A short stay in...; Seville

Fiestas, bullfights, flamenco and the world's best tapas - welcome to the capital of Andalusa, the 'frying pan of Spain'. Gareth Lloyd takes the temperature on the streets of this vibrant city where celebrating is a way of life
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The Independent Travel
WHY GO THERE

Seville, the home of Don Juan and Carmen, is the perfect place to fall in love. It is a city which oozes sophisticated sensuality, more so than either Paris or Venice at this time of year. In the day you can stroll sun-bathed boulevards, explore exotic palaces and museums saturated in history, and shop for bargains in exclusive fashion boutiques. At night you can lose yourself in the tangle of streets in the city's old quarter, dance flamenco and eat the best tapas in the world.

WHEN TO GO

Seville, lying on the dusty plains of Andalusia, is known as "the frying pan of Spain". In spring the temperature often hits 35C and by July can top 45C. For most people now is the best time of year to visit. The hordes of visitors and fierce summer heat have long gone, but the mild winters ensure that flowers still bloom.

HOW TO GET THERE

Iberia's scheduled flights (tel 0171 830 0011) offer greatest flexibility for those on a weekend break. Return fares start from around pounds 173 this November, rising to around pounds 300 for Christmas. A standard rail ticket costs from pounds 230 return (tel 0171 834 234). An alternative for those under 26 is a discounted BIJ ticket available through Wasteels (tel 0171 834 70660 for about pounds 197.

GETTING AROUND

Walking is the best way to sightsee, although taxis are cheap and reliable. The 12km journey from the airport costs only pounds 6; the same journey on the airport bus costs pounds 3.30 to and from the Hotel Alfonso XIII on Avenida de Roma. Seville's main tourist office (see Information) has details on all other city bus services. An embarrassing way to tour the city is by horse and carriage; rides starting from the cathedral and Plaza de Espana cost about pounds 20 per hour, plus tip.

FIESTAS

l Following Palm Sunday is Semana Santa (ie Easter) when you'll find processions of marchers in Klu Klux Klan-style pointed hats, carrying floats, while penitents flog themselves with chains in religious ecstasy. After Good Friday the holiday is given over to huge family celebrations.

l In the last week in April Seville becomes the venue for the week-long Feria de Abril; the largest fair in Spain. In the day there are huge horse parades with thousands of men and women in traditional dress; at night the women dress like gipsies and the men like bullfighters and dancing, singing and drinking is obligatory.

WHAT TO SEE

Fortunately, Seville is not one of those cities with an endless list of "must see" sights, consequently, you don't feel too guilty if you take time out to relax. If you are in a real hurry, check out the Sevirama city tour bus, which departs from near the Torre del Oro, costs about pounds 5.70 and zips round the main sights.

The Cathedral and Giralda: the cavern-like Gothic cathedral - the largest in the world - forms a stunning centrepiece of the city. The square tower, the Giralda, was originally a Moorish minaret - its counterpart is the Kotoubia in Marrakesh. Climb the winding ramp to the summit for an eagle- eye view of the city.

Alczar Real: (Tues-Sat 10.30am-5pm, Sun 10am-1pm; pounds 2.50) Seville's wonderful old Moorish palace was gradually converted to serve Spanish needs, but past influences can be seen in its bright geometric tiles - azulejos - and intricate lattice work. The gardens are a lush mish-mash from all ages and an excellent spot for a picnic and a siesta.

Barrio Santa Cruz: This formerly Jewish quarter of town is a glorious chaos of narrow streets, with stylish, flower-bedecked, white-washed houses decorated in cinnamon and earth colours. Many of the windows are covered with rejas (iron grilles), behind which girls were once kept chaste.

Museo de Bellas Artes: (Tues-Sun 9am-3pm; free with an EU passport) This startling former convent is Spain's second fine art gallery, being home to works by Murillo and Zurabarn, two of Seville's Golden Age Masters, and Spain's most celebrated artists.

La Cartuja (Tues-Sun 11am-9pm; free - with an EU passport) and the Expo '92 site: Since its foundation in 1399, this former Carthusian monastery has had a varied life as a lodging place of Columbus, the headquarters of Napoleonic invaders and as a ceramics factory run by a Liverpudlian, Charles Pickman. It's surrounded by the Expo '92 site - one of the century's most expensive white elephants. Rusting space-age hulks lie abandoned amid shabby, rubbish-strewn lawns.

