A trip to Tangiers: first impressions

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: a public fountain in the Kasbah with Islamic tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof .

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: not a palace, or a mosque, but a public fountain in the Kasbah with colourful tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof.

Tangiers, port, Morocco

First stormy view of Tangiers from the ferry – terminal with red flag for the king’s visit, medina, and on the skyline two towers: a minaret (right) and the bell tower of St Andrew’s church.

 

A snatch of plaintive Arabic music, small children playing marbles in the street, a Berber woman covering her face with a scarf… narrow alleyways dotted with rubbish, houses painted azure blue, canary yellow, terracotta pink; ancient, exquisite carved wooden doors; piles of gleaming fresh aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries stacked high in a market stall; figures wearing the djellabah, a long, medieval robe with pointed hood; young men glued to a Spanish football match on TV in a bar, with the sweet aroma of hashish swirling around. Snapshots of a brief but intense experience.

Readers who follow my blog’s Facebook page (see Like box on right, part of snazzy new self-hosted look) will know that I recently went to Tangiers.

This was my first ever trip to Africa – a new continent, and a new country: Morocco. Separated from Europe at Spain’s nearly southernmost point by just a few kilometres, the two continents pushed apart by Hercules, so the legend goes. After 10 years, finally I got around to making the short, easy trip. Having been warned to expect hassle I was apprehensive, being out of practice at coping with third-world countries (trips to Europe, Asia and South America from my late teens to my mid-thirties seem like a lifetime ago), while at the same time being more excited about visiting a new place than I have been for years.

Morocco, Tarifa, ferry, Tangiers

Between two continents: crossing the Straits of Gibraltar – Africa (Morocco) to the right, Europe (Spain) to the left.

The ferry takes a smooth hour from Tarifa, with a modern, efficient system where your passport number is printed on your ticket – and the return is open, so you can always decide to delay coming back (it’s tempting, believe me). At the other end, few touts were waiting as the ferry terminal disgorged the latest batch of arrivals, mostly day-trippers. Driving away from the port towards the Kasbah, the fortified area at the top of the medina (old town), what struck me most was that the city looked remarkably like Spain – a wide avenue lined with palm trees and a variety of glass-fronted, first-world shops.

But then, but then… we climbed a hill and turned right through a series of low, narrow arches, the horseshoe shapes found all over my beloved Andalucia – and we stepped back in time. This was Bab Kasbah, the gate to Tangiers’ medieval fortified area, high up above the rest of the medina. Once inside, we saw tables and chairs set out under an ancient tree, old men whiling away the day – and then our riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses built around a central patio – just like in Andalucia, I hear you say. Not surprising, considering that north Africans, known in Spain as the Moors, occupied Andalucia for 800 years. Their architectural legacy is highly visible, providing some of the region’s most famous and beautiful monuments – Granada’s Alhambra, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville. So I suppose it wasn’t surprising, then, that in many ways, Tangiers felt familiar - like a place whose features are already so well-known, it’s as if I’d dreamed about them. This is where so much of the literature, culture and gastronomy of Andalucia came from – pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), oranges, rice, almonds.

Hotel La Maison Blanche, Tangiers, Kasbah,, Morocco

The hotel’s patio with the glow from its welcoming fireplace – a cosy spot on a cold day.

hotel, La Maison Blanche, Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

The fountain, with its hand-laid mosaic tiles, is the centrepiece of the hotel’s patio. Fresh flower petals add a pretty, romantic touch.

La Maison blanche, Tangiers, Morocco, Kasbah

Our red room at the hotel, with handpainted walls and moody lighting.

Our small hotel, La Maison Blanche, a newly-restored riad with just nine rooms, was decorated only with Moroccan artesan pieces – from the most gorgeous lamps, to carved cedar-wood doors, to metalwork bins (no plastic or IKEA here). Everything felt authentic and of its place; the heavy print fabrics weren’t all to my taste, although our boudoir-ish red room was heavenly; one upstairs room, with north African light drenching its antique metal four-poster bed and white furnishings, was right up my alley. They haven’t used wallpaper; just fabric hung on the wall, or hand-painted designs. Yes, it’s that classy. The interior designer was French, and the owners are a Moroccan-Spanish couple, Aziz (Tangerino) and Pilar (Malagueña), so it’s a hotel with French sophistication, Spanish warmth and Moroccan style.

tangiers, kasbah

Tangiers is full of stunning multi-layered doorways like this one in the Kasbah.

