Let a palatial hotel lure your family to the seat of Spain's greatest kingdom to explore the country's rich history.
Seville (or SAY-veel-ya) is located in the southwest part of the Iberian Peninsula and is the cultural and financial capital of Andalucia. The fourth largest city in Spain, it has a population of more than 700,000. Sitting astride the Guadalquivir River in a flat plain, Seville’s sprawl extends out towards the Las Marismas salt marshes, the DoÃ±ana National Park, and up the rugged Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur mountains.
Because so many historic and cultural sights are tucked within the old quarter, visitors can appreciate its small town charm. In summer, the sleepy, one-hour guided cruise along the Guadalquivir reinforces Seville’s laid back ambiance. The climate is described as “Mediterranean,” with temperatures of 26ºC/72ºF as the summer average (middays topped 40ºC/104ºF during our July 2006 visit) and a breezy average of 12ºC/53ºF in winter. Climate, culture and cuisine combine to make Seville an ideal weekend away at almost any time of year.
El Rey Alfonso XIII Slept Here
Being a historic hotel snob, there was one reason I suggested my family tour Seville. That reason is the Hotel Alfonso XIII, founded in 1928 and dedicated by the king, Alfonso XIII (pronounced TRAY-say), in time to welcome other heads of state and dignataries to the politically important Latin American World’s Fair of 1929. It was for this event that Seville was transformed with broad avenues, majestic pavilions and the gorgeous Plaza de EspaÃ±a. The Starwood Hotel group has taken the hotel project just as seriously, restoring it to a grandeur and level of service rarely seen any more.
Our bedroom, very spacious, had walls lined with gold silk damask, a canopy over the king bed (and a new rollaway for our son tucked into the corner), French doors that opened onto a view of gardens, parquet marble floors, 14-foot coffered wood ceilings like the town mosque, an immense chandelier of dangling green glass pears and purple grape clusters, a velvet couch, traditional carved wood Spanish chests to support our luggage, a work desk, minibar, safe, and even two large, silk-lined closets. The marble bathroom was perfumed by fine toiletries, small wool rugs at each bedside were covered with a linen towel to wipe your feet at turn-down, and chocolate truffles were left on the down pillows. Hmmm, the life of el rey.
Within the hotel’s Roccoco/Moorish public spaces, the skylit San Fernando restaurant occupies the traditional Arab style central court, which is open to the sky but shaded by acres of white muslin to mute the sunshine. The four-story setting is austere with its white tablecloths and uniformed waiters, yet opulent in its multi-colored tile work and potted plants. Of special note to families, this museum-calibre space is where the breakfast buffet is served: tables heaped with meats and vegetables in the German manner, breads and pastries for the French, bowls of fruit compote and fruit salads, plus omelettes made to order for others, a tiled corner piled with tiny sugar donuts, olives, Iberian hams and sweet cake in the style of Andalucia, and smoked fish and caviar for gourmands of any persuasion.
The lunch buffet and evening meal menus include a variety of continental and Andalucian specialties, including dishes of bacalao, roast lamb, pastas and seafood salads. During winter, a bar occupies the center court, but in summer, the popular Bar Alfonso, entered from the street, is an intimate room with dark carved wood walls and its own terrace.
The Hotel Alfonso XIII also features an elegant Japanese restaurant among the gardens that surround the large, essential-in-summer swimming pool. Modern conveniences includes a complimentary business center with computer and printer; babysitting arranged by the front desk with 12 hours’ notice; baby cots or extra beds on request; a small glass-enclosed, poolside fitness center; and very high end boutiques of antiquities and clothes in the lobby’s lower level.
Savoring the Catedral de Sevilla & Other Sights
Seville is actually an ancient city, said to be founded by the Roman hero Hercules. Nearby Alcala del Rio was the site of the first Roman colony in southern Spain, Italica, founded by Julius Caesar in AD45. Families interested in this less visible era of the city should stop by the archeological museum set in a pavilion built for the 1929 Exhibition. Today’s visitors will more likely admire the Islamic influence of the Almohade period of the 12th century, when north African Arabs built the Mesquita Mayor and other mosques whose minarets dominated the medieval skyline. After the kings of Castile invaded the city, Christianity became the dominant religion and by the 15th century the mosques had been replaced by churches, most notably the grand Catedral de Sevilla which today symbolizes Seville. It was King Don Pedro who built the Palacio Mudejar within the walls of the Islamic Alcazar.
The 16th-century Seville was a prosperous trade port known as the Puerto de las Indias, in control of Spain’s commerce with the New World. Seville’s role as the home of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, patrons of Christopher Columbus (known in Spanish as Cristoforo Colon), and the cathedral’s role as the resting place for some of his remains, make it a compelling place for American visitors. At our visit, research was being done on the remains of SeÃ±or Colon, Cristoforo’s father and a wealthy patron of the Catedral, who was known to be buried there. E.U. scientists were attemtping to match DNA taken from these remains with some exhumed from the young Colon’s Tomb in the Dominican Republic, to determine if, in fact, the Colon remains shipped back to the Spanish Crown for burial in Seville were authentic. The jury will be out on that one for a few more years.
Seville flourished through the 17th and 18th centuries and many fine examples of royal Spanish architecture can be visited. The Fabrica de Tabacos (tobacco factory) and the local bullfight arena at Plaza de Toros are typical of that era’s grandeur.
Latin American World’s Fair of 1929
The early 20th-century brought plans for a great international exposition, one enthusiastically supported by King Alfonso XIII. It was delayed until preparations were completed and finally, the Latin American World’s Fair of 1929 debuted, thrusting the classic Plaza de EspaÃ±a (site of many “Stars Wars 3” scenes), the Plaza de America, several other buildings and of course, the impressive Hotel Alfonso XIII onto the world stage. The 500th anniversary of the Discovery of America was celebrated in the city in 1992 and this reminder of its place in America-Europe relations is evident today.
