The musician sits hunched, concentrating, fine tuning his guitar. With a final flourish of fingers, an arpeggio of thrumming sound signals his readiness.
Rhythmically clicking thumb and finger, a diva dressed in black, scarf of scarlet silk, leads into the first song. Now she claps her hands above her head. Her tapping feet add a back beat that builds into fierce drumming. At intervals she hollers, or praises particularly pleasing guitar accompaniment.
From a dark doorway, a dancer, varnished black hair, pink dress with flounces, steps dramatically into the circle of light illuminating the small performance area. High-heeled boots become percussive instruments as she batters the boards in an ecstatic, passionate dance. This is Flamenco-the sensual dance form that originated here in Spain’s south west corner, in the gypsy communities of Andalucia.
The mesmerising performance took place in an inner courtyard of Seville’s Cultural Centre. Overhead, a ceiling of wispy clouds drifted below stars that glistened in an inky black sky.
Similar open roofed patios usually serve as family living rooms in the heat of Seville’s sultry summers and can be glimpsed through wrought iron doors. The walls are often richly coloured ‘azulejos,’ Moorish inspired, patterned ceramic tiles. Floors are of pale marble. Huge potted palms add greenery and shade.
The flamenco performance ended around 11.00 o’clock and the audience wandered away, some in search of sustenance. Eating out at this time of night is usual in Seville and there is a good choice of restaurants - particularly in the maze of narrow streets of the old town, the Barrio Santa Cruz, and the adjoining, medieval Jewish quarter.
Tapas bars offering selections of small separate dishes, including fish, quiche, bull tail, potatoes with various spicy sauces and mixed salads are also popular. It’s an added bonus finding a pavement table where you can eat, drink and watch people stroll by the floodlit Cathedral of Seville.
This immense confection in stone was first build as a mosque in the late 12th century by conquering Moors and later demolished before being rebuild as a Christian cathedral, ‘on so big a scale that posterity will think we were mad,’ mused the architects. An in-depth tour, as you might imagine, takes some time. Should numerous side altars, rooms full of religious treasures, the largest and richest altar piece in the world and the sepulchre of Christopher Columbus leave you less than three steps to heaven, consider a walk to the top of the ornate bell tower.
The Giralda(bell tower) was twelve years in the making (1184-96). Once it was a minaret from where the faithful were called to prayer. Inside, instead of the expected flights of stairs, a series of 35 gently inclined ramps built wide enough for two guards on horseback to pass each other lead to the top. As you walk further up the ramp, open windows give close-ups of cathedral buttresses and statuary. At the top, beneath enormous bells, far-reaching views across city roofs justify the effort.
Nearby, the Reales Alcazares, encapsulates the complex history of Seville. The fortified palace gives an insight into the lifestyle and opulence demanded by succeeding rulers including the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians - though once it was even more fantastic. Supposedly, one sultan suitably extended the accommodation for a harem of 800 women. What remains of the exquisitely decorated Moorish architecture, luxuriant gardens and sumptuously tiled rooms with intricate wood panelled ceilings, gives some idea of past amassed wealth.
In contrast, the Museo de Bella Artes, a jewel amongst art galleries, was converted from a convent that lay empty for years. Many of the paintings are on religious themes by Spanish artists including Alonso Vasquez, Murillo, Ribera and Goya. While galleries elsewhere are often so large that even great masterpieces eventually cause your eyes to glaze over, here roomfuls of artworks are impressive without being overwhelming. A painted baroque ceiling crowns a room that was once the main chapel. Doors open on to restful courtyard gardens of sculpted myrtle bushes.
In the more lush gardens of Casa de Pilatos, an early 16th century mansion inspired by Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, you can wander past cascades of purple bougainvillea and trickling fountains that vie for attention with Moorish arches, Roman statuary, and rooms decorated with brilliant coloured tiles.
Showiness of a different kind is found near the River Guadalquivir at the opera house and the bullring, Plaza de Toros. Should the attraction in bulls being goaded and killed be beyond understanding, missing the small museum of bull fighting within the building won’t be a hardship.
Directly across the road is a statue of Carmen, cigar factory worker, feisty femme fatale and inspiration for the opera of the same name by Georges Bizet. In the novel penned in 1845 by French author Prosper Merrimee this was where Carmen died, stabbed, in a crime of passion.
Lower down, a landscaped walkway follows the riverside to Torre del Oro, a twelve-sided, 13th century fort from where a great chain once stretched across the river in defence of the city. The stronghold was also a store for gold brought back from the Americas. It now houses a small museum of naval curiosities.
From nearby, you can take a guided tour of the city in an open-topped bus or take to the water. Cruise boats head down river a short way, before turning to sail upstream past yellow, blue and white painted house fronts of Triana, a down-to-earth district off the tourist trail.
The trip goes as far as Puente de la Barqueta, one of the futuristic bridges built for the World Fair, Expo ’92. A reproduction of Victoria, the ship that first circumnavigated the world, is passed almost unnoticed, dwarfed by the exhibition features in the background.
Seville is very Spanish with a hint of North Africa, modern yet faintly decadent, where the present and historical merge. The real factory where the imaginary Carmen rolled cigars is now part of Seville’s University. Broad avenues lined with orange trees buzz with traffic yet there’s a place for horse-drawn carriages that clip-clop visitors round the sights or through the cool greenery of a city centre park.