Showtime in Carmen's old stamping ground

Bizet's flamboyant heroine still haunts Seville, discovers Jeremy Atiyah. Even if she's really a Belgian tour guide called Johanna
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The Independent Travel

It's 8pm and the solar whiteout is not yet finished. But I'm on a walking tour of Seville with Carmen. Carmen? Haven't I heard that name somewhere before? With her dark tangled hair and long baggy skirt she seems to have a touch of gypsy about her. She is slightly grungy, and might have been a fire-eater or a juggler on Brighton beach. She keeps projecting her voice above the rooftops, gesticulating wildly to the sky, breaking out into throaty songs. The only snag about her is that she is not Spanish, nor even a gypsy. She is, in fact, Belgian. Her real name is Johanna Vandenbussche.

It's 8pm and the solar whiteout is not yet finished. But I'm on a walking tour of Seville with Carmen. Carmen? Haven't I heard that name somewhere before? With her dark tangled hair and long baggy skirt she seems to have a touch of gypsy about her. She is slightly grungy, and might have been a fire-eater or a juggler on Brighton beach. She keeps projecting her voice above the rooftops, gesticulating wildly to the sky, breaking out into throaty songs. The only snag about her is that she is not Spanish, nor even a gypsy. She is, in fact, Belgian. Her real name is Johanna Vandenbussche.

But she definitely resembles the character from Bizet's opera, and she is also Seville's most theatrical tour guide. "I am the free, roaming spirit of Carmen!" she roars. "No one can tie me down!" She describes her act as "stand-up tragedy", and has already been on Spanish TV several times. Today, we, her paying customers, number about 15 people, including one state senator from Oklahoma and several citizens of France who cannot understand English (but who love Bizet). "The people of Seville," she is explaining, with an apologetic laugh, "are a little bit ashamed of Carmen." Which is why she, a Belgian, has taken responsibility for shouldering her story.

Off we go, with Carmen in the lead, heading on down to the tobacco factory. She is trundling a tatty old shopping bag on wheels behind her, from which she occasionally whips out an accordion. Then she begins to sing, rough little songs for Carmen and her lover Don Jose, whose two faces, on cardboard, face each other in an eternal stroppy stand-off above the accordion.

"Welcome to my factory!" she cries, when we get there. My idea of the tobacco factory from the Carmen story is of a handful of women in a seedy little sweatshop. In fact, this factory was the centrepiece of Spanish industry, and here it is: a monumental, square 18th-century palace, larger even than Seville's giant cathedral. It has royal gates and moats. Forty years ago it was converted into a university building; until then, it was a factory that at its zenith had employed 12,000 people.

And as Carmen now explains, you had to have very nimble fingers to get a job there. In other words, you had to be a woman, preferably (if rumours were true) a sultry, long-haired beauty with flashing coal-black eyes and a dagger in your garter, who would break out into a spontaneous foot-stomping, neck-arching, castanet-clicking dance routine every time the foreman turned his back.

No wonder the tobacco factory of Seville became a focal point of delirious male attention. In the southern heat, stories of passionate gypsies and heaving bosoms in the workplace (combined, perhaps, with memories of the Moorish harem) became ever more intense. Out of all this, Prosper Mérimée, a French visitor to Seville in the early 19th century, was stimulated to write a suitably febrile story about a woman called Carmen, a story later adapted by Bizet.

"It was all Columbus's fault," Carmen is complaining, on the subject of self-indulgent males. She reminds us of how Seville had grown rich in the first place from the fantastic American trade. For nearly 200 years, the city had revelled in the massive benefits of a legal monopoly, after a royal decree stipulated that all ships from the Americas sail right up the Guadalquivir into Seville itself.

Luxury, then, is nothing new to these streets. This is a city where architects could afford to worry as much about the smell and sound of their buildings as their appearance. We pass a sign advertising "LOVELY TYPICAL SEVILLIAN HOUSES WITH SMELL OF ORANGE BLOSSOM FOR RENT". From courtyards green with foliage and littered with oranges comes the trickle of water and the coo of doves.

We head back to the centre. Tourists in shady squares are thinking about the first drink of the evening. Horse-and-carriage drivers keep shouting "Hola Carmen!" as they trot past. Right by the Alcazar, we find ourselves on a street called Miguel Mañara, which prompts Carmen to break out into new raptures. "My hero!" she cries, crossing her hands lovingly over her heart, before beginning to tell the tale of her alter ego, that other Sevillian symbol of libertinism - Don Juan, later immortalised by Mozart as Don Giovanni.