Kasbah, tile, tiles,

Craftsman working on a tile – the glaze is chipped away to make the design.

kasbah, tangiers, museum

The museum, housed in a former sultan’s palace – for another visit.

When we arrived in Tangiers it was wet and cold, and by the time we got to the hotel I was freezing (yes, I had dressed warmly: a fleece and hiking jacket, FFS), so we had a hearty Moroccan breakfast of flatbreat with goat’s cheese and pain au chocolate by the open fire, sitting in plush rich-red chairs. I was itching to explore the city, so Aziz, who is a professional guide – American travel writer Rick Steves (his word is gospel for many US visitors) is a big fan – took us on a walk around town. That’s the only way to get around these streets – few of them are wide enough for cars.

We walked down to the main square of the Kasbah, past the 13th-century mosque, the madrasa (school), the museum (a former palace), and the house where the Rolling Stones recorded Continental Drift from the Steel Wheels album with a Berber group called Jajouka in 1989, and through another arch to look out to sea. We saw a craftsman in his workshop, meticulously chipping glaze off a tile to create a classic geometric shape, as seen on azulejos all over Andalucia.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbak to the sea.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbah to the sea.

Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

A detail of that fountain. Islamic art is astonishing.

As it turns out, my first impression had some logic to it: as Aziz told us, they’re building a new multi-million-euro marina in Tangiers bay, supported by King Mohammed VI, who is keen to see the city develop economically – he was visiting while we were there, and red Moroccan national flags were everywhere to honour his presence. In parallel, monuments in the Kasbah, such as the mosque’s minaret and the old city walls, are being restored, and illegal houses built along the outside of the walls will be knocked down. The horseshoe arch which looks out to sea from the Place du Kasbah’s archway, Bab Bhar (in the photo above), has been shored up with ugly concrete, blocking out the horseshoe form – luckily you can still make out the original stone shape. Let’s hope it can be restored to its original glory as part of these plans.

Those were my first few hours in Tangiers; I will be writing more about this African adventure soon: markets, carpets, movies, artists, and our gorgeous hotel.

My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.

Torrijos 2013: a picture post

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the Hacienda’s chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Another year, another Romeria de Torrijos in the village where we live. For weeks beforehand, the horses and oxen are trained and prepared in the fields around our house, carriages practise-driven, carretas decorated in brightly coloured tissue paper, and of course flamenca dresses and accessories sought out, examined and donned.

This year was perfect weather – blue skies, but not too hot. We missed the procession of ox-carts due to a prior social engagement, but stayed later to make up for it. I’m always intrigued by the chapel of the Hacienda de Torrijos, the Arab-era estate where the romeria takes place.

An image of Jesus was supposedly discovered 400 years ago by a hen pecking near the chapel wall, a dubious event related in a tiled niche. But enough to convince the faithful/supersitious/gullible (delete as appropriate) creyentes, who leave small silver offerings – arms, legs, cows, horses - to ask the Son of God to cure their, and their livestock’s, ailments – as well as messages of thanks.

I will leave the rest of the photos (and captions) to speak for themselves. Hasta la proxima!

Clapping hands in time to the song, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamenca.

Clapping and singing, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamencas.

A typically animated group enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

A tableau of romeros enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

This way you can't lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

This way you can’t lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his traje corto and Cordobes hat.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his beautiful traje corto and Cordobes hat.

When my daughter lost her new balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar), only candy floss could cushion the blow.

When my daughter lost her new helium balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar) to gravity, only candy floss could cushion such a terrible blow. My son’s bubble gun was more grounded, thankfully.

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses' arses (so to speak).

