Scribbler in Seville

The Biggest Misconceptions about Seville

Dancing Sevillanas at the Feria, which is coming up next month.

Dancing Sevillanas at the Feria, which is coming up next month. Most casetas are private, which some find unfair.


You may (or indeed, may not) have noticed that lately, my blogging has been sporadic at best – not that I’ve ever been a strict twice-a-week kind of girl, if you know what I mean. Over the past few months, a variety of work commitments, including a Social Media course which I’m teaching to American university students, have left me with very little time to do what I love most: writing about topics of my own choosing. Lately, my posts have had a long, slow, agonising birth; finally pushing them out is a nothing short of a miracle. (As a mother who had two babies without pain relief, I am allowed to use such melodramatic metaphors.)

This one has been nudging me for a while now. Being a long-term resident of Seville, and working in several fields including journalism, tourism, social media, I see and hear lots of conflicting information about the city, provided both by the well-informed (should know better) and the less so (we’ll let you off). These are some of the commonest myths I’ve come across.

1) Siestas are unnecessary Anyone who has ever lived in Seville all year round, with its stiflingly hot summers, will know how energy-sapping the temperatures are from June to September. Between around midday and 8pm, the heat hits you like a solid wall when you walk outside – we’re talking 40 degrees C (that’s 104F for you non-decimals), with none of those delightful sea breezes which make the coastal climate so much more bearable. So what do you do? You hit the sack. There’s no other reasonable option. Spaniards who come from anywhere other than Andalucia, think that the southerners are lazy and work-shy – “What is this siesta nonsense?” they huff. “What kind of part-timer takes a sleep in the middle of the day?”

I remember one of my first English students, a delightful Sevillano insurance manager named Carlos, was exasperated with his Madrid bosses who failed to understand the need for summer working hours (8am to 3pm). My (and his) response to them is: I challenge you to function like a normal human being on a summer afternoon in Seville. See how well your brain works, and how far you go before you collapse on the nearest sofa/bed/shady park bench.. Not to mention the fact that numerous scientific studies have proved that naps can help our physical and mental wellbeing. QED.

alcazar, sevilla

Patio del Yeso, the only Moorish part of the Alcazar.

2) The Alcazar was built by the Moors OK, so one of the patios was built by Seville’s Moorish rulers (the exquisite Patio de Yeso – Plaster Patio), but the rest of the palace was built for King Pedro the Cruel by Moorish craftsmen, in a style called Mudejar – Muslim style under Christian rulers. Some of the Christian monarchs who ruled Seville from 1248, when the Moors were expelled from the city, wanted to remove all traces of their Arabic predecessors, destroying mosques and their minarets – thankfully sparing the Giralda and a few other such towers. Other, more enlightened rulers, like Pedro, relished the blend of cultures and architectural styles in their city. And we love him for his plurality and open-mindedness – admiration shared by the makers of Game of Thrones, who filmed the latest season here – the Alcazar is the Martells’ palace in Sunspear, the capital of Dorne. You can see season five on TV next month – but I’d visit this exquisite palace now before it gets overrun by die-hard GOT fans.

Santa Ana church in Triana, the first post-Moorish place of worship.

Santa Ana church in Triana, the first post-Moorish place of worship.

3) Triana is quaint but has no attractions

I was astonished to read this the other day. What about the new Ceramics museum, and the wonderful shops full of colourful tiles, one of the city’s most famous products? And all the religious and social history – the Inquisition museum? And the corrales? If you’re a history geek, like me, you’re a fan of traditional handicrafts, and you prefer an area that isn’t heaving with tourists, then this home of flamenco and sailors is for you. It also has Seville’s oldest church, Santa Ana, dating from 1278. I take clients around Triana and they are charmed by its character and quirkiness – more awed and horrified by the Castillo San Jorge, seat of the Inquisition from 1481, perhaps – but certainly fascinated.

4) No one speaks English here, no one will understand me.

No, we’re not cosmopolitan Madrid or Barcelona, but I can tell you that the standard of spoken English has improved immeasurably since I arrived nearly 12 years ago. Then, you were lucky to get faltering English, even in the smartest joints. Now, fluent grasp is standard. A frontline employee in a five-star landmark property told me recently that the raised standard is, in part, due to more Sevillanos going to study abroad. Of course, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to get by at some level in Spanish. But being realistic, English is the international tourism language.

Seville Cathedral: the largest in the world?

Seville Cathedral: the largest in the world?

