In this journal:
- oranges, lots of oranges;
- cultural exchange over 2000 years;
- a plaza made of ceramics.
(Note: Due to my own confusion between Spanish and English, in this journal, I use the Spanish name Sevilla interchangeably from the English name Seville.)
It was a sunny day in Sevilla. Our taxi slowly crawled to a halt at our Airbnb host’s heels. She showed us the small apartment that we would call home for the next few days, and off we go to explore the capital of southern Spain.
We began with a stroll in the old town, where history comes to life. The Andalusian roots of this regional capital is easy to spot, with hundreds of tiny ex-mosque-turned-into-church spirals, and narrow, cobbled streets completely unfit for modern traffic. This is a city famous for its romanticism since the Roman times, and you can see it from every tiny plaza tucked away between blue-tiled roofs and extravagantly carved lamp posts, or every small water fountain meant to provide entertainment to bored passers-by, but turned out to be useful bathplaces for pigeons.
It was virtually impossible to avoid the dominating feature of the town: Cathedral of Seville, with its 104-meter Giralda Tower. This tower used to be a minaret for the great mosque during Moorish rule of the city, which was built as a homage to Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, which is incidentally our next stop after Seville. The mosque was demolished after the Reconquista, and a new Gothic cathedral was reborn top of the rubbles, with the minaret as the only remaining part of the previous Islamic construction.
The project of the cathedral was so grand that it took well over 100 years to finish, as the city was going absolutely crazy to build the most grandiose and unprecedented Christian monuments in the entire world. Well, they were incredibly rich at the time thanks to being the largest inland port of the entire kingdom, so they were more than entitled to do so. And thanks to the genorisity of the patrons, we got the chance to witness greatness centuries later.
How unbelievable was it, you ask? Well, let me tell ya. This cathedral, even as of 21st century, is still the largest cathedral in the world. Yes, by volume, it trumps any other building in the world which has a bishop in it. This is a very important emphasis to make, as this is the largest cathedral, not anything else, as there are two other Christian worship places bigger than this. However, neither Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brasil or St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City has a bishop, with latter being the seat of the pope, which is kind of like cheating in the church-building competition.
Once you step inside, you will immediately understand why this is the result of a madman’s religious zeal. The roof is more than 10 floors higher than the ground, creating an immense amount of space inside, allowing light to play with itself while crossing through multiple windows dividing up the sections of this building into different chapels. The organ is more than 5 floors tall, and the choir room was basically a football field with benches. The sheer amount of verticality not only made my neck hurt, but also made me struggle to comprehend that this was build more than 500 years ago.
The large columns are as thick as the largest tree trunks, penetrating everyone’s peropheral vision, into the little domes so high that one may never be able to see it properly without lying down. In fact, in some sections of the cathedral, there are mirrors on the floor to help you look into the roof, because they are just too damn high!
The altar piece is a 4-floor high board of intricatedly carved panel, made of pure gold. Now I can finally say I have seen a wall of gold, without exaggeration or insincerity, because this is considered the best altar piece of any church in the world. It is so detailed that my camera has problem detailing its eye-dazzling glory even with its powerful 20 mega-pixel lens.
No wonder this place is one of the first to be on the UNESCO World Heritege list! The amount of details and extravagance poured into the cathedral was nothing short of astounding. You could easily see the influence from different eras of church construction, from Gothic to Baroque to Roccoco to Renaissance, so you can find a chapel of every style imaginable.
Of course, with such a high degree of class, there had to be historical events of equal pedigree taking place in the cathedral. The conquerer who took Sevilla back from the Moors, Ferdinand III, was buried here, along with a few famous Catholic leaders. Oh yeah, there is also this random guy named Christopher, last name something like Columbus. Yeah he is pretty obscure, just some kind of random discoverer and murderer I heard, but he has a monument dedicated to his work along with his coffin as well.
