x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Seville is an open-air museum with Islamic inclinations

A summer trip from Morocco to Spain reveals multiple Moorish connections.

One of the city's best known landmarks is the 12-sided Torre del Oro, or the golden tower, a 13th-century citadel on the Guadalquivir River. Gallo Images
One of the city's best known landmarks is the 12-sided Torre del Oro, or the golden tower, a 13th-century citadel on the Guadalquivir River. Gallo Images

A visit to Seville, someone said, is like walking around a museum. And it is. Except you can eat and drink practically anywhere, touch almost anything, and opening hours are protracted.

Apparently you shouldn't go in summer. "It's too hot!" exclaimed travel advisers. "Especially for the baby!" But we ignored them. Sevillian summers see feverish temperatures, true, but it was somehow manageable. Perhaps because wherever we looked, something quite exquisite stood in our eye line: chic esplanades, shady Moorish gardens, labyrinthine districts and elegant edifices.

The antiquity of Seville is palpable. Unsurprising, considering the number of illustrious figures and civilisations that passed through, leaving awe-inspiring marks in their wake. While myth maintains that Hercules founded the city, the Tartessians were most likely the original founders of a town christened Hispalis, around 207 BCE. Seville later played host to Julius Caesar and before Visigoths took the city for their own. For five centuries, Seville was a vital centre of Islamic Andalusia. The Moors weren't expelled until 1492 - the same year that Christopher Columbus embarked on his first voyage of discovery from Sevillian soil. Some say that his remains found their final resting place right here. But that's another story.

The Muslim reign in Seville - or Isbiliya as they called it - saw scores of caliphates and dynasties install themselves within the city limits. The notorious conqueror Musa Ibn Noussair directed the initial invasion from North Africa into Andalusia. From there, Seville played host to Umayyad and Almoravid caliphs. The Almohad dynasty from North Africa chose Seville as its capital, instead of the original Marrakech. Seville showcases, to this day, some of the most breathtaking architectural treasures offered to the world by Muslim civilisations.

We weren't quite in the mood to drag a pushchair (not to mention an energetic toddler refusing to go in it) around a historical edifice at midday, but how wrong we were. Nothing could be more pleasant than a visit to the Alcazar under the singeing heat of Seville's sun.

The Alcazar is arguably one of Iberia's best-preserved examples of Moorish architecture. This series of palaces stood as a centre of power throughout many centuries and civilisations, as its juxtaposed Islamic, Gothic and Renaissance styles attest. Original Mudejar designs reflect the Moorish influence that continued to inspire Spanish architecture long after the Moors' departure.

The facades of Patio de la Monteria bear Arabic script in worship of Allah, while the Patio de las Doncellas tells of traditional Arab ceremonies that took place in these shady courtyards - it was here that a sunken garden was recently discovered beneath 16th-century marble paving. Winding your way through the ancient citadel allows close inspection of ancient Islamic plasterwork, impeccably preserved.

The Alcazar is a garden-filled citadel. Passages weave among ornamental pergolas, arches, ponds and fountains - abundant greenery providing natural shade from the sun. The Gardens of Troy, with their 10th-century Moorish basin, are the oldest in the entire complex and showcase the Islamic inclination for the chiming sounds of water and the perfume of plants.

We left the Alcazar bewitched, but nonetheless in need of a drink and a sit-down. We were in the right area to do it - the Santa Cruz quarter of Seville. A mesh of narrow streets, too narrow to swing a car but a pushchair is fine, this ancient part of the city stretches north of the Alcazar into a celebration of elegant Sevillian buildings, pavement cafes and shops. This is the city for al fresco dining and you might get hungry - only because you can't decide where to stop. The choice is limitless, but we wanted to avoid the throngs of tourists and over-priced menus and so we walked. And walked, and walked. Then, we happened upon a fabulous place, called D Canas, serving real Spanish tapas to real Spaniards. The gazpacho here is the region's authentic version, salmorejo, made with bread and thus thicker although in no way stodgy. Totally delicious, in fact, as was the tortilla sizzling fresh from the pan as well as a dish of asparagus and peppers in a tomato sauce - not on the menu but recommended by an especially busy, smiling waitress. The Plaza Alfalfa offers a series of great places to nibble a croquette and slurp a coffee.

