Travel Andalucia: The city where the barber still sings

When you stroll in the alleyways of Seville, don't be surprised if you bump into Figaro on the way to his wedding.

I spoke to a Spanish friend in England about the castle or town of Aguas Frescas, just outside Seville. He said, "I know of it, but have never been there." I asked the taxi driver in Seville. He said, "it is some way away and this is a town-only taxi, so I never go there". Another thought Aguas Frescas was a cocktail bar, and a waiter thought it was a substitute for Perrier water. In fact, the castle and the town have never existed. They were Beaumarchais' entirely imaginary setting for his play, The Barber of Seville.

Seville is like that. It exists as much in fiction as it does in fact. Here in the Santa Cruz district, Don Juan lurked in the shadows of its narrow streets. Here, the marriage of Figaro took place and the Gypsy Carmen, from just across the river, loved the bullfighter and seduced the soldier, and no one is quite sure how much these romantic scenes have a connection with reality, or how much they are pure myth and illusion.

The Santa Cruz quarter is the heart of the old town. The white-walled houses and shops have balconies smothered with bougainvillaea and hibiscus in narrow alleyways. The short, jumbled streets have their names picked out in blue and white tiles. Yet, arranged into a one-way system, cars contentedly wend their way through.

Old trees shade cobbled squares with miniature marble fountains. One is a real square named after the fictitious Donna Elvira, where nowadays people gather to play guitars. To us, Seville is mysterious and exotic, yet frighteningly familiar. It triggers a thousand images of half-remembered posters, stage scenery, advertisements, operas, movies.

Manuel sat at my table at breakfast. He was visiting from the north and was as captivated by the place as I was. I said: "To me it is a town of myth and legend, a kind of Spanish Brigadoon." He said, in perfect English: "I think the marvel is the way the old place takes modern things and massages and merges them into its own shape." It's true; bar-coded goods in air-conditioned shops are bought without any culture shock by widows dressed in black, carrying silk fans.

It is big enough to have a life of its own without visitors, but if they do come, it absorbs them into its ways. It prints maps that tell you which streets are shady in the morning and which in the afternoon, so that you can walk like the locals. A host of places will ensure that you enjoy dozens of sherries and wines (from vineyards that have been there since the Romans), gazpacho and spicy albondigas. The more heroic can try sopa de pecadillo (ham and egg soup) or cazuela de rabo (bull's tail in red wine sauce).

As we walked up to the El Arenal district, a few yards west of Santa Cruz, the ring road skirted the bull-ring, as if the road had been designed to take the aficionados to the bullfight. And the statue of the fictional Carmen stood across the road, looking through the main gate and into the arena. In the nearby prison, the imaginary Fidelio is said to have languished, and the real Cervantes wrote the unreal Don Quixote.

A few hundred yards across the Guadalquivir river is the barrio (or district) of Triana. Once, thousands of Gypsies lived in its claustrophobic maze. Its still-narrow streets retain some of the old coralles or courtyards, bright yellow and orange walls surrounding tiled paving crowded with potted flowers. Manuel pointed out that it is now a normally functioning commercial part of town. I found it easy to imagine the close-packed warren 150 years ago as a no-go area for the authorities, where a deserter like Don Jose could disappear.

Back across the river and a little north, the Alcazar and the cathedral tell an older story of the town's fabulous past, from the emperor Hadrian, who was born here, through half a millennium of Moorish rule to the Catholic present.

When the Christians re-conquered the area 700 years ago, they thoughtfully left standing the minaret from which the Muslim faithful had previously been called to prayer. The result is a deeply Catholic city dominated by a Muslim minaret (the Giralda).

Seville uses the afternoon to impose its own style on any possible modern tendencies: everything closes. After 1pm, nothing happens, and every day it happens again. It is a time of heat and quiet. "Until when?" you ask. "Until after four." "How much after four?" A shrug. "Until some time after four."

"You have to see the cathedral," insisted Manuel when I emerged from my siesta. "It's the biggest in the world." "Really? What about St Peter's, in Rome?" "No, they can prove it, you'll see," he persevered.

It certainly had an extravagance of private chapels. Each one - and I counted roughly 56 - was a spectacle of marble, gold and silver, but among the statues of the Virgin Mary there was The Guinness Book of Records. It was in a display cabinet with gilt framing, and it lay open at the page which declared it to be the biggest cathedral in the world. Perhaps there should be another entry claiming it to be the only cathedral in the world to display The Guinness Book of Records.

Next to the cathedral stands the Alcazar, which has been the fortress and palace of the rulers of Seville since Roman times. It is of a size able to house the 800 wives of an early Moorish sultan, who decorated the balconies with flowers planted in the skulls of his decapitated enemies. The Spanish king, Pedro the Cruel, continued its bizarre history by rebuilding it, and murdering a guest to steal his ruby, which he gave as a present to the Black Prince of England. The stone has now been shown not to be a ruby at all but a spinel, a lesser gem, but it remains in the British crown.

Many and diverse are the visits you can make outside town. Spain now has a "TGV" from Seville to Madrid, and you can use it to get to Cordoba in 43 minutes. Granada and its Alhambra are also within reach.

Back in Seville, walking along Calle San Fernando, we see the words Fabrica de Tabacos chiselled into the stone at the main entrance of a vast, low building, ornate with carved stone. It was once the largest building in Spain and was the tobacco factory where the fabled Carmen worked along with 10,000 other cigarreras. It is now the university, and again the new order has taken over smoothly from the old.

Students stroll where once Gypsies worked "with daggers in their garters and carnations in their hair". Aguas Frescas? Don Giovanni? Figaro? Carmen? Did they ever really exist in Seville? I don't think it really matters, and the Sevillanos don't really care.

Alex Ninian paid pounds 750 for a tailor-made package from Mundi Color, booked through Travelmania, 125 Holloway Road, London N7 8LT (0171-700 4844). It included flights from Heathrow to Seville and from Malaga, 10 days' car rental, and stays at the five-star Hotel Tryp Colon in Seville and the four-star Parador del Nerja. For more information, contact the Spanish Tourist Office, 22 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171-486 8077)

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