Game of Thrones Series 5: Twelve things you didn’t know about the Alcazar of Seville

Alzacar, Seville, Games of Thrones

Exquisite arcades of the Patio de las Doncellas, one of the Alcazar’s most famous areas.

 

 

Gallery of kings in the Ambassadors´Hall.

Gallery of kings in the Ambassadors´Hall.

The façade of the Palace of King Pedro, with a mix of architectural styles which inspired the Comares palace of the Alhambra.

The magnificent façade of King Pedro’s Palace, with a mix of architectural styles which is said to have inspired the Comares palace of the Alhambra, built by Mohammed V shortly afterwards.

Seville is abuzz with excitement about the news that series 5 of Game of Thrones will be filmed here in the city – at the Alcazar. The hugely successful HBO fantasy drama, which is inspired by European history and set in a magical medieval-era world, has a massive international fan base and has received widespread critical acclaim. Using the Alcazar as a location will bring Seville’s exquisite royal palace-fortress to global attention. (Personal confession: *whispers* I’ve never watched GOT myself, but will be remedying that situation by ordering some box sets shortly to bring myself up to speed.)

The royal palace – one of my own personal favourite monuments in Seville – has a long and fascinating history starting in Moorish times, passing through Gothic and Mudejar to Renaissance. In case you don’t know the Alcazares Reales, as they’re correctly named, here are some interesting facts about this beautiful complex of buildings. Plus some photos of its wonderful interiors and gardens, of course.

1) The Alcazar (as we’ll refer to it here) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; part of a complex along with the Cathedral and Archive of the Indies, across the same plaza from the palace. The complex won World Heritage status in 1987.

This triple stone arch is one of the Alcazars only remaining Moorish features.

This triple stone arch is one of the Alcazar’s few remaining Moorish features.

 

2) Contrary to popular belief, it is (mostly) not a Moorish palace – the Alcazar has one courtyard which dates from Moorish times, the Patio de los Yesos; three arches at the entrance of the Patio de Monteria; plus the exterior walls were built by the Almohads, who also built the Giralda and Torre del Oro. The rest of the Moorish-looking areas are, in fact, mudejar - made by Moorish craftsmen under Christian rule, adapting their art forms and skills to Christian styles. The mudejar part was finished in 1364.

Peacock in the Carlos Throne Room - animals couldn't be depicted in Arabic art; this is mudejar: by Moorish artesans, for a Christian king.

Peacock in the Phillip II Ceiling Room – animals couldn’t be depicted in Arabic art; this is mudejar: by Moorish artesans, for a Christian king.

For example, Islamic art cannot feature representations of people or animals, only geometric and naturalistic shapes and patterns. Mudejar art, on the other hand, has people, animals and fantastical creatures – for example, look out for the peacocks in the Phillip II Ceiling Room, above the triple arch, and the tiny heads on pillars in the Patio de las Muñecas. The legend goes that if you manage to spot them all, you’re either very lucky, or pregnant!

Seville, alcazar, Game of Thrones

An Arabic philosopher in the Patio del Yeso, the oldest part of the Alcazar – part of a dramatized night-time visit.

3) The oldest part of the Alcazar, the Patio del Yeso, dates from 1170-90. It was built by the Almohads, the last Moorish dynasty to rule Seville.

4) Archaeological excavations in the Patio de Banderas, the plaza you walk through when you leave the Alcazar, revealed Moorish, Roman and prehistoric remains – the earliest was a kitchen from the 8th century BC. Plans to preserve these historic gems for public view have been put on hold. If funds are the issue, then presumably the revenue from filming should remedy that problem, .

5) The Alcazar is the one of the oldest continuously inhabited royal palaces in Europe. The Royal Family stays in the Upper Palace apartments when they’re in Seville. This part of the palace was expanded by the Catholic Monarchs – they lived there in winter, as it was more protected from the cold and damp of the ground.

The Baths of Maria Padilla, a secret hideaway under the palace.

The Baths of Maria Padilla, a secret hideaway under the palace.