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses’ arses (so to speak).

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros - pilgrims (Chaucer overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros – pilgrims (the medieval overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

This hibiscus flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

This hibiscus-style flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right - the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right – the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Huge exotic shell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Huge exotic seashell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing feet, legs and hands.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing limbs and extremities.

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found - by a hen!

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found insde this very wall - by a hen!

Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

triana, ceramics, tiles, centro ceramica triana

The new Centro Ceramica Triana – you can see one of the ovens with its little chimneys.

Plaza de España was designed for Expo 1929 as a showcase for Seville's tile industry.

Plaza de España was designed for Expo 1929 as a showcase for Seville’s ceramics industry.

Seville is known for many things – the old cliches of tapas, flamenco and bullfighting, orange trees and the Giralda, but also a ubiquitous feature of the city which you’ll see inside every house, on the walls of every patio, on most streets and plazas and benches, and even many churches and shops. In Plaza de España they take you to every province in Spain. In an old building – and we’re talking medieval, or even Moorish – look down, and you’ll see them under your feet.

Can you guess what they are? Ceramic tiles, or azulejos. Pottery has been made in the riverside barrio of Triana since Roman times, though it was the Moors who invented the exquisite azulejo coloured tiles, painting each one individually with a geometric pattern, to add a sense of space and colour to the interiors of their palaces. The barro (clay) from the river was ideal for making earthenware tiles and vessels, which were then painted and fired in kilns.

A potter is called an alfarero, and a pottery workshop or studio is an alfareria. Sadly, the part of Triana, near the market, which used to have wall-to-wall studios and shops (and, just decades ago, small factories), now has only a handful of artesans working. Triana’s tile industry flourished until the Moors left Spain and Dutch factories triumphed; it boomed again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collapsed during the Civil War, and then experienced a mini-upsurge in the 1950s. However failure to modernize - many were still using ovens from Moorish times - led to the closure of nearly all the tile factories; the number plummeted from 40 in the early 1960s to less than five in the 1970s.

One of Seville's best-known facades: Ceramica Santa Ana - its workshops and kilns now make up the Centro Ceramica Triana.

One of Seville’s best-known facades: Ceramica Santa Ana – its old workshops and kilns form the ground floor of the Centro Ceramica Triana.

The best-known ceramic shop, Ceramica Santa Ana, a landmark building whose facade is covered in its trademark tiles, closed its shutters a few months ago, to great sadness. Though the tiles were no longer as sought-after in Seville as they once had been, it was still the end of an era. But behind the famous facade covered with brightly-coloured azulejos, informing us that the company has been here since 1870, work has been underway to create a new centre celebrating the alfareria tradition of Seville.

I was fortunate to be offered a sneak preview of the Centro Ceramica Triana last week, having expressed interest in finding out more about this hotly-anticipated project. The alfarero heritage, of which azulejos are such a major part, will be explained and dissected in this new museum, which covers 2500m2. Although the information panels and many of the tiles weren’t yet up on the walls and panels when I visited, I got a good idea of how the centre will look when it opens in early October. You can also see models and plans here.

triana, kiln, centro ceramica triana

An oven showing the two entrances: for the furnace, below; and the tiles, above up the steps.

The centre is divided between two floors: on the ground-floor space, you can see the seven kilns where the tiles were fired, with their pretty chimney pots – made of clay, naturally – as well as the stone basins and mills where the pigment dyes were ground and mixed, and barreros where the barro was kept damp. The upstairs part of the centre traces the development of azulejo techniques, with new artistic styles being introduced by artesans from outside Spain. There’s also a room devoted to Triana, the historically extramuros (outside the walls) barrio so intimately connected with the tradition and skill of alfareria.

Entrance to one of the seven kilns. where the ceramic tiles and other products were fired.

Entrance to one of the seven kilns where the ceramic tiles and other products were fired.

triana, pottery, tiles, ceramics, Santa Ana

One of the larger kilns – you can see the supports where the floor was.

An oven with shelves inside, so that each tile is fired without touching another.

