Last weekend, we made one of our day trips, to Sanlucar de Barrameda, a coastal town near Jerez and Cadiz, just across the mouth of the Guadalquivir river from Doñana National Park (seen in the distance in this photo). The idea was to visit the Feria de Manzanilla, and to briefly sample its famous local prawns and manzanilla sherry, before going to the beach for a picnic – with children, their need for exercise takes precedence over one’s own tastes and preferences.
A gusty day on a British beach is par for the course, but here in Andalucia, the only people willing to put up with sand being blown in their faces are kite-surfers and dog-walkers. And us. At La Jara we got super-fine grains in our sandwiches, in our faces, in our hair, in our clothes… and in my camera. That half-hour (it was sunny and warm, but too gritty for grown-ups to want to stay any longer, though kids weren’t bothered) cost me dear – I had to get my camera cleaned professionally at eye-watering cost. The sand had got into every orifice and crevice, but thankfully the lens wasn’t scratched, so no lasting damage. Lesson learned: wind+sand=no camera.
So I was all the more delighted to get my beloved G12 back, spotless, sandless, and in perfect working order, just in time for my visit last week to the Cubiertas del Cathedral – the cathedral rooftop. I had booked the tour online the previous week, and was very excited at this opportunity to see such a well-known monument from an unusual angle - especially since my first attempt was foiled by a stupid injury. They haven’t been running these tours for very long, about a year, but I’ve been wanting to go ever since I first read about them.
The meeting place was the Puerta San Miguel, next to the main entrance door. While waiting for the guide to collect us, I could hear the drums of hermandades setting off for El Rocio tantalisingly close – I resisted the urge to go and look (and snap), for fear of missing my tour. The guide led us inside – about 12 Spanish people, mostly couples, in their 30s to 60s, and me – where we joined up with a group whose guide spoke in English, and translated everything the Spanish guide said.
The guide, Antonio, worked hard to build up the anticipation – we were going to see how they built the cathedral back in the 15th century, “through its secrets”, and take “un viaje a traves del tiempo” – a trip back in time. In 1401, Seville’s chief Catholic clerics decided to build, on the site of the Mezquita, a Gothic cathedral made of stone. This was highly ambitious, since such grandiose buildings in Seville had hitherto been constructed of brick and wood, owing to lack of both raw materials and stonemasons. The actual obra didn’t start until 1433 (funding and planning applications must have been just as slow back then), finishing in 1506; it lasted for 73 years – a lifetime.
We were shown a copy of the original plan of the cathedral – which was recently discovered in a town in Guipuzcoa, and is now safely stored in a convent there – and then told that we were going to see “sorpresas que nunca se imaginaria” – surprises you’d never have imagined (isn’t that the whole point of a surprise?)
Then we were each given a radio transmitter and an earphone, through which we could hear Antonio giving his breathless, dramatic commentary – until the organ started up, drowning out his words. He took the opportunity to inform us that this instrument dates from 1725, and is the second-largest such machine in the world, with 7500 tubes. The cathedral itself, however, can definitively claim to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world – it measures 126 by 82 metres.
Our group then filed into a small chapel, which was locked behind us, and proceeded to climb the steep, narrow stone steps (dating from the 15th century too) up to an interior balcony, which provided a good opportunity to catch one’s breath and admire the view of the five naves, and of the choir directly in front, from 25-odd metres up.
Then it was up again, through a low, narrow gap and out onto the roof, where we gazed upon the exterior of a large, round stained-glass window; had close-up encounters with gargoyles; and enjoyed an atypical aerial view of Avenida de la Constitución, with its tram tracks.
Antonio explained that the stone used to build the cathedral 600 years ago was taken from the San Cristóbal mountains in Cadiz province, between El Puerto de Santa Maria and Jerez. Transported to Seville by sea from El Puerto and then along the Guadalquivir river, the porous marine rock consists of shells, and is now very worn and full of holes made by rainwater entering, and extreme temperatures further dilating and breaking the stone. Quality of building material was sacrificed for ease of transport.
Then it was back inside again, and out onto the narrow balconies high up above the central nave, all along its length. We got to see stained glass windows close up, including the interior of the one we had seen earlier from outside – a colourful, circular example of the art at one end of the main nave. This is known as “el roseton“, the rose window, and dates from 1577; it features the four evangelists. Even though the faithful were clearly never going to examine these closely, the detail is amazing – the older saints of another window have wrinkled foreheads.
To give you an idea of the scale of this cathedral, and just how high up we were – nearly on the ceiling – these are views from, and to, the ground.
The balconies were one person wide, and as the group was so large not everyone could fit on at once, so some unfortunate souls were stuck in the narrow passageways which lead to these stunning vantage points. Not for claustrophics, or those who suffer from vertigo.
Antonio kept up his commentary throughout, but unfortunately the earphones were substandard – they had very dodgy connections, and you had to keep twiddling them to maintain the sound (made in China for 0.01 euros, I’ll bet), which is complicated when you’re also taking photos and making notes. The long and the short being, unfortunately I missed most of the commentary while we were inside the cathedral, though outside the group was less separated, so I could hear him using my own ears, rather than the crappy earpiece.
This is already a very long post, so I’ll do another one soon showing the views from outside on the cathedral roof. We saw the Archbishop’s Palace, the Alcazar and its gardens (here’s a visual taster, above), Barrio Santa Cruz, the river, the Torre Pelli, and best of all, the Giralda. It was especially thrilling to get so close (relatively speaking) to Seville’s most iconic building, the tower which remains from the Almohad era when, 1000 years ago, a mosque stood in the cathedral’s place.