Five Myths About Seville, Debunked

“I’ll just stop talking before I ruin the Feria de Sevilla for you,” Dan remarked, noticing that I’d stuck my fingers in my ears. A history and archaeology professor at one of the city’s universities, he’d already struck down a number of things I’d known to be true about my adopted city.

5 Myths about Seville

In a city as mythical as Seville, I’ve become privy to tall tales and lore that have only grown to be larger-than-life legends in the Hispalense. But Dan’s early morning route with Context Travel astonished me with how many things I’d had wrong. Winding through the streets of Santa Cruz and the Arenal and speaking about the centuries that shaped modern Spain and the New World, I had to shut my mouth and just listen (always hard on a tour when you know so many of the city’s secrets!):

Gazpacho was invented by the Moors

Dishes with a legend are rife in Spain, and Seville’s claims to gazpacho are just as common. Gazpacho is a cold, tomato-based soup that pops up on menus as both a dish and a garnish. It’s also about the only Spanish dish I’ve mastered. While the word gazpacho is of Arabic origin, and they commonly ate a dish of bread, garlic and olive oil, the dish as we know it today is definitely is not of Moorish invention.

gazpacho andaluza in spain

It a simple question of history: The Moors conquered the Iberian Penninsula over centuries, beginning in 711. The last were expelled in 1492 from Granada, the same year that the Catholic Kings sent a young dreamer, Christopher Columbus, to find a passage to India. Tomatoes come from the Americas, so the very earliest they would have appeared in Spain was the late 15th Century. While Moors lingered in Spain for centuries, the introduction of vinegar, tomatoes and cucumber would come much later.

Seville is flat

Columbus may have been onto something else: for all of the boasting I do about how perfect Seville is for biking and walking, the city was built in Roman times around a series of hills. Little remains of the Roman past within the city limits, save a few columns on Calle Mármoles, the crumbling aqueduct that once carried water from Carmona, and the recovered mosaics and fish paste factory in the Antiquarium underneath Plaza de la Encarnación. If you want to see ruins, head to nearby Itálica or Carmona, or even two hours north to Mérida.

Context history tours in Seville Spain

Roman Seville – then called Hispalis – had five major hills, with strategically built fortresses and temples built atop them. Laid out in a cross fashion, the major thoroughfares, called Cardus Maximus and Decumanus Maximus, and likened, to the main arteries of the human body, lead to a crossing near Plaza de la Alfalfa. This site was likely home to the forum, and Plaza del Salvador excavations have led archaeologists to believe the the curia and basilica once stood here. Indeed, the street leading from the east-west axis is the city’s one “hill,” dubbed Cuesta del Rosario, or Rosary Hill.

Where to see Roman ruins in Seville

My glutes would be better off having some changes in elevation, but my knees are glad that silt from the Atlantic, which once lapped shores near to the Cathedral and old city walls, filled in the shallow valleys.

The true meaning of barrios

The streets of Seville are steeped in history, and many of their names give tourists a historical context. In my neighborhood, Calle Castilla stems out from the ruins of the Moorish castle, Calle Alfarería reveals where pottery and ceramic kilns once stood, and Rodrigo de Triana takes the name of the prodigal son who was reputedly the first to spot the New World from high in a crow’s nest.

casa de la moneda sevilla

When Seville became a bustling commercial center after the Reconquist in the mid 13th Century, European merchants flocked from other ports of call to take part – population boomed, making Seville not only the most important city in Iberia, but also the largest in Europe.

Dan explained that competition was fierce amongst bands of merchants, and large manor homes were constructed around the cathedral to showcase not only the wares – olive oil was big business, even then – but also wealth. Just peak into any open doors in Santa Cruz, and you’ll see what I mean. Feudal relationships existed, and small gangs of street were established as territories, owned and operated by the merchant groups.

Santa Cruz Sevilla neighborhood

Because of this, streets bear names like Alemanes (German) or Francos (French). The wealthiest group? The Genovese, whose market wares were sold on Avenida de la Constitución – the most important street in the city center.

You may know another important genovés who passed through Seville during this time – he set off from Spain in 1492.

Triana was the historically poor neighborhood 

Dan asked the other tour guests what they’d done since arriving in Seville the previous day. “Oh, we wandered over the bridge to the neighborhood on the other side of the river. Lovely place, very lively.” 

triana

“Well,” Dan replied, taking off his sunglass for effect, “Triana used to be one of the richest sectors of the city.”

I was baffled – I’d spun tales about how my barrio had once housed seafarers, flamenco dancers and gypsies, and thus made it more colorful and authentic, an oasis untouched by tourist traps and souvenir shops. In reality, the heart of Triana – from the river west to Pagés del Corro, and from Plaza de Cubs to just north of San Jacinto – was encapsulated in high stone walls and a number of manor houses during the Al-Andalus period in the 10th Century. 

Capilla del Carmen Triana Anibal Gonzalez

After the Christian Reconquist and subsequent destruction of the Castillo San Jorge, artisans, labor workers and sailors took up residence in Triana, perpetuating the stereotype that the neighborhood has been poor since its origins. Poor or not, it’s full of character and close to the city center, yet feels far away.

