City life that's very Moorish

For the quintessential North African experience in Spain lose yourself in Andalucia's beating heart, says Laura Bowd
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The Independent Travel

Seville is tucked into the south-west corner of the Iberian peninsula, at the centre of Moorish Andalucia. The region feels as North African as its 8th-century conquerors; from the intense summer heat to its dazzling tile-clad buildings and shady, geometric gardens. The city is Spain's fourth largest yet feels much smaller at its ancient core, where a maze of narrow alleys and cobbled streets crisscross one another around the cathedral.

WHERE?

Seville is tucked into the south-west corner of the Iberian peninsula, at the centre of Moorish Andalucia. The region feels as North African as its 8th-century conquerors; from the intense summer heat to its dazzling tile-clad buildings and shady, geometric gardens. The city is Spain's fourth largest yet feels much smaller at its ancient core, where a maze of narrow alleys and cobbled streets crisscross one another around the cathedral.

This huge structure is larger than St Peter's in Rome, yet the sheer density of the surrounding buildings obscure its bulk until you are almost on top of it. Originally a 12th-century mosque, the current structure was built in the 15th century by Christian elders who wished to create "a church which those who see it will think we were mad for attempting". Attached to its main section is the 300ft-high Giralda, a minaret of the original mosque that is now the cathedral's bell-tower and Seville's defining monument.

From the top of the tower are fabulous views over the terracotta roofs and the Andalucian countryside beyond, and reaching the summit is made easier thanks to there being no stairs, just a gently sloping ramp that allowed the müezzin to ascend on horseback and call the faithful to prayer (0034 954 502 323; www.patronato-alcazarsevilla.es; admission €7/£5; open July-Aug 9.30am-3.30pm, Mon-Sat; 2.30pm-6pm Sun; Sept-June 11am-5pm, Mon-Sat; 2.30pm-6pm Sun).

There is wide range of accommodation in Seville, from family owned townhouses to plush executive hotels. Booking ahead is essential between March and June and from September onwards when the temperatures are at their most bearable. In July and August, the mercury rises to uncomfortable levels and some residences may even be closed altogether. At the top of the scale is the Hotel Alfonso XIII (0034 954 917 000; www.westin.com), Seville's finest hotel that regularly hosts international royalty and their Andalucian equivalent - matadors - and has caviar and champagne on the breakfast menu. Just a short walk from the centre of the old town, doubles cost from €487 (£348), with breakfast.

A cheaper option is Los Seises, where doubles start at €144 (£103), with breakfast included. This converted former archbishop's residence is full of Arabic artefacts and has a rooftop pool that looks out over the Giralda (0034 954 229 495; www.hotellosseises.com). Further from the heart of the city is El Casa Del Maestro (0034 954 500 007; www.lacasadelmaestro.com), a gorgeous converted townhouse tucked down a quiet side-street in the Centro district, which was once owned by renowned flamenco guitarist Nino Ricardo. Doubles in this characterful residence, with its bright floor tiles and displays of matadors' costumes, cost from €107 (£76) with breakfast.

WHY?

Think of a Spanish cliché and you can almost certainly find it in Seville. From bullfighting to flamenco, tapas to gypsy guitar, the city is the beating heart of this fiery nation. And what seem like clichés to us are a very serious business in this part of the world - matadors in southern Spain are worshipped in the same way we fête footballers and rock stars. While some in the more cosmopolitan cities of the north, particularly Barcelona, see Andalucia's obsession with bullfighting distasteful, for the majority of Sevillans it is an integral part of their culture.

Whatever your views, a visit to the Mastraenza (Seville's bullring) provides probably the best opportunity to get under the skin of Andalucian life. While smaller than the bullrings in Madrid and even nearby Ronda, the Maestraenza, built in the 18th century, is regarded as the most important bullfighting venue in the country. Tours around the 14,000-seater stadium take place every 20 minutes provided there are no actual fights being staged and include an explanation of the history of a sport that has not changed in centuries (Paseo de Colon 18; 0034 954 224 577; www.realmaestraenza.com).

