A Merry Christmas in Seville, some gourmet goodies, and a sting in the tail

Christmas, Navidad, Sevilla

The Giralda glows golden behind the dazzling Christmas lights in Plaza Nueva.


Christmas, Navidad, Sevilla

The façade of the Ayuntamiento sparkles in festive mood.

Seville at Christmas-time feels wonderfully festive, with people going about their business – whether local Sevillanos working, meeting friends, buying presents or visiting belens (nativity scenes), or visitors under the spell cast by an already magical city at its most delightful – under the pretty, sparkling, colourful lights.

Every Christmas I try to take some interesting foodie treatsto England, to add a Spanish flavour to our family meal. Last year we had cheese from Doñana Park with a special edition Tio Pepe sherry (Dos Palmas), which worked beautifully together and went down a treat with everyone.

Doña Manuela cheese from the Sierra de Aracena.

Doña Manuela cheese from the Sierra de Aracena.

tuna, atun, feria market

As delicious as it is hard to find – smoked tuna.

This time, we’ll be feasting on goat’s cheese from Doña Manuela’s farm in the Sierra Aracena, which I visited with the kids earlier this year, some manchego with red wine, smoked tuna, and Botani dry muscatel.

The first two I bought in Triana market, at the Charcuteria Alfredo stall – across the river from the new gourmet Lonja del Barranco market, which I shall be writing about soon. The atun ahumado was from another market, in calle Feria, where David, a young guy from the fishing town of Barbate, also offers products from the famous almadraba tuna. I wrote about his stall, La Almadraba, in my travel article for the Guardian back in May, but sadly it didn’t make the final cut in the published version. The smoked tuna I bought isn’t almadraba, but it is extremely good, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

wine, vino, white wine, moscatel, Botani, Malaga

Botani – dry white muscatel wine from Malaga.

sparkling wine, Andalucia, vino, muscatel, Malaga, Ordoñez, Botani

The sparkling version of Botani.

The wine, Botani, I first found out about from fellow Seville blogger and Tapas Queen Shawn Hennessey (I also interviewed the winemaker, Victoria Ordoñez, for a travel magazine). Unusually for muscatel wine from Malaga, which is normally sweet, this is a dry wine – yet floral and fruity without being too honeyed or sickly (I HATE sweet white wine; semi-dulce is very common in Spain). In Seville you can buy Botani at Flores Jamones y Vinos. I also got some of the sparkling version which I’ve never tried before.

For buying Christmas presents to take back to England, my favourite hunting grounds are the various crafts markets, full of original handmade pieces, where you can meet the creators behind the artworks, sculptures, jewellery, and ceramics.

Amazing mechanized wedding scene, which also features both bankers and politicians being cooked in pots.

Mechanized wedding scene, which also features both bankers and politicians being cooked in pots.

At the Plaza Nueva Christmas craft market, also known as the Mercado Navideño de Artesania, I found this stall of beautiful handmade wooden toys from Granada, Arbole. They had a full-sized puppet theatre, wooden trains, ride-ons, and mechanized toys.

These included a detailed model of a wedding ceremony in a church, with an extraordinary contemporary subtext: beneath the congregation was a version of hell with two chambers, one labelled banqueros (bankers) and the other politicos (politicians), populated by diablitos (little devils). Two men, (presumably) an abuser of democratic power and an arbiter of financial mismanagement, were being cooked in pots over flames.

As hilarious as it was surreal, this seemed a fitting expression of what many Spanish feel about the political and financial powers that be.

Happy Christmas, and here’s to a better 2015!

Exploring the Sierra de Grazalema from a home-from-home in Benamahoma

Cadiz, sierra, Sierra de Grazalema

You can see for miles from Puerta de las Palomas (1,639m), in the Sierra de Grazalema.


