Published: April 29th 2012June 28th 2009
Splash of colour
Sevilla's Rio Guadalquivir
Having left Madrid around midnight on sunday, I spent seven hours on a cramped bus (not that it wasn't spacious for a bus - but when you're my size every bus is cramped), before arriving in Seville just after dawn (monday 22nd June). Being a night owl who very rarely sees anything except the back of my eyelids at dawn, I must admit I have thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of arriving in each new city in Spain just as the sun is beginning to rise - it not only lets you see everything without being blinded by the light, but also allows you to walk the streets without being swamped by people. And as much as I had enjoyed my first sight of both Barcelona and Madrid at dawn, I have to say there was something even more impressive about Seville in the early morning light - most likely because the city not only has a beautiful river (the Rio Guadalquivir) running through it, but because the bus followed alongside the river for the last five kilometres or so of our journey.
So yet again after dumping my bags at the hostel (that's the problem with saving money on accommodation
Where bulls go to die
Sevilla's Plaza de Toros (bullring)
by taking overnight buses - when you arrive at your destination in the morning you still have to wait until at least lunchtime before you can actually check-in), I headed straight back to the Guadalquivir and followed it into the city centre. And all within a short distance of each other were the Plaza de Toros bullring (one of the most important in Spain); the Alcazar (parts of which date back over one thousand years); the Cathedral (which is apparently the third-largest in the world); the University (which looks more like a royal palace) and the bountiful Parque Maria Luisa.
After once again partaking in a lengthy siesta during the afternoon, I headed back to the Parque Maria Luisa in the evening to check out the park's centrepiece - the Plaza de España - which, despite actually being semi-circular in shape, would have to be one of the most beautiful 'squares' that I have seen in Europe. In the centre of the plaza is a large fountain which is beautifully illuminated just after dark; while the outside of the plaza is ringed by a canal - that was unfortunately devoid of water during my stay - which in turn
A deeper meaning?!?
Random artwork outside the Parliament building in Sevilla
is backed on the curved side by a magnificent row of buildings with a tower at each end and a large pavillion in the middle, all joined by a stunning semi-circular arched walkway and covered in the most beautifully decorated tiles.
Why the Plaza de España is not more famous (I had never even heard of it until I read about it in the Lonely Planet) is truly a mystery to me, when other squares such as the Grand Place in Brussels and St.Peter´s Square in Rome - both of which I must admit are also quite beautiful - are surely known throughout the world. But since words definately don't do the Plaza de España justice, I have included a number of pictures to give you some idea of how spell-binding it really is. Yet by no means is the Plaza the city's only attraction to truly come alive at night; in fact by the time I had slowly made my way through the winding and perfectly-lit alleyways of the old town back to the hostel, I had come to the conclusion that Seville would have to be the most beautiful city I have yet seen in Europe -
Fountain and pavilion
Sevilla's Plaza de España
if not during the day then most certainly at night.
With my sleeping patterns well-and-truly messed up - and with free internet access on offer twenty-four hours a day at my hostel - I ended up spending the entire night on one of the hostel computers, before eventually heading to bed about eight o´clock in the morning after filling up on a free breakfast of pancakes! So it was well after midday on the tuesday when I finally rose and set off to further explore the city that had hosted the very next World Expo after Brisbane, in 1992.
And while I was enjoying my stroll along the waterfront and marvelling at the innovative design of the Puente del Alamillo bridge (which was similar to, but even more impressive than, the Erasmusbrucke bridge in Rotterdam that I had seen last year), I came to the realization that all of my most enjoyable days in Europe this time around have come on my second day in that location - from the Isle of Capri to the Cinque Terre, Marseille, Barcelona and now Seville! These would have to be the days that I have most successfully managed to find the
perfect balance between exploring without over-exerting myself, and relaxing without being downright lazy!