Seville could have been designed for the city break. You can lose yourself for hours among its winding, orange tree-lined streets, only to emerge, at the shady square where you started out. There are just a handful of landmark sights and if you fancy stopping for something to eat and a cold beer, the country's best food is on hand on every corner. Tapas bars abound in Seville; some are mediocre, some are superb (see below).

The warren of alleys that spreads like a cobweb from the Giralda through the Barrio Santa Cruz district harbours a thousand tapas joints, some of which are little more than a counter and a couple of stools. In the evening all of Seville comes out to eat, and when dishes cost from just €1 (70p) it's not difficult to see why.

Some of the smaller backstreet venues are a little rough around the edges (your bill is invariably written in chalk on the bar, and you can't stand on ceremony in some of the busier places if you want to order), but the food is simple and delicious. Specialities include melt-in-the-mouth jamon serrano, feather-light potato omelettes with roquefort sauce and spinach with cumin, walnuts and crispy bacon. Seville is also close enough to the sea to offer fresh calamari and snapper.

This is a city where it is acceptable to eat six times a day and where you will be in a minority if you sit down to dinner before 10pm.

WHAT?

The best thing to do in Seville is to wander the streets. Take a walk along the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir, the river that cuts through the city to the south of Barrio Santa Cruz.

Walking east from the Maestraenza you can escape the heat of the day in the exotic Parque de Maria, a lush collection of towering cypresses and babbling fountains.

Emerge from the northern edge of the park and you'll find yourself in the Plaza de España, a stunning, semicircular Moorish-style building that represents the 40 regions of Spain. There is a small canal that echoes the shape of the structure (under refurbishment at present), where you can hire a punt if you are feeling energetic.

Using the Giralda to navigate, walk back to Santa Cruz and head for the Alcazar, the city's royal palace, which dates back to the 14th century. The Alcazar's Moorish architecture, golden domes and hectares of vivid geometric tiles are enough to take your breath away and attached to the building are tranquil gardens large enough to find your own spot of shade no matter how large the crowds (0034 954 502 323; www.patronato-alcazarsevilla.es; admission €5 (£3.60); open Apr-Sept 9.30am-7pm, Tues-Sat; 9.30am-5pm Sun; Oct-Mar 9.30am-5pm Tues-Sat; 9.30am-1pm Sun).

If you want to get away from the busy streets of the Barrio Santa Cruz, head north to the Casa de Pilatos in the Centro district (0034 954 225 298; admission €8; open Mar-Sept 9am-7pm daily; Oct-Feb 9am-6pm daily). The 13th-century house has perhaps the loveliest gardens in the city - an intoxicating tangle of bougainvillea, lilies and honeysuckle around tiny ponds and statues from Italy. The house was mistakenly believed to have been built to the same dimensions as Pontius Pilates' after its owner went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, hence its name. The building is a little dusty inside, but its central courtyard, decorated with yet more vivid tile work, is magnificent.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

Confiteria La Campana at Calle Sierpes 1&3 (0034 954 223 570; www.confiterialacampana.com) is a great spot for the sweet-toothed with its home-made nougat speciality.

Bodega San Jose at Calle Adriano 10 (0034 954 224 105) is a chaotic bar where the floor will be covered in cigarette butts and olive stones by the end of the night and where your bill is chalked up on the bar.

Taberna del Alaberdero at Calle Zaragoza 20 (0034 954 502721; www.tabernadelalabardero.com)is the antithesis of Seville's tapas bars and well-known for its luxurious dining room and excellent service.

La Sacristia at Calle Mateos Gago 18 (00 34 954 229 725) has great tortillas (omelettes) with roquefort or whisky sauce and delicious croquettes with ham and mushrooms.

Hosteria del Laurel at Plaza de los Venerables 5 (0034 954 412 052; www.hosteriadellaurel.com) has a mention in the first act of Don Juan.

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