Scribbler in Seville

The past recreated: seeing Seville’s history through new eyes

Your blogger ready to travel to the past, with video glasses, earphones and iPhone

Your blogger ready to travel to the past, with video glasses, earphones and iPhone

As any of you who either live here in Seville, or have ever visited the city, will know, there’s layer upon layer of history right under your feet: Roman, Arab, medieval, renaissance…

But in visual terms, the city’s rich past is not always as visible: the Giralda is all that’s left of the once-famous mosque where the cathedral now stands – and the city’s emblematic tower was modified, with extra sections being added on top. Other alminares, or minarets, around the city, pay testament to the Muslim places of worship reutilised by the Christians after Seville was recaptured from the Moors in 1248. Roman buildings are hidden under centuries of later structures, with just a few traces still visible.
It’s one thing to read all this history on screen in a blog or on the pages of a guidebook; it’s quite another to see it acted out virtually before your very eyes, by people in period dress with the surroundings of the city as it was centuries ago. A new venture, Past View Sevilla, takes you back in time, right into the action, using the latest technology. Equipped with an iPhone with battery pack, special video glasses and headphones, you’re transported to Roman, Moorish and Golden Age Seville. It’s said to be the first audio-visual tour of its kind in the world, and only launched last month. (Don’t say I don’t bring you the hottest news from my city!)
The plaques tell you where the geo-positioning points are, to see and hear the information on your iPhone.

The plaques tell you where the geo-positioning points on your route are, to access audio-visuals for each spot on your iPhone. This is the first one: Plaza de Encarnacion.

On the day when I tried it out, along with a couple from Madrid, the weather was a bit grim – grey skies, spitting with rain. Unperturbed, our guide Anna produced umbrellas complete with logo. Our first stop was in Plaza Encarnacion, next to Metropol Parasol, where Anna pointed out the plaques on the floor to look out for. I could kick myself for not having asked her to document my tour – taking a photo of me wearing the glasses in each location. But between their iPhone and glasses, listening and watching, and taking notes (by hand) and tweeting on my iPhone, I clean forgot to use the damn thing for another of its many functions – taking photos.

Anna explained that the tour works by geo-positioning – when you get to each point, you press a button on your iPhone and it comes up with the relevant content – both audio and audio-visual. It was all very straightforward to operate. The glasses were comfortable, even over my own specs, with rubber goggle-type shades to give a cinematic experience, although I suspect that on sunnier days, the bright light would creep in the sides. Audio comes in three languages: English, French and Spanish. The English was, to my utter delight, perfect: unaccented, idiomatic and not-too-cheesy (a light sprinkling is acceptable in recreations).
Laters of history: he minaret tower of El Salvador church - on top of the original Arab alminar (to curves of arches) you can see Gothic and then Renaissance layers

Layers of history: the minaret tower of El Salvador church. On top of the original Arab alminar, you can see Gothic (stone arches) and Renaissance (fancy carvings) additions.

Our first stop was a mini-detour into the side entrance of the Iglesia del Salvador, on Calle Cordoba, in the heart of the city’s main shopping area. This boasts a minaret which has been topped by successive architectural additions, and now has three “layers”. Inside the patio, you can see the arches of the former patio de naranjas, where the Moors performed their ritual Islamic ablutions before prayer.

Like many other such structures around Seville (the Atarazanas, the Muralla) their columns look curiously short and out of proportion. This is because half of them – the lower part of the pillars – is still buried underground, with successive layers of construction on top.

Patio de Naranjas of El Salvador church, with Moorish arches - can you spot the oranges in the trees?

Patio de Naranjas of El Salvador church, with Moorish arches – can you spot the oranges in the trees?

We walked through a newly-reopened passageway leading from this patio to the main Plaza del Salvador. There, we listened to an audio introduction to the church’s history; the red-and-white facade of the city’s second-largest basilica, after the cathedral, was hidden behind scaffolding for years and is now resplendent after its restoration, and El Salvador home to various hermandades (brotherhoods) whose Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions leave from here, as well as on El Rocio pilgrimage.
The Ayuntamiento features in the first dramatic recreation, in the time of Cervantes.

The Ayuntamiento’s rear facade features in the first dramatic recreation, of Plaza San Francisco in the time of Cervantes.

Our next stop was Plaza San Francisco, home to the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall). Opposite is a magnificent building, now home to a bank (boo, hiss) which was formerly the Royal Court, with the jail attached. This prison had one extremely famous inmate: Cervantes, who is said to have started writing Don Quixote while incarcerated. The first dramatic “infographic recreation” (dated as 1597, on the very day when Cervantes is banged up) seen with the video glasses is set around this real event. You’re made to feel part of the action, as the protagonist addresses you as “an old Christian of pure blood” wearing “rich apparel”, before you’re witness to people discovering the writer’s fate.
The buildings shown aren’t that different from how they are today; the prison no longer exists, but its memory lingers on thanks to Calle Entre Carceles (between jails). The three highly atmospheric and entertaining scenes, of which this was the first, and the novel, high-tech means of viewing them, are the tour’s main selling point. But I also found out other fascinating nuggets of information in the extra background video: Genoa, which was another major trading port and economic powerhouse at the time, had its consulate in the Banco de España building. Avenida de la Constitucion was called Calle Genova – I wonder if the Italian port city returned the favour?
Christian relief above Moorish arch - the Puerta del Perdon, which leads of the Patio de Naranjos of the former mosque.

Christian relief above Moorish arch – the Puerta del Perdon, part of the Cathedral.

Our next stop was one of my favourite monuments of Seville: the Puerta del Perdon, which leads off the Patio de Naranjos of the former mosque. This was the only point where the audio was drowned out by passing traffic, since all the other points well-located are away from roads. We learned about the carvings above the gate: the merchants being expelled from the temple, a reference to bishops being fed up with mercantile business being conducted in the Cathedral, which was used as a shelter and meeting place before the Archivo de Indias was built.