6) The Baths of Maria Padilla, with a hidden entrance in the Dance Garden, are so-called because this was the preferred place of King Pedro’s mistress Maria, who was declared Queen when she died.

Mudejar architecture: Islamic-Christian co-existence. Arabic characters spell out the phrase "Nobody is victorious but Allah", surrounded by Castillian Spanish "... conquering Don Pedro...".

Mudejar architecture: an example of Islamic-Christian co-existence. Arabic characters spell out the phrase “Nobody is victorious but Allah”, surrounded by Castillian Spanish “…conquering Don Pedro by the grace of God…”.

7) There is a bilingual/bi-religious dedication on the façade of King Pedro’s Palace – in Arabic and Castillian Spanish – as well as many other dedications around the palace which mix cultures, such as “Glory to our Sultan Peter!”

Artesonado door made by mudejar craftsmen.

Detail of artesonado door made by mudejar craftsmen.

8) The finest mudejar craftsmen worked on the Alcazar, as sent by Mohammed V of Granada who was repaying a favour which the Moorish king owed to King Pedro for lending him troops to quash a rebellion.

seville, alcazar, game of thrones

The Admiral’s Quarters, where the House of Trade was located.

9) Christopher Columbus met his royal patron Queen Isabella – of the Catholic Kings – here, to discuss the details of second voyage, in 1496. Part of the palace was used as the Casa de Comercio (House of Trade).

 

 

Alcazar, Seville, Game of Thrones

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was filmed in the Alcazar.

 

10) A number of movies have been filmed in the Alcazar, including Lawrence of Arabia, Reds, 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (including scenes of Columbus and Queen Isabella), and Kingdom of Heaven. The most popular part of the palace for shooting is the Patio de las Doncellas.

King Pedro and Maria de Padilla in the Patio de las Doncellas.

King Pedro and Maria de Padilla in the Patio de las Doncellas, in a dramatized night-time visit to the Alcazar.

11) You can visit the Alcazar at night: as part of the theatrical visits, where actors play roles of important people in the palace’s history (Columbus, Queen Isabella); and to hear a concert, as part of the summer concert season June-September.

Alcazar, Seville, Games of Thrones

Sunken garden with orange trees in the Patio de Doncellas; it was only uncovered ten years ago, having been paved over for four centuries.

12) The Patio de las Doncellas (Maidens) was restored to its original form in 2005, with orange trees planted in a lower patio by those clever Moors (who knew a trick or two about both gardening and irrigation) so the fruit could be picked easily from ground level, without having to reach up.

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It is believed that the Alcazar will represent the kingdom of Dorne in Game of Thrones season 5, not yet featured in the series, while Osuna, a town in Seville province 90km east of the capital, will be Westeros and Essos. The TV series is based on the series of books A Kingdom of Ice and Fire, by George RR Martin.

Game of Thrones series 5 will start filming in Belfast later this month – the production is based in Northern Ireland – with shooting in Andalucia expected to begin after the summer. The latest series, which was the fourth, finished airing in June. Average gross audience was 18.4 million, according to HBO’s figures.

Previous shooting locations for GOT have included Iceland, Croatia, Malta and Morocco. Tourism organizations in such filming locations have reported considerable increases in bookings after their locations appeared in Game of Thrones – one website saw increases of 13% in Iceland and 28% in Dubrovnik (Croatia). In 2013, bookings increased by 100% in Ouarzazate, Morocco, where season 3 scenes were filmed. It is estimated that filming in Andalucia will bring in around 80 million euros. Hopefully plenty of that will go into families’ mouths, rather than politicians’ pockets.

Snapshots from El Rocio 2014

This rociera has a peineta dedicated to the Virgen de las Marismas.

This rociera has a peineta (comb) dedicated to the Virgen del Rocio, adored focus of Spain’s biggest pilgrimage.

Oranges tied to a simpecado (float carrying an image of the Virgin del Rocio), with ribbon in Andalucian and Spanish colours.