Actually though it does make sense that this would be the case, since my first day in any given place obviously involves the somewhat-stressful act of moving from one place to another, then having to find my way to the hostel, and then trying to get my bearings in my new surroundings - which in the winding alleyways of Europe's old town streets can be quite a daunting task indeed! It did strike me as strange though that despite having spent anywhere from three to five days in a number of towns and cities so far, the best days that I could remember - which were not even necessarily in my favourite locations - all happened to have been on my second day there?! Good to know for my future travels though, I guess!
Anyhow, that night I joined a tapas and flamenco tour being run by the hostel - which was probably my first social outing since my birthday week with the lads in Bern and Munich! What an unsociable shit I am when I travel! It really is amazing that anoyone talks to
Plaza de España at sunset
me at all - and no wonder I couldn't get laid to save my life! ;-) So off we went - about thirty of us in all - to a nearby tapas bar, where I was looking forward to indulging in a uniquely Spanish experience; which for the uninitiated involves eating your way through a variety of small and inexpensive 'tasting plates' rather than a single, full meal.
Unfortunately though, with thirty people each ordering two meals from an English menu, but with four waiters then serving our plates in Spanish, the whole episode soon developed into an absolute fiasco! I felt so sorry for not only the staff - who clearly were not impressed by our collective ignorance of Spanish language or customs - but also for the poor girl whose job it was to run the tour, and who tried valiantly, though in vain, to interpret the names of each tasting plate so as to avoid a total debacle, before herself being given a gobful by the manager of the establishment! And I still can't believe that one particular waiter hadn't pulled a gun out of somewhere and taken out half the group before turning the gun
Piercing the night sky
'La Giralda' - the minaret/belltower of Seville Cathedral
on himself - such was the look of crazed bewilderment on his face throughout our visit...
Thankfully our guide from the hostel was at least kind enough to show us to a nearby flamenco bar before beating a hasty retreat to the hostel, where - one can only assume - she must have drowned her sorrows at the hostel bar before crying herself to sleep! So the rest of us were left to fend for ouselves, though soon enough we were downing beer, sangria and god-knows-what-else before being treated to a spine-tingling display of flamenco by a woman who looked like she was going to rip the balls off any bastard in the crowd who dared to make a sound during the performance; and a male singer who was equally so passionate he looked like his head was about to explode; along with a pair of guitarists who looked like they were just there for the free sangria, but played their parts to perfection - and all on a stage no bigger than a child's inflatable pool, which I was so close to I almost copped a couple of backhanders during the woman's dance performance!
I may joke
about it but seriously that performance was the sort of thing that makes your hair stand up on end, and it's cultural experiences like that - which in this case is totally unique to Spain, and more specifically to Andalucia (the southern-most region of Spain - of which Seville is the capital) that make traveling in Europe so incredible and rewarding. Just don't ask the staff at the tapas bar what they think of western travellers indulging in the local culture...
Waking early on wednesday, I left my backpack at the hostel in Seville - which I would be returning to on the weekend - and set off on a three-day tour of Andalucia, beginning with the town of Cordoba a couple of hours away to the east. Interestingly for a reasonably large town, Cordoba felt somewhat like a ghost town as I wandered the streets in the mid-afternoon heat; though I couldn't blame the townspeople for staying indoors - in fact even I gave up and headed back to the hostel after an hour or so when I realized that the main attractions I had hoped to see were closed until later in the afternoon.
Archway after archway
The Mezquita's iconic interior
to my hostel I met up with a Danish girl and an Italian girl - who themselves had just met only a couple of hours earlier - with whom I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon and evening; first taking a leisurely stroll around the town and then cooking up dinner together, before heading off again in the evening to check out the view of Cordoba from across the other side of the Rio Guadalquivir (the same river that flows through Seville).
