Early evening returns to the capital of Andalucia where the scent of dust hangs in warm, motionless air. The day’s bullfight – my first – has just concluded. In a curious medley of sadness, fascination, and adrenaline, we flow through one of the arena’s many exits and out into the crowded street. Up ahead, a fast-growing crowd of incredibly boisterous fans anxiously await their chance to meet a matador. I pause momentarily to watch the first of six emerge to a deafening applause. If this display, and the past couple hours are any indication, Sevillanos take bullfighting very seriously. Moments before I am swept away in the rush of bodies, I see a baby held up to a matador as its proud father leans in and smiles just in time for the flash. Immediately we find ourselves speed-walking through narrow streets, smiles stretched ear to ear, nimbly dodging oncoming revelers, and also those moving in our direction. We have no particular destination, nor any defensible reason to be in such a hurry, but there is something electric about this atmosphere which propels us intently forward, headlong into more of it.
It’s late April, and by nothing but dumb luck, we’ve arrived in Seville in the middle Feria de Abril de Seville, the city’s most coveted, emblematic, explosively colorful, and wonderfully enchanting annual celebration. It is, without a doubt, the most anticipated week of the year for Sevillanos, and a truly magical time to be in town. Here, in the Centro Histórico, the smell of sherry and fried fish fills the air. Horses, as well dressed as any participant, outnumber cars. Flamenco music emanates from seemingly every bar and restaurant. The traditional tones mix gracefully with calls for mas cervesas, followed by the rushed clatter of shoes on cobblestones, as an army of servers attempts to keep up with the madness. Despite their losing battle, there is no discernible hint of displeasure to be detected here. The inhabitants have prepared for this moment for fifty-one weeks. Seven nights of celebration until 4am await, if the body and mind are able to keep up.
Beneath rows of orange trees, the streets are lined with completely full verandas. Standing room only. Everywhere we look, tables are covered in tapas; potato omelettes, buttery jamon serrano, assorted Spanish cheeses. Alongside, enticing displays of plated fish, and enormous jars of Feria’s official drink – rebujito. This refreshing and sugary mix of dry sherry and 7-up knocks back, a bit too easily, by way of plastic shot glasses nearby. Its coolness offers a welcome, momentary, reprieve from the harsh sun of southern Spain, which, thankfully, has dipped behind the dense construction of the old city. The upper levels of surrounding structures glow as golden as a matador’s outfit. We keep moving, past clusters of seriously beautiful women, each wearing the iconic traje de flamenco. An opulent and spectacularly colorful take on a traditional gypsy-dress which can set the wearer back €500+. However, for the majority of this crowd, nearly a month’s salary seems a small price to pay for a dress which masterfully hugs all the right curves. Away from the compact configuration of the city center, carnival rides have been trucked in. Tents have been erected for members of various private casitas whose annual membership can cost thousands of euros. Looking around, one thing is clear: The spectacle of Feria imparts an undeniable tone of aristocracy, distinguishing the capital from its poorer neighbors.
Despite the omnipresence of celebration, mornings are tranquil. Mere hours after the most die-hard revelers have returned to their pillows, we emerge from our third-storey apartment determined to experience the city before it roars to life again. I accept the difficult task of locking our time-worn front door, more akin to a farm gate, with a reasonable degree of silence. Although we tip-toe, the beautifully tiled staircase, lined with terra cotta pottery and stunning displays of succulents and bougainvillea, echoes all the way down to the courtyard. My final attempt at courtesy proves unsuccessful as the building’s rot-iron gate clangs shut behind me. We step out into the quiet street and exhale.
Although the festival we so luckily stumbled upon is undeniably significant, the vast history of Seville, and the surrounding area, boasts enough charm to captivate on its own. The site of the Roman city of Hispalis, founded by Julius Caesar himself, lies just 9km north west. Later, Moors invaded Iberia from North Africa, followed by the Christian Reconquest. Seville boomed in the 16th century as the gateway to the New World. From here, Amerigo Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan set sail on the Guadalquivir river, intent on returning with gold, silver, tobacco, and cacao. The river, which becomes difficult to navigate upstream, saw Seville become Spain’s largest and richest city by the 17th century.