Oranges tied to a simpecado (ox-drawn float carrying an image of the Virgin del Rocio), with ribbon in Andalucian and Spanish colours.

La Paloma Blanca, the White Dove - another name for the Virgen del Rocio.

La Paloma Blanca, the White Dove – another name for the Virgen del Rocio.

The pregon, who shouts out the Virgen chants - "Viva la Virgen del Rocio!"

The pregon, who shouts out the Virgen chants – “Viva la Virgen del Rocio!” – outside the church. The large brown bulk on the right is the ox, which pulls the simpecado cart, with its driver.

Walking staff with ribbon to show which town the rociero comes from, with some rosemary tucked in the top.

Walking staff with ribbon to show which town the rociero comes from, with some rosemary tucked in the top.

This carreta even has a matching upstairs bedroom window.

This carreta even has a matching upstairs bedroom window.

Every year I can, I scoot off with my trusty camera to capture the rocieros as they set off on Spain’s biggest annual pilgrimage to a small town in Huelva province – El Rocio.

As many others have affirmed, this romeria has a debatable religious element, with a large dose of fiesta fervour. Most genuinely adore the Virgin de las Marismas, as she is also known (as well as La Paloma Blanca), but for some it’s more the idea of a week-long drinking, dancing and everything-else-you-can-think-of session which attracts. I don’t care what they get up to, personally, as long as they treat the poor animals (horses, mules and oxen) used for carrying and pulling, responsibly – but sadly they don’t always, as around 15-20 die each year, a unpleasant aspect of the event which is garnering increasing publicity and controversy.

Here are some images from this year’s vintage, as the various hermandades (brotherhoods) set off on the Spain’s largest romeria: typical sights like the brightly-coloured frocks in the sunshine, and the pretty carrozas (gypsy caravans), but also some views and perspectives you may not have seen, and details which I found interesting.

Three flowers

Three flowers – and a bit of extra foliage, just for good measure.

This shot is blurred, but you can see the face of the Virgen del Rocio on this lady's peineta (comb).

This shot is blurred, but you can see the face of the Virgen del Rocio on this lady’s peineta (comb).

Hair decorations for El Rocio are more rustic than for the Feria - a sprig of rosemary with wildflowers, and a sunflower (currently flowering all over Andalucia).

Hair decorations for El Rocio are often more rustic than for the Feria – ears of wheat, a sprig of rosemary, wildflowers, and a sunflower (currently glowing in fields all over Andalucia).

 

Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, two of Seville's patron saints, with the Giralda.

Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, two of Seville’s patron saints, with the Giralda. On the roof of the simpecado of the Seville El Rocio Hermandad.

 

 

A colourful romeria scene - girls with their carrozas and bright dresses in the plaza in front of the Giralda.

A colourful romeria scene – girls with their bright flamenco dresses and carrozas (gypsy wagons) in the plaza in front of the Giralda.

Line of prettily decorated gypsy wagons next to the Giralda.

Line of prettily decorated gypsy wagons next to the Giralda.

Carrozas passing the Moorish Torre del Oro, by the river.

Carrozas passing the Moorish Torre del Oro, by the river.

The effort women put into making themselves look good here in Spain has never been under question, but for El Rocio, the hair accessories which the rocieras use to decorate their barnets can be especially creative. Whether they look good after tramping the 80km from Seville to El Rocio – through rivers and across the countryside, camping out at night, for three days in the heat – is another matter. But as they left Seville and surroundings towns, the level of artistry was impressive.

A major tradition such as El Rocio pilgrimage is composed of many details and moments, one of which is the pregon – like a crier – who calls out in adoration of the Virgin.

This is the chant the pregon shouts as the image of the Virgin images visit significant locations such as local churches, or in the case of Seville the Town Hall, before setting off for El Rocio (he is answered by the rocieros - with a resounding “Viva!”). Each time I heard it, by the time I’d got my camera onto the video setting, they’d finished.

“Viva la Virgen del Rocio! Viva!
“Viva la Paloma Blanca! Viva!
Viva la Reina de la Marismas! Viva!
Viva la Pastora Divina! Viva
Viva la Madre de Dios! Viva!”