You can also climb on top of the tower, which is just over 30 floors, so it posed as quite a lot of exercise for my parents. But the view on the top was worth every step: you could gaze far beyond the city limits into the Andalusian countryside. My mom’s attitude quickly changed from “what is the point of this” to “woah look at that beautiful farm!” And just with this magnificent view, I convinced my parents to go on a tour to the marvelous greenery on the other side of the city limits later during our visit.
However, my favorite part of the cathedral is not the incredible butresses outside the walls, or the paintings inside, or even the tall harmonic tower which was a minaret almost 700 years ago. No, nothing is more Andalusian than a beautiful orange garden, filled to the brink with perpetually fruitful trees boasting hundreds of brightly-colored, spherical citrus, which formed a stark yet soothing contrast with the blue sky, brown facade, and the white clouds. I have seen countless churches, with the insanity that is the tower of Cologne’s Dom, or the intricate interiors of Malta’s St. John, but none of them had a beautiful orange grove as the garden, and for me, that is special.
Upon exiting the garden, we were spat back into the old town with its small, narrow, and winding streets, stuffed with souvenir vendors, tourists, horse carriages with tourists, and more orange trees. I decided to take my parents to another local classic that they cannot miss: a flamenco dance session.
It was easy. Show up in a little hole in the middle of the old town, sit down among the 20 chairs of this “bar” facing the tiny “stage”, order a beer and wait. There are so many flamenco performances in this city that it is almost a city-wide past time in the late afternoons. You can almost hear the bullet-like footsteps echoing in unison on some particularly lazy afternoons, with the ground trembling accordingly.
The most popular form, the Classical Flamenco, has three main participants. The guitarist, toque, is the one who introduces the audience with the upcoming performance, coordinating the rhythm and tone, and is generally considered the main “brain” of the operation. The vocalist, cante, almost always a man, is the one singing lyrics so old that nobody knows what was the exact reason some of them were composed. He also is in charge of keeping the beat with clapping. Finally, you have the dancer, baile, who dances in a fiery passion, with machine-gun-like foot taps, a perfectly steady hip, and a variety of hand gestures. The dancer can be male or female, but usually required to be either young or old in order to catch the “duende” of the art. Duende means something similar to essense or soul, and it needs either the purity of innocence or the confidence of maturity in order to bring out, so many performers are much older than the typical dancers of other genres.
Nobody know when the dance came into form, or how. However, most of the experts agree that it has something to do with the Romani gypsies, the Moors and the local Iberian people coming together, hence it explains why it is still an art form of the people, by the people even until today. So now if you want to demonstrate proof of how cultural exchange can be a great benefit to society, show others the beautiful dance of flamenco, from the crossroad between Europe and Africa: Andalusia.
Even though the presentation my family saw was not exactly the most authentic version demonstrated during festivities, it was nothing short of enthralling. I cannot even show you even one-tenth of the magnificence with the medium of photos, but you can absolutely see the brilliance of the art form collaborating ingenius instruments, human vocals, and passionate souls. That is why flamenco is still going strong nearly half a dozen centuries later, evolving, improving, and spreading. In fact, it has gotten so popular in Japan in the recent decades that there are now more flamenco studios in Japan than in Spain!
Yet, flamenco has become an inseparable part of life in Seville. Wherever you go, you can hear the guitar strings being struck, coupled with vehement steps of clashing souls, waiting to be appreciated. Indiscriminately, every dancer would be dancing their spirit out, sweating profusely yet smiling irradiantly. Passionate, multi-cultural, historic, and beautiful, this is the soul, el duende, of Andalusia.
It was inevitably time for food when you have seen someone dripping sweat onto the stage like rain, so shocking that your heart is racing itself. For me, that is as intensive of a form of exercise as jumping jacks. I decided to take my parents to a place serving tapas, as they got severely hooked with this new concept in Madrid. It was shocking: in previous trips, if my parents do not calm their Chinese stomach gods once every day, they would riot. However, this time, they were actively requesting for more western food! Oh tapas, you really are a game changer!
