Seville Liberties

The Andalusian capital is known for its buzzing night-life, but each spring, the April Fair ramps the hedonism up a notch with music, dancing, fine food and costumed locals spilling into the streets.

When I was a child in the 1980s, my aunt and uncle went on a holiday to Spain. It all seemed impossibly glamorous at the time, and when they came back with gifts of castanets, a frilled fan and a wooden plate that was hand-painted with a flamenco dancer motif, we displayed them with pride. Over the years, of course, we recognised them for what they were: slightly gaudy trinkets that have nothing to do with the ‘real’ Spain. Or at least, that’s what I thought until I went to Seville during the Feria de Abril, the city’s famous week-long celebration of Andalusian culture. For those few days, it’s as if that wooden plate has come to life. Throughout the city, the women dress up in long, tight, brightly coloured dresses with frills from knee to ankle; their hair in buns with a large flower pinned on top. The menfolk look pretty dashing too, in sharp suits — and the occasional bolero jacket.

Feria traditionally starts at midnight on the second Tuesday after Easter with live music and dancing. From about 10pm on the Monday night, you’ll see people hopping into taxis, or onto motorbikes, to make their way to the action. It all takes place in Real de la Feria, south-west of Seville’s city centre. (You can’t help but admire a city with a custom-built party district). It’s a huge area on the banks of the river, which gets filled with row upon row of casetas — marquees of varying sizes and colours. It’s a vast canvas suburb and strolling its ‘streets’, strung with fairy lights and punctuated with huge fairground rides, is a treat both day and night. From about 1pm, you’ll witness what can only be described as grandstanding, as Seville’s citizens parade around in carriages or on horseback, showing off their finery and probably, to more discerning eyes, their place in Seville society: this is clearly a city that likes to flash its cash. Then, at 5.30pm each day, a bullfight is held in the bullring back towards the city centre. These are considered the best bullfights of the season, and tickets are wildly expensive and sought-after. (While Catalonia has banned bullfighting, the controversial sport is still popular in the south.) It’s at night when the partying really starts, however. From 9pm until early morning, the fairy lights of Real de la Feria are lit, the fairground rides twinkle and flash, blaring out 1980s classics, and the people in the casetas turn up the volume on their sound systems so the dancing can commence.

Here’s the rub: most of the casetas are private, rented out by families, groups of friends, businesses, clubs or even political parties. As a visitor you’re unlikely to get a look in — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wandering around and peering inside the tents, you’ll find many look a little underwhelming (there’s probably only so much fun you can have with corporate and political types, let’s face it). Instead, head to the open casetas to let your hair down and join in the fun. Bigger than the private tents, these marquees have public bars selling dangerously cheap wine, beer and sherry; some also serve food. They’re filled to the seams with locals as well as the occasional tourist. Aunties dance with their nephews, grandmothers sit resplendent in their shawls drinking sherry, and couples show off their dancing skills. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears.

The dancing — think intricate circling of your partner, twirling, clapping and gracefully twisting hands into arcs around your head — is a flamenco-style dance called sevillanas. It can be sexy or just plain fun if you’re doing it with your nanna.

Spanish Flavour

Feria de Abril gives visitors a tantalising flavour of Seville’s gypsy heritage. To dig a little more deeply into the culture, visit La Carbonería in the Santa Cruz district on a Thursday night. Tucked down winding side streets, this large, barn-like building is hard to find. Beyond the door, you’ll find a bar selling cheap drinks and long benches to sit on while you wait for the evening’s entertainment, which will  usually kick off at about 11pm. Locals and tourists come for the free, authentic flamenco dancing and music from an ever-changing line-up of performers. It’s an intense experience — a male dancer stomps out a spellbinding dance that’s followed by a rather mournful song with incredible flamenco guitar playing. They are clearly emotionally invested in what they’re doing — the performances seem to spring from within, rather than from a song list. La Carbonería stays open till the early hours, and is a great place to meet all kinds of people — it’s friendly, understated and a little rough around the edges, which all adds to its enduring appeal.

