Why I prefer Seville's ugly sister

Across the water from the heart of the beautiful Andalusian city lies Triana - its shabby, lusty, bloody alter ego, says Robert Elms
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The Independent Travel
Triana is more than just the other side of the river. Seville is a city sharply divided by the waterway that runs through it and the two clearly defined and distinctly differentcommunities on opposite banks of the slow-flowing Guadalquivir have conflicting characters. An entirely separate city from Roman times onwards - Triana - the mythic home of bullfighters, flamenco dancers, gypsies and scoundrels, is more than just the other side of the river, it's the other side of the Andalusian character. Where Seville is cool and gracious, arch and glorious, Triana is the heart, or perhaps more accurately the guts, the raging fire in the belly of the deep south.

There's little doubt that Seville, with its elaborate Moorish monuments and its ravishing patios draped in bougainvillea, is the more beautiful half of the equation. Seville is the most effortlessly elegant city in all Spain, especially among haughty Sevillaos. But even the straight- backed denizens of the Andalusian capital do not look down on the poorer, more prosaic barrio over the river. They know that although Triana is now little more than a slightly shabby suburb of their illustrious town it possesses a potent mythology and an almost tangible atmosphere all its own. For Triana is not so much a place as a spirit.

Apart from Calle Betis, the fine riverside road which has the best view in Seville because it looks directly at the city's most extravagant landmarks - the Torre del Oro and the Giralda, the handsome bullring and the monstrous cathedral, Triana is not a pretty place. This is partly because it was the one area of the city that was extensively damaged during the civil war: it was the one area of precious, ultra-conservative Seville that resisted the Nationalists.

It was always the tough working-class barrio, though, the place where they made the elaborate tiles which adorn so many exalted walls on the other side. The impoverished ugly sister with few trinkets to display, it's easy to understand why almost no outsiders make it there. They're missing out, although exactly what on is difficult to say.

Calle Betis has a series of splendid vantage points from which to take in that bewitching view and is now an established part of the ritual paseo or parade around town every summer's evening. There are expensive waterfront restaurants such as Rio Grande where the food cannot hope to equal the scenery and a couple of upmarket bodegas where you can nibble olives and sip sherry with the smart set slumming it for an hour or so. But it's perhaps best to stand under the tattered canopy of the nameless sardine stall that serves working men nothing but those chronically undervalued little fish scorched on a brazier, and ice cold glasses of beer. Triana, even on its one gentrified street, is a place of strong, sometimes harsh, flavours.

The minute you cross the wrought-iron Puente Isabel II, known to all as the Triana Bridge and see the elaborate, slightly worrying shrine at the far side and you know you're arriving at a darker, more devout place. Directly before you stands a macabre icon of another kind. An angular sad-eyed statue of the ultimate local hero, the torero Manolete, the man who defined modern bullfighting. And with classic Trianero honesty his memorial comes complete with a gaping hole in the middle where a horn sent him to immortality.

The great taurine triumphs that matter so much here may occur back in Seville, in that picture book ring that taunts poor Triana boys who grow up in its gaze, but those who make a name in that bloody arena invariably come from this side of the divide. And to this day if a local matador does his murderous business well they will carry him on shoulders, in his glittering suit of lights, along the river and over the bridge, back to his true home, the true home of this ancient ritual. Triana on those nights will know no sleep.

And just as Triana is obsessed with the bulls, so it is also the spiritual heartland of that other unique Andalusian art form, flamenco. There are nofamous clubs or bars where you can go to watch the stars stamp and stammer out their ageless soul music. Instead, dancers and musicians are all over Seville, in the over-priced tableaux keeping the tourists entertained. But in Triana with its strong gypsy heritage, flamenco is still the music of the masses. That rapid rhythmic patter and those intense, ululating sighs, so like the muezzin calling the faithful to dance, seep out of every tenement window. They also spontaneously erupt in little one-room restaurants called freiduras where they serve wonderful sea-food fried in coarse oil washed down with thick red wine from La Mancha. Live, impromptu flamenco is the sound of the spirit of Triana.

And befitting a place whose essence resides in ideas and feelings rather than concrete or stone, Triana seems to shift around somehow, to defy all attempts to pin it down. In spite of the fact that nothing ever changes there, you can never find the little unassuming spot where you ended up dancing on the tables until four in the morning with the overweight matron, or argued for hours about politics with the embittered old man with bad black teeth and a fine white shirt. It's impossible to plan a night out in Triana, impossible not to get lost in the web of bland looking streets with preposterous names like Virtue, Work and Prosperity. (Franco actually believed he could reform the scurrilous, indolent and poor who lived in them by giving them such a silly nomenclature.) But then getting lost is probably the best way to start an adventure. Triana feels like it's been lost for years.

The one tip is to stop for a tapas and a glass of fino in one of the bars that bears the word pea. A pea is a kind of informal club house where like-minded souls gather to smoke copious Ducados and sing and shout the praises, usually of a particular bullfighter, a flamenco singer, or possibly of poor downtrodden Betis. (Betis are Triana's dreadful football team who live for ever in the shadow of Seville FC and excite fanatical support over here on the wrong side of the water. The dying gasp of one famous torero is even said to have been "How are Betis doing?") And it's in the peas that passions run highest.

In times of great passion, the famous feria and numerous holy parades when the city gives itself over to non-stop communal celebration, Triana comes into its own. The huge temporary town of marquees erected for the week of fiestas every April is on the Triana side of the river and the most raucous and riotous tents are those full of local families. And whenever there is a saint to be celebrated, so Triana parades its piety, its icons and its virgins with a fervour and a flair unequalled elsewhere in this show-off city. But then this is always a fervent place. In Triana there's little to go and see but so much to experience.


Getting there: the only airline that flies between the UK and Seville is Iberia (071-830 0011). Lowest return fare for its daily Heathrow- Seville flight is £140 including tax (minimum stay: one Saturday night).

Numerous operators arrange packages to Seville, such as Time Off (071- 235 8070), which charges £264 for a two-night trip staying in a two-star hotel.

Further information: Spanish National Tourist Office, 57 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (071-499 0901).