In Sevilla, you really are in the heart of 'Real Spain', so it is advisable to do things their way. In much the same way that London's red buses and telephone booths, Big Ben, punks, the Queen and extortionate prices are seen as a snapshot of the UK, Sevilla is home to much of Spain's traditional customs and global imagery – the lazy siesta, the passionate people, the salsa-ing señoritas, the dusty tapas bars, the brooding, sultry gazes of the local Gitanos (gypsies) as they look on intently as an impromptu flamenco dance and song routine flares up that's as much for the tourists' benefit as traffic jams or middle-of-the-day closing hours: this is just how it is.
Which is not to say that Sevilla cares not for the tourists who love it so – walking tours, horse-drawn carriage rides, open-top buses, beautiful hotels and well-priced restaurants are plentiful throughout the city – but Sevilla exhibits a refreshing lack of tourist-centric emphasis. Visitors are respected and welcomed, but Sevilla would be exactly the same without them. It is this authenticity that is so beguilling.
Sevilla is Spain's fourth-largest city, its hottest city, and the capital of Andalucía. Straddling the banks of the Guadalquivir River, the city lies in a rich and fertile basin in the immediate centre of Southern Spain. The city's location and intense climate have helped shape its history and growth, bringing it riches that few other cities in Europe could have ever dreamt of. Sevilla's history stretches back more than 2,000 years. It was called Hispalis by the Romans and was a relatively minor city at that time, bursting into prominence when the Moors came in the 8th century. Their influence was immediate and instrumental in Sevilla becoming an enlightened and wealthy state, evidenced today by the imposing Giralda Tower that stands proudly beside the cathedral, blurring any perceived boundaries between Islam and Christianity.
Sevilla boasts an international airport and is just a two-hour drive from the Costa del Sol to the east, Portugal to the west, and the famous cities of Cádiz and Jerez to the south. Renowned for its oranges, the surrounding plains abound with citrus and olive groves, yet the city has no real reliance on the region's rich agriculture. Instead, Sevilla is an important financial hub, boasts a huge tourism industry and is the cultural centre of Southern Spain.
As for its climate, well, there's nothing else like it. While most of Europe's hottest areas are centred around Greece and Turkey's Aegean Sea basin, Sevilla's microclimate brings it the highest temperatures on the continent. July and August are stifling, and there are no sea-breezes to cool the air. Sensibly, many Sevillanos flee the city during these months, at precisely the moment that the less-enlightened tourists flock in. To be fair, the city is not completely unbearable during the height of summer – if you love the feel of hot sun on your neck all-day long then you'll be in paradise – but the shoulder months are more comfortable. In winter, temperatures will rarely drop below 15ºC, making Sevilla a city of t-shirt weather all year round.
It is high summer in Sevilla and, along the city's ancient streets, a startling spectacle is unfolding. Shuffling along in single file – maybe two abreast in places but rarely more than that – are thousands of weary-looking tourists. Weighed down by backpacks, bulky cameras and rapidly condensating bottles of water, these sightseers cling to the sides of buildings, preferring to keep pace with the milling crowd than go it alone and set their own schedule.
Why such uniformity? The answer lies above: the height of summer in Sevilla brings with it the highest temperatures in Europe, the mercury settling above the 45ºC-mark by early July and sitting there stubbornly for four or five weeks. The unrelenting sunshine makes for flawless blue skylines and evocative evenings, but can make the daytime in Sevilla rather uncomfortable. As if this were not enough, the months of July and August are also the busiest tourist months, bringing thousands of ill-prepared – both in terms of protective equipment and genetic makeup – Americans, Japanese, Koreans and North Europeans flocking to the city in order to discover its charms. They soon discover that, while beautiful, Sevilla is also uncomfortably hot, the narrow strip of shade thrown by the tall buildings providing the only al fresco respite during the day.
While an understandable tactic, the sight of thousands of pedestrians wilfully corralling themselves through some imagined turnstile in order to shelter from the sun is a curious one. But there are alternative ways and means of avoiding the often oppressive Sevillian sun. In the cool shade of the lovely Parque de Maria Luisa, for one. Or perhaps under the ornate ceiling of the Cathedral of Sevilla, one of the largest medieval and gothic churches in the world. Or, like most of the local Sevillanos, enjoying the cool interiors of the city's plentiful tapas bars and bodegas that populate Sevilla's tightly-woven streets, the sun's unwanted rays repelled by the reflective whitewashed walls and unable to infiltrate the deep narrow passages that comprise much of Sevilla's architectural character. Or there's always the famous siesta...
Any option, at that time of day and in the height of summer, would be preferable to pounding the streets in search of cultural one-upmanship. You can do that in the relative cool of the morning or evening; indeed, the lower sun, cooler air and muskier aromas at this time of day make the experience even more spectacular and memorable, so why suffer with the masses?