5) Seville cathedral is the biggest in the world

It’s not – it’s the third-biggest, after St Peter’s in Rome, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil. But it is the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world, at upwards of 500,000m3. As it takes up a whole city block, you can get a good sense of the scale from walking around the outside. Santa Maria de la Sede – its official name – is also seriously impressive as an interior space, with soaring 37m-high ceilings (though the vast, much-admired blingy gold altar piece doesn’t do it for me personally). The Cathedral is recognised as UNESCO World Heritage, along with the Alcazar and Archivo de Indias.

6) Staged flamenco shows are not authentic and therefore not worth going to

Unless you want to sit in a bar till 3am where someone may or may not burst into song or pick up a guitar, these shows are well worth checking out, especially Flamenco Esencia in the town of Salteras, the Flamenco Museum and the Casa de la Memoria. The standard of the performers is excellent. Purists may poo-poo the idea of buying a ticket for a scheduled performance, saying it goes against the very essence of duende and the spontaneity of the art form, but if like many people you only have two or three days to visit Seville, it would be madness not to.

Plaza de España, the centrepiece of Expo 29.

Plaza de España, the centrepiece of Expo 29, in Maria Luisa Park.

7) The Expo 29 was cancelled

One travel blog/vlog/film I watched the other day stated that the 1929 Ibero-American Exposicion never took place due to economic problems. Oh yes it did. The Expo lasted from May 1929 to June 1930; the Wall Street crash took place in October 1929, which may have caused the confusion. But the buildings from Seville’s first 20th-century Expo (the second was in 1992), which you can see in and around Maria Luisa Park, are testament to the excellent planning and  superb quality of the constructions – they’ve lasted better than many buildings which are decades younger.

8) Everything closes at lunch time

One of the hardest things to get used to when living in Spain is the opening hours – many attractions and monuments close from around 2pm-5pm. If you’re visiting and have children who need entertaining, especially during the less sweltering months when there’s no need to retreat from the heat, this can be highly inconvenient. Fortunately a surprising number of places do stay open – apart from major monuments such as the Cathedral and Alcazar, Casa de Pilatos, the CAAC contemporary art centre, the Museo de Baile Flamenco, and family attractions such as the Aquarium, Pabellon de Navegacion and Casa de la Ciencia – a ticket for one of these three will get you discounted entrance into the others.

Age-old and contemporary Seville: a Holy Week procession passes the Setas.

Age-old and contemporary Seville: a Holy Week procession passes the Setas.

8) All Sevillanos love Semana Santa, Feria, and bullfighting

While Holy Week and the April Fair are both hugely famous throughout Spain and beyond, events which inspire great pride among Sevillanos, drawing thousands of visitors, not everyone wants to stand in the street for hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the favourite Virgin, or dance the night away in a frilly frock, when you can only enjoy the party if you know the right people and are invited to private casetas. Those who are not capillistas or feriantes, or who object to the exclusivity of the casetas (peculiar to Sevilla; in every other feria all casetas are open to the public) can rent out their city-centre apartments (or balconies) at inflated prices during these events, and leave the chaos for a quiet few days at the beach, or in the mountains. And as the seat of bullfighting, afternoon activities in the Real Maestranza have a devoted following, although the younger generation are less likely to be aficionados of la corrida, with some actively against it – the animal rights group, PACMA (Partido Animalista), even has a candidate standing for president of the Junta de Andalucia in this Sunday’s regional elections.

 

9) Everyone drinks sangria

I can honestly say I’ve never drunk sangria in a bar or restaurant since I’ve been in Seville. Tinto de verano, yes, especially in summer. This is red wine with casera – a fizzy drink which can be flavourless, like soda water, or lemon-flavoured like 7UP. It’s a tasty, refreshing drink, perfect for hot days if, like me, you’re not a beer drinker. TdV is also weaker than sangria, which often has spirits added, and a cool, pale glass is a perfect choice if you’re the designated driver (or you just live in the sticks).

Alameda, cafe

Outdoor tables, one of the biggest attractions for visitors to Seville, are controversial these days.

10) Sevillanos love noise, night and day

A new law, dating from last summer, states that a number of excessively noisy activities, from standing to eat outside a bar, to talking too loudly, are now banned, and infractions of the “Ordenanza Contra la Contaminacion Acustica, Ruidos y Vibraciones” can be punished with a fine. Many bars which used to have live music, such as La Carboneria in Barrio Santa Cruz, a favourite flamenco venue for many, are no longer permitted to host performances due to the noise levels. Outside tables, and licences needed to have them, are a hot potato too – read my fellow blogger Mary’s look at both sides of the noise issue in her recent post. We all know that the Ayuntamiento have empty coffers, so I’ll bet this is partly yet another ruse to top them up again. And yet botellones, street parties which involve young people drinking, shouting and relieving themselves in the street until the small hours, preventing residents from sleeping and making their front doors extremely malodorous, are allowed to continue; Semana Santa, with its loud bands and the all-night revelry of the Feria are also excluded. Go figure.

