THE ASTONISHING ALCAZAR OF SEVILLE
Seville has played host to a series of contrasting cultures from its Roman origins, followed by 500 years of Islamic occupation, and culminating in the Christian reconquest of the 13th century. The city’s architecture reflects its diverse history, no more so than the stunningly beautiful Alcazar Palace, which we got to see today. Seville’s Alcazar combines Christian and Islamic influences to create one of the most beautiful palaces we have ever seen.
Our day began with a typical Spanish breakfast: a delicious café cortado with toasted bread, tomato, and jamon. Properly fuelled we then set out to see the oldest royal palace still in use today in Europe: Seville’s Alcazar.
The Alcazar* of Seville is a fortified palace that perfectly demonstrates how stunning the blend of Christian and Islamic aesthetics can be. Dating back to the 11th century, the palace was built by the Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus as a base for their court in Seville and is still in use today (the upper levels of the Alcazar are still used by the royal family as their official Seville residence).
*The term “Alcazar” comes from the Arabic word “alqáşr” meaning ”royal house”.
Although some of the original Moorish structure remains, the greater part of the building dates from the time of Christian Spanish rule. The palace is renowned as an outstanding examples of mudejar architecture and has a reputation for being one of the most beautiful palaces to be found on the Iberian Peninsula. After visiting it today we can understand why.
After the Reconquista of 1248 the palace became a favoured residence of the Catholic kings and queens of Spain. Over the centuries the Spanish royals expanded the palaces and elaborated its mudejar architecture, ensuring what was once a beautiful palace became a jewel of Spain.
We entered through the Puerta del León, named for the tile work inlaid above the gate, and found ourselves in a grand paved courtyard overlooked by grand buildings.
Exploring the rooms and sections of the palace at random we found ourselves in a small courtyard adorned with a simple fountain, in typical Morrish style. Around the courtyard were various rooms, once audience chambers and offices for court officials.
Further around was the Casa de Contratación (i.e. House of Trade), built in 1503 by the Catholic monarchs of Spain to regulate trade with the New World colonies. The Casa includes a chapel where Columbus met with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella after his voyage to the Americas. The chapel houses “The Virgin of the Navigators”, one of the first paintings to depict the discovery of the Americas.
Following a trail of paved pathways through courtyards and gardens we found ourselves magically lost in amongst the buildings of the palace, grateful to have left the crowds of tour groups behind in our explorations.
Eventually we found ourselves back in the main palace, the core of which was built by the Moors almost 1,000 years ago. Surrounding the eloquently named “Courtyard of the Maidens”, the original rooms of the palace were stunningly decorated in the ornate Islamic style we love.
It’s hard to describe how beautiful the Moorish decorative style can be; how mesmerising the smooth lines of the Arabic script can be, and how relaxing it is to lose yourself in the geometrical patterns of the tile work and ceiling motifs.
In places the decorations had been scratched away and replaced with emblems of the Spanish kings. No doubt these were panels once taken up by Arabic script quoiting the Quran. The inelegant replacements, stuck over the top of the original panels, just seemed so out of place though!
Moving on we found ourselves in a more modern part of the castle (i.e. in the 16th century addition) which today houses a museum of large tapestries.
Moving outside into the extensive palace gardens we followed the discrete signs down into the palace cisterns, originally used by the Moors as a hammam (i.e. steam room and bath house).
The rest of our time at the Alcazar was spent exploring the gardens, where Islamic technology was used to harness waters from the River Guadalquivir, distributing it across acres of garden and making it come alive.
With its bounty of water, date palms, pomegranate trees, citrus trees, lavender bushes, and jasmine vines, the gardens would have once served a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one (i.e. it would have provided ample food, as well as helping cool the palace).
We really enjoyed our visit to the Alcazar of Seville and weren’t surprised to find that we had spent virtually our whole morning there. For the rest of the afternoon we went exploring through the oldest part of Seville – Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz was once the city’s juderia (i.e. the Jewish quarter); today it’s the main tourist part of town, with the old Medieval houses converted into guesthouses, souvenir shops, and cafés. With its narrow roadways, tiny plazas, and hidden courtyards, Santa Cruz is a wonder to explore and we happily spent hours losing ourselves in its labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys.
An easy way to spend a Sunday, that’s for sure! And what a beautiful town to spend it in. Seville may be more touristy than some of the smaller towns we visited in Northern Spain, but it still seems to have a soul is a joy to explore. We have another half day here tomorrow, then we’re off to Cordoba in the afternoon! Join us tomorrow as we uncover a little more of Seville then head off to Cordoba…