Melt into scintillating Seville…
Seville is home to two of the most magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites, two outstanding pieces of other-worldly architecture. Both will leave you reeling in disbelief with their grandeur and intricacy. Both are monumental tributes…one to the Lord, the other to royalty. If you were forced to explore just one, which would it be?
Cathedral de Sevilla: The grand splurge
You try in vain to capture a complete image of the majestic 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cathedral de Sevilla. Its an impossible feat from ground level and close quarters. After all, the largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in the world occupies a gigantic 11,520 square metres area.
Pause to pan across the modest brick facade, dulled with the ravages of time and hidden from full view by a row of orange trees. The iron panelled ‘Doors of Forgiveness’ (Puerta del Perdón) are framed by a large, intricately carved horseshoe arch ornamented with relief sculptures and delicate Koranic inscriptions. Inside is an ancient Moorish courtyard studded with orange trees…the Patio de los Naranjos (Orange Tree Courtyard), reminiscent of typical Islamic gardens.
Move to your left, to get a closer look at the original minaret from the 12th-century Almohad Mosque, now a bell tower for the Cathedral…the most magnificent structure in all of Seville, a beacon of antiquity and culture in all of Andalucía. The Moorish tower is nothing short of overwhelming. Its intricate lattice work, Arabic patterns, keyhole niches and windows are in strange harmony with the Renaissance balconies that were added much later. For some reason, you are reminded of a Muslim veiled woman wearing Prada sunglasses! Above the belfry on top, was poised a statue symbolising faith, a functioning weathervane nicknamed Giraldillo (‘to turn’), which gives its name to the tower, the Giralda. Climb to the top later.
Just opposite the Puerta del Perdón is the main entrance to the Cathedral…this time a pointed horseshoe arch, heavily adorned with reliefs depicting biblical events and figures of saints. Once inside, you so are intimidated by the size and the scale, that feelings of reverence were sidelined completely. Vaulted ceilings soar at a height of 121 feet…St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Basilica don’t even close in this respect! 80 chapels and the longest nave of any church in Spain…lavishly decorations of art and bronze sculpture and gold in the side aisles, but an unexpected restraint with the huge nave that is left almost empty. They wanted to have a church of the kind that “…those who see it built will think we were mad.” Well, they succeeded, you agree, as you bathe in the multicolour rays of the light streaming in from the gorgeous stained-glass windows.
Examine the huge choir stalls and gasp at the gold flamboyance of the largest altarpiece in the world shielded by a large ornate wrought iron screen…the entire life’s work of one craftsman, Pierre Dancart. It is easy to see that Seville had been basking in the glory of its new wealth after becoming a major trading center after the Reconquista and conquering the rich Incas in the 1500s…and this was the grand splurge. Observe the tomb of Christopher Columbus held aloft by four soldiers, representing the four kingdoms of Spain. DNA analysis and controversy apart, it is a fitting tribute to the last wish of the Italian explorer who died in Spain in 1506. RIP, Chris…wherever you are!
Brace for the best part…a heart pumping workout up a spiral, circular walkway of 35 gently inclining ramps, 100-meters up to the bell tower. Stop at the several window alcoves for close-ups of the bells and gargoyles and much-needed gasps of breath. Scrutinise the cream brick walls and the brick-fishbone patterned floor…imagine two mounted guards following the muezzin on his horse all the way up to call people to prayer! Great for him, not so great for the horse, specially if he had a weight disorder. At the belfry, enjoy the spectacular views of the town, full of zigzag lanes and the bull ring, Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza in the far distance. Try tracing the path back to your hotel, and give up…the maze of streets is too complex a mystery.
Afterwards, cover the entire perimeter of the Cathedral. The plain brick is a perfect backdrop for all the elaborate Gothic stonework…unadorned high walls crowned by a terrace of stone pillared railings and punctuated by a line-up of chess-bishop shapes and peeking from behind, a jumble of bud-spangled spires rising to the skies. Each of the 15 doors on the cathedral’s four facades feature unique reliefs…it is no use keeping track of the patterns, there are far too many to remember.
End your jaunt at the 1386-founded Antigua Taberna de Las Escobas on Puerta del Perdón. Savour delicious gazpacho and paella at one of the small pavement tables under a shady canopy. Poet, playwright and novelist Miguel de Cervantes de Saavedra, (author of Don Quixote), French author Alexandre Dumas and British author Lord Byron had once graced the traditional establishment and dined under the brass-studded mahogany ceiling. The crockery is not that old, so there was no chance we were eating out of same plates, but you will leave with a strong feeling of being in exalted literary company.
Real Alcázar: This can’t be real!
The second UNESCO World Heritage Site of Seville, the medieval Islamic-style Real Alcázar (Royal Palace), is just a few minutes away. Dating from its 1300s identity as a fort for Cordoban officials, this intriguing fusion of Spanish Christian and Moorish architecture is sheer resplendence. It is a fantastic Arabian palace still in use by the Spanish royal family, complete with hedge mazes, scented orange groves, and an abundance of colored tiles.
Soak up Andalusia’s Moorish heritage by spending a few hours meandering through the patios, rooms, halls and stately apartments filled with intricately designed arches and decorative rounded shapes symbolic of the unknowable true nature of Allah. The ornate arches and shady corridors surrounding a long reflecting pool at the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens) make you question the myth that the Moors used to demand a tribute of 100 virgins from the Christians, every year. You can almost see the King and Queen strolling by the pool contemplating a redesign. But what redesign? It is too perfect.
Pick up your jaws from the floor of the Salón de Embajadores, (Hall of Ambassadors) after staring at the bas-relief carvings literally dripping from the walls. And close that open mouth as you study the dramatic cedarwood cupola ceiling…a giant gold sun studded with sparking jewels in star, circle, tears and other shapes. Real Alcazar is not for real!! The drama continues in Palacio Gótico, the gothic palace built for Alfonso the Wise, which dazzles with floor-to-ceiling tile mosaics. And these days, wallpaper is the epitome of luxury in home interiors. Hysterical!
The royal gardens, built over 1100 years are a compendium of the history of gardening…Andalusian, Moorish, Italian, English and French styles are all featured. Ornate clipped hedges, trickling water, and fragrant, colourful flowers in the bright and spacious green areas, geometric patterns, surrounded by closed areas urge you to explore them. Water accompanies you everywhere, trickling through ditches and canals, ripping in the many pools and springing delicately in sprays, gushing in fountains and grottos…enhancing the serenity and calm, adding to the coolness of the shade, and providing soft background score to the chirping vocals of the feathered ones hopping and flying around.
Suddenly, you are a Spanish queen, sitting in this verdant paradise of the royal retreat on a rainy day, watching peacocks dance and sipping exotic fruit cocktails served on silver trays. Am I right or am I right?
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