When people want architecture, they look to Italy; gastronomy, and you'd run to France; turquoise waters, pack your trunks you are off to Greece. And so, where does that leave Spain? A capital city that quite frankly has nothing on Paris and a coastline notorious for its hundreds of days of sun and subsequent tourists found frazzled on the sunbeds enjoying a siesta. It is a corner of Europe that is all too frequently overlooked in favour of its neighbours. However, on my recent trip to the country, I discovered that underneath the tanning oil and sangria laden bar tables, there is so much more to experience in Spain than is often presumed…
First to Seville, a melting pot of culture, where there are traces all over the city illustrating the history of the place and the mix of people who have called Seville home over the years.
The city's grand architecture, gardens and colours carry baroque, moorish and roman character as well as swathes of Christian and Muslim designs. Many of the city's bounty of churches were once mosques and still carry the characteristic domes. The Jewish quarter, today made up of trinket shops and tapas stands, can be identified with street names translated as "smelly street". This was where the butchers resided, whose meat you could smell well before you got there.
History of Ham
The Sevillian relationship with meat is a complicated one if you think of the Muslim and Jewish roots the city has. The hanging of Iberian ham which is so strongly associated with the country suddenly seems strange. The hanging of ham dates back to a time when Jews and Muslims had to prove they had been converted after King Ferdinand charmingly presented them the choice to covert or burn at the stake. And so, people hung their meats to prove their conversion as those not to be seen eating pork became suspects of the Inquisition.
The anecdotes and theories around why the Spanish eat tapas are many and no one really has a straight forward answer, although everyone has a favoured. Mine was the story of the Spanish King, fed up of passing horses kicking up sand into his sherry. "Give me something to cover my drink with" he is said to have barked, upon which he was presented with a slab of cheese or ham to cover the liquor and consume afterwards. The Spanish favoured is less poetic - the town's shops in the 16th century (some of which you can still visit today, such as the oldest standing El Rinchillo) were built in such a way where you could sample the merchants products on one side of the counter and then go to the shop to purchase the goods you favoured. All washed down with a glass of wine.
What is for certain is that the tapas culture in Seville is far from a cliché. The locals still pour from one bar to the next as a means to fuel themselves, a distance from the formal meals we associate evening dining with. They start late and finish later, drinking regional wine to fuel their tapas crawl. Tapas etiquette, I quickly learnt, is strict and Spaniards are very happy to 'tsk'. Combine some Iberian ham with some sheep's cheese and expect a resounding sigh from the locals.
That Flamenco Feeling
Eating and drinking is not the only thing the Spanish are famous for. Take your pick on an array of fabulous flamenco shows - we can suggest the latest 'local haunt' (although you won't know until you get there if someone will pick the guitar off the wall and start the folk music to get the bar clapping and dancing). The dance is beautiful and rhythmic, and the music is full of emotion charged by the history of the dance.
Beautiful and unique architecture, flamenco dancing and getting fat on tapas and regional wine… what's not to love about Seville?