The pool at Calle Real 66 – always the top attraction for children. Not a bad view, either.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara, from the snaking Grazalema road.

pretty wildflower

Nearly nine years ago I went to a small pueblo blanco (white hilltop town) called Grazalema in Cadiz province on a chilly November weekend, to see a friend’s photography exhibition. While I was there, myself and my then-boyfriend made a spur-of-the-moment decision (on my suggestion) – to get engaged. No bended knee or engagement ring, just a “Let’s do it!”. Families were informed excitedly by mobile phone, and a guest list and possible dates and venues drawn up on a napkin. Our wedding the following summer was a wonderfully English day (with some Spanish spice) of castle and pub, jamon iberico and salmon, sunshine and showers. But that’s another story.

You won’t be surprised to hear, therefore, that Grazalema, which sits in a lush national park where eagles soar and wild boar roam, holds an important place in my heart. I haven’t been back since that weekend, but recently I was invited to stay in a house in a village called Benamahoma, which is close to Grazalema.

The walk up to Punta de la Paloma viewing point.

The walk up to Punta de las Palomas viewing point, with baby pinsapo firs.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

Craggy outcrop - dramatic scenery of the sierra.

Craggy outcrop – dramatic scenery of the sierra.

The Sierra de Grazalema has truly spectacular scenery – all windy, zig-zagging roads and jaw-dropping views across vast valleys and up sheer granite cliffs, with splashes of vermillion pink from wild oleanders. This area is famous for its pinsapar, a pine forest with a species of fir tree only found in this part of Andalucia, at 1000-1700m above sea level – the pinsapo. While you need a permit to enter the forest, you can see examples of this rare species by the roadside and at viewing points along the road, such as Puerta de las Palomas on the Grazalema – Zahara road.

I had never heard of Benamahoma, but I know the prefix “Ben¨-” means son of, as it’s quite common here in Andalucia, which was ruled by the Moors for eight centuries.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, in the Sierra de Grazalema, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its natural spring water.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its pure natural spring water.

One of Benamahoma's restaurants with terrace.

One of Benamahoma’s restaurants with terrace.

As we followed the windy road from the nearest town, and gateway to the Sierra, El Bosque, Benamahoma itself was hidden from view until we came round the corner and suddenly saw a higgledy-piggledy line of white houses, strung out along the side of the hill. We drove up the main street (well, the main of two streets) passing pavement cafes, stone hillside plazas, along hairpin bends and up steep slopes. At the top of Calle Royal was a house with a blue front door, number 66. This was to be our home for the weekend.

Each floor has its own balcony-terrace - this was the top floors, outside our bedroom.

Each floor has its own spacious balcony-terrace – this was the top floor one, outside our bedroom.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

As the house is on a hillside, overlooking a wooded slope opposite, the view is one of its best features. Below you have a pretty terraced garden, sloping down to the pool, refreshingly green and bursting with glorious flora and foliage, from bougainvillea to roses; beyond, allotments of vegetables owned by Benamahomans, and then the tree-covered hill stretching up to the sky. Each of the three floors has a long terrace-balcony stretching along the width of the house, with plenty of room for chairs and tables, so you can sit outside and soak up that natural scenery.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen and view to garden.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen, and door to balcony with view of garden.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

The top floor has four bedrooms, three doubles (one with access to the balcony) and a single, along with a bathroom. The sitting room is on the ground floor (also with balcony access), with an open fireplace, sofas and a dining area; a hatch connects to an excellently-equipped kitchen – as well as the gas cooker and oven, fridge and microwave, there was a juicer, coffee grinder, two hand blenders, loads of pots and pans, earthenware cooking dishes, and some pretty chinaware and glasses. You can have fun trying out Spanish recipes using wonderful fresh local ingredients.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible to my son.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible for my kids.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections on the ceiling.

Essential for younger visitors (like my children), there are plastic bowls and glasses, a notch up from your standard, ubiquitous IKEA fare. In the basement there’s a TV room with wood-burning stove, two squishy sofas and arm chair with big foot rest. Very cosy for wet winter evenings, and there’s a double bedroom next-door with plenty of DVDs and CDs. A door leads from here to the lowest balcony of the three, and down into the terraced garden, with the pool at the bottom. Altogether, nine people can sleep in the house comfortably; for the four of us, it was like being in a palace.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of bougainvillea.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of vibrant pink bougainvillea.