We then moved to other side of the Cathedral, next to the Alcazar (royal palace), for the second recreation. We’ve gone back in time to Almohad-era Seville (Isbyllia) – now the capital city of Al-Andalus (previously Cordoba).

The Giralda - in Moorish times a minaret, or "Alminar".

We’re introduced to the Giralda – in Moorish times a minaret, or alminar – by its architect.

The Giralda today - Seville's most famous building.

The Giralda today – the cathedral’s belltower, and Seville’s most famous landmark.

It’s 1198, and the alminar (minaret) of the mosque is being inaugurated – our host this time is the tower’s architect. The alminar is crowned by three golden balls and hung with green and white banners, colours which were adopted centuries later for the Andalucian flag (and Betis football team strip). We’re told about a sabat, a private tunnel which the Caliph uses to move freely  from the mosque to the Alcazar, so he can pray in the Mihrab when he chooses.

This one really grabbed me – seeing the wall of the mezquita as it would have been over 1000 years ago was a tantalising taster, and I was left craving more. I’m reliably informed that another dramatised scene, from inside the Alcazar, is on its way. With the palace’s gardens, patios and exquisite rooms as a background, this is sure to be stunning. Also coming soon is “augmented reality”, where you hold up the iPhone in front of a building, and an image appears on screen of how it looked in times past.
We stood next to the Archivo de Indias, the least-known part of the UNESCO World Heritage trio (the others are the cathdral and Alcazar), to hear about this building where thousands of documents detailing trade with the Indies are still stored.
Walking towards the river, we passed the Atarazanas, peering through the windows to look at these former royal shipyards. Currently closed to the public, they’re at the centre of a major political row over a planned CaixaForum cultural centre, now relocated to the controversial Torre Pelli. This skyscraper is being built cross the river on Isla Cartuja, and its incongruous presence – more specifically, its height which makes it visible from all over the old centre –  is threatening the city’s World Heritage status. They would lend themselves perfectly to this tour.
The Torre del Oro in the Arenal, the port for New World ships, which brought back gold, silver and gold.

The Arenal was the port for New World ships, which brought back gold, silver and gold.

Torre del Oro seen from Triana.

Torre del Oro as it is today.

Our final port of call (!) was the river Guadalquivir – after over two hours of walking and standing, my back hurt so I sat down on the steps leading down from the road to the riverside walk. Looking across towards Triana, with the Torre del Oro (also Almohad) on our left, we donned our video glasses for the last time to meet a student of the painter Morillo in 1658. He has come to collect some lapis lazuli for a vivid blue tone needed for his master’s current work in progress. We see all the ships docked at the port of the Arenal, as well as coming across the seedier inhabitants of the port – thieves, conmen and beggars.
The view from Metropol Parasol's mirador is truly panoramic, with monuments at 360 degrees. Videos introduce you to them, to Expo 92 (towers visiblein distance), and to Roman Seville.

The view from Metropol Parasol’s walkway is truly panoramic, with monuments at all 360 degrees. Videos on the tour  introduce you to them, to Expo 92 (towers visible in distance) and…

Hispalis - Seville in Roman times.

Hispalis – Seville in Roman times.

The next day, I did Past View’s Metropol Parasol tour. We took the lift up to the top, and walked along the walkway up to the mirador – the viewing platform at the top of Seville’s contemporary architecture star. We watched a video of Expo 92; learned about the main monuments visible from the “Mushrooms”, including Plaza de España; Palacio de las Dueñas, home of the Duquesa de Alba; and several churches.
But what I loved most was the video reconstruction of 2nd century AD Roman Seville (Hispalis) – partly guesswork, but thought-provoking all the same – with forums, temples, amphitheatre, blocks of houses and apartments, and a look at a typical Roman home, with central patio and tank to catch rainwater. The river ran through the centre of the city at that time, along with many smaller channels. All the more fascinating when there are real Roman ruins to see in the basement of the same structure – Antiquarium museum, which you can see behind me in the first photo of this post.
Past View is based next to Antiquarium , in the basement of the Setas (Metropol Parasol). This is where you get kitted out with the necessary gear. Staff are knowledgable, friendly and super-efficient, dealing with any technical problems quick as a flash. The comparison, in terms of both product and service, with other tourist companies in Seville, was astonishing. These people are highly professional: they’ve got an innovative product, and they know how to operate it efficiently. Interest has been expressed in the product by many cities around the world: London, Barcelona, Cairo and Panama City. I absolutely loved it – it was fun, different, and taught me things I didn’t know. Seeing your city as it was over different historical eras is a rare thrill, carrying you back through the centuries. It fired up my imagination no end, and left me hungry for more.
The two Past View tours are both suitable for children aged six years and up, and take around 1.5-2 hours and 45 minutes respectively (entrance to the walkway is included).

For a preview of the recreations, and for more general information, see Past View‘s website.


14 thoughts on “The past recreated: seeing Seville’s history through new eyes

  1. Mad Dog

    FANTASTIC! You look like someone from a SIFI movie too 🙂
    I love the Gothic bits in Barcelona, where you go into a little bar or restaurant and at there back there’s a Roman wall – one in particular has an ancient mural on it!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Thanks Tom! The glasses are surprisingly comfortable, as they’re not too heavy and even fit over spectacles – I thought it would be like wearing ski goggles, which are soooo uncomfortable.

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  3. quieromilk

    Absolutely Brilliant! Let me use your own words to describe this post: “it was fun, different, and taught me things I didn’t know”. Thank you very much for al the information. I am going to do it at once. I’ll recomend it to many, many sevillanos who I am sure don’t know about it.

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