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48 hours in the life of Seville

You need a break - and a short cut to the soul of a city. Each week, `The Independent' offers

a prescription for the perfect short break. This weekend, Seville, with Simon Calder.

Why go now?

Because Seville's seductively ruffled layers of history and culture are revealed most vividly when the winter "chill" (average temperature 14C) freezes out most tourists. Because you need to size up the city in relative serenity before returning for six days of madness during the spring Feria. And because if there is a more handsome city in Europe, I have yet to find it.

Beam down

The only airline with direct scheduled flights from the UK to Seville is Iberia (0171-830 0011), with a daily non-stop from Heathrow for a lowest fare of pounds 182.90 (including all taxes). The same airline flies from Manchester, with a quick connection in Barcelona.

It may well be cheaper to find a cheap flight to Madrid, eg from Luton on Debonair (0500 146200) or from various UK airports via Amsterdam on KLM (through Air Tickets Direct, 0990 320321) for around pounds 150. In Madrid, you connect with the AVE high-speed train to Seville, taking two hours from the Spanish capital to Santa Justa station.

Get your bearings

From the airport, a taxi covering the six miles to the centre will cost around 1,000 ptas (about pounds 8). The airport bus operates from 6am to 10pm, mostly every half-hour, though with a long gap for a siesta between 2pm and 5pm. The ride costs 750 ptas (pounds 3). Stay on to the end, right outside the Alfonso XIII hotel.

Rail travellers have it easy: from Santa Justa station, you can walk west to the city proper in about 10 minutes.

The city proper is defined as the ragged diamond enclosed to the west by the Guadalquivir river, and to the east by a meandering ring road. Inside this square-ish mile is the greatest concentration of elegance anywhere in Spain. Across the river, to the north west, stands the debris from Expo 92; to the south west, the down-at-heel quarter of Triana.

The tourist office on Avenida de la Constitucion is the prettiest in Spain. It also rates among the most useless, in terms of providing such basic information as a map of the city and the opening hours of that rather large building up the road, the Cathedral. But if you want to try your luck, the office opens daily, 9am-7pm, except Sundays (10am-4pm).

Watch out for ...

The habit of most maps to have the north point at the left, rather than the top.

Pickpockets and bagsnatchers who are as ruthlessly efficient as those anywhere in the world, from Bogot to Brazzaville.

Check in

To impress someone - even if only yourself - there is only one place in town: the extraordinarily civilised Casas de la Judera (literally: houses of the Jewish quarter), buried in the Callejon de Dos Hermanos in the Santa Cruz district, 500 metres more or less due east of the Cathedral. Rooms are scattered around a large, airy courtyard in a part of town where even the screeching mopeds fall silent. A single costs pounds 30, a double pounds 50, with optional breakfast an additional pounds 4.50 per person. Book in advance on 00 345 441 5150, and be prepared to get cross as you try to track it down.

Among the many options several degrees cheaper and less cheerful is the two-star Hostal Alameda, on the Alameda de Hercules just north of the city centre.

I stayed at the extraordinary new Alcora, which cost pounds 50 for a single for a night. This buys a spacious, split-level room with plenty of room to write these words - though rather too good a view of the biggest hypermarket in Christendom. What you gain in space, you lose in accessibility; an hourly minibus shuttle connects it with the real Seville.

Take a ride

Circular bus C2 runs anticlockwise right around this extraordinary city. Like all the public buses in Seville, it costs 120 ptas, or about half as much if you buy a wad of 10 tickets from a street-side machine. It will take you through and around the ghostly site of the old Expo, which resembles a forgotten circus from the 21st century - full of futuristically obsolete cable cars and space rockets going nowhere.

Take a hike

The cathedral, being the third largest in the world - after St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London, is a morning's exercise in its own right. While you're waiting for it to open at 11am, lose yourself in the surrounding streets; chords of Cartagena and Havana keep resounding. When you want to return to the cathedral, it takes no time at all to locate its vast bulk.

Inside the south door, an elaborate tomb contains the remains of the Genoan who changed the world: Christopher Columbus, who used Seville as a base camp for his voyages to the New World.

The bones of poor old Columbus did almost as much travelling in death as in life, shuttling between the New and Old Worlds before finally and fittingly coming to rest in Seville, which fancies itself as the original Latin American city.

Lunch on the run

The best fast snack in town - chocolate y churros (spirals of deep-fried batter, ready for dunking in absurdly thick and sweet molten chocolate) - can be found at El Duque, directly opposite Marks & Spencer on Plaza de la Victoria. But it doesn't open at weekends.

On Saturdays, therefore, content yourself with grazing in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, east of the Cathedral, where street life sizzles even in midwinter.

Cultural afternoon

Granada owes much of its magnificence to its mountainous location; Seville just subsides beside a slouchy old river. But it is stashed full of miraculously atmospheric patios, palaces and plazas. A lifetime would be a more realistic time-frame than an afternoon, but if you have to choose one sight then make it the Alcazar - the huge palace adjacent to the Cathedral. Seville specialises in scale.

Window shopping

It would be heinous to waste time on shopping, but if you want to see what's cool then walk along Calle Sierpes, keeping an eye open for some of the elegant, tiled murals.

An aperitif

Alfonso XIII may have suffered ill-luck commensurate with his suffix (a bomb at his wedding in 1906 killed 24 people; governments changed on average every 10 months during his reign), but sipping an iced sherry at the implausibly decorative hotel that bears his name is fortune indeed.

Next stop on the pre-dinner crawl could be El Rinconillo, bodged into an uncomfortable corner of Calle Gerona - all tiles, ancient wooden chests and ranks of dangling hams. But you pay for the ambience: pounds 4 for a beer and a nibble.

On the Alameda de Hercules, Las Columnas does the same thing for half the price, self-service, and provides the chance to sit outside. Choose your dinner venue from one of the many options on this cheery street - but don't start until 10pm.

Sunday morning: go to church

The Santa Maria monastery on Cartuja island was Columbus's spiritual home. It comprises a mystical series of interlocking courtyards and overlapping epochs: an original 12th-century church, of which dazzling fragments remain; a ceramics factory, during which it acquired the five-pack of cooling towers; and a repository for conservationists, a role only recently acquired.

A walk in the park

One of Alfonso's few successes was the great Iberoamericana exposition of 1929, staged in the fabulous Maria Luisa park. It is dotted with absurdly caricatured pavilions, but the main glory is the Plaza de Espana - a monumental hemisphere, decorated to the last exquisite touch by the provinces of Spain.