You can tell that someone has lived here – the New Zealand owner comes back every summer – as it doesn’t haven’t that anonymous, purely-for-rental feel. A pretty sunhat hangs on the wall, which was indispensable for me while watching the children in the pool under the hot sun. Lots of good reading material, including books on Arab history and Spain, and a library of DVDs, as well as menus for the village restaurants which featured dishes made with local wild game – venison, wild boar and rabbit. Good hearty fare, with fish-eaters like me being lucky to try trout caught in lakes and rivers in the area, which has the highest rainfall in Spain.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely - we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely – we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

I love attention to detail in a house, and this one had colourful traditional tiling along the bottom of the wall, with plenty of small tables for leaving keys, books and mobile phones, lovely bold print cushions, and lamps for soft lighting. The furniture was mostly dark wood, but without being too heavy, backed by white walls and some decent paintings. Glazed cupboards are such an attractive way to store china, glass and linen. In the garden, and on the terrace-balconies, were plenty of chairs and loungers with cushions and mattresses for the ultimate in chill-out-with-a-fab-view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies take full advantage of the view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies to take full advantage of the view.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

Pool with sunloungers.

Pool with sunloungers – it’s the perfect size for children, and to cool off from the Andalucian sun.

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

But what the children had been terribly excited about, right from the moment I told them where we were going, was the swimming pool. You don’t need much else with children, other than a volume of water. View? Not interested. Flowers? Ditto. But endless jumping, splashing and diving possibilities? It’s an unequivocal, resounding “Yeeeeessss!” every time. We had brought a li-lo, ball and some diving toys, and they were happily occupied for several hours each day, while I had one eye on them, and the other on the view, gorgeous orange irises and my copy of Grazia. The steps in the garden are steep and a little perilous in some spots, with no side protection, so this garden might not be suitable for very young children, or those with mobility problems. Also, there’s no WIFI or satellite TV, which didn’t bother us, although some might find such media disconnection tough to cope with.


The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

Over the past few years I’ve heard many people talk about a restaurant called Al Lago in Zahara de la Sierra, another white town, this time located on a lake . After taking one of the most spectacular roads in Andalucia (the CA531, in case you’re interested), which offers jaw-dropping views of the extraordinary-coloured Embalse de Zahara – a deep shade of torquoisey-green, thanks to the copper deposits, spread out like a long jagged Damien Hirst splash among the crags and creeks, with tiny islands just offshore you can swim to – we arrived in Grazalema and found El Lago. The restaurant has a wonderful shady, breezy terrace above the road, overlooking the lake.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zajhara.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zahara.

The lunch menu had an interesting selection, including pulpo a la gallega, slow-roast lamb and tandoori salmon. We tried a selection of cold tapas – cheese, ensaladilla, roast peppers, anchovies, and a rice salad, while my daughter snaffled all the olives. The food was extremely good, if considerably pricier than what we’re used to in Seville tapas bars. The owners, Goan-Pakistani Mona and American Stefan, also have some bright and airy rooms, with lake views.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

Then it was time to head off Grazalema – we didn’t make a nostalgic trip back to the hotel where that fateful decision was made, or the bar where we celebrated afterwards, but we did wander round the main square, Plaza de España, where there was a painting competition, and saw a beautiful old fountain, and a shop selling hand-made wooden toys including some wonderful plush bits of mini-fruit in their mini-wooden crates (and some toy wooden guns – this is a major hunting area).

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese made from payoyo goats' milk.

Cheese made from milk of the payoyo goat.

Street in Grazalema.

Typical narrow cobbled street with white-washed houses.

Grazalema is also known for its wool blankets in earthy tones, but what got me excited was a sign saying “cheese”. La Casa de la Abuela Agustin had payoyo cheese galore – mature, semi-mature, with herbs, as a cream in a jar. Payoyo is a strong-flavoured, aromatic cheese from Cadiz and Malaga provinces, made from milk from the payoyo goat. As a cheese-lover, I bought a big chunk with tomillo (thyme), and the cream, which we tried last night with gnocchi – it was fabulous, with a deliciously rich flavour.