Maria Luisa Park: With its wooded walkways, colourful follies and lakes, this relic of the 1929 Iberoamerican Exhibition offers respite from the urban hubbub. Unlike the 1992 Expo, the 1929 jamboree did leave its mark on Seville. The Plaza de Espana, comprising a vast semi-circular palace built in a pastiche of Renaissance, Art Deco, Mudejar and Baroque styles, is here to stay.

Antigua Fbrica de Tabacos: This was where Bizet's fiery Carmen worked as a cigarette-maker. Up until the factory's closure in 1965, men with bull-fighting tendencies would come here in search of Carmens of their own. Today this enormous building is a university but still well worth a look.

Maenstransa Bullring: (Tues-Sat 10am-1.30pm; pounds 1) To aficionados, this is the finest bullring on earth. Tourists might prefer to see its white and ochre paintwork on days when bulls are not being tortured to death, but check with the city tourist office (see Information) for fight dates.

Musco Argueolgic: (Tues-Sun 10am-2.30pm; free with EU passport). Being one of the most important archaeological museums in Spain, it's a must for anyone interested in getting to grips with the region's development. Rooms crammed with artefacts span from pre-history to the end of the Moorish age.

Real Betis and Sevilla football clubs: For a less violent form of entertainment, try football. Trouble is extremely rare among the mixed-sex, family-orientated crowds that Spanish football invariably attracts.

FOOD AND DRINK

Sevillianos are spoilt for choice when it comes to food and drink. The city is most famous for its atmospheric tapas bars, which offer a fabulous variety of cheap and varied dishes. These are best accompanied by either the intoxicating Jerez and Sanlucar sherries, or a shot of liqueur in a coffee (carajillo). A drink and tapas rarely costs more than pounds 1.50.

Bodega Santa Cruz (c/Justino de Neve 2), close to the cathedral, is a friendly traditional tapas place where your tab is scrawled in chalk on the bar in front of you. The substantial menu changes daily but dishes to look out for are cola de toro (bull's tail in stock and wine sauce,) or puntillitas fritas (tiny, deep-fried baby squid).

Bodega Morales (c/Garcia Vinuesa) is a Sevillian institution. This dusty, cobwebbed bar has huge earthenware vats, or tinajas, each holding thousands of litres of Valdepenas wine. Even if you don't eat here it's a fabulous photo opportunity.

Jalea Real (c/Sor Angela de la Cruz 37; tel 421 61 03) is a haven for vegetarians wanting to escape tortillas and queso (cheese), where nothing on the menu costs more than pounds 5. The spinach crepes, fresh salads and pancakes are divine.

Rio Grande (c/Betis 70; tel 427 39 56) is a great place for a night-time blowout. The window tables in the conservatory offer a view of the river, the Torre del Oro and the Giralda. Eating a la carte costs around pounds 20, with fish in exquisite sauces a house speciality.

Horno de San Buena Aventura (c/Vinuesa 10) just at the back of the cathedral, is the perfect place to drop in for a coffee or the last word in Spanish cakes and breads. It's also a great place to pick up food gifts, from sugared almonds to a gift-wrapped tortilla.

NIGHTLIFE

As most Sevillianos take extended siestas in the heat of the day, the city naturally comes to life at night-time. Wandering the streets you'll come across endless temptations but a few to look out for are:

Bar Quita Pesares (Plaza Jeronimo de Cordoba) is owned by Peregil, the famous flamenco singer. It's a throbbing, hip hangout where dancing, music and a song or ten from the owner are a serious possibility.

Los Gallos (Plaza de Santa Cruz) has nightly flamenco shows at 9pm and 11.30pm featuring professional dancers. The pounds 13 entrance fee includes one free drink. It's the best of the organised shows but a long way from the spontaneous flamenco of El Tamboril, tucked away in the northeast corner of the same square.

Bestario (Plaza Nuevo end of c/Zaragoza) is a disco bar full of young bodies sweating and gyrating to a manic bakoloa beat.

