Spain's party town, Sevilla is one of Europe's jewels, a city of style, exhuberance and never-ending late nights …
If anywhere is “real” Spain, it’s Sevilla, (pronounced with long rolling vowels, Seveeya), sensual and extravagant, home to flamenco, bullfighting and Carmen. A city of dark-eyed beauties and white-washed alleys, unforgiving blue skies, never-ending late nights, fiestas and siestas.
It is impossible not to be captivated by its exuberant atmosphere: stylish, confident, ancient and proud, yet also convivial, intimate and fun-loving. If you don't know what alegría means, Sevilla is the place to learn.
Sevilla revels in its reputation as Spain's party town. And what a setting for a party!
With the wide river rolling through it, there's the elegant Arabic heritage of labyrinthine alleys and languorous gardens, the Giralda, the Alcázar and the Barrio Santa Cruz.
There's the grandiose 17th-century colonial style, when the riches plundered from the Americas were converted into a swaggering architectural confection of ornate palaces and monuments, basilicas, bullrings and fountains.
And then there's the wonderfully lavish 1920's Sevilla, when they built grand art nouveau hotels, parks and boulevards. All of these are combined in an area small enough to wander around.
Right in the centre, it’s impossible to miss Sevilla's immense Cathedral, some say it’s the world’s largest; certainly it’s the largest Gothic building in the world.
Built on the site of Muslim Sevilla's main mosque, between 1401 and 1507, just one of the highlights of its lavish interior is Christopher Columbus' supposed tomb, a disputed claim which may soon be known as fact when DNA analysis of the remains is completed.
The Patio de Naranjos and the stunning Giralda Tower are the only structures remaining from the original mosque. The Giralda, the 90 metre high minaret, dates back to the 12th Century and is an outstandingly graceful example of Islamic architecture.
If you are feeling strong and healthy, climb to the top for fantastic views across the city.
Just across the square from the Cathedral stands the vast Alcázar Palace (Royal Palace) and its beautiful gardens. This fortress from the Muslim era (it dates from AD 913) is one of the best examples of mudéjar architecture in Spain, second only to the Alhambra in Granada. It is still a vacation spot for the King and Queen.
On the banks of the River Guadalquivir stands the Torre del Oro (the Golden Tower) which was originally built by the Moors as a way to control access to the harbour by attaching a chain to it and to the opposite bank of the river.
Dating back to the 13th century, the top of the tower was once covered in gold tiles which reflected in the sunlight, making the tower visible to the maritime traffic. The Torre del Oro now houses the local maritime museum.
In the same district of Arenal, a little further down the river, The Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza was constructed over several decades during the 18th century and is one of the most famous and magnificent bullfighting venues in Spain.
The season typically begins with the Feria de Abril, during which there is a corrida every day, and runs through until September. When buying tickets take your choice of sol (the cheaper seats in the sun), sombra (the expensive seats in the shade) and sol y sombra (mid-range seats partly in the sun, partly in the shade).
Whatever your feelings about this controversial artform, it is an essential part of Sevilla’s culture (many city’s bars have bullfighting themes), and the bullring is well worth a visit.
A ten minute walk from the Cathedral will take you to one of the country’s most spectacular Plazas de España, built as the centrepiece of the 1929 Spanish-Americas Fair. Illuminated at night, it containing fountains and mini-canals and is surrounded by a display of tile work representing a historical event in each province of Spain.
The adjoining Parque de María Luisa is a peaceful place to escape for a while from city life.
On the way to the Plaza de España you will pass the city’s old tobacco factory, the Antigua Fábrica de Tabacos, which was the setting for Bizet’s Carmen.
Built in the 18th century, in its heyday it employed 10,000 women making tobacco products from the New World. It was the largest industrial building in Europe, complete with moats, a chapel, jailhouse and several courtyards and fountains. It is now part of the city’s university.
There are, of course, many other magnificent buildings and exquisite examples of a majestic Islamic and Catholic history throughout the city, but perhaps the real art of Sevilla is its way of life.
