Seville: Orange Groves, Bullfights and Magic

There are certain cities you’ll visit that steal a little piece of your heart before you leave.  When Mike and I were in France, we enjoyed the quixotic mix of historic significance and modern vigor that made up Paris, but it was in the quietly charming city of Lyon that we really fell in love.  Similarly, we knew that we’d enjoy the regal splendor of Madrid and the unique personality of vibrant Barcelona, but it was in the smaller Andalusian city of Seville where our most vital memories were made.

Maybe it was the fragrant orange trees lining the streets of the city, with the heady scent of fruit and jasmine whispering by on an errant breeze.

Perhaps it was watching the buskers and giggling at the worst Spiderman in Spain.

Or maybe we were just lucky enough to have stumbled into the town during one of its most passionate festivals, the Feria de Abril, where families in ornate traditional dress clatter by in horse drawn carriages on their way to the festivities.

It is a joy to see an entire city come together in celebration of their unique culture, and the pulsating energy and enthusiasm at the Feria is enough to sweep you into the tide of churning, dancing, drinking festival goers who take over 5 city blocks in this venerable party.

One usually starts exploring a city from it’s center, el centro,  but when you’re in Seville, your first stop should really be the atmospheric winding alleys of the Barrio de Santa Cruz. This medieval juderia (Jewish quarter) is kitty corner to some of Seville’s greatest attractions, the cathedral and Alcazar.  It is also insanely romantic, with gorgeous plazas decked out with local flora and glimpses of verdant sunken gardens, bordered  by ornate wrought iron gates that promise the sensuality of this elegant and historic city.

The top two architectural attractions of Seville are Alcazar, otherwise known as the royal palace, and the Catedral with La Giralda. Like many parts of Spain, Seville’s history traces it’s routes through Islamic and Jewish settlers before being conquered by the Christian forces.  The main mosque was converted into a church, and stayed that way for a century and a half before it was destroyed to make way for the iconic Gothic cathedral which was completed in 1507.  The cathedral is home to Columbus’ tomb, artistic jewels like La Immaculada by Murillo, numerous paintings by Goya and Zurbaran, and sculpture by some of the Flemish masters.

Crossing the vast and ornate interior of the cathedral, you will approach the entrance to La Giralda. Standing over 90 meters high, Giralda is the minaret of the original mosque.  Climbing up to the top of Giralda is not nearly as tiresome as you would expect (or rather, as harrowing as I feared) because instead of stairs there are a series of ramps designed so that the cavalry could go up on horseback.  It is also well worth the slow and steady hike, because the breathtaking views from the top of Giralda, a minaret crowned by a plethora of bells installed in the 1600’s, really should not be missed.

From the main square overlooking the cathedral, Plaza del Triunfo, you will also see the royal palace of Alcazar.  This palace of Moorish design was home to generations of kings and queens, and is arguably almost as fantastical as Granada’s Alhambra.  Each room is steeped in history and the informative placards will draw you in as you breeze through the elegant lines of Mudejar architecture.  These are the rooms in which monarch’s wed, Queen’s gave birth, princes played, and Columbus’ men knelt before the virgin to beg safe passage on their journey across the ocean.

No less emotive than the palace are the royal gardens, weaving around the property in small units that each have a distinct charm.  From the majestic fountains to the “English gardens”, and meandering back to the excavated baths of the King’s mistress (Banos de Dona Maria de Padilla), the gardens are a treat where every turn brings you to a unique and oddly personal experience.

Our very first night in Seville, Mike and I were fortunate enough to get (what were clearly scalped) tickets to a bullfight that night, featuring some of Spain’s most revered Matadors.  To be quite honest, I was a bit hesitant about this experience, for the obvious reasons.  We arrived at the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza, one of Spain’s most historic bullrings (built in the 1700’s, with brick and mortar bench seating to attest to the age), gritty with sweat and fatigue.  However, within a few minutes of our arrival, the crowd swelled and the stadium filled in with remarkable speed.  You couldn’t help but be caught with the energy of the event, as 10,000 people swiveled into other people’s knees to yell greetings to friends a few rows back and women, majestic in their gowns for the Feria, sat about fanning themselves in anticipation.