WHERE TO STAY

While accommodation prices do tend to be higher than elsewhere in Spain (especially during fiesta time when they rise by at least 50 per cent), there is something for every budget.

Hotel Alfonso XIII (c/San Fernando; tel 422 2850). For style at high prices this place is unsurpassed. It's where visiting royals and film stars stay. Behind the neo-baroque facade lie huge bedrooms with silk- covered walls and elaborate furniture. Rooms start at pounds 180.

Hotel Simon (c/Garcia Vinuesa; tel 422 6660), an 18th-century mansion in the heart of the old town, has decorative tiles, revolving fans and simple but charming rooms from around pounds 25 to pounds 50.

Hotel Estoril (c/Gravina; tel 422 5095) is spotlessly clean and extremely friendly. While rooms veer on the basic and small side, its quiet, central location and cheap prices more than make up for this. Rooms cost from pounds 8 to pounds 14.

Pension Vegara (c/Ximenez de Ensico 11; tel. 422 47 38) is the best value in Seville. Although all rooms are simply furnished, they are covered in azulejos, painted trees and festival posters. Flower-covered balconies overlook the street below. Prices start at less than pounds 6.

Aubergue Juvenil Sevilla (c/Issac Peral; tel 461 3150) has beds in functional dorms going for about pounds 7. The only problem is its out-of-town location, but nevertheless it's a fine place to make friends if you're alone.

OUT OF TOWN

You'll have more than enough to do for a weekend or even a leisurely week in Seville, but for a break from the city you could try one of the following:

Take a bus to Italica, just seven kilometres from Seville, to see the remains of a substantial Roman settlement, the birthplace of the emperors, Hadrian and Trajan. Features to check out include an amphitheatre, villas, mosaics and a theatre.

The Coto Donana National Park is among the last great wetlands of southern Europe. Its dunes, sandbanks and forests are the breeding place of the imperial eagle and flamingo and is home to the relatively rare lynx, wild boar and red deer. To book a tour, call the Centro de Recepcin de Acebuche (tel 959/44 87 11; English is spoken).

Carmona is a picturesque ancient town, just an hour's bus ride from Seville. It has been a favourite with foreign visitors for centuries. Founded by the Carthaginians in the third century BC, it became an important trading post under the Romans, and an important taifa state in Moorish times.

shopping

The pedestrianised Calle Sierpes and the narrow lanes running off it, make up the heart of the city's shopping area. Around here you can pick up ceramics - for which the city is famous - hand-painted silk fans and leather handbags. Traditional Spanish clothes are available: for off-the- peg feria costumes go to Maricuz at Calle Cuna 74. At the boutique department of El Corte Ingles on calle San Eloy 6, all the major Spanish designers are represented. Small delicatessens offering an assortment of fine sherries, local olives and whole legs of preserved ham are dotted all over the place.

books

David Baird's Inside Andalusia (Mirrador, pounds 13.50) is a perceptive overview of the region with lots of interesting observations and insights and plenty of illustrations. The best guide book is the Rough Guide to Andaluca by Garvey and Ellingham (Rough Guide, pounds 9.99).

language

Outside the main tourist enclaves English is not widely spoken. Even if you're hopeless, the locals will appreciate your small efforts to communicate in their language. A simple phrase book and a pocket dictionary prove to be invaluable, particularly when you're setting out on a gastronomic expedition.

deals/packages

Travelling independently is not a problem, though there are a number of companies offering tailored weekend breaks to Seville from as little as pounds 245 per person. Among the best are Time Off (tel 0171 235 8070), Magic of Spain (tel 0181 748 4220) and Travellers Way (tel 01527 836 791).

CURRENCY

The Spanish currency is the peseta, of which there are currently around 230 to pounds 1. The city's many cash machines, which take Visa and Mastercard and have instructions in English, offer the easiest way of obtaining the bulk of your holiday cash.

INFORMATION

The Spanish Tourist Office (57-58 St James St, London SW1A 1LD; tel 0171 499 0901) is helpful with general information. For more precise details Seville's main tourist office, Turismo, (Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 10am-2pm; tel 422 1404) just south of the cathedral at Avda de la Constitucion 21, is a better bet.

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