Three hours later, lunch is over and it's time to get back to the laborious task of admiring Seville. Don't worry - the next pit stop isn't far. Across from the Alcazar entrance is the Santa Maria Cathedral. Yet when you look up the 93-metre-high edifice, you may note something distinctly un-Catholic about the tower. You're right. It's a minaret, and a magnificent one at that. La Giralda, as the minaret is known, once stood atop a mosque built in 1198 by a certain Ahmed Ben Baso. He also constructed sister towers in Morocco - the famed Koutoubia of Marrakech and the Hassan Tower in Rabat. You can walk to the top of the 76-metre-high minaret via a series of 35 ramps. Originally designed to allow a horse to pass, they make the climb easy for both legs and pushchair. The summit awards climbers a sensational panoramic view of Seville. Below the tower stands the orangery, formerly the ablution area before the mosque was converted into the vast and breathtaking Gothic cathedral. So cherished was Ben Baso's minaret that Prince Don Alfonso threatened to kill anyone daring to remove a single brick from it when the edifice became a cathedral.

The pedestrianised district of El Arenal is a shopping area with everything from chain stores to local tapas bars. Beware of some substandard eateries on the main promenade and instead explore the side streets. We fell upon Casa La Viuda, featured in the Michelin guide, and enjoyed a whole range of traditional cuisine including local fish and seafood dishes, the sweetest of Spanish tomatoes and tasty omelettes.

Rising in the north-eastern Cazorla Mountains, the Guadalquivir River passes by Cordoba before snaking through Seville on its Atlantic-bound journey. The name originates from the Arabic Al Wadi Al Kabir - the Great River, which it certainly is at 657km in length. The Guadalquivir is bridged in several places. Right next to the splendid Torre del Oro (Golden Tower) is the Puento de San Telmo, which takes you across the waters and into the district of Triana. The area was once totally separated from Seville - geographically by the river and culturally by the population. Triana was allegedly peopled by Gitanos, Roman people and mothers of Flamenco. Originating from the Indian subcontinent, they brought Moorish influences gathered in North Africa en route to Spain.

So pedestrian-friendly is Seville it's not a bad idea to take a hotel a little out of the tourist-littered centre. The Macarena neighbourhood lies 15 minutes' walk to the west and proffers a more authentic sense of the city. Wander along the immaculate Alameda de Hercules esplanade beneath the welcome shade of trees and, for extra refreshment, walk through the vaporisers springing up from the ground. Our toddler gleefully danced in and out of the water sprays while his drained parents watched from one of the countless cafes, whose tables trickle out onto the plaza.

Tucked behind the Macarena Basilica, famous for its 17th-century sculpture, is the Alcoba del Rey hotel. The interior transported us instantly to North Africa. Moroccan zellij tiles brought from Fez and authentically made tadelakt decorate this magnificent riad. The central area is clad in original marble while guest rooms are adorned with authentic Moroccan sinks, intricate plaster ceilings and carved, hand-painted headboards. Moorish arches and stucco add to the luxurious Arab character.

Each room carries the name of an Arabic figure playing a key role in Andalusian history and the entire place reflects owner Rafael Carrion's passion for the Maghreb. Carrion, who once lived in Casablanca, explained: "The Alcoba del Rey has everything you find in a traditional Moroccan riad." He gazes over the city from the hotel's roof terrace, bedecked with Moroccan candleholders and mint plants, a rather un-Moroccan jacuzzi bubbling in the corner. Carrion is native to Seville and understands the city's gregarious spirit. "I'll tell you what Sevillians are like," he says. "They like to eat tapas, to pass from one cafe to the next, talking and getting to know people. They like to socialise. And the people here are devoted to Seville. They are proud ambassadors of their city."

Carrion is right. The idyllic climate and festive atmosphere easily spark "I could live here" ideas in tourists. For most locals it's a different story - unemployment in Seville is about 25 per cent and the economic crisis isn't over. Even those in work are not spared the anguish. Badr Eddine Ennakati came to Seville almost two decades ago from his native Casablanca. He sells a fabulous selection of Moroccan handicrafts, clothing and spices in his boutique, Marrakech, but times are hard.

"It's difficult here," he recounts. "The crisis has really affected us. I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't have stayed in Casablanca."

Yet as a tourist you can indulge yourself by slowing down. Forget your traditional eating and sleeping times and instead follow the more flexible and relaxed local notion of routine. You don't need a car because the city isn't enormous and you can walk anywhere. If you should get tired, cafes are ubiquitous so you can grant yourself a well-earned break, say every half hour, and bask under the balmy Sevillian skies.

 

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Madrid cost from Dh4,055, including taxes.

The stay

Double rooms at Alcoba del Rey de Sevilla (www.alcobadelrey.com; 00 34 954 915 800) cost from €258 (Dh1,380), with breakfast and taxes.