While my parents were busy admiring the jubilance of the locals dining on the street, I was busy guiding them towards one of the most iconic restaurants in the city: Bar Baratillo. This is a vibrant and casual place crowded with locals and tourists alike, so it comes as a surprise to no one when there seems to always be a long line piling up outside its small door.
I mean, just look at the cows’ heads! This place sits right across from the bull fighting ring, La Maestranza, a place almost sacred to the Andalusians. All the bull heads are from legendary tales over the past 2 centuries, sitting right between the historic wooden floor and the cozy wooden ceiling. This bar is named after the brotherhood of bull fighters right across the road, and deservingly claims one of the best spots in the city.
The portions are huge for such a small price. Foods at a lot of modern tapa restaurants and bars are set to be of one universal price, just like a lot of dim sum places in Hong Kong. Actually, the word “tapas” is supposed to mean “cover” (think about it sharing the same root as the word “tapestry”), which means that these dishes are mere foods that you need to wash down with your drinks. As a result, in some places, tapas come free bottomlessly as long as you keep a drink! High quality food, low price, cheap beer, lovely environment, what else can you possibly ask for?
My parents loved it so much that we came back to Baratillo two more times during our time here! It is absolutely mindblowing how much they got hooked onto the concept of tapas. I guess one of the reasons is because the fact that these food are cooked warm, served fresh, and shared among a group, similar to every single aspect of real Chinese food, not like the Panda Express General Tsao’s chicken monstrocity many people perceive Chinese food as.
One of the most marvelous creations of the fusion of Ismalic and Christian world is the Alcázar, a brilliantly harmonious symbol of co-existence and co-evolution in the Iberian Peninsula. A key architectural monument of the Mudéjar style, this large palace for the King of Castile would turn out to be one of the highlights of my entire journey.
Upon entry, the first thing everyone notices is the fact that this entire place is so, damn, Islamic! It was pretty hard to convince my parents that this building was actually housing a Christian king, and honestly I found that hard to believe as well. Look at all those angles, stars, plaster-work, and domed designs! You can barely tell any European or Christian influence over any corner of the structure.
The name of the place, Alcázar, comes from Arabic of اَلْقَصْر , which means “the castle.” This name, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word of “castrum”, which means castle. So ultimately this is just using a Latin word to describe a Latin kingdom structure, using an semitic alphabet. Neat, I guess?
The inscriptions hidden on the decorations of Patio de las Doncellas featured a few pictures ago describes the builder, King Peter of Castile, as a “sultan”. Want it to be more Middle Eastern? I mean, look at the door panel above. The star in the center even says “Allah is the way” in Arabic, so how Islamic do you want?
This all goes back to the history of Moorish occupation of Iberian Peninsula, for probably the 7th time in this journal already. The place was originally built as a fortification against local revults by the first caliphate in the tenth century, and later expanded to include more and more people and defenses. It was turned into a royal residence by the later Almohad caliphs as Seville became the capital of the region then-called Al-Andalus. Everything was destroyed except the outer walls, and the entire palace turned into a lavishly decorated Islamic seat of power.
As the Christian kings came in during Reconquesta, the Moorish caliphs retreated, and this palace was conserved as the new seat of power for the new Castile kings. They kept most of the basic works, just slightly changed out some blatantly obvious Islamic signs. For example, the most gorgeous room, the gold-roofed Hall of Ambassadors, was changed from facing Mecca to facing a garden. The kings also removed a lot of the inscriptions in the decorations praising the caliphates, while also putting in similar laudations in Arabic in their places.
This is how come you end up with a mostly Moorish palace serving a Christian kingdom for nearly 8 centuries. However, just like many other palaces, the latter monarchs apparently felt this little piece of heaven was not opulent enough, so many ordered new constructions on additional floors, halls, buildings and gardens. So if you look closely, you can find arches, doorways, halls, windows and decorations in a myriad of European styles, from Gothic to Romanesque, all with a tiny bit of Islamic twist in order to fit in.
