Seductive Seville and Tranquil Tavira – Spain & Portugal

May/June 2003

After the hectic pace of Madrid and Barcelona, the charming seductive pace of life in the city of Seville was a welcome change. The fast train ride to Seville from Madrid was in itself a great experience. Travelling at 140 miles an hour, it only takes 2.5 hours to make the journey across some of the most scenic countryside imaginable. At the time I thought I was back in Arizona, such were the mesas and red earth country around Cordoba.

Seville is a very manageable city, with all the major monuments and attractions within walking distance. In fact, walking is the joy of life in Seville, which does not have a metro system. We stayed in a small hostel in the north of the centre of town. Hostal Lis (Escarpin 10) was only €144 for three nights and was on a narrow lane way. All its rooms had tiled walls in the classic Sevillian style and the entrance was complete with tiled portico. The charm of Seville is that there are numerous narrow walkways which allow the visitor to meander and be charmed day and night. Especially at night: you walk down narrow cobbled lane ways, past ochre and white coloured walls, and under exquisite wrought-iron lights above the lanes and lit at night with a soft orange glow.

We made the point of eating out each night, enjoying the seductive ambience of the many small restaurants in and around the area of the Giralda, the bell tower attached to the cathedral of Seville dating back to the 15th century. Our first night was spent at Las Escobas Tavern, founded in 1386 with a set menu for €20 a couple, including special cold tomato soup, paella and a rice dessert with a glass of sangria thrown in for the price. The next night it was seafood pizza at the restaurant right next door. Our final night was at Donna Lisa in the Plaza Donna Elvira in the Santa Cruz area, where we enjoyed a fantastic meal for €45. My wife had salmon steak with potatoes and green beans; I had garlic chicken with potatoes and beans. I followed with a creme caramel to die for. This was all washed down with a fine greenish-white wine and coffee.

It is easy to get carried away with wining and dining in this city with the relaxed, safe outdoors and the pleasant mild weather that is with you even in late May.

When we did do some sightseeing we made a memorable journey through the Real Alcazar, the royal regional palace. Still used today, the palace dates back to the 12th century, but its major attraction is the Mudejar (Moorish) section, decorated with intricate stepped arches and the interlaced geometric tiles typical of Moorish artisans who could not portray human or animal forms, so they invented complex patterns to charm the eye. Within the palace grounds were gardens to also charm, and an elevated walkover allows the visitor to look at the gardens laid out below. I was particularly interested as an Australian to see eucalyptus trees so large to be at least 50 years old, and beautiful jacaranda trees and other specimens from the South American colonies alongside more formalised European sections. The Gothic-style Cathedral and Giralda nearby is also worth a visit and is reputed to be the largest cathedral in the world for floor space. It contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus, but on this occasion it was entrapped in scaffolding for cleaning so I had to be content with a postcard for a proper view.

We took in the impressive Plaza de España, a large semi-circular design in Baroque style with ornate Spanish tiles 1929, built in for an exhibition of the Spanish colonies. The exhibition was a flop due to the world Depression, and the plaza is now in physical decline, though some efforts are underway to restore it to its former glory. A short wander across into the public gardens allows one to meander and find the Rio Guadalquivir, the navigable river that flows through the city and heads to the sea at Cadiz, 40 miles away.

On the river is the Torre de Oro (“Tower of Gold”), a sort of customs house where the gold of the Indies was unloaded in the 16th century and reputed to have been clad in gilt tiles( now removed). It makes one remember that the ships that left here in the heyday of Spanish power came back with untold riches in gold and gems, but also carried to the Old World the fruits and exotica of the New. The very first potato, tomato, tobacco and castor oil plants were unloaded and grown in church gardens nearby. Now these plants have colonised the globe.

It was hard to leave Seville after 5 days of dining, sightseeing and flamenco music, but we headed west on the bus for the 70-mile trip to the border and caught the ferry to Portugal. A short 15 miles further west by local bus one reaches the fishing town of Tavira in the Algarve, the area they call the south of Portugal.

This town is a beautiful example of a southern white town, nestled on the Rio Gilao. All this area was under Moorish control until liberated by the Crusaders in 1242. One can see the Moorish influence still, in the way the local people tile their houses and the mix of Christian and Moorish styles in the local architecture.

We booked ahead and were fortunate to stay in the Tavira Inn, run by a very amiable host, Sebastion Bastas. His Inn is the best place we have stayed in for €60 a night, and he pumps the salty river water straight from the river across the road into his filtered pool. He also runs a congenial bar each night. The Inn is a short stroll from the centre of town, where a bevvy of fish restaurants seek the tourist dollar. We chose on good advice the Barquinha restaurant, on the right side of the river, where we enjoyed a meal of grilled local fish (mackerel and hake for about $8 a plate).

Tavira is a tranquil place, a haven for weary travellers who want to relax along the river and seek out small pottery places on the hill. The town has its churches and a fortress with ramparts worth seeing and for gaining a panorama across the town, but for us again it was the charm of walking the small cobbled laneways and enjoying the charms to the senses of hundreds of years of public art, randomly and lovingly encrusted upon the past, with intricate tiling of doorways and facades and the beautiful 17th century curved tiled roofs called the Treasure style, where the houses have almost a Chinese pagoda style. One must remember that Vasco da Gama in the Age of Discovery for Portugal found Macau in China and then India, and he no doubt brought back this style to Portugal.

It will be on to Lisbon for a more hectic pace tomorrow; however this week in Seville and Tavira in the south of Portugal, has been characteristed by a more sedate style of life, enjoying the Moorish style of tiling as art in itself and more so the art of living in places which show the progression of architectural styles from the 12th to the 19th centuries and somehow have managed to avoid the ugliness that characterises so many modern cities. The south of Spain and Portugal is another unique world, well worth the visit, and I am glad I chose to come and meander to its relaxed pace.

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