Christians' shield.

Christians’ shield, as used in the Moros y Cristianos festival in Benamahoma in August.

Moors' shield

and the Moors’ shield.

Moor's gun with beautiful inlaid handle.

Moor’s gun with beautiful inlaid handle, made in Morocco around 100 years ago – decorative only.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

That evening, back in Benamahoma, we were taken on a tour by Quitin, the man who looks after the house for its New Zealander owner. We visited the headquarters of the Moros y Cristianos group, which puts a festival with street battles between the two sides every August, fighting in honour of the patron saint, San Antonio. They showed us the outfits (formerly woollen tunics for Christians), helmets, swords, shields, pennants, and guns – the Christians’ are working weapons, like blunderbusses, which fire real gunpowder, while the Moors have exquisite inlaid wood, but non-functioning, arms made in Morocco. Battles from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Christians expelled the Moors, are re-enacted by the villagers, as hand-to-hand fights, with positions in each force being passed down through families as with hermandades. Benamahoma is the only village in western Andalucia which celebrates this type of festival, popular in Granada, Jaen and Almeria provinces – this year, this delightfully eccentric event takes place on 1-3 August.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Quitin showed us the bullring, where the Moros y Cristianos festival kicks off on the Friday night; this was also the scene of a dark chapter in the village’s history about which, most unusually, Quitin was happy, and indeed, keen, to talk to us: the Civil War. Villagers were shot there, and now next door you can see a memorial garden, Parque de Memoria Historica. Even the existence a place of peace and remembrance is a political act in itself, as there are many who would rather forget that period entirely. The small garden is visually striking, with a sculpture depicting rows of people carved into family groups within each other, and more sombrely, profiles of people lined up against a white wall.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

The effect is extremely moving – there’s no information, numbers or names, but the mere acknowledgement that atrocities took place here is a major development for Andalucia, and a poignant reminder of tragic events in this secluded and quiet village, nearly 80 years ago. It’s the sort of place you might not find if you weren’t being shown around (or reading this); knowing important details about a village’s history makes staying there a much richer and more fulfilling experience.

Spring in the village, which is known as "El Nacimiento" (the birth).

Spring in the village, which is known as “El Nacimiento” (the birth).

Further on, passing the last few houses, we saw the “Nacimiento”, a spring from which bubbles the purest, most crystal-clear water – there are vast underground reservoirs in the area. The village’s name means “son of Mahoma, or Mohammed”, as its natural water source was highly valued by the Moors, for whom water was important for a number of reasons: visually – in gardens, with soothing trickling fountains and long symmetrical pools; spiritually, for washing before prayer; and for life – their agriculture and irrigation systems were highly sophisticated and some channels still survive today. An abandoned trout factory has left a large intact stone building, used as a laboratory, and all the square pools where the water still runs, but any fish there are free.

Christian-Moorish lock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol - uniting the two religions.

Christian-Moorish clock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol – uniting the two faiths.

Back in Benamahoma, you can see many references to the village’s Moorish past – both plazas have horse-shoe shaped arches, most famously seen in Cordoba’s Mezquita. It was almost dark by the time we ended up at Plaza de España; the chapel next door, Quique told us, is called the hermita-mezquita, and has the typical Muslim symbol, often seen on the rooves of minarets, of three balls topped by a crescent.

This combination of Christian shrine with Islamic symbolism was another motive for pondering Andalucia’s ever-complex and shifting relationship between past and present. The little chapel plays a part in the Moors and Christians festival – on the first day, (**spoiler alert**) the Moors win, and they take the village Virgin here: on the second day, (**ditto**) the Christians are conquered, and they take her to the church, which is attached to the bullring. A neat balance between eastern and western faiths.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

On Sunday, we were lucky in that the village romeria passed our house just as we were about to leave, and the little procession caught me unawares so I ran out of the door in bare feet clutching my camera. The Virgin and saint rode in their carts; some people, including young children, rode horses; the women wore flamenco dresses and flowers in their hair, and sang traditional songs.