You will quickly lose yourself in its beguiling grace. Find your spot for breakfast, sit outside, order pan tostada with olive oil and ripe tomatoes, café con leche and freshly squeezed orange juice, and watch the world saunter by. Then a little shopping or sightseeing, a glass of fino sherry and some olives and by then it's probably time for lunch.
Sevilla has plenty of decent restaurants, all of them deeply traditional. Thin shavings of serrano ham, grilled meat or fish, sweet puddings and good, robust wines. Locals eat indoors, savouring the cool darkness. It’s wise to follow their example which includes, of course, a siesta to sleep it off, to be ready and refreshed for the night, which is likely to be a long one!
Then you can really revel as the soft evenings envelopes, without doubt, the very best time to be in town. Begin with a paseo, a gentle stroll, which might take you through the elegant Maria Luisa Park, or along the banks of the river. You certainly won't be alone. Sevillanos love this time and never tire of parading.
Now it's time to tapear. Tapas are what you eat in the evening, and tapear is the verb to glide from bar to bar, indulging in little snacks while sipping little drinks and engaging in friendly, sometimes passionate, conversation.
You might have tickets for the opera or a flamenco show, but usually this is it, this is what the night is for. There are wonderful tapas bars all over town, you can spot them by the huddles of locals gathered outside, but especially in and around the edges of the Barrio Santa Cruz, on the tumultuous Plaza del Salvador, in the cool warren hugging the back of the bullring and over the river on Calle Betis.
Don't make the mistake of ordering lots of different dishes at one place, that defeats the object. Just cruise from bar to bar, dining on and drinking in the city itself. And most of the city will be doing just the same.
When you've had your fill of drinking and eating, it might be time for drinking and dancing!
There are plenty of discos pumping out a combination of house and latin music; flamenco is everywhere and nowhere. You'll hear it all the time, reverberating round the alleys and squares, as you get in a cab, as you walk past an open window. You can go to one of the shows by major name artists at a theatre and the standard will be very high and very serious. But to catch spontaneous live flamenco is a combination of luck and nous.
But even if you don’t, you're lucky anyway. You can walk back to bed through the now quiet city, no sound except the bats hovering over the cathedral, the waft of jasmine and lemon swelling the air.
This is the time to really savour the magnetic charisma of this remarkable city, happy in the knowledge that you're going to do it all again tomorrow!
Timing is all important in Sevilla - never lunch before 2.30pm, never dine before 10pm, never go to bed before 2am …
And so is the time of year. Winter, which is short and rarely cold is nevertheless best avoided as the Sevillanos hunker down, sulking about the fact that the weather has robbed them of the opportunity of doing what they like best, which is parading and partying.
High summer is painfully hot (temperatures can rise close to 50ºC on occasions), and the city is all but abandoned by locals who flee to the coast leaving their lovely city to mad dogs and ill-advised tourists.
Spring, though, is greeted with some of the most joyous celebrations on earth. Holy Week is when all become pious and pull on long robes and pointy hoods to parade virgins and worship icons. Millions of true believers throng the streets in a moving display of faith, all the while planning an even wilder party in a couple of weeks time.
La Feria de Abril (the April Fair) is an orgy of dressing up and dancing, traditional costumes and horses, daily bullfights and carriage rides. A giant funfair and a vast encampment of casetas (marquees) just over the river, becomes the focus of attention.
All night, all week, the entire city - girls in spotty flamenco dresses, men in high trousers and short jackets - flocks over the bridges to this incredible display of bravura hedonism. Live flamenco bands play, sherry runs like rivers, dashing horsemen display their skills, and women seductively flick their skirts.
It is amazing, but be warned, La Feria has been described as "2,000 cocktail parties to which you are not invited".
And hotel prices usually rocket up (for both Semana Santa and La Feria de Abril) so it is perhaps best to settle for the rest of spring and early summer or the long, glorious autumn.
If you have ever hankered after Hemingway, Don Juan and Carmen, ever wanted to wander through citrus-perfumed squares or take a carriage through dappled parks while the rattle of maracas hangs in the hot, still air, Sevilla is the city for you.