Stepping outside the large complex, we emerged into the even larger gardens. Most of them were kept the same as the Moorish days, which focused heavily on irrigation features such as aquaducts and fountains, as well as horticulture of fruit trees, especially oranges and lemons.
However, unlike the old days, the fruits you can see nowadays everywhere in Andalusia with decorative purposes are non-edible. In order to preserve the most authentic and beautiful colorations, all the orange trees are of a special breed and heavily poisoned to prevent birds from devouring the attractive orbs dangling right in sight. Even if you peel it and wash carefully, these oranges are so sour that they do not even get picked up by bugs once they fall off the trees.
My mother and I wandered around the enormous gardens, separated into a few different themed ones, each at least the size of a full football field, by ancient walls accessible via stairs. Large palm trees, fragrant flowers, citrus groves, and water features dotted around the span of the royal lands, making it one of the most relaxing and least crowded part of this area. Too bad my father had already lost all his patience and stamina, so he waited for us in the shades. Due to his advanced years, we decided to head back for a quick siesta before continuing onto somewhere equally impressive.
Plaza de España
The evening glow was slowly starting to fade away along with the heat, and it was the perfect time to stroll onto probably the most postcard-friendly location in Andalusia: Plaza de España. A gigantic semi-circle loop of columns surrounding a canal resembling a moat, and a fountain so big that it can produce its own climate, were painted in a distinctly orange hue in order to match the perpetual sunset this city basks under. What a sight!
There was no better place to display Spain in all her glory during the 1929 world expo than here at this space specifically designed to accommodate the pavillion. A new form of Art Deco was mixed with the classic Iberian Mudéjar Islamic influence; this artisitc work showed every visitor that it does not have to be a piece of painting or a silent statue in order to be moving: everyone can become a part of a masterpiece.
4 large ceramic tiled bridges connect the outer ring buildings with the inner plaza, each representing one of the 4 original kingdoms that formed Spain in the 15th century: Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre. You can find a garden maze piece made of these four kingdoms’ representation in the Aranjuez section of this Madrid journal.
On the inner edge of the columns, you can see every single province with its own little enclosure, complete with a tile painting depicting its scenery, location in the country, an explanation about the province, and coat of arms. This is why it is called Plaza de España, as this is their grandiose way to show the visitors what this diverse country is really about. There are also two bookshelves on each side of the nave, originally built to house some books showcasing the best of this particular province, but now most serve as communal book exchange or simply go empty.
Thanks to a recent renovation done in the beginning of the millenium, the plaza has taken a new yet true-to-the-original look. Most of the semi-circle has been converted into governmental offices, and a majority of the mansions in the nearby park have been turned into informative museums. Lots of broken pieces or missing features of the original plan were re-installed, and one could truly enjoy this gorgeous architecture on a quaint afternoon with a loved one while boating down the clear canals: if you and your girlfriend is willing to line up for an hour.
Palacio de Las Dueñas
What can possibly start a day better than a gorgeous palace built during the peak of Renaissance thanks to the massive inflow of cash in Sevilla? No, the answer is nothing. This is Palacio de Las Dueñas, a 15th century wealthy merchant’s house turned into Duke of Alba’s official residence, one of the highest achievements of Iberian architecture of the golden ages.
If you are looking for some peak Mudéjar style, you are in luck. This is probably the best-preserved house that features this strange blend of cultures. Eleven patios, nine fountains, well over one hundred columns, are all covered in Islamic style decorations, and that includes the chapel. Huge gardens feature eternally blooming flowers, while enclosed by Romanesque supports and corner pieces. It is a strange harmony of supposedly uncompatible styles, and that is why I love it so much: I am such a product myself.