An oven with shelves inside, so that each tile is fired without touching another. The holes in the floor allow the heat to rise into the top part of the kiln.

Tiles as they would have been fired in the kiln.

Tiles as they would have been fired in the kiln.

I never though I’d be excited to see inside a brick-built oven, but it is bizarrely thrilling to walk into one of these circular kilns, which have holes in the floor to allow the heat to come up from the furnace below. You can see various sizes, from small ones without room to swing a cat, to ones big enough to hold an intimate party. There is even one kiln dating from Almohad times – around 1100AD; this is the Moorish dynasty which built the Giralda and Torre del Oro. When a kiln collapsed, as tended to happen, another was built on top.

You can see some kilns from above and some from below; some still have their floors while others are now vast, cavernous spaces. The smallest one is the first you see as you enter the courtyard at the start of your visit, and it’s also visible from the street, to offer passers-by a glimpse of what lies inside this well-known building – a great introduction to the theme of pottery.

A sample of Santa Ana’s ceramic tiles from the 1960s and 1970s – these were part of their “catalogue” on the wall for customers to see.

A sample of Santa Ana’s ceramic tiles from the 1960s and 1970s – these were part of their “catalogue” on the wall for customers to see.

triana, ceramica, tiles, seville

Grammar fanatics (like me) won’t like this. Trips sound pretty good, though.

Love this sign – and they even got the punctuation right!

Love this sign – and they even got the punctuation right!

triana, tiles, azulejas, centro ceramica triana

Counting time while in the loo.

Back at the start of the visit, after the first, small kiln you see samples of tiles from the 20th century – bold, bright lettering extolling the virtues of trips to Cordoba and Granada in three languages (English, French and Spanish), while Katie welcomes you to her “warm and friendly house”. Even the loo is covered in tiles – blue and white numbers to thrill everyone from small children just learning their sums, to mathematicians.

These piles of ceramic tubes create a celosia - a Moorish  lattice which provides shade as well as being decorative and, in this case, pottery-themed.

These piles of ceramic tubes create a celosia – a Moorish lattice which provides shade, as well as being decorative and, in this case, pottery-themed.

When you enter the large main courtyard, as well as the ovens, what strikes you are the bubble-likes clumps of ceramic circles: the new, upper part of the centre has a design motif which brings to mind 1970s buildings (in a hip, Wallpaper-ish sort of way) – concrete blocks whose sharp, austere angles are relieved by softer, rounder details. In this case, short ceramic tubes of varying widths are placed horizontally on top of each other, arranged in no set order, within randomly-sized niches placed against the windows.

These bizcocho (fired, unpainted earthenware)-coloured pieces, made in Andalucia, though sadly not in Sevilla, change subtly in tone according to the light. They are designed to create a celosia, a Moorish screen which covers a building’s facade decoratively, providing shade while at the same time letting light penetrate. The overall effect – for the combination of repeated shape and shifting colour provide the visual wow factor – is quite stunning. Moorish crossed with early Habitat; Terence Conran in the 70s.

The celosia makes abstract shadows on the passageway.

The celosia makes abstract shadows on the passageway.

You can’t see any of it from the street, so it’s a total surprise when you come in (unless you’ve already seen photos – oops, sorry!). Most windows in the building look out onto this communal space, while for visitors it’s the central focus around which their visit moves. The ovens – their rooves, chimneys, entrance arches – are also visible from many points, so the previous life of this working area is never eclipsed; you’re looking through the newly fired earthenware to where ceramics have been made for nearly 1000 years. The sense of continuity is palpable.

Model of the new centre by architects AF6.

Model of the new centre by architects AF6; the entrance is on the right, on the corner of Calles Jorge and Callao.

The architects, Miguel Hernández Valencia and Esther López Martín of Seville practice AF6, have done a superb job of designing a structure which preserves the original features, so key to the centre, while adding the second storey which wraps around the central patio, always allowing visitors to see down onto the kilns with their hotpotch of different-shaped chimneys. Their inspiration for the short tubes which make up the celosia, which are in vogue now, came from a range of sources, as Miguel explained to me.

