Andalusia, Spain

I love arriving at a new destination in the dark.  It’s so captivating and mysterious.  The A4 from the airport was like new, eons ahead of the A14/A120 that got us to Stansted airport.  But our exit cut hard into the dark and our rental Renault Clio pulled us up the hill to the fortress perched upon it, shining through the misty, cloudy humid night.  At the top of the hill, a massive gate welcomed us into Carmona’s old town, and before we knew it we were wondering if we were supposed to be driving on these cobblestone streets – of course we can, its Spain!  Alcazar De La Reina is on the edge of old town, and we peered into the hazy darkness, only faintly able to see the ancient edge of the town walls and sweeping landscape…

While we were researching where to go for our “birthday” trip, Andalusia topped the charts as an exotic and near guaranteed warm and sunny destination.  So, as we explored Carmona the following day, dodging the torrential downpour and skipping around the flooded streets, I couldn’t help but think that this is ironic (right?).  If England has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t let a spot of rain ruin our day, so we started at Iglesia de San Bartolome’.  The impressive three altars lit up by high windows was a captivating sight, but what impressed me more is that this little church is truly a place for the locals.  You can almost feel the presence of those born and raised in this little town who attend weekly mass here through the church’s massive walls.  And despite the claim that word travels fast in tiny towns, there was no way any secrets were getting out of that massive confessional!

We stopped for a moment at plaza del Mercado where if you stand in the right spot, you may be able to catch the two steeples of Iglesia y Arquillo de San Felipe and Iglesia del Salvador.  The plaza was just waking up when we got there, with a local butcher, produce and baker market as well as a tiny tapas bar and cerveza watering hole, but again you can feel that people have been gathering here through antiquity.  Well, then the skies ripped open again, and we sought shelter inside Iglesia del Salvador.  Another worn but loved church, adorned by holy statues upon the three alters.

Luckily, the forecast was wrong and in the late afternoon the rain subsided.  The streets dried and the clouds even began to break.  We took this window to climb the towers of the ancient Alcázar of the Puerta de Sevilla.  Carmona stands high upon a hill about 20 minutes from Seville, and people have been here for over five thousand years.  The Alcázar dates back to 200BC as the stronghold which protected the most vulnerable approach to the city.  And it succeeded – it was never breached!  As you start to climb the four levels, the rooftops of Carmona really start to take shape.  What below feels like a winding maze designed to fool any foreigner transforms into a mosaic of white buildings and terra-cotta tiled roofs, sprinkled with Catholic church steeples.  To the southwest you can see the expanse of modern Carmona, but to the northeast the perimeter of the old town atop the hill is guarded by the Puerta de Cordoba gate and towering aloe veras.

We ended our day by exploring the ancient Roman necropolis and amphitheater on the edge of old town, which date back to the first century.  The tombs are strewn about the side of a rolling hill, and at the nearest valley a complete excavation has revealed a grand tomb, designed to provide its residents with all the comforts of home.  We can only imagine that the tomb was situated next to the amphitheater so that those in the afterlife could appreciate the show!

After the sleepy streets of Carmona, Seville was a bustle of energy and people!  We had a broad idea of what we wanted to do, but not a clue how to get there.  Which is why when we collided with a mass of people gathering behind a huge blue, gold & white altar on wheels inching down our main route, what was there to do but join the crowd?  What seemed like hundreds of people walked in front of the altar with waist high white pillar candles, dripping wax onto the cobblestone streets, and all this was led by a 5-foot golden cross.  Spanish devotion visible even on the streets.

Once we finally wove our way through the crowd we enjoyed the weekend atmosphere and an awesome tapas-infused lunch at Bar Europa, then found our way down to the highlight of Seville – the Cathedral and Alcázar.  We made it to Plaza del Triunfo just in time to snap a few pictures before our friendly religious parade caught up with us.  Seville’s Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral and third largest church in the world and was completed in the 16th century.  It is difficult to absorb both the incredible grandeur and ornate details of the cathedral.  Even just circling it takes twice as long as you would expect, every nook and cranny is captivating.  According to local oral tradition, the members of the cathedral chapter said: “Let us build a church so beautiful and so great that those who see it built will think we were mad”.   Unfortunately the parade turned into mass and we were not able to go inside, but that just gives us a reason to return someday.

Literally next door to the Cathedral is the royal Alcázar, which is in a word – stunning.  The Alcázar is the epitome of the periodic Moorish architecture, adorned by the iconic Andalusian tile work that the region is famous for.  It is the oldest palace still in use in Europe, dating back a thousand years.  With every turn we were astounded not only by the Moorish design, so foreign to our northern eyes and precepts, but more so by the grandeur that every inch of the Alcázar exudes.  The cool tile and vaulted ceilings separated by open-air courtyards with glistening pools create an ambient haven from the hot sun.  One can truly spend hours exploring every inch of this magical palace and garden.

But it was time for sangria, cervezas and more tapas for dinner under a cozy awning on atmospheric Calle Argote de Molina, watching the crowds of Seville meander along.  We ended our evening with an authentic Flamenco performance at Casa de la Memoria.  Classical Spanish guitar music is so romantic, and accompanying the desperate vocals you truly feel the passionate musical expression.  The dramatic story of the performance transcends language barriers when coupled with the dancers dramatic footwork, clapping, stomping and slapping.

For our last few hours in the city the next morning we explored yet another incredible architectural glory – Plaza de España.  Built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair, meant to improve relations between Spain and the countries in attendance, many of which were former Spanish colonies.  The plaza contains a circular pool where you can rent a boat and paddle under the bridges, is wrapped by a semi-circular palatial building where scenes from both Star Wars (the bad ones) and Lawrence of Arabia were filmed.  Snug next to the building are tiled exhedras covered by azulejos, each representing a province of Spain.  Plaza de Espana is absolutely fantastic, and in combination with the equally amazing Cathedral, Alcázar, and rich Spanish culture truly give this city numerous reasons to top the travel charts.

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