Architect Anibal Gonzalez was the creative force behind the Plaza de America and three surrounding pavilions,the Moorish-inspired Mudejar, the current Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, the Museo Arquelogico and the Municipality. The Jardines de San Telmo is a landscaped area that houses the official Pabellon de Sevilla and various country pavilions designed by others, with more represented along the Paseo del las Delicias. The remarkable Plaza de EspaÃ±a (pictured at left), built by Anibal Gonzalez between 1914 and 1928, is a circular court lined with tiled fountains and illustrated seating alcoves. Its artistry illustrates the history of the 50 regions of Spain.
From here, a tour of Santa Cruz, the narrow, cobbled lanes of the so-called Jewish Quarter, provides stark contrast to the opulent edifices of the royals. In fact, there is little evidence that Jews occupied the small homes throughout the Almohad reign except for local legend that claims both the Jews and Muslims succumbed to the forces of Castille. It is known that three of the mosques, rather than being converted into churches,were given to Jews as synagogues. In 1391, conflict between the Jews and Christians ended with Jewish homes and synagogues being confiscated and converted into Christian dwellings. The Santa Cruz quarter is named for one of those churches. This area suffered under a brief period of French rule, but instead of allowing commercial development to take place prior to the World’s Fair, King Alfonso XIII insisted on a restoration of the area as a pedestrian zone. With the annexation of the tranquil park Huerta del Retiro, and the restoration of Plazas Santa Cruz and DoÃ±a Elvia (now crowded with boutiques, galleries and cafes), Santa Cruz has become a highlight of any visit to Seville. Be sure to allow time for an evening stroll.
The Hotel Alfonso XIII (San Fernando, 2, 41004 Sevilla, Espana, 34/ 954 917 000) is certainly the city’s finest hotel; double room rates with that scrumptious breakfast range from $$ to $$$$$+ depending on season and room size. The Seville Tourist Office (Consorcio de Turismo de Sevilla at 34/ 954/ 22 17 14) has many other hotel options in every price category. They also have several branches where you can pick up a walking map, and one of the main ones is Naves del Barranco at c/ Arjona, 28, 41001 Sevilla.
In Spain, dining is as important an art form as architecture, and Seville has many fine restaurants. Casa Robles (Calle Hernando Colon, 23, 34/ 954/ 213 150) is an outdoor/indoor cafÃ© located on a quiet lane around the corner from the Cathedral. It’s perfect for an evening meal if you’re looking for a tablecloth but a casual ambiance, and it’s well known for its authentic Andalucian cooking and reasonable rates. We enjoyed a bacalao gratinee (cod baked in wine with grated manchego cheese), a salad of fresh bonito, a tender veal and some light and tasty croquettes. For dessert, let the kids peruse the dozen choices from their artisanal bakery; several are named for the princes and princesses who dined on them here.
Rio Grande is a large indoor restaurant in a very pretty setting on the Guadalquivir River, just across the bridge from the Hotel Alfonso XIII. Its more casual outdoor patio overlooks the bridge of the Torre d’Oro, and the many guided cruise boats that circle the city. Rio Grande is located off the Plaza de Cuba in Betis, a popular riverfront neighborhood that, like Triana, has many tent stalls serving fried sardines and beer on summer evenings. Both neighborhoods are on the opposite side of the river from the old quarter, and make a fun evening outing with kids. For a drink of tinto verano, the light carbonated summer wine on the rocks so popular in warm weather, visit the Rio Grande’s small indoor tapateria or tapas cafe. Items like grilled octapus with pimiento and puffy homemade potato croquettes are less expensive if you just want a taste or un racion (a portion) indoors, and the kids may appreciate the air-conditioning.
Two other places came highly recommended but we didn’t have time to try them: La Isla (casual Andalucian cooking, within a block of the cathedral but closer to the river); and 5 Jotas, generally considered the best restaurant in Sevilla, with large kegs of wine framing the typical stucco and tile dÃ©cor. A stroll to the Plaza Santa Cruz or the Plaza DoÃ±a Elvia in the Santa Cruz quarter will reveal dozens of other places, including many trendy wine bars and tapaterias.
Seville is filled with fine shops but one of them caught our son’s eye. A landmark in the birthplace of flamenco, Candela Solo Flamenco (C/. harinas, 34, 41001 Sevilla, 34/ 954/ 222 695) truly has a “solo” focus on the costumes, accessories, and other necessities of this dance art. The collection of fringed shawls, embroidered blouses and exotic, hand-painted fans is guaranteed to intrigue kids, making it a fun place to make them aware of how important flamenco is to Spanish culture.
The old Seville that appeals to visitors can be easily seen on foot, or by colorful horse-drawn carriage. The Hotel Alfonso being the family-welcoming place it is, it was there that the concierge recommended our teen check out a transportation alternative, the shop of Blobject (C/ Lope de Rueda, 14,41004 Sevilla, 34/ 954/ 22 77 33), on the riverfront promenade, with an entrance at Calle Reinoso, 8. Blobject is the home of Seville’s thriving Segway business. More of a retail shop than a tour operator, this Spanish concessionaire of the U.S.-based Segway Corporation realized that it could sell more units of this handy, electric people mover if the locals saw tourists out on them, enjoying the city.
And so it came to be that our family of three neophytes got a Spanglish lesson in how to ride one, grabbed three super Segways and asked the shop proprietor to close down the store so he could escort us around town. It was a wonderful three-hour excursion designed to capture the fleeting attention span of an overheated teen and his father, who could not tolerate any more long-winded explanations of the city’s history. It remains the highlight of my son’s month-long stay in the country.
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