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From La Giralda to La Macarena, Seville

Posted on April 3, 2007 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Southern Spain and Morocco

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Above: Views of Hotel Alminar in Seville (recommended!)

On the morning of Holy Tuesday David got up before me and went out to wander around a bit, including having a brief look around the cathedral, which was about three minutes from our front door. He said it was very impressive, and empty and peaceful that early. I was mighty jealous, although after our previous long day I think it would have been a physical impossibility to get out of bed any earlier.

We had breakfast at our hotel at around 10-ish. It was served on the ground floor near the reception desk, which was a nice change from the usual basement arrangement. The front door was open to the morning air so I was a bit cold (yep, still not much warmer this much further south!), but I sat next to the toaster so that that helped.

The breakfast was good. Nothing hot, but that's only ever a bonus on the continent anyway, and the muesli was fantastic. I never seem to be able to find proper muesli in the UK (too dusty, too soggy, too fruity), and yet they get it just right in every hotel in France, Switzerland and Spain we've ever been to. I guess I'll have to start importing. There were also other kinds of cereal, yogurt, cold meats, cheese, toast and pastries, coffee from a coffee machine and orange juice.

La Giralda

Our breakfast was accompanied by the bells from the cathedral, which is really nice in principle but this was something else! It seemed they were ringing them all at once, with special emphasis on the biggest ones and in no discernible tune. It was just a whole lot of clanging, and so incredibly loud that when we left our hotel and went out into the street, it was actually impossible to talk to each other.

The racket was coming from the top of the cathedral's beautiful bell tower, which is known as La Giralda (after the giraldillo, or weather vane, on its summit). It doesn't look like a belltower you'll see anywhere else, and that's because it's really a minaret! A minaret is a tower attached to a mosque, from which the muezzin chants the call to prayer five times a day. There is no longer a mosque in Seville, but there was once a grand one that stood on the spot now occupied by the cathedral.

La Giralda was built over a period of 12 years, from 1184 to 1196, back when an Islamic dynasty called the Almohads ruled Spain. Despite its location in what is now a very Christian country, La Giralda is considered one of the most beautiful monuments of the Islamic world.

The minaret in Marrakesh, Morocco, which we would see in a few days, was built at the same time and looks quite similar. Sadly we never got a very good photo of the Marrekesh minaret, but hopefully it's enough to see the resemblance (the two on the left are Seville; the far right is Marrakesh):

IMG_9664 la giralda, seville koutoubia minaret, marrakesh

One remarkable thing about Seville's tower is that inside, instead of stairs, it has a huge spiral ramp that makes it possible to ride to the top on horseback! This was highly practical, as the Islamic rulers used the minaret not only for religious purposes, but also as a defensive watchtower.

In 1248 the Catholics conquered Seville and promptly razed the mosque to the ground, but they saved the minaret and just topped it with an extra section to hold bells. In 1402, construction began on Seville Cathedral on the site of the mosque.

La Giralda was not open the morning we visited and I am terribly disappointed to report that due to time constraints and special holiday opening hours, we were never able to climb it. If we had, we could have seen the unusual ramp close up and enjoyed great views over the top of the cathedral and the city.

Seville Cathedral

Fortunately the bells from La Giralda had ceased their clanging by the time we got to the cathedral, which was because the service heralded by them was starting soon. The service was conducted from the high altar in the center of the building and the attendees were seated in pews in facing it.

That still left a whole lot of room to wander without disturbing the worshipers, but we soon began to get mixed signals as to the appropriateness of taking pictures no matter where we were. There were officials everywhere, and some couldn't care less about us snapping away while others gestured indignantly and said "no photo"!

The rule, if there was one, seemed to be that we couldn't take photos in the direction of the not-started service. This we obeyed, and were mostly left in peace to admire and photograph the soaring heights of the Gothic ceiling, the huge organ, and the usual opulence of the side chapels.

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The photo issues further increased by the time we got to the other side of the cathedral, where many tourists were taking photos and being reprimanded by a short old man wielding a rolled up newspaper. He did not appear to be a cathedral official, and most were taking pictures in the opposite direction of the service that had not yet started, but he clearly took his duties seriously. He was so cute and so incredibly serious that we and our fellow tourists couldn't help but smile.

And eventually the service did start, beginning with a wonderful procession of what seemed to be well over a hundred clergy and choir members that passed right by us.

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The above photo was shot from the hip when the newspaper man was not watching, and before we left we somehow also managed a couple photos of a nearby monument that is the main attraction for many American visitors: the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

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Columbus was originally buried in the cathedral of Havana, but during the chaos of the Cuban revolution in 1902, Spain transferred the remains to Seville. His tomb is held up by four huge allegorical figures representing the Spanish kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragón and Navarra.