Orange trees are native to the city

I had learned the importance of citrus fruits in Seville’s culinary history during a Devour Seville food tour, and had wrongfully assumed that orange trees had been around since the time of the Moors. After all, they brought their language, their spices and their architectural heritage, so surely they’d thought to plant orange trees. Maybe they did – the Monasterio de la Cartuja is said to have edible oranges, and the cathedral’s Arabic courtyard is named for the naranjos that populate it – but it was renowned Sevillian architect Aníbal González who suggested planting orange trees along roads and in private gardens.

Oramge trees in Seville

Hallmarks of the Neo-mudéjar visionary are littered around the city and other Andalusian cities, including his obra maestra, the half-moon Plaza de España. And Each year when the azahar blooms, I’ll be reminded that the Novio’s great grandparents wouldn’t have marked the start of springtime with their scent like I’ve come to do.

I’d spill more, but the tour will reveal dark moments during the Inquisition, hidden secrets from the bustling commercial period after the Reconquist, and where the New World archives actually are – it’s a tour made for history buffs and visitors who want a more inside scoop on a city’s political, geographical and historical origins. Admittedly, many of these facts can be found online, but the point is that locals perpetuate the incorrect myths as a way to keep the magical of the city intact. Sevillanos exaggerate, and these many of these tales are as tall as the Giralda itself.

Typical Seville Streets

Dan and I walked back over the Puente San Telmo towards Triana, and I offered to buy him a beer back in the barrio (even though he tells me I’m from the cutre part). One Seville myth that will never die: cerveza is cheap and aplenty in this city, and tastes best on a sunny day with friends.

Context Travel graciously invited me on the Seville Andalusian Metropolis tour free of charge; tickets are 80€ each ($91 USD at publishing), plus any entrance fees you may incur. Tourists are encouraged to tell the guide what things they’d like to see and explore to help give the tour shape – their tagline is #traveldeeper, after all! You can also look for them in Europe, North America, Asia and South America. 

Are there any odd myths in the city where you live?

Rainy Days in Oviedo

It’s raining in Seville, rare in September but welcome after a hot and excruciatingly long summer. They’re those sort of spotty showers that come and go as fast as takes you to find a cozy cafe to wait it out. Usually, I’d be cursing having to take public transportation to work or scrambling to bring in laundry I’d hung in the sun, but this last week of rain has been incredibly relaxing.

In between the raindrops, people run into the street to do their errands, to have a coffee, to meet with friends. I was virtually the only person on the street last Friday as I let the bottoms of my jeans get wet on the way to sue my bank (pequeños placeres, people). For sevillanos, rain means literally raining on their parade, but so many places in Spain get rain almost daily.

I spent two days in Oviedo last summer with my local friend Claudia, ducking into boutiques, cider bars and bakeries when the rain clouds closed in and sipping coffee in the sun when they dissipated. In the summer months, the capital of the Principality of Austurias still gets rain nearly half of the day!

Clau lives right behind the train and bus station, so after I set down my bag, all packed for the Camino de Santiago, we stopped off at a bakery for an early afternoon treat. The repostería’s outdoor seating area looked inviting, so we caught up between mouthfuls of cupcake.

Just as we were counting out change for our coffees, a waiter came to zip the plastic enclosure around the patio. Asturianos are like dogs – they know when the weather is about to change.

I’d been to Oviedo once before with the Novio and some friends – his mom’s family is from Asturias – so we could skip the museums and touristic sites. The rain came and went quickly, leaving the marble pavement in the city center slick. 

Claudia is Argentian and once lived in Seville, where we met. After years of almost nothing but sun, she’s learning to live with rain.

Even with the spotty weather, Asturias shone. The colorful buildings stand apart amidst the grey skies that dogged my first of seven days in Asturias.

Having known one another for five years, Clau led me exactly where I wanted her to: a place to eat and drink in Plaza Fontán. We ordered a bottle of cider and two bollos preñaos, hardly breaking our chatter to have a bit to eat.

Once again, the sky opened and we could hardly hear one another over the rain drops on the canvas umbrellas. Unlike in Seville, no one ran for cover, but scooted their chars a bit closer to the table, lest a few raindrops splatter on them.

We ordered another bottle of cider to wait out the storm. Now with hazy brains, we took long naps and headed to Calle Gascona later on for endless rounds of cider, cachopos and giggles. 

The next day’s sun burnt the clouds off early in the morning. We hiked to the Pre-Romanesque churches of Monte Naranco, taking time on the way down to stop in bars for the views over the valley, have a caña and share a few snacks.

The rain held off all day in Oviedo, only to pour that evening in Avilés. No wonder the cows here produce such great milk – the grass really is greener on the other side of the Picos! 

Surprisingly enough, for the five days Hayley and I walked through Asturias on the Camino de Santiago del Norte, we had not one drop of rain. We were instead met with soaring temperatures and beach weather, a rare but celebrated thing in this corner of Spain.