The next morning we were joined by an American college student on a nine-week, study-abroad sailing trip around the Mediterranean (where were those sort of excursions when I was in school?!?) for a visit to Cordoba's famous Mezquita (Mosque). Originally built as a mosque by the Muslim conquerors of Spain way back in 785, it was then used as a church by the Christian monarchs who re-took the city in 1236, until a cathedral was eventually built right in the centre of the mosque in the sixteenth century - giving it a uniquely dysfunctional appearance; especially from the inside, which is otherwise filled with white-and-red striped archways and columns stretching in every direction.
to cut short my visit to the Mezquita, I said a hushed goodbye to the others and then embarked on yet another mad scramble through town in an attempt to make the next bus to Granada about three hours away to the south-east; which somehow I managed to arrive at the bus station just in time for - covered in sweat, as usual. Upon arriving in Granada and making my way to the hostel - which was located in the Albayzin, a maze-like and utterly-entrancing web of cobblestone alleyways where the colours and smells of the myriad shops almost overwhelm the senses - I immediately set off to see the number one tourist attraction in Granada, if not all of Spain - the Alhambra.
To those that have never heard of the Alhambra - which included me until I read about it in my Lonely Planet guidebook - it was built, and then enlarged by subsequent generations, between the 9th and 13th centuries; and is one of the most celebrated of all Muslim monuments. The Alhambra itself is not one building but a complex of buildings - sort of like a Muslim version of the Vatican City - surrounded
Part of the Nasrid Palaces, inside the Alhambra
by a high defensive wall, that contains a number of palaces (the largest of which was built by King Charles V after the Christian monarchs had re-taken the city from the Muslims), as well as a fortress and a large expanse of beautifully-kept gardens (known as the Generalife). Thankfully I had been tipped off about booking tickets ahead of time, since the opening hours of the Alhambra are divided into morning and afternoon sessions, with only about three thousand tickets available for each session.
After using my entire allotted quota of five hours exploring the complex - which gave me just enough time to take everything in - I made it back to the hostel just in time to catch my second tapas tour in three days, which I had been told by a couple of the girls from the infamous tapas tour in Seville was a far more relaxing experience. And to the relief of everyone involved it turned out to be just that, with our happy-go-lucky guide taking us from one tapas bar to another without so much as a hint about what to expect; though such advice turned out to be unnecessary since we each paid
for our own drinks at the bar and were given a complimentary plate of tapas with each drink - thus avoiding the twin pitfalls of having to not only figure out who had ordered what; but how much each person had to pay at the end, which had proven to be the most farcical situation of all two days earlier in Seville!
On friday I took yet another bus a couple of hours to the south-west, to the town of Malaga on the Mediterranean coast. Having been unable to access my booking confirmation e-mail and unable to remember which hostel I had booked out of the two I had been considering, I thankfully managed to guess correctly - though it still took me forty-five minutes to walk there from the bus station. Not surprisingly, having been separated from the Mediterranean ever since leaving Barcelona over a week ago, my 'walk of discovery' around Malaga led me straight to the beach, where the water was unfortunately far colder than I remembered it being in Barcelona. From the beach I then headed straight up the to the top of a nearby hill which contained the ruins of a castle and fortress,
Pillar of Hercules
The Rock of Gibraltar
and provided a perfect view of the city, port and coastline. In fact it wasn't until after midnight that I arrived back at the hostel - still decked out in semi-dry boardshorts and singlet - where I then had to sort out my transport for the following day.
So after less than three hours sleep I was out of bed at six o'clock - yes, in the morning - on saturday and on a bus by seven o'clock, bound for the town of La Linea de la Concepcion about three hours away near the southern tip of Spain; from where I was then able to walk across the border to the British enclave of Gibraltar, and was met by the stunning sight of the Rock of Gibraltar soaring upwards out of the sea - a sight made all the more spectacular by the fact that I had never even seen a picture of the rock, since Gibraltar does not belong to Spain and therefore no mention is made of it whatsoever anywhere in Spain! And after thoroughly enjoying the novelty of tucking into a classic English breakfast - even if it was more than likely cooked by a Spaniard
The other Pillar of Hercules
View of Jebel Musa in Morocco, from the Gibraltar cable car
- I immediately took the cable car up to the top of the rock itself; and within thirty seconds of the cable car leaving the base station I had caught my first sight of Africa in the distance!