Planning to return for a better look around in the morning, we headed back out into the sunshine to walk around the exterior of the cathedral. It's very beautiful on the outside, very Gothic, with some nice carved portals and an unusual orangey-hued dome. And it's absolutely huge.

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All around the cathedral there are horse-and-carriage rides available for hire, which is a common feature in European tourist cities (and in Morocco, as it happens). But Seville's horses and carriages were especially lovely and for the first time I was almost tempted.

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What Next?

So having seen the cathedral, at least mostly, we sat in the sun in the cathedral plaza and pondered our next move. Unlike Toledo, where there are so many sights I consider "can't-miss," there was really no other church or attraction in Seville I felt an absolute need to visit. There is no shortage of wonderful things to see in Seville, of course, but I was ready to take it easy for a day, just relax, and wander. I figured David would be relieved about this and initially he was, but then we ended up having another very full and active day under his lead!

Our first thought was to tour the Alcazar (castle) of Seville, which is right next to the cathedral. It is a very cool sight that would have been interesting to check out, but there were long lines stretching from its walls and we decided against it. We did, however, wander into a courtyard that is part of it and seems to be where people exit from the guided tour. It was lovely and peaceful and filled with orange trees.

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That's La Giralda in the background.

Thumbing through our Seville guidebook pages (I tear them out of the book to save weight, which never fails to make David cringe), we decided to take a day trip out to Italica, an ancient Roman site 5-10 miles outside the city. To get there, the guidebook recommends a bus that leaves frequently, but from a station in the opposite direction of the site itself and not near anything interesting.

We decided instead to walk in the direction of Italica, seeing Seville along the way and aiming especially for the Basilica de la Macarena, my top priority for a church to see in the city. Then we figured we'd get a taxi from there.

We had an enjoyable walk through the center of Seville and were glad we chose to take the time to see it. It's a lovely city with much to see.

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We saw construction of a rather fascinating new building... d80_2 089

passed through some nice shopping areas... IMG_9370

peeked into a church or two (inevitably featuring huge gold altars and holding services)... d80_2 072 IMG_9369

on the way to the parade had a quick lunch at another branch of the Pan restaurant we'd enjoyed in Segovia, headed into the winding streets of the old city, where we met some hooded characters heading to their parade (right)...

...and then we got very lost. And then it began to rain. Really hard. I've looked it up, and it only rains 52 days of the year in Seville, mostly in December. We did not order such weather for our spring holiday!

We waited out the rain for awhile with some locals, taking shelter under the large porch of what appeared to be a bank. Unfortunately, the rain never stopped. So when it looked like maybe it was slowing down a little, we pressed on to the basilica that we were pretty sure was nearby. Happily, it was, and even better, it was open and not holding a service.

Basilica de la Macarena

The most famous of the images that are carried through the streets during Semana Santa is a statue of Mary called La Macarena, who is enshrined in a basilica named for her on the western side of the city. La Macarena is the patron saint of matadors and therefore pretty much also of the entire city.

I challenge you not to get the song of the same name stuck in your head! It was in mine the whole day, I'm sorry to say. Incidentally, the band who wrote that song is actually from Seville, where Macarena is a common girls' name. But beyond that, the song has nothing to do with La Macarena. Quite the contrary - it was inspired by a flamenco dancer and the lyrics are about a promiscuous, cheating young woman! (You can get your fill of the trivia from Wikipedia, and read the lyrics here.)

Anyway, the image of La Macarena in Seville dates from the late 17th century. She is quite beautiful and very mournful, with big tears on her perfect cheeks. The procession of La Macarena through the streets of Seville is reserved for Good Friday, the holiest night of Semana Santa. But fortunately, the floats used for the parades were on display in the church (as they always are) so we were able to see her without waiting for the parade.

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As you can see, the amount of gold, silver and embroidered tapestry used on these floats is absolutely astounding! And like most Seville churches, the Basilica de la Macarena has two floats: one with the Virgin Mary (La Macarena, on the left in the photo below) and one with Christ (right).

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It was still raining after our tour of the church and thorough photography of the floats, so we took a seat on some chairs near the door and relaxed for a bit, watching people (the vast majority of them Spanish) admire the floats. Eventually, people began to come into the church looking a little less wet so we ventured out. It had thankfully finally stopped raining, but seemed colder than ever. We immediately began our search for a taxi out on the main road by the church.

By now we were quite cold, quite wet, and quite tired from walking all over the city for hours, so as we looked for a cab with his light on (which took a good 15 minutes), the question remained: where should we ask him to take us? The excursion to Italica had started to sound pretty ambitious by now, and we thought perhaps we should just head back to our hotel while we still could (i.e. before the parades started). The question still hadn't been decided when we finally did get a cab, so as we got in I looked at David inquiringly. And he told the driver to take us to Italica! Impressive.

So, in the next post: Italica, birthplace of two Roman emperors.