Stirring the Senses in Seville

Special to The Times

Knocking on the door of the timeworn Convent of San Leandro here pretty much epitomizes this mysterious and magnificent city.

Like Seville, the convent's door is imposing and reveals little of life behind it, but a treat awaits visitors. San Leandro is run by cloistered nuns whose primary contact with the outside world is through a rotating window cut into the old door. If you call when they aren't praying or meditating, a nun will answer by uttering, "Ave María purísima." (Hail, purest Mary.)

You are expected to answer "Sin pecado original," which means that Mary is "without original sin." Put theological arguments aside. This ritual has been going on for centuries and is well worth reenacting.

The voice will ask for your prayers, and after you say that you want to taste the food of God, the window turns, presenting a paper bag. It closes again after you've left a few pesetas.

Find a place to sit across the street in the Plaza de Pilatos and dig in for one of the yemas ("yolks") from the ovens of the good sisters of San Leandro. The food of God turns out to be delicious, sinfully rich egg-sized yellow balls made of sugar, egg yolk and a pumpkin fiber called angel's hair. There's no better place to eat them than in the shaded small plaza while people scurry along well-scrubbed medieval streets near the House of Pilate, a palace dating to 1540 and supposedly patterned after Pontius Pilate's estate in Jerusalem.

Eating sweets in a plaza ringed with orange trees while church bells clang is a perfect way to idle away an hour in Seville, the city that gave birth to everything we think of as Spanish, a place full of the Islamic heritage that constitutes the essence of Spain.

I first encountered Seville a few years ago when I stopped at its train station on my way to Portugal. I regretted not staying. This time, on a third vacation in Spain, I was determined to see the city I had heard so much about. So I spent a week there in April.

Sitting on a stone bench in Plaza de Pilatos, I remembered how Andalusian writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer once gave musical attributes to the great cities of his country. Madrid, with its flair, bustle and political pull, was likened to a brass band. Bécquer said nothing about Seville, but I thought that if one were to apply his melodic analogies, it would be all acoustic guitars and castanets, a dark-eyed girl dancing with a rose clenched between her teeth.

With about 700,000 inhabitants, Seville is the capital of Andalusia province and Spain's fourth-largest city. But scratch beneath the surface and it embodies the Spanish soul. Every national cliché--bullfighting, flamenco music, tapas and the country's profound Catholicism--sprouted in Seville or its environs, which once made up Islamic Spain's great kingdom of al-Andalus.

To this day it retains strong vestiges of its past along the same ancient streets where a succession of Roman emperors, caliphs, New World explorers, kings, queens, artists, poets, saints and rogues once walked.

Carmen, Georges Bizet's operatic heroine, worked in a huge cigar factory that still stands near the University of Seville (Antigua Fábrica de Tabacos, on Calle San Fernando). Don Juan, who introduced 1,003 Spanish maidens to his rakish ways and inspired Mozart, lived near where the city's equally famous barber plied his trade.

Seville has a particular taste for the flamboyant while retaining an aura of mystery and grandeur. Nowhere is this as obvious as in its most distinctive landmark, the formidable Santa María de la Sede cathedral, a Gothic-style church built over the remnants of a 12th century Almohad mosque.

The project to turn the mosque into a Christian church took slightly more than 100 years and was completed in 1507, after, legend has it, the city fathers decided to build something so huge that future generations would remember them as lunatics. They succeeded. This is the largest Roman Catholic house of worship after St. Peter's in Rome. It is as cavernous as it is grandiose.

The cathedral is all alabaster and marble carved by master craftsmen using a mishmash of styles, mostly Gothic and Renaissance. The Christians crowned the mosque's splendid minaret with a bell tower called La Giralda, which is an apt symbol of Seville: Like the city itself, La Giralda is a Christian construction built on a Moorish base.

Inside the cathedral are dozens of masterpieces by Goya, Murillo and other Spanish art giants. The main chapel is dominated by what is reputed to be the largest altarpiece in the world, a vast array of gilded wood adorned with carved depictions of more than 1,000 biblical characters. The Sacristy of the Chalices, made entirely from silver that the Spaniards pilfered from the mines of Mexico, contains the tombs of early Spanish monarchs.

Near the southern Gate of Princes, somber figures representing the four kingdoms of ancient Spain--Castile, Aragon, León and Navarre--bear on their shoulders the sarcophagus containing what many claim are the remains of Christopher Columbus, brought from Cuba in 1899.

Climbing La Giralda for a bird's-eye view of the city can be an ordeal as you dodge schoolchildren who shriek happily as they run up the tower. But once there, you see a classic Andalusian cityscape, all whitewashed houses and tile roofs broken only by convent domes and church steeples. Unlike other bell towers, La Giralda has no stairs. Instead, the Moors built a ramp with 34 turns so that the muezzin who called the faithful to prayer could reach the top on horseback.