If you must explore during the height of the afternoon sun, then you could do a lot worse than head over the Guadalquivir River to Triana. A corner of town that flies under the radar of most tourists, the neighbourhood of Triana is an intriguing section of Sevilla. Culturally and economically independent, Triana is both apart from Sevilla and integral to its makeup. Essentially an island in the heart of the city – the area is built upon the split of the Guadalquivir River – Triana is the home of the city's largest Gitano population, mixing its earthy architecture with some of the city's more aspirational neighbourhoods and so creating a fascinating melting pot of cultures and architecture.
While most tourists that make it across the river will only glimpse Triana from atop their tour bus – the multilingual guidebook headsets proffering a sanitised version of the region's being – the best way to experience the area is on foot. So cross the beautiful Puente de Triana and be prepared for anything – a friendly wave, street flamenco, hidden bodegas serving delightful local delicacies and strong sherries, unseen squares where families spend the entire day picnicking and chatting...anything goes in Triana.
Points of interest include the Convento de San Jacinto, the bustling Triana Market, the Iglesia de Santa Ana and the colourful Calle Pureza.
Still fancy something a little more off-the-beaten-track? You could always travel back in time, of course (metaphorically at least)…
Post-apocalyptic landscapes certainly have their appeal. In Ukraine you can helicopter over eerily empty towns and go wild wolf hunting in the vast depopulated areas of post-1986 Chernobyl. In Pompeii, the lava-hardened bodies of the town's unfortunate residents have been drawing in tourists for centuries. And, well, in Birmingham there's that new gleaming Bull Ring Mall to amble around in. But the Universal Exposition of Sevilla 92' takes some beating in the post-event intrigue stakes.
At the time, though, this spectacular event was undoubtedly impressive. Set across 215 hectares of land on the city's Isla de la Cartuja, the Expo's Age of Discovery theme coincided with the 500th anniversary of Columbus's America discovery, at the very location it is believed he set sail from. 58 countries set up pavilions for the show, leading to some impressive architectural and design feats, most notably from the Japanese, whose pavilion was, and still is, the largest wooden structure in the world. Recreations of palaces, mansions, lakes, boats and modernist cubes abounded, traversed by rivers and moats and all kept cool by an innovative microfilter water air-conditioning system that lined the main streets and sprayed a cooling mist on visitors.
And then, in October 1992, after wowing visitors for six months, the fair was over. People went home. Nations abandoned their temporary homes, taking the inner workings but leaving behind the structures. As a result, the effect today is rather startling. Much of the site still stands, looking less modern and more decrepit with each passing day. Weeds and grass shoot through the pavements as nature – unchecked – slowly reclaims the land. A half-hearted research and development park exists there now, but much of the site is abandoned, and free to stroll around. The spectacle of deserted streets coupled with ostensibly fun-filled, interactive buildings and stalls lying empty is an eye-raiser. There's certainly a post-apocalyptic atmosphere hanging over the site, albeit a non-threatening one. Conversely, right next to it sits the popular Isla Mágica theme park, which is one of the most popular fun fairs in Spain and a must-visit if you have little ones in tow.
Aah, night time in Sevilla. After the searing heat of the day, the city comes alive as soon as the sun’s rays vanish over the horizon. With the rays gone, the heat simmers down to a welcoming warmth, and the spectacular evening sky turns an inviting hue of red: it’s time to head outside.
Although Sevilla suffers from a couple of tourist traps, most eateries in and around the Old Town remain authentic. The rule is – if it looks chaotic, busy and a little daunting, then it's going to be great. Pristine restaurants and sedate bars in Sevilla should be avoided; if the locals shun them, you should too. Sure, you're going to need a little bit of Spanish, you're going to have to speak up, and you're going to have to ignore some of the less-than-hygienic practices of many bars (writing your order in chalk on the actual bar while handing you your beer and a bar-decorative tray of olives being one particularly memorable practice favoured by many a bartender in the depths of Sevilla) in order to get what you want, but you won't regret it.
Affordable beverages abound, while the choice, inventiveness and downright deliciousness of the hundreds of tapas dishes available throughout the city will make your head spin. You first have to find these places, and then drum up the courage to enter and order, so swot up on your Spanish now!
As night melts into morning, many of the city’s excellent underground bars and clubs will still be in full swing, so simply follow your ears, or your new-found friends – there’s hundreds to choose from, and if you still have the energy to flamenco the night away, dive in – it will be a memorable experience!
By journalist, editor and former Costa del Sol resident, Ian Clover.
Costa del Sol Area Guides
- Alhaurín de la Torre
- Alhaurín El Grande
- El Faro
- La Cala de Mijas
- La Duquesa
- Mijas Costa
- Nueva Andalucía
- Puerto Banús
- Riviera del Sol
- San Pedro
- San Roque
Surrounding Areas in Andalucía
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