In fact with it being such a clear day I had no trouble at all seeing the Jebel Musa cliffs in Morocco - which according to mythology is the second Pillar of Hercules, along with the Rock of Gibraltar. And upon arriving at the top cable car station I was greeted by a couple of members of the local troupe of wild (though clearly acclimatised to humans) monkeys - well, barbary macaques to be exact - the only wild primates living anywhere in Europe. From the summit I made my way down around the southern face of the rock along the Mediterranean Steps; before stopping to check out the cavernous interior of St. Michael's Cave (complete with stalactites and stalagmites); the Great Siege Tunnels (dug by British soldiers to repel the Great Siege of... ahhh, I forget what year!?!) and the ruins of an old Moorish Castle - and all with a travel bag weighing about eight to ten kilograms hanging
Countless boats moored in Cadiz Bay
from my shoulder, since there was nowhere in Gibraltar for me to leave my luggage while I did my sightseeing!
So after spending about six hours in Gibraltar, I eventually crossed back over the border into La Linea, and from there took another two buses abou three hours further along the coast to Cadiz - where I had just enough time to wander alongside the waterfront of the Bay of Cadiz all the way to the beach, and go for my first ever swim in the Atlantic Ocean (where curiously, but thankfully, the water was much warmer than it had been in Malaga the previous day). And then in a rather bizarre twist, I was left with the parting image of a seagull hitching a ride on the back of a dead sea-turtle!?! After that it was time to head back to the bus station for my fourth and final bus of the day, a two-hour journey back to Seville; though I was treated to one last magical moment by being able to watch the sun sinking slowly below the horizon from the window of my bus as we left Cadiz.
So after leaving Malaga at seven in
Sevilla's Plaza de España at night
the morning I finally arrived back at my hostel in Seville just before midnight - tired as hell and with a burn mark on my shoulder from where the strap of my bag had been resting all day! Not surprisingly I had a nice, long sleep-in before rising about midday on sunday, at which point I set off to check out the Alcazar (royal fortress/palace). Although originally founded way back in 913AD, the complex has been added to and adapted by both Muslim and Christian rulers ever since, leaving it with an elaborate mixture of different architectural styles. The result however is one of the most interesting and beautiful of all of the royal complexes that I have seen in Europe, made up of various residences, galleries and courtyards; with an equally expansive and impressive array of gardens behind the main complex, all of which can be viewed from a long, three-storey high terrace that extends well into the grounds.
From the Alcazar it was only a two-minute walk to the Cathedral, where a group of Spanish miners protesting against something or other had set up camp in one corner of the cavernous interior! In another corner was the
Plaza de España at night
grand tomb of Christopher Colombus (though apparently recent research indicates he was more likely to have been buried in the Caribbean, and that it is in fact his son Diego's remains that are contained within the coffin!)
After checking out the rest of the Cathedral, I had just enough time to check out the view from the top of the 100-metre-high belltower, La Giralda - which was built in the twelfth century and originally served as the minaret for a Muslim mosque that stood on the site until the fifteenth century; at which time the mosque was knocked down to make way for the Cathedral, but the tower was left standing. And rather than having to take the usual cramped set of winding stairs up to the top, there was instead a wide ramp leading all the way up - a feature that had been incorporated into the design in order to allow a man on horseback to ride to the top to sound the alarm in the event that an invading army was spotted approaching the city!
Having by now missed the weekly bullfight being held at the Plaza de Toros - which I wasn't entirely sure
Silhouettes at sunset
A pair of palm trees in Sevilla's Parque Maria Luisa
if I wanted to see anyway - I ended the day with another leisurely stroll along the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir, before paying another visit to Parque Maria Luisa and it's wonderful centrepiece, the Plaza de Espana, whose semi-circle of magnificent buildings seemed to almost glow in the late-afternoon sun.
There are more photos below