Long live the Virgin del Rocio!
Long live the White Dove!
Long live the Queen of the Marshes!
Long live the Hold Shepherdess!
Long live the Mother of God!

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.

Benamahoma

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.

 

Flamenco among friends

flamenco

Maria (left) with the two dancers on stage  at Flamenco Esencia in Salteras, near Seville.

flamenco

The venue is a converted bodega, with high ceilings and plain white walls displaying photos of flamenco legends.

Even though I’ve been living here in Seville, the cradle of flamenco, for more than 10 years, what I’ve learned about the art form could fit on the back of a postage stamp.

I love it – watching it, listening to it, feeling the rhythms and passions of the singers and dancers, guitarists and hand-clappers. But the subtleties of the different compas escape me. I prefer to close my eyes and get swept along in the spine-tingling, raw emotion pouring from the performers, and they spin and stamp and shout. Music has a great power to move us, take us to places deep inside ourselves – nothing makes me cry as easily as music. And flamenco is so… visceral.

While there are plenty of venues in Seville to see flamenco, with performances almost every night, in the area where I live – the Aljarafe, to the west of the city – it’s harder to find dance shows; indeed, until recently there was no dedicated flamenco space. Flamenco Esencia was opened last year in the village of Salteras by two women, neither of whom is Spanish: Maria, a respected flamenco dancer herself (her stage name is Maria la Serrana), is Lebanese, and Fabienne is from Holland.

flamenco

Cosy corner with fireplace, and candles to create the right atmosphere.

Bar menu; mine's a manzanilla (sherry). Tapas and one drink are included in the entry price.

Bar menu; mine’s a manzanilla (sherry). Tapas and one drink are included in the entry price.

They have converted a delapidated 19th-century bodega (wine store) into an impressive but not intimidating venue, restoring it to its original state, with a high ceiling and fabulous vaulted arch, offering superb acoustics. The walls are painted white and decorated with blown-up black and white photos of legends such as Paco de Lucia and Camaron de la Isla. For chilly winter nights, there’s a fireplace, while on warm evenings you can have tapas in the patio after the main performance, including freshly carved jamon serrano, cheese and tortilla. And, of course, there’s a bar, so you can watch the show with a glass of your preferred tipple in your hand.

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Flamenco is a hugely energetic and demanding dance, and this dancer leaped high into the air.

The venue is about 15 minutes’ drive out of Seville, although they offer a free minibus from the city, which is great if you don’t have wheels – or even if you do, but you simply want the freedom to be able to drink. However having to make the schlep out to Salteras has its upsides: the ambience in this flamenco venue is intimate and very special; people have really made an effort to come. Flamenco tablaos can feel forced, staged and generally unsatisfactory; this is authentic. Maria and Fabienne welcome everyone and make them feel at home, and the performers strutting their stuff are all first-class.

The high quality of the artists performing at Flamenco Esencia is down to Maria’s ability to coax her flamenco friends into coming to her club-like venue – they’re here because of her, and because they want to be, not for the paycheck. She’s a well-established name in the Sevilla flamenco scene, having worked for many years with Farruquito, and knows which performers to pair which which. And it shows. As Maria explained, they are keen to host both established names and young, up-and-coming artists – those who have performed at Flamenco Esencia include dancers Felipe Mato and Leonor Leal, and singer Javier Rivera.

flamenco

The dancer lifts her long dress to show her foot work – see how marked the stage floor is from all that flamenco shoe-stamping.

Most performances feature two dancers, a man and a woman; a guitarist; and a singer. Our dancers were wonderfully entertaining and worked beautifully together as a pair – flamenco is all about drama and passion – flirting, rejecting, reuniting, spurning again – stamping, head-tossing, showing your partner your back, then spinning to confront them once more. Maria herself also took a turn on stage, showing off her footwork and skill. It is mesmerising to watch, and the volume level goes up as the shoes stamp with increasing speed on the wooden stage. The men generally wear plain shirts and straight trousers, while the women sport the fabulous ruffled flamenco skirts or dresses, with coordinating flowers in their hair.