And the marvelous beauty does not end with just the structure: its contents are unparalleled as well. See the tiny drawing hanged above on the seemingly unassuming bookshelf? That is a doodle Salvador Dali came up with in order to compose a picture of Don Quixote. Yes, and you can even see his signature in a guest book of this house. Truly, the masters are as equally skillful in hiding in plain sight as in their crafts.
We spent the rest of the day admiring the different parts of this city, somehow managing to be un-stuck from the perpetual pestilence that is time. Most places move past it, knocking down its past, vowing to never forget, only to be forgotten, and then there are others who never managed to move past an era, either the Middle Ages or the 20th century utilitarianism. Seville is different. She rides on top of the wave of time, surfing the 4th dimensional waves as if she owns time itself. Age does not bother the city: it makes her more elegant.
We passed by Torre del Oro, Gold Tower, rumered to be covered in gold during the heyday of the city, and reached the modernist equivalent of Seville Cathedral. Inspired by the latter, Metropol Parasol is a gigantic umbrella structure towering dozens of meters over the central market. Most incredibly, it is made of wood.
Nicknamed as Las Setas (Mushrooms), this giant structure was as much of a public controversy as an eye catcher. Supposed to be finished in 2 years, the entire building was proven to be too risky of a design since most of the assumptions made by the architect was never proven. The hypothetical 2 year construction turned into 6 years as money was washing down the drain. But now, Metropol Parasol is a tourist attraction generally beloved by the locals, and the view it carries on the top definitely validates its status as the largest wooden structure in the world.
Zahara de la Sierra
Andalusia’s charm is not just the large capital. Most of the draw of this enigmatically elegant region comes from its quaint countryside, where sunny skies become reflected in the deep blue lakes, along with the perennially green fields of grapes and olives. Wine, olive, cow bells and slow life. This is as close as you can get to experiencing the frequently fantacized Roman Empire without time travel. Trust me, I tried.
Our family cannot miss out on one of the few opportunities for a great road trip, so I helped us sign up for a group tour as I am still a bit anxious about driving in Europe with cars smaller than a standard US tic-tac. First stop is a large, ancient medieval fort built on a tiny hill among the grassy fields.
Thanks to the large amount of skirmishes between the Moors and the Spaniards over the centuries, most of the land here is dotted with fortifications of all kinds. As long as there is water on top of a tiny hill, you will see a fort taking its most strategic position. Inevitably, this allowed me to bring you these vantage photos.
Next stop on the trip was a house in the rolling hills. The owner of the farmstead introduced us to the fields of olives and grapes under her control. Everything on her farm was produced locally and organically, making their olive oil super scrumptious and extra-virgin, just like me! She also took us around to show the process of extracting olive oil from freshly picked olives. Processing the nutty fruits at the earliest convenience is the only way to make sure the oil tastes great and produce the highest yield. Machines occupy most of the lower floor, while the upper floor was mostly used as a tiny balcony overlooking some of the best views possible.
From the roof of the farm, I saw a beautiful little town perching high on a particularly scenic outcrop. This is our next destination: Zahara de la Sierra, one of the famous Andalusian “pueblos blancos“, white towns.
The town owes its white-majority facades to the Moorish influences. This village was originally a strategic outpost, being the critical link between Sevilla and Ronda. Looking over the valley with a gigantic castle on the very top, Zahara was an easily defensible position that can alert the large cities of approaching invasions. It traded hands a few times between the Emirate of Granada and the Kingdom of Castile. The valley it used to dominate over now has been turned into a gorgeously reflective lake due to a hydro-electric project.
What a tranquil place! Honestly there was not too much to see in the town, but the town itself being the main attraction. Just lazy squares full of even lazier cats, dozing off to sleep with a half-finished plate of small fish. Big rows of orange trees are the only things not white in the town seemingly made of pure innocence. Zahara looks like a great town to slow down, but feels like the eternity of heaven, where white clouds surround little flying donuts that taste like lifelong fulfillment. This, is how it feels like to be in a white town.