It is not clear who came first, the historical figure Miguel Mañara or the mythical character Don Juan, who first appeared as El Burlador de Sevilla ("the Seducer of Seville") in 1630, in a play by the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina. But either way, sensual Seville was their stage. Both date from the early 17th century; both were licentious but attractive rascals who lived for the day, and had great difficulties remembering about the morrow - not unlike Carmen herself (but very different from Seville's third operatic child, Figaro, the comic hero of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro).

Carmen, meanwhile, continues to talk passionately about Miguel Mañara. As a young man, she explains, Mañara had not only ruined the chastity of respectable girls, but also had even taken to murdering their fathers. Later in life he had done a famous about-turn, becoming a prior and spending his entire fortune on a hospital for the poor. Now he is regarded in Seville as something close to a saint. "A little bit of an extremist," sighs Carmen, as we stroll past the 16th-century former stock exchange, "but a typical son of Seville."

Now she sits us all down in the shadow of the Giralda and begins to sing about the circumstances of how she met Don Jose, her lover in Bizet's story. She had cut another woman's face, she calmly explains, after being mocked for her gypsy origins. "And Don Jose was one of those assigned to the job of taking me off to prison!" she adds, with a laugh. "That was how we met!" But before Carmen has time to explain further, the bells of the Giralda start ringing like crazy, swinging and ringing as if there is no tomorrow. The heat is crushing, but the sun has set and a Spanish couple will marry.

We walk down towards the river into the old warehouse area that used to back on to the port. The poor once teemed here in their thousands. But Carmen's beaming smile tells us a story: for here is the grand Hospital of the Caridad, the hospital built on the orders of her old friend Miguel Mañara. And there, in a courtyard opposite, overgrown with roses and long grass, we glimpse a forgotten statue of the man himself.

Yet another Sevillian wedding is taking place, just as we try to peer into the famous chapel of the hospital. The guests are in elegant silk and chiffon; we tourists in shorts and sandals. But there in the doorway lies the tombstone of Miguel Mañara. Carmen is clapping her hands in joy and exclaiming at the top of her voice, to the consternation of the wedding guests: "He wanted all the world to walk all over him!" But I can't help wondering if he wasn't just lobbying for sainthood. "With great humility, in his will," I now read, engraved in stone, "he demanded to be buried where all could tread on him... here lie the ashes of the worst man who has ever lived in the world." If that isn't a bad case of 17th-century spin, I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, we are about to emerge on the river itself. Over there in Triana, on the opposite bank, are some of the best and cheapest bars for fishy tapas in the world. Later, I'll sit there and look back over the city, while snacking on sardines dipped in sea salt and scorched on coals. But over here, our singing guide is bringing her story to a climax. We pause under the ancient vaulted ceilings of what used to be Seville's shipyard, to listen in on the increasingly disputatious relationship of Carmen and Don Jose.

And now here at last is the famous bullring of Seville. By the river, we see proud, pompous arches of gleaming white plaster coming into view under a steel-blue sky: how small and funny it looks compared with its modern equivalent, the football stadium.

But there is nothing funny about this place. Later I'll enter the ring to see shaded seats for princes and for owners - and broiling sun for everybody else. Ominous damp patches stain the sand. The intensity and the intimacy are too much; all of society can see itself in here. There is the small chapel, stuffed with virgins, where bullfighters make their prayers; and here, in the museum, is the stuffed head of a cow, the mother of the bull that killed Manolete, Spain's most famous fighter, in 1947. Carmen hates all this. "But the strange thing was," she adds, with a sheepish smile, "that I did fancy the picador."

Ah yes, the picador. Carmen's fatal mistake. So there it was, outside the bullring, in a dusty square by the river, that she and jealous lover had their last argument. "Come to America or you die!" Don Jose threatened. Carmen, of course, refused. "I chose the spirit of my city," she tells us, "of freedom!"

At this moment I feel oddly emotional. All of us have fallen silent. Right by the river we find ourselves beside Seville's only statue of Carmen, who, in bronze, seems diminutive, and more demure than I would have depicted her. Her face is serious rather than sultry. "Sad, isn't it, dear people!" shouts the living Carmen, with a big laugh. "Poor Don Jose killed me! But as I've already told you, although I am dead, my spirit is free. Isn't that amazing, dear people?"

The Facts

Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah travelled with Spain at Heart (01373 814222; www.spainatheart.co.uk) and Europcar (0870-607 5000; www.europcar.co.uk). A three-night break in Seville starts at £350 per person, based on two sharing, including scheduled flights with British Airways and b&b. Europcar offers a week's car hire from £140 for a group A car.

The Facts

Carmen's guided walking tour departs daily except Tuesday and Sunday at 7pm from the corner of Calle Sto. Thomas and Calle Miguel Mañara, near the Alcazar entrance. What you pay is up to you.

Further information

Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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