The first time he and his colleagues visited the site, they were struck by the idea of kilns being built on top of each other, and also by the sight of many unfired pieces of pottery which they found stacked in cupboards. The idea of accumulation led them to the idea of using pieces of pottery piled up as the design motif.

16th-century floor from Convento Santa Clara, being reassembled.

Cuenca (printed) tiles from 16th-century floor in Convento Santa Clara, being reassembled for display.

triana, ceramics, tiles, santa ana, santa clara, centro ceramica triana

Star-shaped pieces which make up another floor of Santa Clara, from the 15th century.

Back to the tiles – I was shown some sections of original floors from the Santa Clara convent, recently converted into a cultural space, which date from the 15th century, being put together like a jigsaw puzzle with ceramic stars. Other sections dated from the 14th century, reminding me of the floor of a medieval church found in the crypt of El Salvador, as mentioned in my last blog post.

Other treasures being examined included boxes of old estarcidos (stencils) – designs marked out with pinholes through which carbonilla (charcoal) dust was passed. The tiles I saw being painstakingly restored and reassembled were from the 14th-16th centuries, along with pieces from La Cartuja, where the Pickman factory was located until 1982, although many more are due to arrive shortly from various museums in Seville: the Museo Arqueologico, the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, and the Museo Bellas Artes. Sources for the modern era pieces, along with Ceramica Santa Ana itself, also include the Colleccion Carranza.

As tiles are such a key part of Triana’s history – they’ve been made here for centuries, and Ceramica Santa Ana was an important local employer – a room is dedicated to this fiercely independent part of the city. Its flamenco, bullfighting and Semana Santa, corrales (shared courtyards), sailors and personalities are celebrate. Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, the patron saints of Seville, were pottery workers from Triana.

triana, azulejos, Centro Ceramica Triana

Pisano introduced a new tile-painting technique.

This Triana space is upstairs, along with rooms dedicated to Medieval (12th-15th century), Renaissance (16th century), Baroque (17th and 18th century) and Industrial tiles (19th and 20th century) – the ones I saw on this visit were largely from the medieval and industrial periods. I saw some large panels in the style of Pisano (named after the 15th-century Florentine artist Niculoso Pisano, who introduced the technique when he lived in Seville), where a design is painted directly over the tiles, creating a large picture made up of many tiles. One of Pisano’s most famous works is a retablo of the Virgin in the Alcazar.

ceramic tiles, triana, seville

Olambrilla tiles, used for flooring – these date from the Renaissance.

But my favourites were some simple white stars on a blue background, dating from the 16th/17th centuries. They’re called olambrillas and are used alternately with plain terracotta tiles on the floor to make a pattern, as seen in the earlier tiles from Santa Clara which are being restored.

The centre, which has has successfully blended original existing features such as the the iconic brick ovens with the new structure, cost around 3.3 million euros, of which 60% was funded by the Junta de Andalucia, and 40% by the Ayuntamiento de Sevilla. This centre is an important addition to the cultural offering both of Triana – which also has Castillo San Jorge, the Inquisition Museum – just the other side of the market – but also of Seville.

There are plans to offer talleres (workshops) and courses, for adults and children, so visitors can get some hands-on experience of alfareria. When I asked if people who live in Seville would be allowed in free, as with other city monuments such as the Alcazar and the Setas, I was told that would depend on the company which manages the centre, although it is likely that locals would get free entry to the Triana section.

Antonio Campos, a an all-too-rare real-life potter, in his workshop near the centre.

Antonio Campos, an all-too-rare real-life potter, in his workshop near the centre.

After my visit to the centre, I dropped in to see a potter, Antonio Campos, whose workshop is just round the corner – one of the very few left in Triana, appropriately enough on Calle Alfareria. We talked about the importance of visitors to the centre having the opportunity to observe the skill of a potter in action.”Tiene que ser un sitio vivo, no un museo“, Antonio told me. It should be a living place, not a museum. “La gente quiere ver, aprender y participar.” People want to see, learn and join in. Antonio has put in his own proposal and is waiting for a response – as an experienced artesan who’s been doing it for 30-odd years, he seems ideal for the job.