However, as soon as the trumpets and band began to blare, signalling the start of the event, the crowd was hushed.  It is an altering experience to be in a stadium with so many thousands of people, while the air is so still and silent that you can hear the rustle of the matador’s pants as he bravely walks forward to greet the toro. The bullfight itself was as ritualized and choreographed as a dance, and the audience made their feelings known through rapt, hushed intensity as a masterful matador landed a deft blow to the bull, and with hissing aversion as another matador clumsily circled a panting, heaving bull but was unable to land a clear strike and put the bull to rest.  We will not defend bullfighting as a sport, and I can’t guarantee that this was an event that I would ever seek out again, but neither will we revile our experience because it was a fascinating glimpse into at least one faction of this Spanish community.  Frankly, we feel incredibly blessed to have experienced such a passionate and involved event with some 10, 000 of our Spanish peers.

And, of course, we must not forget about the food.  Andalusian specialties like chickpeas in a spinach sauce, rustic veal stew, albondingas (meatballs) in a mildly sweet tomato and carrot sauce, and lightly battered fried fish in tomato sauce were just some of the culinary gems that we feasted on as we wandered the medieval streets and contemplated the well preserved Mudejar architecture around us.

In every city that we visit, Mike and I try to find and enjoy at least one very special and memorable meal.  In Seville, our ‘splurge’ meal took place, surprisingly, at lunch in a small local restaurant in the winding streets of the Jewish quarter.  For only 30 Euro per person we were treated to an 8 course feast plus a bottle of crisp and clean local wine.

The meal began with fresh crusty bread and a selection of plump, bitter cracked green olives.  This was a treat because in Madrid, the marinated olives we had eaten were mostly of the kind you can find jarred in any North American discount chain grocer.

The second dish was Jamon Iberico de Bellota, an aged and cured ham. The joint was strapped into a cradle-like wooden frame called a jamonera, and the waiter deftly shaved off tender, almost translucent slices, one order at a time.  Jamon is ubiquitous in Spain and nearly every eatery has a leg in wait lying in it’s harness, but as with most charcuterie, the quality varies enormously based on terroir and technique.  Jamon Iberico de Bellota refers specifically to the “black legs”, or black skinned pig in southern Spain who roam freelyin oak forests and eat a diet of herbs and acorns.  The meat is appealingly smooth and tender, well marbled throughout, and with the most succulent sweet and nutty flavor that I’ve ever experienced in a cured ham.  Compared to the tough prosciutto that we are sometimes reduced to buying from the deli counter at home, this jamon was practically a revelatory experience.

Almost as popular as jamon on tapas and meal menus, tortilla is arguably one of the national dishes of Spain.  A creamy, dense potato omelet which is served as often at room temperature as hot, Spanish tortilla is served in cubes at tapas, in wedges for meals, or even nestled in a small football shaped breadroll and served as a sandwich.  This particular tortilla campera was so light that it was reminiscent of a souffle, and just barely set in the center.

Next up were the vegetable dishes, champinones al ajillo, mushrooms sauteed with garlic, and esparragos a la plancha, or roasted asparagus.  This far, the meal has epitomized what I consider traditional Spanish food to be.  Using the best possible ingredient, treating them simply to showcase a purity of taste, and taking care with preparation will yield extraordinary results.  Spain is a country where tortilla is so much more than just a simple potato omelet, to even consider jamon in the same way as sliced sandwich ham would be a sacrilege, and vegetables don’t need finicky sauces or overbearing spices to shine.  A bit of good olive oil, a well measured sprinkling of salt, and the occasional flick of parsley or toasted almond slices is all it takes to turn ‘basic’ into ‘divine’.  At this point, we could have ended the meal and I would have been perfectly sated.

But of course, an amazing meal never ends just because you’re fat and happy.  There’s more…..

After the vegetable course, of course, comes the deep fried course.  The calamares fritos were thick rings of squid, pepper and onion in a surprisingly light, thin and dry batter, which were deep fried until they were just tender enough to cut with a light nip.