This is authentic rural Andalucia, a small, friendly, pretty village, which makes a perfect base for exploring the area – the Sierra de Grazalema is a hiker’s paradise, and other towns you can visit include Ubrique, Cortes de la Frontera and Ronda, not to mention the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, another forest with great walking paths and picnic spots. The house itself is cleverly prepared to cater for hot weather (shutters, pool, lots of garden furniture, air-con) as well as the inevitable rainy or cold days (two fireplaces, comfy sofas,TV and DVD library, books). And there are plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance – an essential element of any Andalucian holiday.

Important note: If you’re going to this area by car, be aware that the road from Zahara following the southern shore of the lake (CA 7375) eastwards is closed due to a bridge in need of repair. You can take the CA531 back again from Zahara, but we trusted to luck and turned off where the road was closed onto a track which looked well-used (the locals’ temporary alternative), indicated by coloured markers along the way, which went over the mountain and rejoined the CA5311.

Calle Real 66 in Benamahoma is available to rent by the week.

For more on the Moros y Cristianos festival, visit their website.


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.

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, as well as insulating them against damp and making them cool in summer. 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 thought 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 the celosia 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.

Art+fashion+religion=a richly textured show in Seville

The modern interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Contemporary Spanish fashion designers’ interpretations of Zurbaran’s saints.

Zurbaran, Seville, SEvilla, Santa Clara, Santas de Zurbaran, Elio Berhanyer

Santa Casilda and a sketch of her modern-day modish equivalent by octogenarian Spanish fashion legend Elio Berhanyer.

I’ve never been a big one for religious art – all those side-lit, mournful, downright spooky figures gazing heavenwards leave me cold. No emotional or spiritual connection. Probably not surprising, given that I’m an atheist.

I can appreciate a good, solid, stone Gothic archway in a church, and maybe a lofty domed ceiling or some jewel-coloured stained-glass windows – the rooftop tour of the Cathedral was amazing – but paintings of angels, saints, Our Lord and His Mother? No, gracias. Give me a Picasso, Klimt or Bridget Riley any day.

However when holy images are combined with something more to my taste, like frocks – well, that’s another matter altogether. Some genius had the idea of reinterpreting a series of works by Zurbaran, the 17th-century Spanish religious painter, as contemporary fashion, thereby opening up the paintings’ appeal to a much wider audience (for example, me). Santas de Zurbaran: Devocion y Persuasion, at a newly-opened art space in a restored convent near the Alameda, is proving popular, with queues round the block at weekends (I went on a Friday; one of the advantages of being freelance).

The finished version of Santa Casilda V21 - the flowers on the net underskirt relate to a miraculous story about her life.

The finished version of Santa Casilda V21 – get that glorious silk cape. The flowers on the net underskirt relate to a miraculous story about her life.

At the time, the painter was fiercely criticised for depicting these 17 holy women – including a pair of Isabels, Casilda, Eufemia; martyrs, princesses and other unfortunates who met sticky ends, often involving swords and fire – as wordly señoras. In his paintings, the santas virgenes wear rich, extravagant fabrics with gold decoration and exquisite jewellery; they were condemned as “profane”. Many were commissions for the New World, some painted by his apprentices, and were sent to convents in Lima and Buenos Aires.

Zurbaran’s father was a haberdasher, so the painter knew all about how to make the finest, most sumptuous fabrics come alive on canvas: silk, velvet, brocade, the folds, the tones, the drapes. He would have made a fabulous costumer designer. No bland, amorphous, classical shifts for his saints. These are in shades of gold, turquoise and vivid olive green, with voluminous cloaks of shot silk, ruched into bows on their backs. Some said he was immortalizing the nobles of the day in “divine portraits”. Flattery is not ill-advised for a court painter.

This is how Vittorio y Lucchino interpreted Santa Isabel de Hungria.

This is how Victorio y Lucchino interpreted Santa Isabel de Hungria – dig the ruched leggings.

