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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.

Granada Neighbourhoods

The ancient city of Granada in the South of Spain lies at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains to its east, and overlooking the fertile plain to its west, to which it owed its early prosperity. Between the eleventh century and its final conquest by the Christians in 1492 it was the most important Muslim city in Spain, and the layout of the central part of modern Granada, and the unique character of its principal neighbourhoods, still owes a lot to this period of its history.

View of the Alhambra from the San Nicolas Lookout

Granada’s most famous landmark, the Alhambra, dominates the city centre from its perch on a rocky outcrop above the deep, narrow valley of the River Darro. On the other side of the valley, on hills only a little less lofty than the Alhambra, are the neighbourhoods of the Albaicín and Sacramonte.

Where the river emerges from between the hills you can find the city’s central square, the Plaza Nueva, or New Square, so named because it was the first to be built by the Christians after the reconquest. Built over the River Darro, which runs in a culvert underneath, it’s a wide, pleasant square lined with shops and cafes, as well as the historic court house. To the south and east is the neighbourhood of Realejo-San Matias, and to the south and west that of el Centro.

Albaicín

Moroccan Market in the Albaicín

The Albaicín neighbourhood is one of the oldest parts of the city, and is made up of a network of steep, winding streets and small squares, many with wonderful views of the famous palace fortress, with the Sierra Nevada in the background beyond. Best known of the miradores, or lookouts, is San Nicolas, and it’s a great place to come in the evening for a drink, look across to the Alhambra, and if you’re lucky, to hear some Flamenco or Spanish guitar.

After the reconquest it became the Muslim quarter of the city, but with the expulsion or conversion of Muslims by the Catholic Kings it gradually became depopulated, and before long moneyed Christians began to move in, demolishing the small houses and building what became known as Carmenes or grand houses with gardens or orchards. The mosques were demolished and replaced with churches, although remnants of the original buildings can still be glimpsed, as in the Church of San Salvador. Another feature of muslim architecture that can still be found dotted around the area is the aljibes, underground cisterns built for the storage of water.

Today, there is a distinctly North African feel to the lower Albaicín with tearooms and small shops selling Moroccan goods. In 2003 the upper Albaicín became home to the Main Mosque of Granada, the first in the city since 1492.

The Albaicín is, above all, a neighbourhood for wandering slowly through narrow streets, taking pleasure in hidden corners and the scents from the many gardens; peeping into Carmenes; and enjoying the spectacular views from its terraces and miradores.

Sacramonte

Flamenco Caves in Sacromonte

Beyond the Albaicín is what is surely Granada’s most picturesque neighbourhood, the Sacramonte, named for the 17th century abbey at the top of the Valparaíso hill, which is well worth the trouble of a visit. It’s known as the gypsy neighbourhood, and is notable for the whitewashed cave houses built into the hill, and for being the best place in the city for Flamenco.

Realejo-San Matias

The Realejo is the old Jewish quarter of the city, and like the Albaicín on the other side of the Alhambra, has many steep, labyrinthine streets, with whitewashed houses and Carmenes. The most famous of these, the Carmen de los Martires, is open to the public and enjoys lovely views over the plains, the city and Sierra Nevada. Go up to the Campo del Principe for the bars and restaurants, and walk back down past the Casa de los Tiros, the Antigua Capitania and the Convent of the Mercadarias to San Matias street, another place with lots of places to eat and drink.

El Centro

To the southwest of Plaza Nueva is El Centro, the main commercial centre. Just off the Gran Via you can find the Cathedral and the Royal Chapel, both built in the 16th century as part of the process of Christianization of the city. Nearby is San Agustin, the main food market, and the Alcaicería, once the Arab silk market, but now mainly lined with souvenir shops. Behind these is the Plaza Bib-Rambla, a grand open square with a central fountain called the Gigantes, colonnades, bars and restaurants. Although it has undergone many changes, there has been a public space here since early Nasrid times, which has been used for markets, bullfights, fairs and autos-da-fé.

View from Granada Studio Terrace in the Plaza Nueva