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Seville | Flamenco

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Although everybody’s heard of flamenco, and many visitors to Seville and other parts of Andalucía (the southern region of Spain) arrive with the intention of “seeing some flamenco”, this music and dance art form is surprisingly little known in practice, and most people’s first experience of a real flamenco performance comes as something of a revelation. Both the passion and intensity of the rhythms, and the level of technical skill required by the performers, sweep people off their feet.

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So what exactly is flamenco? Flamenco is the traditional performance art of southern Spain (declared a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by Unesco in 2010) that encompasses singing, dancing and guitar playing, together with handclapping and finger snapping (and castanets). The name may derive from Arabic fellah mengu, “expelled peasant”, referring to former Moslems in the 16th-17th centuries, or possibly from the name of the bird flamingo, which came to be used to mean flamboyant behaviour generally. The earliest use of the term flamenco referring to music and dance dates from 1774, though there are earlier references to the distinctive dancing of the ethnic Gypsies.

IMG_7659Although records of the origins of flamenco are sparse, the similarity of the arm movements of modern flamenco to those of the folk-dancing of Northern India, the original homeland of the Gypsies before their medieval migrations across Europe, and the flamenco cante, or song, often has an Arabic feel to it, especially in the more tragic or solemn styles. The flamenco guitar is similar to classical guitar, but with adaptations that allow a more percussive style when required, and is characterised by very rapid plucking.

The kind of flamenco you will probably see if you go to a show is called a tablao, literally a board, and refers to the stage on which it is performed, which is designed to accentuate the sound of the dancers’ footwork. Such a show will usually feature at least two dancers, a man and a woman, dancing different styles known as palos, a singer and a guitarist. Although the audiences are mostly tourists, Seville has a number of venues that provide quality performances by professional flamenco artistes. My favourite is the Flamenco Dance Museum, but La Casa de la Memoria, La Casa de la Guitarra, La Casa del Flamenco and the Auditorio Alvarez Quintero are all excellent.

Seville | Holiday Tips

Have you ever been somewhere on holiday, and discovered something near the end of your stay that makes you say, “I wish I’d known that before I came on holiday”? That’s a rhetorical question, of course, as it happens to all of us, and however much planning we do will probably continue to do so. Nevertheless, here are some tips that will help you avoid at least some of those moments when you’re in Seville.

First off, when is the best time to come to Seville? Spring and autumn have the best weather – warm enough for shorts and T-shirts, but not oppressively hot. On the other hand low season (winter and summer) means cheap deals on flights and accommodation. Try to avoid Semana Santa (Holy Week) and the April Fair unless you’ve come to Seville specifically for those events; the city is extra crowded and hotel and apartment prices are often double the normal rate.

If you’re staying more than a couple of nights (which you need to to do Seville properly), and particularly if you’re a family or a group, consider renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel. It gives you more freedom to come and go, as well as self-catering and laundry options, and often works out cheaper. These days there are lots to choose from in all size and price ranges.

Seville is a fabulous city for just wandering around, and if you’re in the centre (if not, the buses and taxis are cheap and easy to use) everything is within walking distance. It’s very easy to get lost in the mazes of small streets, though, so get a map from the tourist office. You could also try starting your stay with a walking tour, which will not only help you find your way around, but also give you an insight into the city’s past, and how it came to be what it is today. Principle must-see sights include the Reales Alcazares (royal palace), the Cathedral (there are often long queues, but you can avoid them by buying a combined entrance ticket at the El Salvador church), the Plaza España (González’s masterwork built for the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition) in Maria Luisa Park, and the modernist Metropol Parasols (the world’s largest wooden building).

Seville is famous as the birthplace of tapas, so get to know this typically Andalucian way of eating. It’s informal, and the bars are often busy, but don’t be put off or intimidated – really, the locals are friendly. If there’s no space, wait; people often go from bar to bar and don’t stay long in one place. Don’t order everything at once, just one or two tapas each to start, and order more as you need it. In some bars tapas are only available at the bar, so check before ordering. The bill is “la cuenta” and is usually paid at the end. There are also lots of tapas tours available if you want someone to show you the ropes, explain the food and give you helpful tips and suggestions. It’s also worthwhile visiting one of the local food markets to see how the locals shop.

Although the audiences are mainly tourists, the best way to see flamenco is still at a proper show – The Flamenco Dance Museum and the Casa de la Memoria are among the best. Book an early evening show and you’ll have plenty of time for tapas afterwards.

For the little things. It’s worth going somewhere high up for an overview (literally) of the city. The Giralda Tower and the Metropol Parasol are the best. Also try and catch the deep, dark blue of dusk over the Cathedral from Plaza Virgen de los Reyes. This is also the time when the swallows come out to hunt insects, and can be seen swooping around the tower and nearby streets. This is a magical time of day to be out and about.