Although there is Muslim influence everywhere in the city, it's nowhere as intense as in the Alcázar, the beautiful filigreed palace that faces the cathedral. It was originally a fortress and later a seat of government for a succession of Islamic rulers. Fernando III used it as a palace when he captured the city in 1248, and his grandson, Pedro the Cruel, gave it its present majesty when he formed a shaky alliance with the Emir of Granada. The emir lent him the artisans and architects from the Alhambra to remodel the Alcázar. Today it is the official royal residence of King Juan Carlos when he visits.

Aside from the cathedral and the Alcázar, the real beauty of Seville lies not in its huge monuments and majestic palaces but in small things--its houses, patios, plazas, music and food.

One morning I set off to see the Barrio de Santa Cruz, immediately east of the Alcázar. It was once Seville's Jewish ghetto, and it is now a colorful tourist ghetto, shaded by orange trees and full of cafes, galleries, bars, shops and museums. A tangle of narrow cobblestone alleys gives the place the flavor of a medieval village. Some of the best tapas bars and restaurants in Seville are in the barrio.

The Corral del Agua, a pleasant restaurant with an airy courtyard, serves an interesting avocado pudding that resembles a guacamole pie. The Restaurante La Cueva has delicious gazpacho and paella. But the best meals in the zone can be found in the upscale Restaurante La Albahaca, which specializes in roast wild boar with fig jam and apple puree.

More colorful and less expensive is the Pizzería San Marco, a refurbished Muslim bathhouse that makes you feel as if you're dining in a sultan's chambers. It is jammed with locals who feast on its pasta and pizzas enhanced with Spanish touches like capers.

Because Seville is a relatively compact town, most of the worthwhile sites lie on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River, where the galleons bringing riches from the New World docked after having tacked up from the Mediterranean Sea, 50 miles south. Evidence of the city's importance as a port is everywhere on the waterfront area called El Arenal, which is dominated by the Maestranza bullring, the second oldest in Spain and which, along with the one in the nearby town of Ronda, is considered the cradle of modern Spanish bullfighting.

A few blocks away on the riverbank stands one of Seville's most peculiar landmarks, the Golden Tower, so called because it was once allegedly covered with golden tiles. The 13th century round structure is all that remains of the ancient city walls that once stretched from the river to the Alcázar. Art lovers will enjoy Seville's museums because the city was a major player during Spain's artistic golden age. Preeminent is the Museo de Bellas Artes, housed in a former convent, which rivals Madrid's more famous Prado museum for its collection of paintings by Velázquez, El Greco, Murillo and others.

One morning while sitting by a fountain in the Parque de María Luisa, adjacent to the huge Plaza de España--the weather reminding me of Southern California--I struck up a conversation with a young woman who was eating lunch on a park bench. She said she was studying history at Seville University. When I commented that Seville was fast becoming my favorite Spanish city, she nodded and told me about a 12th century Andalusian poet, Ibn Safar al-Marini, who, when told of the joys awaiting the Muslim faithful in the afterlife, replied that he preferred Seville because it had delights that don't exist in paradise.

She knew much about Andalusia and charmingly referred to the Guadalquivir by its Arab name, alwadi al-kabir, which means "great river." She explained that when Paris was an island fortress and London a garrison besieged by Vikings 1,000 years ago, Seville had a population of 20,000, paved streets with lanterns and a library with 400,000 books.

Somehow we segued into a discussion of music, and she said that anyone can see the soul of Spain reflected in Seville's streets, but to hear its soul one must listen to canto jondo (deep song), a musical genre that is the exclusive domain of the Roma, or Gypsies. It's knife-in-the-heart music with an undertow of love and sorrow and, she added, shouldn't be confused with its pedestrian cousin, flamenco.

I needed no further prodding. That night I found a canto jondo club, La Carbonería, on Calle Levies in the Barrio de Santa Cruz--a dark, sultry, smoky place with traces of the coal yard it once was.

The nightclub consisted of two huge rooms, each with a bar, packed with locals who come for the music or flamenco. At 2:30 a.m., canto jondo was going full tilt. The music was complex and poignant, sounding more like an Arabic lament than anything in Spanish.I ended my stay in Seville by visiting another convent, this one known for its pastries, the Concepción Franciscana on Calle Bustos Tavera. Unlike the cloistered nuns of San Leandro, the Franciscan sisters here are outgoing and chatty. They delight in showing visitors their dainty 13th century church, then stuffing them with baked goods so delicious that Sevillanos claim they are to the taste buds what their city is to the other senses.

They're not far off the mark.

Sergio Ortiz is a writer and photographer who lives in Malibu.

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