Centro Ceramica Triana is on the corner of Calle San Jorge and Calle Callao, next to Ceramica Santa Ana. The centre opens in early October.

El Salvador’s hidden history: where Seville was born

Salvador

Tracing Seville’s history through the ages . Roman…paleo-Christian…Visigoth…Muslim….Christian (Phoenician missing, probably because there’s nothing physical to see, sadly).

I’ve written before about how Seville is built in successive layers – as new tribes and rulers arrived, so they constructed over the previous inhabitants’ monuments and places of worship. Roman over Phoenician, Visigoth over Roman, Moorish over Visigoth, Christian over Moorish – as well as recycling their building materials, so elements from different eras, civilizations and religions would come together to make up a curious, culturally unique edifice. For example, you can’t walk far in the centre of Seville without stumbling over a Roman column, whether it’s in a grand mansion, propping up a lopsided building, or just randomly placed in a plaza.

Salvador church seen at night.

Salvador church seen at night.

But finding one place where all these different layers, eras, races, coincide in one place is a challenge. Now you see it all come together, in the Divino Salvador church. Colegio del Salvador is Seville’s second-most-important basilica, and on this site have existed Phoenician, Roman, Visigothic and Moorish temples. And now, during the hot summer months, you can explore its millennia of history at night, enjoy the less punishing temperatures, and get the after-dark atmosphere of a key part of the city’s history – in fact, where it all began, no less. Visits have been running since April, but the night tours only started in July.

We’re going back to 800BC. The Phoenicians, who came from modern-day Lebanon, are searching for suitable territories to settle. Coming upon an area next to a loop in a river, they catch some fish, find it to their taste, and decide to stay. As they’re so close to the river, which floods frequently, they build their wooden temple on stilts, which may be the root of the city’s earliest name: Hispalis (“built upon posts”).

The next race to occupy this city are the Romans, whose basilica is constructed here and whose forum – the central feature of their conurbations – is probably in Plaza Alfalfa, a few streets away. You can see Roman houses and streets in Antiquarium museum, under the Setas.

Surviving mosque from the same period as Ibn Adabbas, in Huelva province.

Surviving mosque from the same period as Ibn Adabbas, in Huelva province.

After the Romans come the Visigoths, few traces of whose stay here remain; some columns from their temple were used by their Moorish successors. However we do know that the sixth-century Archbishop San Isodoro, one of Seville’s patron saints, made the city into a centre of Paleo-Christian (early Christian) learning. They are followed by the Moors, Muslims from North Africa, who build the city’s mosque, Ibn Adabbas, on this very spot in 879AD; at this stage, the city is called Isbyllia. For three centuries this mosque is the focus of religious worship, with the Zoco, or market and trading area, in Plaza del Pan behind the church and in the narrow streets around, which still remain.

The mosque's minaret, with later belltower added on top.

The mosque’s minaret as it is today, with later belltower added on top.

As the city grows, a second, larger mosque is built in 1172; but the city is reconquered from the Moors by Rey San Fernando less than 100 years later, and this mosque is demolished to make way for the cathedral. The mosque’s patio for pre-prayers ablutions, and minaret, the Giralda, remain to this day. Around the same time, a church is also built over the Ibn Adabbas mezquita, leaving only the patio, with its Roman columns, and alminar (minaret), which has a belltower added later to lend a Renaissance toque, as was often the case. This original, medieval temple collapsed in 1671, and in 1712 the final version was finished – the Colegial del Salvador church we can see today.

When the Church authorities decided to carry out much-needed structural work on the Salvador 10 years ago, they pondered over what was causing damp in the church’s pillars; could it be an underground water source? Digging down, and dealing with whatever they found there, was going to be such a big job, they took a year to make the decision about whether or not to go ahead. That’s a long time, even for Spain. When they did, they found some astonishing relics – so we can be thankful they took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and addressed the problem head-on, digging out those 20 million tonnes of debris. the restoration work finished in 2008.