We were very fortunate to see Jeromo Segura, a singer from Huelva at the top of his profession: shortly after our visit to Flamenco Esencia, Jeromo won one of flamenco’s most important singing prizes, the Lampara del Minero; he has also released a CD. I love his voice because he’s not shouty – yes, that’s my expert opinion as a flamenco critic, not. He actually sings without raising the volume in ear-splitting, tear-your-guts-out anguish.

After the main performance, when tapas were being served in the patio, Jeromo and his fellow artists changed into civvies and mingled with the audience. Jeromo, who has worked for many years with the renowned company of Eva Hierbuena, and has toured all over the world. I was a bit tongue-tied (OK, star-struck), but I managed to ask him which his favourite city was (lame question, I know), and he said Tokyo. The Japanese love flamenco, and many come to Seville to study baile (dance).

 Jeromo, who comes Huelva, sings as Luis accompanies him on guitar, and co-owner Maria with palmas clapping hands).

Jeromo, who comes from Huelva, sings as Luis accompanies him on guitar, and co-owner Maria with palmas (clapping hands).

After the tàpas, there was a more informal jamming session, known as the fin de fiesta, with a circle of chairs featuring Jeromo and the guitarist, Luis Amador (nephew of singer Raimundo Amador, who hails from the next-door village, where I live, Valencina de la Concepcion). The seats were arranged in an inclusive format, so everyone was the same, artists, and audience, with no “stage” – a level playing field.

They played as they wanted, conferring and laughing before each song; there’s nothing like seeing superb artists play in a relaxed atmosphere to their own rhythm – and we felt thrilled to be sitting and listening in that delightfully welcoming and inclusive arrangement. Jeromo had brought along his daughter, whom he kept trying to coax into singing, but she was too shy – in spite of the warm family atmosphere. This sing-song sometimes takes place in the patio – where flamenco would have traditionally been performed, in the outdoor communal areas of gypsy corralones, shared courtyards where many families lived together.

 Jeromo sings in the "fin de fiesta" jam session, with guitarist Luis and co-owner Maria.

Jeromo sings in the “fin de fiesta” relaxed jam session, with guitarist Luis and co-owner Maria.

Several dancers got up to have a brief go in the middle of the circle, including Fabienne, the co-owner with Maria. It was quite unlike any other flamenco show I’ve ever been to, because it was like being invited in by a group of friends who were practising. It’s a rare opportunity for tourists and locals to get up close to performers, and mingle with them. The artists don’t feel they should stay behind the scenes, as they usually might. And even better, anyone can join in and try their steps in the nurturing atmosphere of the fin de fiesta. It’s about the joy of flamenco, expressing yourself, not how good you are.

The audience was an interesting mix of Dutch, Germans, and locals from the village, from children to 70-year-olds. As we left, a not-so-young man who had been watching the show, and was already “in the party spirit”, beckoned to us and said knowingly, “Ahora empieza la fiesta” (now the party starts). Being responsible parents, we declined politely, and then spent the whole journey back in the car to collect the kids wondering just how much fun we were missing. Flamenco artists, a warm summer night, copious quantities of alcohol and other substances. I’m still kicking myself.

Flamenco Esencia has shows on Fridays at 9pm, with the doors open at 8.30pm – tapas and drink, plus transport from Seville, are included in the 35 euro ticket price. Private shows can also be arranged on other days.

For details of upcoming performers, check their Facebook page the week before.

Jeromo Segura will be performing at the Bienal de Flamenco, in Rafael and Adela Campallo’s new show, Sangre, at the Teatro Lope de Vega on 2 October. The Campallos have also performed at Flamenco Esencia.

He will also be performing at the Noches en Los Jardines del Alcazar summer music festival (link is for previous year, programme not updated yet), on 30 August.

 

A day with the goats – free-range foodie fun

Goats doing what they love best - climbing.

Goats doing what they love best – climbing.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The finished product: delicious Monterobledos goat's cheese.