Seville | El Arenal neighbourhood

The Arenal neighbourhood of Seville is the southwestern part of the old centre, between the Avenida de la Constitución that runs in front of the Cathedral, and the River Guadalquivir. Its name is derived from the Spanish word for sand (arena), in this case the sand of the bullring, which is in this neighbourhood.

arenal (1)inside the Maestranza bullring

Crossing the Avenida at the corner of the cathedral takes you from the tourist district of Seville into an area with a quite different character. It was created by the extension of the city walls in the 10th century, some of which can still be seen around the Torre del Oro and the Torre del Plata (the gold and silver towers). During Seville’s golden age after the discovery of America it was the port area of the city, and even today it’s still a largely residential area. It was here that the treasures of the New World were unloaded, and from here that voyages of trade and discovery set sail.

arenal (4)Plaza del Cabildo

For the sightseer the main things of interest cluster around the southern end of the neighbourhood. Start at the Plaza del Cabildo, which is reached by a short passageway directly opposite the main door of the Cathedral. It’s normally a quiet place, away from the busy main avenue, with a section of the old wall, a fountain, and a semi-circle of shops and apartments with splendid frescos along the eaves. On Sunday mornings there’s a little collectors’ market selling stamps, coins and other items. Look out for a little shop called El Torno, where they sell cakes and pastries made in the local convents. The name derives from the turntable that separated the nuns from the buyers of their goods.

arenal (5)the Atarazanas

From there go through the Postigo del Aceite, the oil gate, into the riverside area. This is one of the few remaining city gates, and still has a little chapel just inside where you can give thanks or pray for good fortune as you enter or leave the city. To the right is a little artesan market for your souvenir shopping, and to the left are the Atarazanas, the 13th century dockyards. They’re not open to the public at the moment, but you can look in through one of the windows to see the visually stunning effect of its arched naves. If you’re lucky you may see storks nesting on the chimney above the building, something that always gives me a lift. Follow the building round and you’ll come to La Hospital de la Caridad, the charity hospital founded by Miguel de Mañara (sometimes said to be the model for Don Juan, though this is almost certainly not true). It’s still a working charity hospital but the splendid Baroque chapel is open to the public.

torre del oroTorre del Oro

Down by the river is one of Seville’s most famous and iconic buildings, the Torre del Oro, built in the early 13th century to protect the then Moorish city from the approaching Christians. In the 19th century it survived a couple of proposals for its demolition. It now houses a small naval museum with old maps and prints and model ships. You can also climb to the top for a view along the river, and to imagine what the area was like when it was the most important port in Europe.

arenal (2)Bullring Museum

A little further along the river is the bullring, one of the two oldest in Spain. Bullfights (to the death) are still held here during the April fair and in September. Even if you choose (like me, I have to admit) not to see a fight, it’s still worth taking a guided tour to experience the atmosphere of the arena.

Nowadays one of the Arenal’s great pleasures is its profusion of excellent tapas bars, many of them, such as the Bodeguita Romero, Casa Morales or Casa Moreno, retaining their traditional ambience and cuisine, making it a great alternative to the more touristy Santa Cruz for a proper tapeo. For tapas with a more modern touch try La Brunilda. Also pay a visit to the Arenal market to see how the locals shop and buy a few supplies.

arenal (3)Entrance to the Arenal Market

Last but not least there are several places where you can see flamenco. For a show try the Arenal Tablao in Calle Rodo. For something less formal pay a visit to Casa Matías on Calle Arfe (contrary to your expectations it’s not open late at night – go between 7 – 10 pm for impromptu flamenco).

El Arenal’s location close to, but not in, the main monumental area, makes it a great neighbourhood to rent an apartment for your stay at a reasonable price.

Take our virtual tour of the El Arenal barrio.

Seville | Bienal de Flamenco

Flamenco is the traditional song, dance and music artform of Andalucia, which evolved from it’s gypsy and North African roots into something like its present form around the 17th century. If you’re into all things Flamenco, then for sure Seville is the place you want to be during the next five weeks. If you’re not, then come anyway, and you may well become a convert. From September 12 to October 15 the city is hosting the Bienal de Flamenco, the largest festival of flamenco in the world, and the city will be alive with the passions, sounds and rhythms of Spanish guitar and flamenco dance.

bienal flamenco 2014photo courtesy of the Bienal de Flamenco website

The slogan for this, the 18th edition of the festival which began in 1980, is fuente y caudal, source and flow, a reference to a 1973 album by the legendary Paco de Lucia. I have been lucky enough to have seen him play twice at previous bienals, and was looking forward to seeing him again this time around, but sadly it was not to be as he passed away suddenly earlier this year. A number of events have been planned as a homage to his memory, including a “We Play For Paco” event the day before the official opening, which will be held in Plaza San Francisco.

