The Cathedral

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Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees)

Because it’s that time of year (you know what I mean) and because it’s probably Seville’s best known monument (although in the absence of definitive statistics the Alcázar could make the same claim), it’s time to talk about the Cathedral (the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, to give it its proper title).

Facts and statistics can be tedious, but at least a few are necessary for the full appreciation of a visit here. First, of course, is that this is, quite simply, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and indeed the largest cathedral, though not the largest church – although there is some argument Saint Peters Basilica in Rome and the Basilica of the National Shrine of our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil are generally accepted as larger. This is quite surprising in itself, as although Seville was an important city in the 15th century, its pre-eminence came a little later, after the discovery of the Americas made it the richest city in Europe.

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Corpus Christi outside the Door of Baptism

The Cathedral was built on the site of the Aljama Mosque (the New Grand Mosque that replaced the Old Grand Mosque on the site of what is now the El Salvador church), constructed on a greenfield site just outside the old city between 1184 and 1198. Despite its fame it only served as a mosque for fifty years. In 1248 the Christians under Ferdinand III conquered the city, and the Mosque was reconsecrated as a Cathedral. In 1356, however, the structure was badly damaged in an earthquake, and in 1401 the Cathedral Chapter took the decision to demolish it and build a brand new Cathedral.

One member is reputed to have said “Let us build a Cathedral so grand that when men see it they will think we were mad”. All things considered they didn’t do a bad job. The main structure was completed in 1506, but in 1511 the dome collapsed, and took another 8 years to rebuild. The main altar (retablo) was finished in 1526, and the building was considered complete in 1528, although the Royal Chapel (completed 1575), and the belfry and statue at the top of the Giralda Tower (completed 1568) came later. Also later is the Church of El Sagrario, built in the 17th century.

Of the original mosque, the minaret, now the Giralda tower, and the Patio de los Naranjos (orange trees) and its outer wall, including the Gate of Forgiveness (Puerta del Perdón), were retained, and the Giralda has become the city’s most emblematic symbol.

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The Crocodile in the Cathedral

For the individual visitor entrance is through the Pavilion from the courtyard in front of the Gate of the Prince in the south facade. The statue here is a life size replica of the one on top of the tower (which is a working weather vane) and represents Faith. There’s often quite a queue for tickets, but you can get a combined ticket at the less busy El Salvador church. Inside, the nave rises to a breathtaking 42 metres in height, and includes the choir loft, and the world’s largest gold altarpiece at the end in front of the Royal Chapel. Some 80 other chapels line the outer walls, and among the famous people buried here are Christopher Columbus and his brother Hernando, Ferdinand III and his wife Beatrice, Alfonso X (see if you can find the crocodile that was given him by the king of Egypt), and Pedro I (who built the Neomudejar palace in the Alcazar).

For most people (which is to say, in my opinion), though, the highlight of the visit is going to the top of the Giralda tower (at 105 metres easily the tallest building in the historic centre) and enjoying the views across the city. No lift, of course, but it’s a ramp, not stairs, so it’s not too arduous. They say that when it was a minaret the muezzin would ride his donkey up to the top to call the faithful to prayer, but this story may well be apocryphal.

For an unusual view of the tower and cathedral, check out what is probably the best holiday apartment in Seville.

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View of the Giralda from Giralda Terrace apartment

Seville | A stroll down the Avenida

Much of the charm of the historic centre of Seville (and, it has to be admitted, many of its inconveniences) lies in its networks of narrow streets and little squares, and after the main monuments have been seen striking out into the back streets in exploration mode, not knowing exactly what you might find, or how to get back to your apartment, is one of the city’s great pleasures.

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The Avenida from the Ayuntamiento with the Adriatico on the right

There is, however, one outstanding exception to this rule. The Avenida de la Constitución, which runs from the Ayuntamiento (town hall), past the front of the Cathedral and Archivos, to the Plaza Puerta Jerez, is almost every inch a modern European style boulevard; wide, traffic free and tree-lined, with the terraces of pavement cafés strung intermittently along it and transportation provided by sleek modern trams that glide quietly back and forth, with the occasional clang of the bell to warn an inattentive pedestrian of their presence.

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Arquillo Mañara – entrance to the Moorish Alcázar

But only almost every inch. One of the fascinations of this stretch of road is the surprisingly harmonious combination of styles of different cultures and times, from the Torre Abd El Aziz (early 12th century), through the Cathedral (15th century) to a number of important early 20th century buildings.

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Old and New

The modern name is in honour of the Spanish Constitution of 1980, but prior to that its different sections were known by a number of other names, including Genovese (as attested by a small plaque near Starbucks), after the Genoese merchants settled there by Ferdinand III after the Christian conquest, las Gradas (the steps in front of the Cathedral), Libertad (during the Second Republic) and Queipo de Llano (during the Franco era).