Contemporary fashion designers, including Seville’s own Vittorio & Luccino, who designed the Duquesa de Alba’s wedding dress; Cordoban master Elio Berhanyer, who dressed the likes of Ava Gardner and Cyd Charisse; and doyenne of bright colours and hearts, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (met her once, extremely nice lady), have come up with their own modern-day versions of the saints’ apparel. They’ve used every fabric from heavy brocade (think stately-home curtains) to shiny pink plastic (Barbie doll). The range of tastes is part of the appeal – everyone will love and hate some, but most will emerge with a favourite or two from the 21 creations (which are shown on mannequins, not real models as seen here – in case you were wondering). Before you go upstairs, look at the 1960s pink flower-print silk Balenciaga evening gown: it sports the same cape/train seen on many of Zurbaran’s lady saints. His influence on the worlds of theatre, design and art is undeniable.

The exhibition is being held in Espacio Santa Clara (not to be confused with another nearby previously-religious-now-cultural building, Santa Ana), a historic building which began as an Almohad palace; was then inhabited by Don Fadrique, whose famous tower – built as a lookout/love-nest to canoodle with his stepmother – is in the patio; and latterly was used as a convent until 1998. The space has two long galleries, ideal for hanging paintings (described in the audioguide as “bedrooms”, which leads to the interesting translation: “the Holy Virgins that are exposed in the bedroom” – *adolescent snigger*); the patio is used for flamenco performances and concerts. The ground floor gallery has very dark lighting for this show, with only the works and their accompanying text illuminated, giving a dramatic effect; upstairs, where the gowns are displayed, is lighter.

Zurbaran, Espacio Santa Clara

The upstairs gallery has the frocks – fashion heaven. On the left are two angel outfits, in celestial yellowy-orangey-gold.

The stars of the show, for me, were Santa Casilda, with her theatrical, uber-glamorous gunmetal-silver cape – her roses refer to a miracle when the bread she was taking to Christian prisoners, an act of mercy forbidden by her father, turned into flowers; Santa Isabel of Hungary; Pedro Moreno’s angels; and Santa Dorothea (mustard-yellow velvet with little applique flowers on the edges of the jacket’s sleeves and hem), one of a group of creations by Berhanyer’s students at the near end of the fashion gallery. A nice idea, to give the next generation of designers a platform such as this, but most don’t work, a few are downright cheesy, and some of the workmanship is frankly shoddy, with uneven pleats and folds, puckered fabric, and stitching coming undone. I just hope they’re not final year students. Similarly, some portraits by apprentice painters from the school of Zurbaran serve to show just how far they were from their master’s genius, with flat colours, dull textures and unattractive faces.

The audioguide (see below) is well worth it, explaining clearly the background to the exhibition, Zurbaran’s life, and the story behind each saint, what fate befell her and the motive for her “attributes” – the objects she holds which refers to some key event in her life (often her fate): flowers, fruit, a book, a spear, a saw (yes, really. Grisly lot, these 17th-century Spanish Catholics.)

I also recommend the brochure, 3 euros (never can resist a glossy brochure; there’s also a much pricier hardback catalogue), which features colour photos of selected paintings and dresses, and a list of the saints with fascinatingly bizarre information about who/what/where they’re patrons of: Agueda/Agata – wetnurses, breastfed babies and Catania; Isabel de Portugal – the jealous, victims of adultery and false accusations, and social workers; Matilda – lost children, women deceived by their children, queens, women on their second marriage, and widows. Between them, they seems to have all female bases covered, don’t they?

If you stop at the brochure stand, be sure to look out for the shoes – each pair, designed for their outfits, is displayed on a shelf. The lady who sold me my brochure didn’t know why they weren’t with their corresponding clothes, especially since many are mentioned on the audioguide.

Santas de Zurbaran: Devocion y Persuasion is on at Espacio Santa Clara (calle Becas, near the Alameda) until 20 July. Monday to Saturday 10am-3pm and 6-9pm; Sunday 10am-3pm. Expect long queues at the weekend. Free for Seville residents, 6 euros for others. Audioguide 1.20 euros (included in 6 euro ticket).

Watch the video of Eva Yierbabuena dancing in the Santa Casilda dress, in the patio of Espacio Santa Clara.

All photos courtesy of Fernando Ruso/Ayuntamiento de Sevilla