Friday, March 25, 2011

Opera and Oranges

The Barber of Seville. The Marriage of Figaro. Carmen. Don Giovanni. Fidelio. The operas may not be sung in Spanish, but all are set in or near Seville. The sultry weather, the clear starry night, the scent of orange blossom, the vibrant colours and hot sun, the flamenco...obviously  inspirational.

Annette locator: Seville
Seville is known for its operas and its oranges – the latter being famously bitter and not good for eating. The juice of Seville oranges is good, however, in cooking and for essential oils used in cosmetics, medicines, perfumes and cleaning products. It’s also very big in marmalade, giving that delightful bitter tang that makes marmalade so much nicer than jam. I bought a pot of Seville marmalade to bring home, from the shop in the Cathedral – it is made by the nuns.  Someone on a blog I read said they had brought their Seville bitter marmalade home and found it too bitter. They asked what to do with it. One person replied:

Here in Spain, it's mostly just eaten on toast or pastries for breakfast, but it also turns up in cakes (as a layer). It goes especially nicely with chocolate and truffle. It's also nice with mild cheeses. My son likes it on sandwiches with nutella (nocilla). I also love it on sourdough toast with cheese. I like to use it to glaze pork or duck breasts after they have been cooked on the grill.

Seville Streets
Hmmm. Chocolate. Truffle. Cheese. The other popular culinary speciality in Seville is the churro – a donut-like thing that is eaten with hot chocolate, for dipping purposes. Seville is still one of the biggest orange producers in Spain (Brazil is far and away the largest producer in the world, especially the area around Sao Paulo). Oranges are native to Asia, but have been cultivated in Seville since the 12th century. The bitter Seville orange was the first variety to reach the New World. When I visited Seville last week for a few days of sunshine, the last of the orange harvest was still on the trees. All the street trees in downtown Old Seville are orange trees. Many carried blossoms as well as the last of the current crop of fruit, giving the streets not only a festive look but also a citrusy fragrance.

The Orange Courtyard, Seville Cathedral
I am not sure if the oranges the nuns used for their marmalade comes from the trees there, but Seville’s Cathedral has an internal courtyard which is thickly planted with orange trees. This Cathedral is the biggest in Christendom (in terms of floor space), though the Vatican apparently measures by nave length, which makes St Peters in Rome numero uno on that basis. Still, the Sevillians are proud of their floor space record, and proudly display the official certificate to that effect issued by The Guinness Book of Records. So there. Seville Cathedral’s dimensions? It occupies a total area of 23,475 square metres.

A VERY big cathedral
I toured the principal sights of Old Seville with a charming local Andalusian guide named Isidoro. This is the name of the patron saint of Seville, and my Isidoro was a true local. That is to say, he was friendly, informative, charming, full of anecdotes and gentle jokes, and told me a great deal of bulls***. I am told that these are all Andalusian traits. I am still trying to sort out which things he told me were true, and which were just made up.

The oval dome of The Chapter House
For example, amongst the huge columns, nine naves, wild baroque mahogany carvings, massive gilded altar and dozens of medieval stained glass windows of the massive Cathedral, there is a delightful Chapter House, which has an unusual oval shaped dome. Isidoro told me that it had been designed by Leonardo de Vinci. Later, eagerly scanning my guide book for more information, I could find no mention of the divine Leonardo; but it does seem that the design for the Chapter House was by Michelangelo.

The other feature of Seville’s Cathedral worth mentioning is that it houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who was a native of the city. The tomb presently in the Cathedral dates from the early 1900s, and is somewhat Art Deco in style. Columbus’s remains were shifted about a bit, at one point being interred in the Dominican Republic and then Cuba – or so Isidoro told me, but should I believe him? He also said that all that is left of Christopher Columbus now is a mere handful of dust. This seems likely, since he lived 1401 – 1506. In fact there is so little left of him that efforts to do some DNA testing proved inconclusive (Wikipedia talks about this). He died in Valladolid, aged about 55, still convinced that all the coasts he had explored in the New World were part of Asia.

The Giralda
The Cathedral also boasts a famous tower, known as the Giralda, which can be climbed for excellent views. It was distractingly filled with hundreds of shouting school children the day I went up. The Giralda houses the Cathedral bells, but was once an Arab minaret. The huge Cathedral is built on the site of the equally huge Almohad mosque, dating from the 12th century. Remains of the mosque can be seen in some of the exterior doorways, and the Orange Tree Courtyard itself, as well as the re-used minaret.

And here we come to the essence of Seville. Not opera, not oranges, but the Moors (Berbers and Arabs from North Africa), who occupied almost all of the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to the 15th centuries. That’s about 800 years folks – plenty of time to leave their indubitable stamp on life here. Everywhere is reflected the architecture and heritage of the Moors, and of those of them who ‘converted’ and stayed in the united Spain that was finally dragged together by Isabel and Ferdinand (the ultimate Power Couple) in 1492 at the end of the long reconquista – the reconquest of Spain by the Christians.

Seville boasts a beautiful Alcazar Real (Royal Palace) with architecture to rival the Alhambra. It has had the advantage of being occupied ever since the reconquista, and is still used by the current Spanish Royal Family today (now that it has been re-instated after the Franco years). But more of the palace later. It merits a blog post of its very own. I thought it was very beautiful.

Courtyard of the Hotel Alphonso XIII
My hotel in Seville, The Hotel Alfonso XIII, was built during the reign of the monarch of that name (the last one before Franco). Its style is what we might call neo-Mudejar: ‘mudejar’ is the name given to the Moorish architecture built by Moors who stayed in Spain after the reconquista. The style suited the climate so well – cool courtyards, open doorways, very clever use of running water and still pools, planted gardens, gorgeous ceramic tiling on walls and floors – that the reconquistadors wanted to continue building in the same style. The Hotel Alfonso XIII, however, was built many years after that time, in 1929, but in a recreation of the same style, and featuring all those same elements. With perhaps just a touch of Art Deco thrown in. It was built at the time of the 1929 Spain-America Trade Fair which was held in Seville, and it was to provide accommodation of suitable splendour for the visiting dignitaries. The massive Plaza España was also built for the Fair, and other enormous neo-renaissance buildings in a large parkland just on the edge of the city. It was a pity that the great Depression hit America in that very year.

In Seville you can, if you don’t mind paying ‘tourist prices’, take a turn about the city centre in a horse-drawn open coach. Not being one to mind too much about being ripped off if the experience warrants it, I succumbed to this temptation, bowling along with my horse through the afternoon 7.00 pm traffic (he was very good with the lights), the air cool and balmy, the sun just beginning to sink after a warm day, and the populace out for the evening paseo.

Carriage ride to Plaza Espana

For the small flamenco dancer

Ah, Andalucia: the name given to the three provinces of Southern Spain, where the painters Picasso, Velasquez and Murillo were born, where bullfighting is still popular, and where the gypsy population gave the local culture flamenco. I didn’t see anyone dancing flamenco in the streets, but they were playing guitars. ļViva Andalucia!

Footnote:  there's one more thing that Seville is known for - gold. As Isidoro said to me - 'You're Australian. You must know why we had so much gold here in the past - Rio Tinto!' The huge mining mega-company of that name is now Australian owned, but over the hills behind Seville is a Spanish town called Rio Tinto, source for many years of gold, silver, iron and copper. They still mine there.

Map from:

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