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Patio de Naranjos of the original mosque; the pillars are half buried underground.

The tour starts in the Patio de Naranjas – Patio of the Orange Trees. Our guide is Florencio Quintero, an art historian whose company Conocer Sevilla offers cultural tours; he is clearly enthused at revealing to people the hidden secrets of this most beloved church. He explains that the arches originally had much taller columns, but so many layers have been built over them that the ground level has raised, and they’re only half their original height.

The crypt with its arched alcoves, or chapels, and remains of 13th-century church's floor.

The crypt with its arched alcoves, or chapels.

The floor plan shows the location of relics from various eras around the crypt.

The floor plan shows the location of relics from various eras around the crypt.

Floor from medieval church, with typical ceramic tiles. They've last well, haven't they?

Floor from medieval church, with typical decorative ceramic tiles. They’ve lasted well, haven’t they?

We walk down stairs to the crypt, entering a long, low-ceilinged chamber with arched alcoves along the side. In the centre are sections of flooring from the medieval post-Reconquest church – terracotta tiles alternated with small decorated pieces, much as you see in Sevillian houses today. How little some thing have changed over seven centuries.

We are shown various religious relics – as Florencio explains, the value is as much theological as archaeological – the oldest sacrament of the church. Nameless bodies found were buried with their face towards altar – the church was east-west, with a hole in the ceiling where bodies were lifted down from chapel for burial underneath. You can see photos of the skeletons found in the crypt; I was hoping for real thing.

Stone tablet with Arabic inscription - 11th-12th century.

Stone tablet with Arabic inscription – 11th-12th century.

Translation from Arabic of inscription, blessing Mohammed, as ordered by Al-Mutamid.

Translation from Arabic of inscription, blessing Mohammed, by order of Al-Mutamid.

A perfectly preserved stone tablet from Al-Mutamid’s time (the 11th-century Almohad ruler) – inscription in Arabic with translation. A column found, with text detailing the official founding of the mosque, is in the Archaeological Museum, and is in great demand by researchers into Arabic history.

Roman pillar, part of the temple's second stage.

Roman pillar, part of the temple’s second stage.

Roman lettering on a stone plaque.

Roman lettering on a stone plaque.

Roman remains (it’s not chronologically arranged) include pillars and another stone inscription.

The underground stream, which flows into the Guadalquivir river, which has caused such damage to successive buildings on this spot.

The underground stream, which flows into the Guadalquivir river, and has caused such damage to successive buildings on this spot.

But for me, as spellbinding as are these tangible pieces of evidence linking Seville’s past together like a historical chain, what is most fascinating is altogether more simple: water. For there is an underground stream which flows through this space. Pure, clear, fresh water from an aquifer which has played havoc with the structures built on top of it for centuries. Secret, hidden, and now we get to see it. It’s like finding buried treasure. To return to the mundane, when it rains, and the level rises a dangerous amount, the water is pumped out, to limit the risk of a flood which could damage these priceless artefacts.

The mosque when built, in the ninth century.

Plan of the mosque when built, in the ninth century; the patio de naranjos is the dark area on the left.

The second church, built in the late 17th century. The first one collapsed.

The second church, built in the late 17th century. You can see how the patio de naranjos has shrunk.

Other interesting points are photographs of a surviving mosque from the same era, which gives you an idea how Ibn Adabbas would have looked, and plans of how the building changed over the centuries, showing how the patio de naranjos gradually became smaller.

Florencio in full flow, inside the main basilica with a gilt retablo in the background.

Florencio in full flow, inside the main basilica with a gilt retablo in the background.

The next part of the tour is the main section of the church, which has vast, elaborate gilt retablos (altar pieces), representing everything I hate about Catholic basilicas – huge, over-the-top, gaudy and not remotely spiritual – they’re intending to inspire awe rather than a love of God. There ain’t nobody here but us chickens, so it’s silent and empty, and you can stand around without worrying about getting in the way of someone’s praying. It’s not what I’ve come here to see, but the scale is undeniably impressive.

