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Seville, the personal tour

Ask your guide to take you to the sights you really want to see. That's the idea of a new service on offer in this Andalucian city. Adrian Mourby put it to the test

Luis Salas is sitting under an orange tree opposite the tourist office. A small, quiet man, he is the Spanish half of Really Discover, a new walking tour initiative in Seville begun by Luis and his English business partner David Cox. As David has broken his ankle, Luis will be my guide today.

It's 10.30am and no one else has arrived, but this is part of what's different about Really Discover. They turn up every day (including Christmas) and even if there's only one client will still take a tour. At €25 (£18) for two and a half hours of expertise it's a bargain.

"So shall we have a coffee?" Luis asks and we disappear into an alley where most of Seville is taking its morning espresso outside a tiny café-bar. Really Discover believes talking over coffee is an important part of any tour, so I outline my interest in the sites connected with Bizet's Carmen. Luis nods and smiles sadly. Later in the day I find out that he does not much like Carmen, a "very French" opera. It must be like guiding people round London and being asked where Mary Poppins and Dick van Dyke jump into that pavement picture.

Still, we set off in brilliant sunshine to the Fábrica de Tabacos on Calle San Fernando. The great shock of the Seville cigarette factory is that it's not the squalid shack beloved of opera producers. Built in the 18th century, this is the second largest building in Spain. It looks like a cross between a barracks and a palace from the outside and has courtyards, cloisters and baroque fountains within.

"Are you sure this is the right place?" I ask Luis.

"The King of Spain had the monopoly of tobacco," he replies. "That is why Seville is so rich."

Luis leads me through this huge building which since 1974 has been home to the University of Seville. We come to the factory prison, a splendid red and ochre building that looks like a baroque chapel. This is where Carmen, had she ever existed, would have been incarcerated. Today it's the department of modern history. Every office was once a cell. Outside each is the nameplate calaboso or "galleon" indicating size of cell, which in turn indicates the status of the prisoner.

I listen while Luis talks to a very jolly lady, Professor Mercedes Gamero. He translates for my benefit. "The women who worked here were searched for tobacco as they left the building. They were mainly Egyptians from the other side of the river. They were very ... they were not very ..." Polite words fail him.

"Were they very free?" I suggest. Luis nods.

The professor shows us a document dating back to 1812 when the first women were allowed to work in the factory. There are several Carmens on the roll.

Next we walk across the modern piazza Puerta de Jerez which marked the entrance to the walled city and past the old opera house, built for the great Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, which would have done a lot for Seville had it not been upstaged by the Wall Street Crash. Opposite is the tiny Bodeguita Casablanca full of bull-fighting memorabilia and a favourite of King Carlos according to Luis. "When he comes to Seville, they close it and open just for him."

Is this the kind of place that Carmen would have run off to when she escaped prison, I wonder, but Luis has a better place in mind. Morales on Calle Garcia de Vinuesa is the darkest, scruffiest bodega I've ever seen. It majors on dust but its wine is renowned. According to Luis it is cuitre, an adjective he cannot translate but which makes him think of an old man's bar with only one lavabo. "In the old days the only women who come in here were ..." "Very free? " I suggest. Luis nods.

Carmen's story ends, as everyone knows, outside the bullring and that is where Luis takes me next. The Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza is one of Spain's oldest. It's a low 18th-century building down by the Guadalquivir river and was outside the city walls when constructed. The colour scheme is all white and albero (Spanish ochre). In this morning's sunshine, it is dazzling. There are statues of famous matadors outside. In bronze these men look serious and self-contained, not like the swaggering, bragging baritones who sing Escamillo in Bizet's opera. The Feria is in April so definitely no action today.

Luis finds out when the next tour starts and tells me I must pay €5. I'm glad he's there to negotiate because the tiny ladies in the office do not speak English. I join a multilingual group that is led into the arena and am bowled over by the colours. More white and albero, a bright blue sky and below it the great circular sandy disc of the arena, framed by a low blood-red wall. It looks like a set, which indeed it is, but a set for a very serious ritual of death rather than an opera by one French man based on a novella by another. Still, I have certainly had my Carmen tour.

Luis joins me and asks if there is anything else I would like to see. If I am interested in opera, there is the house of Don Giovanni (real name Miguel de Manara). He was from Seville, as was Figaro, the factotum in Rossini's Barber of Seville. Luis knows all these sites. "Many people write operas about Seville," he says as we head off in search of lunch and I can't help feeling that somehow that makes him very sad.

Further reading 'Carmen and Other Stories' by Prosper Mérimée, translated by Nicholas Jotcham (Oxford University Press, price £8.99)

How to get there

Really Discover offers a variety of tours of Seville (00 34 645 350 750; reallydiscover.com). Iberia (iberia.com), Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Clickair (clickair.com) fly to the city. Adrian Mourby stayed at the Hotel Alfonso XIII (00 34 954 917 000; luxury collection.com/ alfonsoxiii), which offers double rooms starting from €350 (£269) per night.