paco de luciaPaco de Lucía – photo courtesy of the Bienal de Flamenco website

Many of the big names in flamenco will be here, performing in the city’s major venues, such as the Espacio Santa Clara, the Alcázar Palace, the San Telmo Palace, and the city’s four main theatres, the Maestranza, Lope de Vega, Alameda and Central, but the Bienal is not just about big name performers. There will be dozens of rising talents and young hopefuls in the smaller theaters and clubs, and because flamenco is a tradition that develops, rather than being fixed and rigid, I’m expecting fringe and fusion styles of flamenco to be well represented.

In keeping with the theme of this year’s festival the official venues for street performances are clustered along the river, and around some of the city’s famous fountains, such as in the Puerta Jerez and Plaza de la Virgen de los Reyes, but as in previous years less formal shows may pop up almost anywhere in the city.

There will also be exhibitions of photographs and flamenco memorabilia, forums and other activities, including a special symposium on the life and work of Paco de Lucia.

Bienal de Flamenco 2014
September 12 – October 15
Official Programme

Seville | 5 Ways to live (almost) like a local.

You have seen them all over the Sunday supplements and the internet, particularly the blogosphere – 10 best this, 5 worst that, 10 things to do in X, and also 5 ways to live like a local in Y. Now for sure, some of these articles will give you some sound advice on getting the most out of your vacation, but there’s also a lot of stereotyping as well as inaccuracies involved. If you’re only here (in our case, Seville) for a few days you’re not really going to be living like a local. For a start you probably don’t speak much, or any, Spanish, an essential requirement for immersing yourself in the life of the city. Nor do the locals spend much time hanging out in the Cathedral or Alcázar palace, things you should certainly be doing while you’re here (there is an up side to being a tourist). But don’t worry. There are things you can do which will give you at least a taste of how the locals live. So here’s our list (written by a local!).

local tapas

Go on a tapeo

Going out for tapas is the locals preferred way of spending a sociable evening out, and it’s probably already on your list. The format is something like a pub crawl, but with food as the main item on the agenda, with drinks as the accompaniment, rather than vice versa. Have a couple or three tapas at each place you go to, then move on to the next. There’s no foolproof way of choosing the right places for a perfect tapas experience, and although there are some great places in the touristy Santa Cruz, such as Las Teresas and Casa Roman, getting away into the Arenal or the Macarena you’ll find bars like Casa Morales, Bodeguita Romero and Eslava that are always full of locals and have top quality food, too. As an introduction, and to learn the ropes, try a tapas tour with a local guide on your first night.

Visit a Local Market

Visiting a local market is an interesting and fun way to see how the locals shop, and if you’re renting a self-catering apartment (recommended, though we may be a bit biased) rather than staying in a hotel, it’s practical too. There are three markets in the centre, and another just across the bridge in Triana, and the displays of fresh fruit and veg, fish, seafood and meats should inspire you to do a little cooking. One important thing to remember is DO NOT TOUCH any of the fruit or vegetables. Just point at what you want and hold up your fingers to show the amount if you have no Spanish. And since there is no queuing, and very few market stalls are equipped with “take a number” machines, the correct thing to do is ask “quien es el último?” (who is last?) and then take your turn when they have finished.

local market

Siesta

There’s a reason that siesta is one of the few Spanish words to have been warmly welcomed into the English language. That half-hour nap after lunch aids digestion, calms the brain, and reinvigorates the body. It’s the original “power nap”. And if you’re here in summer (June through to mid-September), it’s really too hot to do anything else. So for a couple of hours everything shuts down, many of the smaller shops close, and peace and quiet descend on what is otherwise a bustling and buzzy city.

Fiesta

Contrary to popular stereotype life here isn’t just one long street party. Nevertheless, when the Sevillanos do them, they do them right. So if you’re here for Semana Santa, the April Fair, or one of the neighbourhood events like the Vela de Santa Ana in Triana, go along and mix with the locals. Another local tradition, churros and chocolate, is the ideal hangover cure after a night on the tiles.

Flamenco

There are two schools of thought on flamenco. One is that you should seek out some after midnight drinking club with an improptu flamenco “jamming session”. You might get lucky, and have the experience of a lifetime. Or you might get a couple of amateurs and be cold-shouldered by the actual locals to boot. Or you can go and see a proper flamenco show, at a venue like the Flamenco Dance Museum or the Casa de la Memoria. The audience will be mainly tourists like you, but the performers will be professional artists, and the quality and authenticity are guaranteed. On this one, even after the many years I’ve lived in Seville, I’m happy to be “just a tourist”.

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