Disarmed by Andalucia's history, food and traditions, Clare Dight falls for springtime in southern Spain
Revel in Seville, capital of Andalucia
A flash of colour crosses the red carpet behind me and I turn just in time to see the figure of a matador walking up the steps of the five-star Gran Meliá Cólon; a hotel made famous for its bull-skewering clientele in the most recent heyday of the sport in the 1950s. Seville's evocative bullring, the Real Maestranza, is one of Spain's oldest, and the crowds that stream past its white and gold curves close to the broad banks of the River Guadalquivir will pay up to €1,000 (Dh4,798) for a really good view of the action. Beautifully dressed in vivid apple green and pink silk, trimmed with bling, black hair tied back beneath the signature - almost caricature - pinched montera, I cannot resist asking the doorman if I'd just glimpsed a celebrity in passing.
His verdict is rather harsh. "No," he says, smiling. "He is no one. Just number two, in case something happens. He is not rich or famous or anything." And definitely not, as I've asked, trying to convey meaning in my rather poor Spanish, a cape-twirling version of David Beckham. Luckily, I have not embarrassed myself too much. It's mid-April and the world-famous feria is about to start, bringing bullfighting's greatest stars to town.
There are few tourists around and none from this part of the world that I encounter. I've hopped aboard the high-speed train that connects Madrid with Seville in two and a half hours, carving through endless olive groves and rocky national parks. At present, Emirates Airline offers the only direct flight to Spain, landing in Madrid, which means that the Andalucian capital is often sadly forgotten.
This is a shame. There is a palpable sense of joy to life in the streets here even as the bunting goes up. Every evening the streets and broad squares of the Plaza de Salvador and Plaza de Nueva are busy with locals of all ages walking and talking, or leaning against high tables sipping drinks with dishes of tapas. Laughter and the sound of children playing (and crying) punctuates the hum of conversation while, nearby, small boutiques sell expensive, candy-coloured flamenco dresses and the smell of orange blossom lingers in the air. The effect is like being on a film set, an impression reinforced by an architectural backdrop that includes Seville's enormous medieval cathedral, the Giralda bell tower - once a minaret - and the massive fortified walls of the Alcázar Palace, more than 900 years old and a royal residence to this day.
Seville's salvation is that this is not all show for tourists and, early in the spring season at least, the drama is for locals who enjoy their own traditions. Tourists descend later in July and August when Seville's charms prove susceptible to the heat.
At this time of year, there's not even a queue for tickets at the Alcázar Palace. With its cool courtyards, running water, ornately carved domed ceilings and large shady gardens, the palace is a rather fantastical reminder of the history of Islamic Al Andalus. The Alcázar's current mix of Moorish and Gothic detailing is the product of repeated renovations by successive generations of Christian monarchs, but it stands as a testament to the skills of the original Islamic artisans who started work on the palace in 1181. North African tribesmen had conquered much of Spain in the late 8th century, establishing a powerful Ummayad caliphate based in Cordoba by 929 that became the focus for cultural life throughout the whole region. It was, however, a later wave of Islamic invaders, the Almohads from what is now Morocco, who proclaimed Seville as the region's new capital, a position it retains to this day.
Later, I opt to visit an 18th-century townhouse in Seville's old Santa Cruz quarter. It's home to the Flamenco Dance Museum, brainchild of Cristina Hoyos, a well-known local dancer. Visitors can sign up for flamenco lessons, like the group of young British teenage girls who are giggling their way through a series of hip sashays in the glass-walled studio, as well as a permanent exhibition of photographs and displays explaining the history of this addictive dance form. It's a rather tortuous offering, thanks to the multilingual visual display panels, but I still manage to learn what makes flamenco dance so distinctive thanks to a series of black and white animations explaining the key moves. The real draw is, however, a nightly flamenco show, or tablao, with local dance performers, accompanied by a singer and guitarist, flying through different styles on a chipped black stage that bears the marks of furiously clacking toes and heels, wheeling turns and high jumps. Up close, it's a noisy, sweaty and rather extraordinary display of simulated passion and great skill. The hour-long performance vindicates the €24 (Dh115) entrance fee for the show and museum tour.