Do you agree with my list? Or do you think I’ve got it all wrong? Tell me what you think.

30 thoughts on “The Biggest Misconceptions about Seville

  1. Mad Dog

    I find siestas come very easily after a menú del día.
    I’m not sure why anyone in Spain should speak English, IMHO Anglophones should make more effort to speak Spanish. Most of them don’t and it’s their loss!
    I’m glad you are getting lots of work 😉

    1. tobyo

      oh yea, I was going to comment on the speaking English thing. I speak Spanish fairly well and was doing quite fine on our trip 5 years ago. However, I distinctly remember one waiter in Sevilla who insisted on speaking English with me even though I started out in Spanish. what’s a tourist to do? I thought at the time that perhaps he just wanted to practice his English. I also recall that as a student in Madrid in 1980-81 hardly anyone spoke English. In 2010 English was spoken nearly everywhere we went!! You can’t go home again….

    2. fionafloreswatson Post author

      Thanks Mad Dog, it’s partly the seasonal thing of working in tourism – Nov to Feb is dead, then it’s crazy. I agree re speaking Spanish, but so many visitors don’t have anything more than “Gracias” 🙁

  2. tobyo

    how very interesting! thank you for such an informative post. I really don’t know if you’ve got it all wrong but since you’ve lived there a while I suspect you are spot on. I’ve also got a question on a year in #3. Should Sevilla’s oldest church Santa Ana’s year be 1278? because we have not yet gotten to 12780 😉 (sorry, I notice stuff like this….)

    I also wanted to comment on the fabulous flamenco show that we saw 5 years ago at Casa de la Memoria. I will say it again: it was fabulous!! definitely do not hesitate to see a show there. I hope to go again some day. I can kinda see the point of it not being “authentic” but you make a good point about being at the right place and time but 3 a.m.??? um….not for me!! I’d never make it 🙂

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      Thanks for pointing out the typo, Tobyo – now corrected. Agree re Casa de la Memoria, you’re so close to the performers, which is key for seeing the footwork, hand movements etc. At the previous venue, there wasn’t even a stage, so you were on the same level as them, which was almost better.

      1. tobyo

        I think we saw them at the previous venue (same building as the hotel we stayed in whose name escapes me at the moment) but we still really enjoyed it!!!

  3. Alan

    . . not being a native, interloper or visitor I couldn’t possibly comment – that said, it is an enticing post that has me hankering after a visit, it’s been an awful long time.

  4. Joanne

    Is St Peter’s in Rome a cathedral? Is a basilica a cathedral? If the answer to these two questions is no, the the cathedral in Sevilla is the biggest in the world.

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      Interesting question, Joanne. There’s also a theory that a basilica/cathedral which is a bishopric has superior status, which would elevate ours to number one.

  5. Shawn

    I’ve been wondering about this cathedral one for a long time. Wikipedia calls Sevilla’s the world’s largest cathedral – and third largest church building – because St Peter’s is a basilica (a basilica may or may not also be a cathedral – seat of the bishop – and St Peter’s isn’t). But I can’t see anywhere if the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida is also a cathedral.

    1. Shawn

      This just in! People on my tapas tour last night told me they had taken a tour of the Cathedral with an official guide so I asked them how it had been described.

      “Third largest Cathedral in the world after St Peter’s and St Paul’s”

      Which was the description I’d also heard for years, except St Paul’s doesn’t even come close. And so… since St Peter’s is not a cathedral (and the jury is still out on Our L of A) then it looks like Sevilla does have the world’s largest cathedral, though it’s the third largest church.

      1. fionafloreswatson Post author

        Thanks for that! So much misinformation around. Looks like we have a definitive definition.

  6. Shawn

    “And yet botellones, street parties which involve young people drinking, shouting and relieving themselves in the street until the small hours, preventing residents from sleeping and making their front doors extremely malodorous, are allowed to continue; Semana Santa, with its loud bands and the all-night revelry of the Feria are also excluded. Go figure”

    As you know, I live in one of the “botellón” areas, and it is horrible how my street of lovely boutiques and family-run tapas bars turns into a war zone after dark. In spite of neighbour action groups and police being stationed in the Plaza Alfalfa this blatant flaunting of the law continues, no doubt because the police do absolutely nothing. Palms being greased?