Despite its centrality and importance in the modern city, this area remained outside the city walls throughout the Roman, Vizigothic and Moorish Caliphate periods, and a secondary arm of the river ran from where the Ayuntamiento stands today, along the course of the Avenida, before returning to the main river in El Arenal. It was by this means that the Viking longboat, discovered under the Plaza Nueva, reached its final resting place during the raid of 844 AD. From the early 12th century the site of the Cathedral and the area in front of it were enclosed by a new wall, with exit gates near the later Plaza San Francisco at one end, and near the Cabildo at the other. At the same time the Alcazar enclosure was extended to the Torre Abd El Aziz, the Miguel Mañara arch being the gate to the palace compound.

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Main entrance of the Cathedral

The second half of the century saw the building of the Grand Mosque, and further extension of the city wall towards the river. From 1401 work began on the demolition of the Mosque and the building of the new Cathedral, completed in 1526, and the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. A large section of the frontage is actually a separate church, the El Sagrario, built in the 17th century in the baroque style.

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Casa Alvaro Davila in the early evening light 

The Avenida in its modern form was created in the first third of the 20th century, as part of the preparations for the 1929 Spanish American exhibition. The northern end was substantially widened, and the fine buildings along this section all date to this time, including the emblematic Adriatico (the circular building facing the town hall), and the Casa Álvaro Dávila (now a bank) on the corner of Garcia Vinuesa. The southern end, between the Archivos and the Puerta Jerez, did not exist at all until the 1920s, the area being occupied by the Convent of Saint Thomas and the University of Saint Mary of Jesus, of which only the chapel remains. Most notable of the buildings on this newly created section is the Coliseo, now government offices, but originally a cinema and theatre. The ticket windows can still be seen in the facade. Pedestrianisation and the installation of the tramway came in 2007, together with new orange trees, ornamental streetlamps and a cycle path, and the absence of traffic has helped to convert the Avenida into a pleasant and interesting place to stroll.

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Café Life

This has also resulted in something of an explosion in the number of bars and cafés, mostly aimed at the tourist trade. Best places to stop for a coffee and a snack are the Horno San Buenaventura and Genova cafe-bar, and just off the main drag is one of my favourite traditional tapas bars, Casa Morales.

From the Plaza San Francisco to the main entrance of the Cathedral is the official “carrera” or processional way, for the city’s big religious festivals, especially Semana Santa (Holy Week), and at these times the avenue is lined with seating and thronged with people. It’s a great spectacle, but normal life does come to something of a halt. At Christmas it’s strung with lights along its entire length, and the annual Bélen (Bethlehem) Fair is held in the street between the Cathedral and the Archives.

Booking an apartment in this area of the city is surprisingly easy, and veoapartment has a wide variety from studios to larger family apartments.

Seville | Top 4 Must See Sights

Although different people have different priorities for the kind of holiday they want, and what they want to do (or not do) with their time, there are enough reasons for choosing Seville to suit most of them. First, there’s the weather. Spain has long been a popular destination for sun-seeking northerners, and although July and August are actually too sunny for some (including me, and I live here), the spring and autumn are as near perfect as you’re likely to find anywhere. Warm enough to be out and about (or lounging by the pool, if that’s what you’re after) in shorts and T-shirt without being uncomfortably hot or cold, and for eating al fresco. And Seville is the perfect place to come for both those things. Beautiful, colourful gardens and neighbourhoods of picturesque narrow streets and small squares to wander through, and lots of little tapas bars to stop in for a glass of wine and a snack.

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But although these are some of my favourite things to do, and in general beat the usual sightseeing type of activities, a city as venerably old and culturally important as Seville is going to have a few places that you have to go and see – both because they are actually well worth seeing, and because you don’t want to have to admit when you get home that you went to Seville and didn’t see them. So this is my list of the 4 things you have to see in Seville, in between the things that are actually important.

The Reales Alcazares (Royal Palace) is number one on the list, especially since being used for the filming of one of the locations in Game of Thrones. With origins dating back over a thousand years, and Europe’s longest serving official Royal residence, the 13th century palace of Peter I is regarded as one of the finest examples of Mudejar architecture in Spain, and the gardens are stunning too.

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The Mudejar Palace

The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See is the world’s largest Gothic Cathedral, and was built during the 15th century on the site of the Grand Mosque, of which the Giralda Tower (former minaret and now bell tower) and the wall and outer gate of the Courtyard of the Orange Trees still remain. Inside the Cathedral are the world’s largest gold altarpiece, the tomb of Christopher Columbus and a crocodile. The highlight, though, is the view from the top of the tower, reached by a ramp, not stairs, and the highest point inside the historic centre.

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Courtyard of the Oranges

The Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park was built as the Spanish pavilion for the 1929 Spanish American Pavilion, and is a magnificent colonnaded semi-circular building in a mix of styles from Mudejar to Regionalist surrounding an open space with a fountain and boating lake. It features wonderfully colourful tiles and bridges, and illustrations of scenes from the history of each of Spain’s forty provinces. An breathtaking backdrop that’s been the setting for a number of films, including Star Wars Episode II.

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Plaza España

The Metropol Parasol is the world’s largest wooden building and Seville’s contribution to modern architecture, completed just five years ago. Apart from being unique in itself it houses one of the city’s provisions markets, has Roman ruins in the basement, and a walkway on the top with views across the city.