The finished product: delicious Monte Robledo goat’s cheese.

Readers of this blog will know that I like my food, especially if it’s from a small local producer, and that I also love days out and trips with my kids, even more so if we’re “close to nature” and eating is an essential part of the experience. So going to an organic farm with the kids to make goat’s cheese – what could be more free-range, foodie and fun?

A few months ago we went to the Sierra de Aracena for the day, to Finca Los Robledos near the town of Aracena – around an hour’s drive from Seville. Down a bumpy country road, then a narrow farm track with a little stream flowing next to it, we finally arrived at the farm. Our hostess and guide was Maria Jesus, who owns the farm along with a cheese shop in Aracena. It’s a family affair: one of her sons, Manuel, looks after the goats, along with his girlfriend; Maria Jesus and her husband, Rafael, make the cheese; and her other son, Miguel, runs the cheese shop in town – his daughter was there on the day we visited, and she played happily with my two children.

But Maria Jesus is definitely the brains and the driving force behind the operation. An energetic, sharp-witted, creative woman, she is full of tales of when her father ran the farm – it was sold to him by a terrateniente (landowner) on very fair terms (unlike today’s endless horror stories of banks, mortgages and evictions). In fact, her family has been making cheese for five generations.

The cheese world in the Sierra de Aracena is a small one, and it turns out another favourite cheese of mine, Doña Manuela, is owned by one of Maria Jesus’s brothers; Manuela is their mother’s name. Both Monte Robledo, Maria Jesus’s cheese, and Doña Maneula are certified organic, as both herds of goats graze on the same pasture – her farm is part of a 400-hectare plot of land divided between the three siblings.

Zac greets a goat - they're such friendly creatures.

Zac meets a goat kid – they’re wonderfully friendly creatures.

Maria Jesus’s herd of goats numbers 150, and she makes 10,000 kilos of cheese every year. The goats wander on the grassy hills around the farm by day, grazing on wild plants including acorns which makes them produce greater quantities of creamy milk, full of protein and with a fantastic taste. The goats are milked by machine every morning, munching on a snack during the process to keep them happy. Maria Jesus explains that it’s quicker and less painful for them, with silicone teats like those on a baby’s bottle. The goats are friendly, nuzzling me and the children; some of the kids, whose mothers wouldn’t feed them and had to be hand-fed using bottles, are downright cheeky and head-butt us.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Then it was Lola's turn to milk the goat - she was a natural.

Then it was Lola’s turn – she was a natural.

Zac has a got at milking the goat.

Zac has a go at the “squeeze, pull”.

We all try our hand at milking – Miguel shows us how to hold, squeeze and pull the teat in the right direction, with pressure in just the right spot. I worry about hurting the poor animal, but a warm jet of white liquid spurts out and Lola shrieks with delight. Her little hands manage to produce some milk too, though Zac finds it trickier.

Zac in the kitchen garden - lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Zac in the kitchen garden – lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Then Maria Jesus shows us the kitchen garden, a long grassy sloping area where they grow tomatoes and other vegetables in summer. The scenery is beautiful – lush grassy hills covered in oak trees, and today the sun is shining so it looks idyllic. There’s a small patio, with low buildings on one side: we visit the little museum, which is chock-full of fascinating old agricultural implements. I love places like this – finding out how people lived and worked in these hills years ago. If you visit their shop in Aracena, you can see more such vintage farming tools.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar in the farm’s museum.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey - this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey – this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An old cooking brazier - hot stones placed under, pan on top.

An old cooking brazier – hot stones placed under, pan on top.

Maria Jesus picks up a scary-looking metal collar with long spikes which looks like a medieval instrument of torture. It was for the dog who looked after the goats, to protect him from wolves – a serious danger to livestock until only a few decades ago. Other antique contraptions in this cave of wonders are a hand hay-baler; an iron cooking brazier; a mill for grinding cereal to feed the pigs; an entremijo, a wooden tray used to separate curds from whey when making cheese (read on for more about this process); an iron plough; and glass jars full of dried herbs such as arnica and hierbabuena (mint) collected by her mother (the mint still has a strong smell despite its years). It puts the farm into a historic context, which seems a wonderful idea and makes our visit that much richer.