The first meat course was pollo al ajillo, or roasted chicken with garlic, which was served with the perfect roasted potatoes; crispy and caramelized outside, light and fluffy inside each bite.  The chicken was skinnier than the genetically modified and factory farmed birds that we get in Canada, but size clearly had an inverse relation to flavor.  This was the most “chickeny” chicken that I’ve tasted in a long time, and again, the dish was nothing more complex than chicken, olive oil, garlic and salt.  What more could you want?

We were starting to run out of steam when the final dish arrived, solomillo de cerdo a la casera. This was a plate of thick cut (1-1.5″) medallions of pork tenderloin in a rich peppercorn pan sauce, served with buttery boiled potatoes on the side. Because, of course, at this point, what we really needed were more potatoes.  Most of the meat that we ate in Spain was slightly overdone for my personal, hotblooded and carnivorous tastes, but braising the tender pork in a rich sauce kept it juicy and full of a deep, meaty flavor.

Finally, as we slumped and groaned with embarrassed pride at our gluttony, it was time for cafe and postre, or coffee and the dessert of the day.  I didn’t ask what this was, being certain that I wouldn’t remember the name.  Layers of a light sponge cake were smothered in alternating layers of caramel cream icing and caramel syrup before getting a healthy drizzle of saccharine burnt caramel over the top and a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts.  It was unabashedly sweet and a much larger portion than we would normally eat, but somehow, with fortitude, we soldiered through.

From orange groves to bullfights, rhythmic flamenco to sparkling spring fairs, and Mudejar palaces to gothic cathedrals, Seville is a city with something for everyone.  You cannot help but be swept up in the charm, passion, and perceived authenticity of the community, and we were happy to say goodbye to a little piece of our hearts, wrapped up in the magic of Seville.

Next stop:  Valencia, otherwise known as, “What the hell is this??”

  • Stephen

    Wow. Peter Parker has really let himself go.
    The tree-lined streets look and sound quite lovely.
    A question about the food though … Most of it doesn’t look very colorful. Was that by choice (your menu items) or simply the general food culture there? And I expected to see a lot more fish. Is that just my ignorance of Spanish cuisine?

    • Tina

      Stephen – good question! We struggled sometimes when ordering food, except in Barcelona where the Catalan language was similar to French so we fuddled our way through with somewhat more grace. When we went to fine dining restaurants, the food was aesthetically majestic and was similar in appearance and quality to what you would expect from a five star restaurant in Paris, New York, or even Toronto. However, most of the food was delightfully rustic and made with local Mediterranean ingredients, so you could expect it to be as colorful as traditional Italian or Portuguese food. The focus was really more on simple, quality ingredients with fine presentation and less about fuss and pomp.

      With regard to the fish, Spanish food is very regional and the menu varies greatly in different parts of Spain (excepting the standards like jamon, tortilla, Russian salad, etc). Mike will attest to the fact that we ate *a lot* of seafood and fish, but mostly in the coastal areas. Inland, there was still great seafood and shrimp, prawns, mussels, squid and Galician style octopus were prominent. Oh yes, and anchovies. Different sizes and shapes, salt or oil cured versus marinated, and on everything from crostini to pincho. I was in anchovy HEAVEN. Mike…was not. It was much easier to find good fresh seafood and shellfish than fish, inland especially, where salt cod (in many iterations) and fried fish were more common.

  • Lauren

    Did you two participate in the dancing?

    That bullfight sounds like something you would have to do there, whether or not you agree with it…sounds like an awesome experience.

    And the food. Wow! everything looks delicious, although I find it amusing that a restaurant in the Jewish quarter was serving ham 🙂

    • Tina

      Lauren – thanks for the comment! We saved our dancing for the privacy of our hotel room. The skill level of the general public there was rather daunting! My booty can sometimes shake like that, but mostly when I’m running up a flight of stairs.

      The bullfight really was an amazing experience. I don’t know if I could do it again, but we certainly feel lucky to have been there.

      PS – the historic Jewish quarter had a vibe almost like Toronto’s annex….I don’t think there are too many Jewish families there anymore!

  • lo

    Thank you, thank you for vacationing. But, even more for sharing.

    I’ve heard the bullfights are unbelieveable, and I’m totally drooling over that food. Take me with you next time, ‘kay? 😉