Note: This is the first of a multi-part series on Andalusia, a region in southern Spain.
Seville, June 24, 2018
Tonight children played, running across the plaza chasing bubbles on water reflections. As their laughter echoed, twilight settled and I was once reminded again of my favorite childhood memory— going to the city square with my dad as the sun tucked into night. What a strange and exciting transition that was, as one by one the night lamps flickered and shone, welcoming the cool evening as the winds chased the heat away.
If you asked me to retrieve that memory, over an evening of wine and tapas, I’d reply that it was gone – that it was some distant, foggy part of me only to be retrieved by moments unexpected by either of us, like the one tonight, in thePlaza de España as the sunset lit against the mosaic of stories telling someone else’s history. A magical moment.
The Plaza de España, architected in the northwestern border of the Parque de María Luisa by Aníbal González, was built in 1928 specifically for the Exposición Iberoamericana de 1929 (the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 which was the world fair held in Seville, Spain). Portugal, the United States, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile, the Republic of Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Ecuador along with regions in Spain and Andalusian provinces were in attendance.
In many ways, the Exposition was a political effort for Spain to maintain strong relationships with historically colonized countries or ones that remained significant to Spain’s trade efforts, a bit of highly stylized propaganda. The showcase? A magnificent, semi-circular, half-mile long construction of tiles, columns, and bridges – four representing each of Spain’s ancient kingdoms – stylized with Moorish and Renaissance touches.
The Plaza’s construction attempted to mirror the blending of hundreds of years of culture and inhabitance of three religions in the Andalusia region, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. While Andalusian history was not without its share of bloody wars and conquests (just visit the Tapestry room of the Alcazar to see some of the stories), there remained golden times of peace and integration, the best of it left for us to view in the gardens, the architecture and through the blending of food, language, music and a distinct identity that is firstly, Andalusian.
When I traveled there, I was hit with the distinct realization that I was standing in a meeting place of worlds. It was similar to a feeling I once had in Istanbul in 2012 while riding the “sea taxi” from Europe to Asia on the Bosphorus, created only through the integration and history of cultures entering and leaving throughout the past few centuries, none leaving so fully so that their marks were erased. In this way, in Sevilla, the soul and capital of Andalusia, I heard music that was familiar and yet foreign, bits and pieces blending together in beats and harmony that evoked deep searches in my memory; ate foods that was unlike anywhere else; and absorbed a fusion of art that felt like a tapestry from the world’s museum.
If the Plaza de España represented the culmination of hundreds of years of collective history, then the Parque Maria Luisa was the garden version of this story. When I first arrived, after a sweaty run in the heat of Southern Spain, I thought I had encountered a jungle oasis set on by heat delirium. Orange groves, palm trees, ferns, wisteria vines and rose gardens – plants that were exotic and native – grew across the innumerous fountains, monuments and walkways while green parrots, white doves, ducks and pigeons flew throughout. Was I in Central Park, New York? Griffiths Park, Los Angeles? The deep rainforest jungle of Peru? Then the sound of laughing teenagers, picnicking and sunbathing in the grassy patches of the park, reminded me, no – I was in Sevilla, lost in a garden filled with gifts from around the globe, set in a city today as modern as any other.
I have and still prefer gardens that I can get lost in, and I prefer them unmanicured, overgrown, filled with hidden walkways and sights that keep each visit fresh and exciting. As I child, I had often searched for these gardens, coming back home at dinner with my clothes filled with dirt and grass stains. I would imagine myself as some protagonist in an epic story (like a female Odysseus or Magellan) fighting off monsters, making great, lifelong friends whom I would find ways to protect in future sequels and always discovering something new.
As an adult, walking through the Parque Maria Luisa filled me with similar stories of my childhood, fantastical ones that stretched my imagination in ways I had thought were gone. It was easy to imagine the inspirations of literary surrealist Federico García Lorca, an Andalusian native born just west of Granada, in these settings where the real and unreal blend in the dreamlike heat of summer, among fantastical sights that feel like they come from elsewhere but belong – today – nowhere else.
