Seville: Winter wander

Dominic Lawson takes a festive stroll through Seville to discover secret squares, uncrowded restaurants and fantastic architecture

Those who have eyes to see could never tire of the beauty of Seville. Yet its special atmosphere feeds all the senses. On a Sunday stroll down the main commercial street, Calle Sierpes, I stood still and briefly closed my eyes. I could smell the incense wafting down from the Christmas nativity market in the Plaza San Francisco, mixed with the more pungent aromas of the roast-chestnut vendors closer to hand. At the same time I could hear the strains of a busking quartet a peculiar mixture of two violins, double bass and flute playing a sublime piece of Mozart; and above that, the persistent hoarse shouts of the elderly men selling tickets for the Loteria del Navidad.

There are times in Seville when one feels not so much two-and-a-half hours away from Britain which of course it is as the jet flies but at least 30 years adrift. Children are immaculately clad in suits or dresses, brothers or sisters often in identical clothes; they are accompanied not just by their parents, but by grandmothers a fair number of them (this is winter, after all) in fur coats. To add to this marvellous display of what would be described as political incorrectness in a country which acknowledged the term, the odd couple of gun-toting policemen stroll by smoking!

Not the least foreign aspect to modern English eyes is the overt and intense Catholicism of Southern Spain. That extraordinary market in the Plaza San Francisco is only the most trivial aspect of it although it is amazing to see an entire acre filled with stalls selling Nativity toys of varying degrees of mechanical ingenuity, three kings to the fore and not a single Santa to be seen anywhere.

Our weekend in Seville coincided with the Saturday marking the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, so even though this otherwise would be one of the busiest shopping days before Christmas, not one of the main shops was open. We walked down to the Cathedral, to hear the vast congregation chanting the "Hail Holy Queen", in Latin Salve Regina. My wife said it was the first time that she had it heard it sung in that form since she left her Belgian Ursuline Convent school almost four decades ago, and seemed slightly overcome by this evocation of the past.

Yet it is not in the almost-lunatic grandeur of the improbably vast cathedral that the intense Catholicism of Seville is most evident, but in the small convents which can be seen throughout the old part of the city. They are called "closed orders" but many seem to have no bar on daytime visitors.

On a busy little side-street, the Calle Aguilas, we dodged the traffic to enter the Convent of Santa Maria de Jesus. Twelve nuns were sitting in front of the elaborate and ornate 16th-century altarpiece, a locked gate separating them from us and a handful of other outsiders. From behind the nuns were almost indistinguishable, all hooded in black save one, a novice, cowled in white. This was a silent order, and there they sat, performing motionlessly as well as wordlessly what a little note on the outside of the convent proclaimed as "Adoració* permanente a Jesus sacramento". The strangest aspect of all was the contrast between the timeless immobility and silence of the nuns and the audibly urgent movement of cars and small lorries just a few yards and one wall away.

In one sense, this is characteristic of Seville: it's a busy city whose narrowest streets teem with movement and bustle yet suddenly one's eye is drawn to a window or an arch which opens onto a vista of extravagant space, with courtyards stretching further than seems geometrically feasible in such tiny alleyways. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Dr Who's Tardis, or some ancient version of the same dimensional necromancy.

We were fortunate enough to be staying in one of these alleyway palaces the Casa Imperial, a 16th-century nobleman's house now converted into a 24-room luxury hotel. Its series of inner courtyards with fountains are, I imagine, a delightful escape during the furnace of summer.

In winter this very open style of architecture must make it a devil to keep warm, but the staff manage it with those great gas burners like upside-down rockets that keep exiled smokers warm outside their UK offices. These devices were certainly powerful enough to enable us to enjoy our breakfast in a courtyard under open skies in December, with orange juice so fresh I was determined to believe that the fruit was picked from the Imperial's own orange trees.