    Meanwhile, one week of Semana Santa madness is, well, just one week out of the year, and it has important historical and cultural significance. I quite like the upheaval. During Feria week the centre of Sevilla mostly turns into a ghost town with everyone over at the Feria site, so it’s not noticably noisier at this time. However, they could do away with those damn rockets being set off at dawn during Rocío…

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      You were exactly one of the Botellon victims I had in mind. Feria noise affects fewer than SS but I bet if you live opposite the Recinto (and you’re actually trying to sleep) the noise must be pretty annoying. People who don’t like all the jaleo of SS prefer to remove themselves, which makes sense as getting around can be complicated. I remember first year taking four hours to get back to my flat because all the streets were blocked by processions!

      1. Shawn

        True enough, but again it’s just for a week. People living in the botellón areas live with it 365 days a year. It’s ridiculous that city hall is closing down bars without terrace licenses that close by midnight anyhow and don’t bother anyone, and turn a blind eye to people illegally drinking – and shouting, fighting, vandalising, peeing – in residential streets at 4 in the morning. No cultural or historical significance there.

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      They’re all referring to various sources I’ve noticed over the years in every media. I’m passionate about Triana too and visitors’ delight makes me even more so. I guess as you know they might overlook it because there’s nothing that “important” compared to Cathedral Etc there, nothing they need to “tick off their list”. So taking them to see a normal, untouristy barrio is often a surprise. But then as a Trianera yourself, you will know that!

  7. Geraldine Toltschin

    Very interesting and useful for people not familiar with Seville, thanks.
    I went to Seville in July 10 years ago, drove back to El Puerto de
    Santa Maria almost dead. YES, those mid afternoon siestas are
    necessary.

  8. Marlene

    Was just there last month and found your post to be very entertaining & informative – thanks for sharing your thoughts! Can vouch for the ceramics museum in Triana (attractive displays and truly educational) plus Casa de la Memoria (absolutely scintillating show). I also found that many Sevillanos were happy to “meet me halfway” when I tried to communicate with my rather basic Spanish. Definitely different from Barcelona, where English is commonplace, but in Seville the locals’ English was often approximately the same level as my Spanish and everything worked out fine. Can’t wait to go back!

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      Hi Marlene, thanks for your comment. Glad you found the post useful, and that you liked Seville 🙂

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  10. Wedigo

    Hi, I just discovered your wonderful blog and looking forward to reading your archived articles. We were in Seville a year ago, spending 3 nights/4days there and fell in love with it. Hope to return one day.

  11. Josefina

    What a great article! Congrats!!!
    It’s quite a relief that among too many misconceptions, there’re people who are really interested in the reality beneath them.
    That’s why I’m sorry to tell you that the information about “el Alcázar” is not accurate enough. Unfortunately, the misconception remains here in “Morish” and “el Alcázar” words. Firstly, because Seville had two Muslim periods (almorávide and almohade) and secondly because it is more accurate “Los Alcázares” since alcázar means palace and we are talking about more than one palace, Pedro I “El Cruel” ‘s included.
    In fact, an alcázar has a quite simple structure: A patio with two separate rooms, one in front of the other. Every patio represents the paradise conception in Muslim religion. Los Reales Alcázares are, indeed, a product of hundreds of years of history… The more ancient palace is actually out of the sight of visitors and it was originally dated at XI century:

    http://culturadesevilla.blogspot.com.es/2011/04/sevilla-oculta-casa-de-la-contratacion.html

    I wish I could explain myself better… You’re not exactly wrong and I might not be exactly right… The thing is that in history, everything is a theory and we can read it in so many different ways. Thank you again for a great article!

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  13. Danika of Aussie Andaluza

    I’ve lived in Triana for a little while now and never knew about the Castillo de San Jorge. Must go check that out! But you’re right in saying that the barrio shouldn’t be so overlooked.. it’s one of the most underrated tourist-wise!

    And the siesta is totally necessary in Summer, although lately I’ve been trying to avoid it because I always end up waking up like a zombie! Between the hours of 3 and 5:30 is ice block and good book time for me! Haha

    Thanks for a great blog, I really enjoy reading about your life here 🙂

    1. fionafloreswatson Post author

      Thanks Danika, I’m glad you enjoy reading the blog! Yes, siestas are very necessary in summer! Enjoy the Castillo San Jorge, it is definitely food for the imagination – fairly gruesome, but important to know what happened. You’re lucky living in Triana, it is such a great area.

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