I’ve dealt with rain in Lisbon, in Brussels, in Ireland, often sticking around in my hostel to relax or get to know other travelers in the bar or common areas. But somehow, rain in Oviedo just seemed like something to work around, and not get worked up about. Way to not be an aguafiestas, lluvia!

How do you cope with rain when you’re traveling?

El Mercadillo el Jueves

Vengaaa, José, I prefer to lose a little money on a friend than sell it to someone who won’t enjoy it as much for far more.”

Luis sells books every Thursday morning at the Jueves flea market, and I flicked through his offerings on Spanish war planes for the Novio a few weeks ago. José is a repeat customer who bargains him from 20€ to 15€, snagging an EADS-issued encyclopedia on Air Force machines.

I met Raquel at Casa Vizcaíno one Thursday morning to browse the stands at the mercadillo, not having anything in mind to buy but bringing Camarón just in case.

My father would disappear every Sunday morning to swap meets when I was a kid, always looking for a bargain and spare car parts. The first time he took me, promising an elephant ear and new pogs, I was overwhelmed at the amount of stands, spread blankets and objects being sold.

El Jueves gave me the same feelings, just with no fried dough. There’s de todo un poco: old books, a version of my first cell phone, paintings, flamenco dresses and even trajes de luces.

In the end, I bought an old school BINGO game for the academy, bargained down from 5€, and five lapel pins for a euro each. I didn’t sift through much junk or feel pulled towards splurging on any one item (except for maybe a bust of the Virgin Mary), but I think I’ll be back.

As Raquel’s boyfriend said, they find new things to hock every week.

If you go: El Jueves takes over the southern end of Calle Feria between Calle Castelar and Calle Correduría every Thursday morning. Things begin to get started around 10am and last until around 1pm. Be sure to bring small change and watch your belongings.

Have you ever been to el Jueves? Know of other famous swap meets in Spain or beyond?

Seville Snapshots: Christmas Lights in Seville

Seville is the type of gal who doesn’t really need to get gussied up – she’s stunning enough on her own.

But La Hispalense (she even has a fancy name) loves to gets glitzy at Christmas time. As soon as the long December weekend beings, the city center is bursting with shoppers, a number of handicrafts markets pop up in Plaza Nueva and the Alameda, and police controls tighten up, thanks to the number of merry markers drinking at all hours of the day.

But as soon as the lights are turned on, I feel like Christmas really begins.

This year the city has used LED lights to dress up the city’s biggest thoroughfares – Constitución, San Fernando, around the Encarnación – and even in the outlying neighborhoods. Dios, even the Alcampo next door is decked out in holiday style.

Once again, the 3-D mapping on the eastern facade of city hall is operating. According to Fiona of Scribbler in Seville, the light and music show that’s projected onto the building won an award last year. This season’s show, El Espíritu de la Navidad, will be played from dusk until 11 or 12pm on the hour until the Epiphany Day.

How does your city celebrate Christmas? Where are your favorite lights in Seville located?

Seville Snapshots: The Ceramic Benches of the Plaza de España

I adore Plaza de España.

It was here in 2005 that I sat on one of the ceramic benches and journaled about studying abroad. Eight years later, I’ve made countless visits to the half-moon square with visitors (inlcuding Alex, my blog media naranja from Ifs, Ands & Butts), to photograph Andrea and Carlos’s wedding, and to the dreaded Extranjería for residency issues.

Originally built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Fair, the majestic building and its ceramic tile work crown the María Luisa Park. Roma gypsies peddle fans and tourists rent boats to float around the moat. The colonnades hide several government offices, but the main attraction are the hand-painted tiles that represent each province of Spain and its place in history.

In 2005, I sat at the Valladolid bench, fresh out of my study abroad experience. Moving back to Spain had barely crossed my mind at that point, and much less so, to Seville.

Have you even been to the Plaza de España? What’s your favorite monument in Seville?

Seville Snapshots: Summer Nights at Plaza del Salvador

There was already a chill in the air this morning. I dragged the blanket from the end of the bed up to my chin, falling comfortably into the dreamy-morning doze again after a packed weekend.

Saturday was another one of those perfect sevillano days – my morning café con leche stretched into a stroll around the shops became a pre-lunch beer followed by tapas and copas and ending the night at Carlos Kiss, 17 hours after I left my house. Unwilling to let go of the summer time and its long, sunny days, it seemed like the entire city took to the streets.

As the song says, el sol duerme in Triana, y nace en Santa Cruz, and the salmon-colored church of San Salvador acts as Seville’s solar clock. According to the time of day, the temple is lit in a different color, but none as lovely as the setting sun over Triana. Since the facade faces west, it catches the last bit of sunshine every day.

On this last warm weekend before Autumn hits, I brought a scarf and cardigan, but didn’t need it midday as we toasted to the end of summer in Salvador and a day with no rain. Soon, the rain will hit, my ganas to be in the street will fade, and we’ll stop making gazpacho every other day. But for one afternoon, the streets were ours.

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