Although we never set eyes on any other guests, and were therefore always on our own at breakfast, the buffet set before us was on every occasion was lavish, as if for a full hotel. It made us feel almost guilty, but only almost, as we needed to gorge ourselves in preparation for some serious walking. That really seems to be the best way to explore the heart of old Seville, as the various sectors particularly the Jewish quarter and the exquisite Barrio de Santa Cruz seem to morph in and out of each other almost indeterminately. It is very easy to get lost, but in a strange way that is part of the pleasure : a square that you had no particular intention of visiting suddenly reveals itself as a gem to which you would want to return if only it were as easy to find deliberately as it had been to walk into accidentally.

After a few hours of such wandering, a bank of tapas bars can suddenly appear like manna from heaven. It's noticeable that quite often one such bar will be packed, but the one next to it is almost deserted. The common-sense deduction is that the locals know which is the one with the best food but I'm not so sure. Acting on that principle we fought our way into one very crowded and old-established tapas bar around the back of the Cathedral and can report that for all its apparent repute, the food was so grim I would have ordered mouthwash instead of coffee, had it been available.

Yet El Giraldillo, which offered tapas at tables with a wonderful direct view of the Giralda tower in the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, was almost touting for business and provided the most seductive melt-in-the-mouth oxtail croquettes (a Sevillian speciality with which I had become strangely fixated).

The glory of southern Spanish cuisine, of course, is in its sweets and puddings it is almost as though what comes before is a mere chaser to the serious business with sugar. Our hotel, for example, recommended a nearby restaurant, a pricey number called Becerrita. The first and second courses were undistinguished, except for the excessive saltiness which is the local style. Yet my tocinillo de cielo lived up to its name: this little pig felt as if he was in heaven.

If you want the very highest culinary standards in a more modern style, however, then a place like Becerrita is not for you nor is it meant to be. I'd recommend instead Taberna del Alabardero in Calle Zaragoza, part of a hotel school which has trained a series of outstanding young chefs. I count as a precious memory my first course of truffled gnocchi over leek pure and sautd borage with lobster. Yes, the Taberna del Alabardero is expensive but you will pay more for much less inspiring dinner in the West End of London.

More to the point, where else but in Seville could you stumble almost accidentally into a place like the Casa de Pilatos, built in 1519 and still the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Medinaceli y Alcala? Its state rooms are dramatic enough in their own architectural right, even before you begin to notice the extraordinary artefacts hanging on the walls here a disembodied arm from an ancient Roman sculpture hanging from a bracket, there a bizarre, not to say obscene, encounter immortalised in marble between Leda and a hugely excited swan.

Leave these strange rooms behind and you find yourself in a series of gardens with their own peculiarly powerful, slightly decadent atmosphere. Even in December the senses are overpowered by the smell of massive magnolia flowers, hanging down from ancient trees like church bells on a cathedral tower; and meanwhile the whoops and caws of birds invisible yet ever-present add to the strange sense of being watched.

For as much as you want to devour Seville with your eyes, it stares back at you in its own, implacable, way.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The writer's trip was supported by the Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info/uk); he flew from Gatwick with Clickair (00 800 2542 5247; www.clickair.com). Seville is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Liverpool and Stansted.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).



STAYING THERE

Hotel Casa Imperial, Imperial 29, Seville, Andalucia, Spain (00 34 95 450 0300; www.casaimperial.com). Suites start at €193 (138), including breakfast.



EATING & DRINKING THERE

Restaurante el Giraldillo, Plaza Virgen de los Reyes 2, Seville (00 34 954 214 525).

Restaurante Becerrita, Calle Recaredo 9, Seville (00 34 954 412 057).

Taberna del Alabardero, Calle Zaragoza 20, Seville (00 34 954 502 721).



VISITING THERE

Casa de Pilatos (00 34 954 225 298), open 9am-6pm; €8 (5.70).



MORE INFORMATION

00 34 954 221 404; www.turismo.sevilla.org.

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