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Metropol Parasol at night

Stay in one of our range of self-catering apartments to give yourself a base for all these activities. Happy holidays!

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Teodosio Terrace Apartment

Seville | Tourist for the Day

Here at veoapartment blog we pride ourselves on the invaluable information and advice about visiting Spain that we give our readers and guests, as well as all those insightful historical and cultural tidbits to help you understand what you’re seeing. We were just busily patting ourselves on our collective back when it occurred to us that we haven’t actually “done” the tourist thing for a while, and we should actually remind ourselves what it’s like to be a visitor. The obvious choice was to revisit Seville’s three main monuments, which are all UNESCO Heritage Sites: the Alcázar Royal Palace, the Cathedral and Giralda Tower and the Archivos de India. Despite the daunting prospect of being out of the office for several hours* a crack team of investigative reporters (myself and a colleague) was rapidly assembled, and we set off into the sunshine.

tourist in sevilla (1)the Cathedral and Giralda tower seen from the Plaza Triunfo

Tip 1. The first thing a serious tourist needs is, of course, a good breakfast. We had ours at the excellent La Azotea Santa Cruz (coffee, ham and tomato on toast, and delicious fruit smoothies) in Mateos Gago, the street going up from the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes behind the Cathedral. For a more traditional coffee and tostada try the Horno San Buenaventura on Avenida de la Constitución, across from the Cathedral.

Tip 2. There is often a long queue for tickets to the Cathedral. Avoid it by buying a combined ticket at the El Salvador church (worth having a quick look inside while you’re there too), which will allow you to by-pass the Cathedral queue.

Tip 3. The Cathedral is normally open from 11am to 5 pm (last entrance 4.30), but closes early on Mondays (3.30 pm). It’s a working Cathedral so Sunday mornings it is not open for tourist visits. In the afternoons it’s open 2.30 to 6 pm.

Fun Cathedral Facts: It’s the third largest church in the world, and the largest Gothic cathedral, as well as having the most ostentatious (sorry, biggest) gold altarpiece. The Giralda tower and the outer walls of the Patio de Naranjas (Courtyard of the Oranges) are from the Moorish period (12th century), the main body of the Cathedral is Gothic (15th century), the Royal Chapel and anything with bells in it is Renaissance (16th century), and the sections with rectangular windows are Barroque (17th century). It contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus (probably).

Fun Cathedral Things to Do: Look in the angled mirror that allows you to look down at the vault of the cathedral roof. Play Hunt the Crocodile (yes, there is one – not alive fortunately). Climb the Tower. This is actually the most fun thing. It’s a ramp, not stairs, so it’s not too arduous, and you can look out of the windows on the way up and watch the city spreading out below you. The view from the top is worth the exertion.

Tip 4. If you want to know more, get the audio guide.

tourist in sevilla (3)a fountain inside the Alcázar Palace gardens

Tip 5. The Alcázar and the Cathedral is a lot to do in one sitting (allow 2 hours for the Alcazar and 1 for the Cathedral, but you may want longer), so either do them on successive days, or do lunch in between. We just had a cold beer, and it wasn’t really enough, but we weren’t on holiday, and you are, so don’t worry about the time. In summer do the Alcazar in the morning before it gets too hot. Opening times are 9.30 am – 5.00 pm (October – March), 9.30 am – 7.00 pm (April – September).

Fun Alcazar Facts: Originally the site of a 9th century Moorish fortress, the oldest remaining parts – the outer walls and the Yesio Patio – date to the 11th century. The main palace was built by Peter the Cruel in the 14th century in the Mudejar style, and further additions and modifications continued through the Golden Age into the 17th century. It’s the oldest Royal Palace in Europe and is still the official residence of the King of Spain in Seville. It’s shortly to be used for filming part of season 5 of “Game of Thrones”. The Baths of Doña Maria de Padilla are actually rainwater tanks, but are still one of my favourite bits.

tourist in sevilla (4)baths of Doña María de Padilla

Fun Alcazar Things to Do: Read the English translations of the information signs (can they really not afford a professional translator)? Although the Palace is awesome, the main fun things are in the gardens. Visit the maze, the Pool of Mercury (a fish pond with an airial fountain), and the Wall of Grotesques.

Tip 6: Get a map (it’s surprisingly easy to get disoriented) and an audio guide, and remember to look up at the ceilings as well as horizontally at everything else.

tourist in sevilla (2)Archivos de India entrance on Avenida de la Constitución

Our final stop was the Archivos de India, the big square building between the Cathedral and the Alcazar Palace. The document boxes are actually empty (the main archive is now across the street), but they give an idea of what the building looked like in use. You can see some of the old documents in display cabinets and there are often exhibitions, so check to see what’s on. When we were there it was hosting a gold and silver model of Columbus’s ship the Santa Maria. Admission is free. Opening times are 8.00 – 2.30 pm (Monday – Friday ).

Fun Archivos Things to Do: Watch the little film about the history of the building, including its connection to the Americas’ trade (in Spanish with English subtitles). Fascinating.

*Bear in mind this was July and the office has air-conditioning…

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.

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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.

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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.