So let us return to the beginning and speak of memory. Let us wind through the real, unreal, the dreamlike collective immersion of culture and the deep imprints of acts that tell us who we are today: I believe we create as children and optimize as adults. Creating comes easily without boundaries. When we age, constraints fold into our lives, and our creations focus on what we think we can do within these constraints. The real deepens, the unreal fades. Childhood is gone. With each minute passing, each minute of childhood disappears further into the past and with it, the memory of unconstrained belief, desire and creativity.
But like the mosaics of the Plaza showed me with the intertwining vines of the Parque Maria Luisa, it is not lost. In special moments, in special places, if we allow our minds to trace back – back past the addition of each adulthood constraint, back past each year filled with information to guide us on what the world is today – we can float to the top of our consciousness, in this moment and at this time, a piece of memory that had sunk deep into yesterday.
…Mu Xi Di in twilight, and we walked alongside the canals, and I blew bubbles. My father walked with me, hand in hand, and I carried a bucket filled with tadpoles. We made the trek from Mu Xi Di to Tiananmen often during my earliest years and in my earliest memories of 1980s Beijing. The evening settled into night. The lights across Tiananmen Square flickered, one by one and then all at once. A city filled with bicycles, the smells of roasting Bingtanghulu, and I was laughing as I watched the bubbles floating into the evening…
I believe in magical things, but I believe magical things – like memories – are shy. If you walk quietly, without presumption, and you listen, you can catch them whispering, beckoning you to join in their dance.
Plaza de España and Parque Maria Luisa: I hope my long exposé on the park has done it justice, but if you need any more convincing, it’s free. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to see some Flamenco happening in the plaza on Sundays. Grab some jamon, bread and 3€ bottle of excellent cava and head to the park during sunset. It’s right off the Guadalquivir River, which makes for a wonderful walk in the evening to see the neighborhood Triana light up across the river. Click on the images below for a larger view.
The streets of the Santa Cruz neighborhood: The Santa Cruz neighborhood of Sevilla is famous for its cobblestone, windy and narrow streets. Historically, it was the Jewish Quarter of medieval Sevilla, and you’ll find a number of tapas bars, cafes and shops here. Come here in the evening to wind your way for tapas hopping and try out the region’s riojas. Taberna Coloniales lived up to its hype here (except for the salad) and you can find a nice sparkling wine at la Cava bar after.
You can also let yourself get lost and always end up in the main arteries: the city center or the Cathedral (pictured below).
Warning, it is famously touristy and there’s quite a bit of car traffic for how narrow the streets are (which is crazy to me). Although I’ll admit it’s kind of hilarious to see an SUV try to drive through these walkways that can probably only fit 3 people walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Man, I hate car culture.
Ancient Arabic Aire Baths: As a belated birthday present, we went to the Aire baths, which was an incredible experience, though brush up on your Spanish to avoid some embarrassing scenarios (more on this in posts later). For those of you who know me, I’m the last person in the world to be able to meditate or find any ounce of “presentness”. But when you’re in an arabic salt bath while there’s some live Spanish guitar and flute playing in the atrium above, and you’re floating hand in hand with a person you love, there’s nothing that gets quite as meditative as that. In fact, I was so meditative I bounced right into the woman next to me (while you have to purchase passes to come here, you’ll end up in pools with several people).
Confirmed: while floating in the salt baths, it is best practice to link arms like otters so you don’t float away.
Triana and Flamenco: I’m dedicating an entire post to this, but flamenco is the heart of the city. The Triana neighborhood across the river of the Old City is particularly famous for its flamenco, where you can spot some free shows. La Carboneria in the Santa Cruz neighborhood is boasted on all the travel guides, but we decided not to go. We walked past it at 11pm (which is like prime dinner time for Sevilla), and the entire crowd was leaving…which was weird. That shouldn’t prevent you from trying it, though!
Real Alcazar: The most famous historic site of Sevilla, dating back to 10th century and includes a number of gardens, interior rooms filled with tapestries and history, and beautiful patios. Please, please do yourself a favor (unlike us) and book tickets (11.50€ each with link to website in bold here) ahead of time! If you pre-book, you can skip the line. If you don’t, the line is about 45 min and completely unshaded. I think this affected our tour of the Moorish castle as we were in a pretty bad mood by the time we went in and for each unit of Celsius the temperature rose, our expectation rose along with it. Also, the maze in the gardens is real. Don’t try it on scorching hot days without water.