Evidence of opposing influence, across a remarkably long timeline, lies around every corner. Moorish influence, for example, can be felt in the roads themselves. The Centro Histórico is a meandering maze in lieu of a more uniform, traditionally European, grid pattern. The Moors strategy, in what is an overwhelmingly hot region, was simple. Narrow, winding streets maximize shade at nearly all daylight hours while simultaneously disrupting the flow of hot African breezes from the south.
Today, Seville is Spain’s fourth largest city and home to roughly 700,000. Ambling eagerly through the surprisingly clean labyrinth, during the mid-morning cool, is a fantastic experience. It is a step back in time – at least until you spot a satellite dish. While exploring I begin to wonder if some degree of intentional confusion was baked into the roadmap, perhaps in consideration of ancient foreign invasion. Even with a GPS equipped mobile phone, it is astonishingly easy to get lost with just a few unintentional turns. It’s not uncommon to be forced into an extended zig-zag route only to arrive at a destination just a short “straight-line” distance away. Luckily, uncertainty in navigation often leads to the discovery of charming small squares where some of the best, tourist free, places to eat can be found.
Perhaps the most obvious examples of conflicting influence in the city are two of Seville’s most recognizable landmarks. The monumental Catedral de Seville, resting place of Christopher Columbus, reaches high above the adjacent rooftops. Nearby stands the imposing Alcázar, famous recently for its role as a Dornish palace in Game of Thrones.
As the sun continues its steady rise overhead, we progress quickly from one small patch of shade to another, eventually arriving at the familiar entrance of La Azotea. We visited for post-10pm dinner the night prior and proceeded to enjoy an excellent meal, including bull, tuna belly, and roughly five glasses (each) of luscious local wine. We were invited back for lunch the following day as we exchanged hugs with the staff upon exit. In recent years, La Azotea has become a very successful venture. A few locations are now scattered around Seville but the space on Calle Jesús del Gran Poder appears to be the flagship. Owned and operated by a husband and wife team, (Juan from Seville, and Jeanine from San Diego, CA), their small menu calls attention to traditionally prepared local and seasonal ingredients, with a touch of fusion. During lunch hours the restaurant is, surprisingly, not crowded. Unlike the previous night, there would be no need to turn a wine barrel on end for use as a table. We continue conversation with the owners over a delicious offering of grilled bull and padrone peppers. Also, wine. There’s always wine nearby in Spain – a reality I am perfectly OK with. Soon however, Siesta will sweep across Seville, and we plan to join in once we say goodbyes to La Azotea for a second and final time.
To my surprise, I find enjoying siesta to be difficult at first. My natural desire as a traveler to “see it all” conflicts with the institutional slowness of a Spanish afternoon. Fortunately, as the large lunch and wine begins to settle in, those thoughts resign to blissful compliance. Siesta suddenly begins to feel like a perfectly logical, perhaps deserved, human right. The last thing I see that afternoon is the peculiar ToroTV. Created with the enthusiast in mind, it is an amalgam of interviews with Matadors and highlights from recent fights intertwined with footage of bulls walking peacefully around pastures and resting under trees. Hours of constant bullfight culture on TV is somewhat odd to me, but there is little time to think before my eyelids slide shut.
We awake refreshed in the early evening and set out to enjoy our last night. The temperature has dropped slightly. At an outdoor table of a small cafe we enjoy a plate of Jamon Iberico and Manchego cheese. It’s washed down with a new favorite, tinto de verano; a simple, wine-based drink served cold, similar to Sangria. From our post we watch locals pass by, and laugh to ourselves as a delivery man, showing no regard for the peace of the evening, loudly rolls keg after keg of Cruz Campo over cobblestones. It is the final night of Feria. The festivities will continue until nearly sunrise, when the homeward click of high heels momentarily wakes me through the open window of our apartment.