The we go into the dairy – this is unashamedly modern, with stainless-steel vats for making the cheese. The milk is filtered when it comes out of the goat, and then heated gently and stirred with big paddles. When it is hot, rennet is added to make it coagulate, and then it is “cut” with a metal implement with blades called a lira.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

The cuajada (curd) and suero (whey) are gradually separated (the latter is fed to the pigs, as it’s high in protein), until you have a creamy, dense-textured white mass which is pushed into small plastic moulds with slots for the whey to drain out. The cheese is turned over every day, and after 20 days you have a semi-curado cheese. If you want a stronger fill-flavoured cheese, curado, you leave it for at least 50 days; for larger cheese, the process takes two to six months. Herbs can be added, such as rosemary or oregano, pimiento or black pepper.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

Next it’s time to meet the Iberian piglets – born just four days ago, they confirm my non-meat-eating beliefs more than ever. I make sure my kids, entranced by the sight, realised these little darlings could be the jamon on their tostada one day. WARNING: gratuitous cute animal photo.

cerdo iberico

Reason #27 why I don’t eat meat.

A pail of fresh goat's milk, ready to be made into cheese.

A pail of fresh goat’s milk, ready to be made into cheese.

Rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The magic ingredient: rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The milk is thickening.

The milk is thickening.

Straining the mild to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Straining the milk to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for: after milking the goats, and playing with them, seeing how the cheese is made, and all those old implements, it’s our turn. Maria Jesus heats up some fresh goat’s milk (the very same stuff that we extracted earlier, or so I like to think), and adds the vegetable rennet, made from a plant called cardoon. The milk starts to thicken and she “cuts” it with the spoon, and then when it has curdled, and gone nice and lumpy, the curds are separated from the whey and we’re each given a little plastic pot-full of cheese to squash down. The process looks so simple, with only two ingredients – milk and rennet – but obviously you need to know exactly what level of heat to use, what temperature the milk needs to get up to, and when to add the rennet.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squeeze the last whey out of it.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squash the last whey out of it.

Zac's cheese, all ready to take home.

Zac’s cheese, all ready to take home.

Lola with her cheese - it didn't last long.

Lola with her cheese – it didn’t last long.

We squish our cheeses to get the whey out – a top activity with my children, unsurprisingly – then we pop lids on, write our names and listen to Maria Jesus’ careful instructions to keep the cheeses in the fridge, and turn and drain them every day for five days, adding salt, then put them on a plate covered with clingfilm. The children’s cheeses didn’t make it home in one piece, as queso fresco - fresh home-made goat’s cheese – is just too delicious to resist, but I kept mine for a month and when I finally gave in, it was fabulous (if I say so myself). And anyway, food tastes so much better when you know exactly where it came from, and what a happy, free life those goats lead.

Maria Jesus is a mine of information about everything from the history of the area, to which types of her cheese sell best where (the markets are king), to her collection of philosophical frases (sayings) on the farm’s website. She is an immensely kind woman, and generous with her time, which makes this a perfect family day out in my book.

A visit to Finca los Robledos costs 2 euros; cheese-tasting 3 euros without wine, or 5 euros with wine; visit with cheese-making 5 euros; visit, cheese-making and tasting 10 euros; and all the above with lunch (goat stew, naturally), 20 euros. They’re well set-up to cater for groups, with a large dining room.

If you want to stay in the area, I can highly recommend Posada San Marcos in nearby Alajar, or for self-catering, Monte Mateo in Navahermosas.

You can buy Monte Robledo cheese at the Monte Robledo shop, Calle Concordia 18, Aracena (tel 959 128 994); in the Alameda organic market in Seville on the second Saturday of every month, and the Aljarafe organic Market in Gines on the third Saturday of every month.

You can see Maria Jesus making cheese in this video.