Food & Drink
Cafes: Being coffee addicts, we did a lot of cafe exploration, and hands-down the two best are Cafe Otto (in a traditional Spanish neighborhood) and Cafe Bar la Fresqui. At Cafe Otto, order a few coffees and a pastry. Or, come in the early evening and order yourself a magnificent sangria. Go to Cafe Bar la Frequi for the best traditional breakfast of cafe con leche, zumo narajana and jamon montadito (pictured below). It’s a very traditionally Spanish cafe but the waitstaff are just incredibly patient and kind. If you want to buy a pound of coffee to make at your hotel, go to Torch Coffee.
I think Sevilla is ripe for an iced coffee revolution. Yes, you heard it here first. I only found iced coffee in one place, and they were 4.50€ for a tiny little bottle at the hip, Torch Coffee (which is an obscene price for Southern Spain considering most coffees range for 1.20-1.50€). If I could retire and move to Spain, I’d start a cava (for nighttime) and iced coffee (for daytime) food truck, with a recycling bin attached obviously, and plant myself on the Triana side of the Quadalquivir River.
Drinks: Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong here. While I basically gave up red wine in Greece, I made up for it in Spain. Riojas, tempranillos, vino de veranda (red wine mixed with soda with a slice of lemon or orange), or sangria – you can’t go wrong. The beer, Cruzcampo, is refreshing while variety limited but we found house brewed craft beers at Maquila.
I also realized it’s pretty much culturally accepted to drink during any hour of the day, on any day of the week, as long as it is after 12. While I thought this was only okay at the Centurion Lounge in SFO Airport, it is apparently also culturally acceptable in Seville.
Tapas: Before I list our favorite tapas restaurants, I need to make a cultural note that we both lost weight in Seville. Whatever we had gained after our gluttonous, uncontrolled, hedonistic eating frenzy in Greece and Italy, was lost in the tapas culture of Spain. They just come in such small portions! So much flavor punched into so little food! Somehow the combination of our eyes tricking our bodies into thinking we had eaten a lot, combined with the hours food is open (11am – 4pm, then 8pm to midnight) was so confusing that body mass just melted away. It could have also been from sweating in the heat, but all I can say is that I can button up my jeans again.
Last food advice? Stick to the local foods – like pork, gambas (shrimp), sardines, duck, oxtail. Also, don’t expect to find too many fresh vegetables. I practically turned into a carnivore here. Favorite places are below.
- Mechela Restaurante: Sit down place and absolutely unreal. We somehow magically got seated without a reservation but apparently this place is reserved for weeks ahead.
- La Chunga Bar de Tapas. Get the duck.
- Taberna Coloniales
- Abaceria Los Carros: come here for a truly traditional, non-touristy experience. Figure out how to gesture wildly or order in Spanish.
- Casa Vizcaino: Go across the plaza of Abaceria Los Carros to Casa Vizcaino, a one hundred year old establishment, and order an orange wine (vino naranja). The waiter will keep your tab chalked up on the bar in front of you.
Asian Food: Obviously, no matter how delicious local food is, I can’t go too long without Asian food. I think it is a genetic disorder. We discovered our favorite sushi (pictured below) is at Yamazaki. It didn’t give us Athens prices but we gladly went there twice. We also found a chain noodle place that was pretty decent called Tuk Tuk Noodles, one time magically after a 9 mile run just by following our noses (sans phones).
If you don’t mind temperatures rivaling Morocco’s, feel free to run here! I found I needed a lot of recovery time between each run due to the heat. Or I could just be a really bad runner. I think the best times are before 9am or after 9pm. You can easily wind your way through the streets (watch out for the cars as the sidewalks in many places in the old city disappear completely) to Parque Maria Luisa, where you can do laps around it (it’s about 0.8-1 mile around). I recommend going along Alcazar and either cross into the park or turn onto the path alongside the Guadalquivir river, where you can add loads of miles until you melt.