Seville is famous for its night-life and traditional tapas culture. It’s impossible to list even a fraction of the best places in town — and part of the fun is wandering around and stumbling upon your own gems — but one too good not to share is Eslava in the up-and-coming suburb La Macarena. It has all the usual Sevillian offerings of salmorejo (cold tomato and garlic soup) and crisp melt-in-the-mouth croquettes, but then transcends ordinary tapas with whimsical creations such as slow-cooked egg on boletus cake drizzled with a caramelised wine reduction. The Macarena district is also home to Yebra, an upmarket bar and restaurant, which serves a seasonal menu of delicious tapas matched with excellent local wines.

For somewhere more traditional, try El Rinconcillo. It claims to be Spain’s oldest restaurant and has been going strong for nearly 350 years for a reason: the dark timber interior is very atmospheric and it serves up understated tapas, such as cod (bacalao) and spinach and chickpeas (espinacas con garbanzos).

Finally, just a few streets away in the barrio Santa Cruz, don’t miss El Garlochi, a kitsch cocktail bar with an interior to rival Seville’s Baroque churches. It’s packed with candles, chandeliers, gilded mirrors, velvet drapes and Virgin Mary icons. Order a Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) — a mix of rosé champagne, whisky and grenadine — to embrace the tongue-in-cheek spirit.

Sights of Seville

There are plenty of other reasons to visit Seville. Santa Cruz, the former Jewish quarter, is distractingly pretty with its narrow, whitewashed alleys, and is home to the city’s two main draws: the Real Alcázar, a stunning former royal palace, and the city’s huge Gothic cathedral with its famous bell tower, The Giralda. The Alcázar was founded around the 10th century and has been continually expanded and built upon throughout the ages, providing lots of historical snippets to feast your eyes on as you wander through the Moorish and Mudéjar architecture. There are long corridors, courtyards with bubbling fountains, high ceilings, boudoirs and vast reception rooms, most of which are covered with painted tiles and elaborately carved woodwork.The vast gardens are also head-turningly good. Again, they’re the product of several centuries’ work, and comprise vaulted baths, a myrtle maze, a pavilion, flowers, fountains and pools. The Alcázar may be a popular tourist destination, but these gardens are large enough to escape the crowds and find your own patch to relax in for a few minutes. Or hours.

Catedral de Sevilla, on the other hand, is always pretty full (book ahead to jump the queues that form here every day). But luckily it’s one of the world’s largest cathedrals and every corner has something to delight in. Highlights here include the (disputed) tomb of Christopher Columbus, several chapels and, perhaps best of all, the large orange tree courtyard and Giralda. No trip to Seville is complete without a climb to the top of the bell tower for stirring city views.

Art-wise, Seville has little to compare to Madrid or Barcelona, but the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) is worth a look for its collection of religious art by Sevillian artists Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán and Valdés Leal. The building itself — a former convent — is pleasant to wander around, with its three cloistered patios filled with flowers, trees and adorned with azulejo tiles, not to mention the impressive Baroque domed ceilings.

Seville’s lungs, Parque de María Luisa — a huge garden located south of the city centre — is also lovely for a stroll, especially on hot days, of which there are plenty even in April. The park is lined with leafy trees, flower gardens and fountains made of colourful ceramics. The area is also home to a number of important buildings, such as museums, the University of Seville — formerly the Royal Tobacco Factory, where the gypsy heroine of Georges Bizet’s Carmen worked — and the opulent Hotel Alfonso XIII, where you can stop off for a drink in the luxury hotel’s impressive Bar Americano.

There’s also the ridiculously grand Plaza de España, where a large crescent-shaped building curves around a central fountain and lake, criss-crossed by ornate bridges. Like many other buildings in this area, it was erected for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, and still serves its purpose as a shot in the arm for raw Andalusian pride. Come here during the Feria week, though, and the theatrics are ramped up another notch — many people come here first for a photo-op before heading to the festivities. If anything, the women posing in colourful garb amid the colonial-style buildings make my old Spanish souvenirs look positively plain.

Emma Anderson - Published in Voyeur April 2016
Quick Facts 
Population 703,021
Area 140 km2
Time Zone UTC+1
Languages Castilian, Spanish, English
Currency Euro
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