Yet nothing in Andalusia can come even close to the famous Ronda, so of course we had to pay a visit. On the drive towards the town, we passed by old forests of trees without barks. Hundred of thousands of them stood naked in the steep hills along the sides of the road. These are cork trees, whose bark is used to make the real corks for the best wines. In fact, nowadays, the growth of these trees cannot remotely keep up with the demand of French and Spanish wine production.
Every single person who has been to this town separated by a deep gorge would tell you it is a miracle, and if they are religious, a gift by God on Earth. I mean, look at it, who would not? A huge chasm harbors a quiet yet crystal clear stream, which flows to the edge of the city, where it turns into a little waterfall. Right above the waterfall, a gigantic stone bridge built in a Roman aquaduct style spans over 120 meters above the opening, painting out the most otherworldly picture in front of every visitor.
Everyone wanted a piece of this beauty, and truly they did. Ronda had been in possession since way before the birth of Christ. Celts, Pheonicians, Romans, Suebis, Visigoths, Berbers, Arabs, and of course, the Spanish, all had once controlled this piece of land, with its fertile soil perfect for olives and wine production. Earnest Hemingway wrote about this town, and so did George Eliot. It is simply impossible to resist the charm of Ronda, but honestly, why would anyone resist?
My family and I were all awe-struck by the time we walked past the bridge named as the “New Bridge” the third time. Besides the most uncreative name one can possibly come up, I had nothing else to complain about. I took my mother and explored the deeper dungeons of the town, going all the way down to a secret dock in the canyon where the city defenders used to sneak in and out of the walls via small boats back in the days. Dozens of sets of large, wet staircases lead from palace gardens all the way down to crystal clear water, how cool is that!
The history lies not only in the bridge, however. It is merely a 10% of the city, as there are a lot of other ancient ruins from different eras of the land, ranging from cave paintings in the neolithic era hundreds of thousands of years ago to Spanish Civil War monuments in the last century. We paid visits to an old 12th century mosque, and then a large museum sitting in a 16th century church, and then a Roman bath house defunct since 2000 years ago. The layers of time piled up here in Ronda like a cake, ready for anyone who is curious enough to take a bite. The tourists may just take a picture of the bridge and leave, but for travellers like me, we take our time to dive deep into the core.
Yet still, a good day had to end with a fantastic view and a nice drink. We sat down by the edge of the sheer cliffs, and looked beyond the horizons into the Spanish wilderness. Large fields of cattle, grape vines, olives, and cork trees populated every corner of our mind, and right to our side, a gorgeous creation made by men who were struck with divine ingenuity. This, is what life is all about.
See ya, Sevilla!
We rolled back into our small apartment in downtown Sevilla after the little tour of Andalusia, and boarded a flight back to Madrid. Sevilla was one of the places that surprised me the most in recent years. I did not expect it to be such a wonderfully relaxing city when I casually looked up the cheapest domestic Spanish flights in order to meet the botched Iberia Avios promotion. What was presented in front of me was, however, a sunny, eclectic, and quintessentially Andalusian metropolis. And this was my first time getting close to Andalusia!
Mudéjar style architecture, white villages perched high on cliffs, absolutely the most Asian-friendly European cuisine, and that sun which shines so brightly every day yet does not burn, all contributed to me falling in love with Sevilla and Andalusia. There is a certain kind of particle that floats around the air here, or maybe a pheromone, that makes you tell yourself: now, everything is okay. Maybe that is not something airborne, but spiritual: maybe it is the soul of this region that makes you feel at ease, el duende de Andalusia.
We caught a short flight towards Marrakesh after a quick overnight in Madrid, and that was a first, and maybe a last: I was taking my parents to Morroco, in Africa! How was that supposed to turn out? I honestly had no idea…