A behind-the-scenes look at the Virgen de las Aguas, who watches over her congregation from on high.

A behind-the-scenes look at the Virgen de las Aguas, who watches over her church from on high.

The patron saint of this church is the Virgin de las Aguas, and she sits in a chamber above the nave, called a camarin. When the Catholics took over a temple from their conquered foes, they put the most important symbol of their religion, the Virgin, where the Mihrab, the niche in the wall which indicates the direction of Mecca, was located. The camarin is not normally open to visitors, so it is a palpable thrill for the Sevillanos on my tour to see this statue up close. At Corpus Cristi, when the procession goes past the window, she is turned on her revolving platform so she can look out of the window at the passing faithful. I’m not saying anything.

Halfway up to the roof.

Halfway up to the roof.

Inside view: stained glass windows are one of the features you can get close to on this visit.

Inside view: stained glass windows are one of the features you can get close to on this visit.

The next part of the visit involves climbing steep stairs in a narrow circular well up to the balconies of the church. Unfathomably, we’re given small radio receivers which transmit organ and choral music of poor sound quality. The soaring notes would provide a subliminal soundtrack, if they didn’t sound like they were being playing down a bad phoneline.

Narrow steps - those of wide girth should take note.

Then it’s up again, this time emerging onto the roof. The space inside the staircase is warm and close, at 11pm, so during the day it must be unbearably hot. The views make it worthwhile, though, seeing down to Plaza del Salvador with people milling, chatting, drinking and eating – the smell of frying fish rises up and teases my appetite. A light breeze is refreshing and welcome.

And on up to the top, with even narrower stairs; definitely not for the claustrophobic. I wait until the person ahead is well out of sight before I venture in to the tight stairwell.

Giralda and cathedral at night, seen from the roof of El Salvador church, its arch-rival.

Giralda and cathedral at night, seen from the roof of El Salvador church, its former arch-rival.

We walk all the way around the roof, from Plaza del Salvador to Plaza del Pan, passing the Patio de Naranjos. We can see the Giralda and Cathedral, which has always been this temple’s rival in the church’s power battles; the Setas, a more recent addition to the skyline; and the Torre Pelli, the city’s next – highly (boom boom) controversial skyscraper, which is taller than the Giralda.

Small cross and ceramic pot on roof of church.

Small cross and ceramic pot on roof of church.

The Setas (Mushrooms) as seen from El Salvador. Looks like a spaceship landed.

The Setas (Mushrooms) as seen from El Salvador. Looks like a spaceship landed.

I’ve been up on the cubiertos (roof) of the Cathedral, and it’s always a marvel to see stained glass windows from the outside, and details only designed to be contemplated from the mortals’ ground level, close-up. As usual, opinions of the Setas differ – one group agrees that they’re not ugly, just “in the wrong place” – would be better in one of the modern parts of the city, such as Sevilla Este (where FIBES, the conference centre is).

We aren’t rushed, and it’s a real delight to wander along the rooftops (I can’t get Chim Chimenee out of my head), at night, at my own pace, watching people below, and spotting the famous buildings on the skyline at 360 degrees. We’re a little lower than the walkway at the top of the Setas, or Metropol Parasol, as it’s known.

Down the tiny staircase.

Down the tiny staircase.

Plaza del Salvador, a popular venue for carousing of a night.

Plaza del Salvador, a popular venue for carousing of a night.

Finally, it’s time to renegotiate those scary steps again, all the way down, and then out through the patio, and into the street – Plaza del Salvador. It’s weird being back on ground level, and I walk all the way around the church in a daze. So much history inside that building – and a river! Seville never ceases to amaze me with its hidden histories. I will never discover them all, but that’s good too – always another secret to be revealed.

If you’re at all interested in the history of Seville, religious architecture, or the Romans or Moors, then this night-time visit to the Salvador church is not to be missed.

La Huella de lo Sagrado guided tour costs 12 euros and takes place with a minimum group of 10 people; the night tours are available until 15 September. To reserve a place, go to www.catedraldesevilla.es/reservas