By the end, I'm exhausted by proxy and drop into a local bar to find the performers smoking and sipping ice-cold drinks. I attempt to make conversation but only manage to glean via the barman that the female artist, Rocio Alcaide, who in one set resembled a quivering black scorpion with clicking castanets for claws, has been dancing since the age of five. Walking on I sit out on the pavement sampling some classic tapas. The rest of the city is out doing the same as every cafe/bar cum restaurant on every street is packed with diners and drinkers, all enjoying the warm evening air.
From my pavement perch, entertained by a group of men opposite singing and playing the guitar apparently spontaneously, I graze my way through numerous tasters at about €3 (Dh14) per dish. On the menu: warm goat's cheese drizzled with sweet black honey; fried crispy eggplant dressed the same way; deep fried calamares; skewers of tender lamb, and chicken marinaded in spices "Moroccan style"; and cod with a thick creamy tomato and garlic sauce laced with vinegar known as salmorejo.
Back at my hotel, I glance into its restaurant, La Burladero, named after the wooden shields designed to protect bullfighters from their quarry's understandable rage. I'm hoping to see what an off-duty matador looks like but instead find Seville's citizens indulging yet another passion: football. A large television screen is showing a local derby game with Real Betis pitched against Sevilla FC; at three goals apiece, the restaurant and the city, judging from the shouts in nearby streets, is in uproar.
The next morning I opt for a more sedate start, walking away from the tumble of narrow streets and squares that make up Seville's compact old quarter and head down to the riverfront. There are rowers sculling along the wide flat waterway that once carried all the riches of the Spanish empire from the West Indies and the Americas, following Christopher Columbus's expedition in 1492. A wooden boardwalk carries cyclists over the cobbles and past tall palms; many have hired bikes through the city's public hire scheme, Sevici. It served as a role model for similar schemes in other European cities, and there's a network of segregated cycle lanes, but I don't fancy trying to navigate Seville's older narrow streets on two wheels. It's only a short walk to the landmark Torre del Oro, a rather squat 13th-century Islamic watchtower with a small turret crowned with golden tiles, but I never make it. My head is turned yet again, this time by a street parade.
Behind the bullring, shop windows are decorated with enormous stuffed bulls, and streetsellers hawk hats and cushions to the gathering spectators, but the crowd here is focused on a very different spectacle. Women in flamenco dresses and high peinetas crowned with flowing lace mantillas sit or climb into carriage after carriage pulled by immaculately groomed horses. As the leading horse performs a high-stepping dance for a local television camera crew, old ladies look on from corner coffee shops and well-dressed caballeros dressed in broad brimmed hats and short jackets wait, silver bells trailing over their boots.
For a more modern perspective on this city, I head over to the Metrosol Parasol, an undulating viewing platform made from polyurethane-covered wood designed by a German architect that locals have christened the mushroom. The project was initially conceived back in 2004 after Roman ruins were discovered under a car park and finally completed in April 2011; there's a museum in the basement to showcase Seville's ancient history and the finds include some pretty mosaics.
Up at roof level, there is an undulating circular viewing platform with information boards to point out the landmarks, a bar and cafe serving coffee and tapas; the €10 (Dh48) cost of entry is deducted from anything you spend. The mushroom is a striking modern monument that shows Seville has its eye on the future but the expanse of empty grey tarmac of Plaza de la Encarnación underneath has all the allure of a skatepark.
I quickly head back down, preferring the views of old Seville at street level where the scent of orange blossom and history hangs heavily in the air.
If you go
The flight Emirates Airline flies direct from Dubai to Madrid in just over seven hours from Dh3,665, return, including taxes (www.emirates.com)
The train A high-speed train service links Madrid to Seville in two and a half hours and costs €98.15 (Dh471) return. Book online www.renfe.com
The stay A double room at the Gran Meliá Cólon costs from €285 (Dh1,367) per night, including taxes. Book at www.melia.com