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Mainly about the Real Alcázar

Weekend in Seville day three


View Weekend in Seville on ToonSarah's travel map.

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It was Sunday, so after another good breakfast in Gusto we decided to go to a morning mass at the cathedral. This gave us another chance to experience this majestic space and in the way it was intended to be used. The singing by an all-male choir was wonderful as it echoed around the huge building.

After that we had another wander through the nearby lanes and courtyards, and an early lunch in one of the latter.

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On our walk before lunch

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In the Plaza de Dona Elvira

And the reason that lunch was early? We had timed tickets for what is arguably Seville’s star attraction, the Real Alcázar.

The Real Alcázar of Seville

Once upon a time, when Seville was the capital of Al-Andalus, the ruling Almohade caliphate built a palace in the city which they named ‘Al Mubarak’ or 'The Blessed'. It was the hub of both the city's government and its artistic and literary life.

Little of that palace remains today, apart from some foundations. On these, in the thirteenth century, the conquering Castilians built their own palace to serve as both seat of government and royal residence, a function the Alcázar performs to this day.

Over time various rulers have added to and made their mark on the palace. Today it feels like several distinct palaces linked by courtyards and staircases. There is the thirteenth century Palacio Gótico built for Alfonso X El Sabio, designed to represent the triumph of Christian ideology against the Muslim past. There is the fourteenth century Mudéjar palace of Pedro I; and the fifteenth century first floor added by Isabella and Fernando, the ‘Catholic monarchs’. This latter is still used by the Spanish royal family and there is an additional fee to visit it.

Visiting the palace

Access to the upper floor, which we were of course keen to see, is strictly controlled, with limited numbers, tight security and no photography. This meant we had to pre-book a specific time at which we were to be at the foot of the staircase leading to this ‘inner sanctum’, which in turn meant that we were a little haphazard in our explorations of the rest.

We entered through the Lion Gate, the Puerta del León, where our tickets were checked. This brought us into the courtyard or patio of the same name. This space was in the seventeenth century home to a theatre but today is shaded by bauhinia trees.

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Bauhinia tree in the Courtyard of the Lion

It leads to the next, larger, courtyard, the Patio de la Montería. Facing us as we entered this was the façade of Pedro I’s palace, but this we decided to leave until later.

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The façade of Pedro I’s palace

The Casa de Contratación

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The Virgin of the Navigators

Leading off the courtyard to our right we found the Casa de Contratación, founded by Isabella I of Castille to oversea foreign trade and exploration. The government office housed here was responsible for collecting colonial taxes and duties; it approved all voyages of exploration and trade; and it maintained secret information on trade routes and new discoveries. The main room is known as the Admirals’ Room or Cuarto del Almirante. Here Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano planned the first circumnavigation of the world.

In the chapterhouse, serving as a small chapel off the main room, we came across an important painting, the Virgin of the Navigators (La Virgen de los Navegantes). This work by Spanish artist Alejo Fernández forms the chapel altarpiece’s central panel. It reflects the traditional iconography of the Virgin of Mercy, her arms outspread to protect the faithful; but in this twist on the usual images here she straddles the seas, uniting the continents. Ships cross the waters under her protection, and Spanish rulers and navigators shelter beneath her cloak. They include Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand II of Aragon and the emperor Charles V. A sign in the room prompted us to look closely to see the indigenous people of the Americas behind the Spanish, also benefitting from the Virgin’s protection after their conversion, by their conquerors, to the Christian faith.

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The Virgin of the Navigators (detail)

Sala de Justicia

Tucked away in a corner on the opposite side of the Patio de la Montería we found the Sala de Justicia, Hall of Justice. A sign told us that this was the first Mudéjar structure in the palace, built by Alfonso XI in the mid fourteenth century. Mudéjar can be defined as Muslim stylistic devices adapted to the Christian world. This was the residence of Pedro I before the construction of his new palace. It is decorated with plaster work that blends Muslim tradition with Castilian emblems.

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The Hall of Justice

The Courtyard of the Plaster, Patio del Yeso

Beyond this room is the Courtyard of the Plaster, Patio del Yeso. This is considered the most significant of the Almohad Moorish remains in the palace. On one side (the right-hand as you look at my photo below) is a portico described on the information sign thus:
‘a jewel of the Almohad architecture. It consists of a larger central arch, on axis with the door of the room behind and flanked by three smaller arches on columns on each side. This portico is composed by lintels, so there is no weight over the arches, its only function is decorative’.

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The Courtyard of the Plaster

Patio de los Levíes

With time to kill before our appointed time to visit the upper rooms we wandered back over the other side of the Patio de la Montería. Passing the rooms of the Casa de Contratación which we had already seen, we explored the tranquil Patio de los Levíes, with its Renaissance-style pilasters, and the adjoining Patio de Romero Murube, named for a former curator of the Real Alcázar.

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Patio de los Levíes on the left, Patio de Romero Murube on the right

Visiting the Upper Royal Residence

Visits to the first floor of Pedro I’s palace are as I mentioned strictly controlled. Tickets must be bought in advance and visitors are required to present themselves at the foot of the stairs fifteen minutes before the time on their ticket.

We were there promptly, in time to take photos of the beautiful staircase decorated with tiles. In the past this upper floor would have been used in the winter months; being higher it receives more sun and is less exposed to the elements. Meanwhile the lower floor was ideal for the heat of a Seville summer, with plenty of shade and cooled by breezes from the many patios.

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Stairs to the upper floor

At the top we were welcomed and briefed. No photos were to be allowed and bags, cameras etc had to be put into the lockers provided; the guide kindly lent us the required euro to operate these. Oddly mobile phones were permitted but couldn’t be used for photography, so I wasn’t sure why they were excepted from the ‘leave everything in the lockers’ rule. However I kept mine with me as I like to keep track of my steps each day!

We were given an audio guide each, set to our chosen language. Then our small group of about a dozen tourists was summoned through the doors which were locked behind us. We were accompanied from room to room by a silent security guard whose only role seemed to be to check we behaved ourselves; and that we all moved on at the appropriate point in the commentary on the audio guide.

The security is perhaps unsurprising; this is, after all, still the private residence of the royal family, used by them whenever they visit Seville. I have no photos to share so you will have to take my word for it that the rooms are sumptuous and well worth the extra you must pay to visit. They include the chapel of Isabella and her bedroom, an ornate dining room with the table set for a state banquet, the audience room and several ante chambers, and a mirador that looks down on to the Alcázar’s most celebrated courtyard, the Courtyard of the Maidens or Patio de las Doncellas.

The gardens

After our visit to the upper floor we decided to explore the gardens. These have been cultivated for more than a thousand years. Just as the building does, they blend Moorish and Hispanic styles with ease. Eastern style courtyards are ornamented with classical statuary; Renaissance trends modify the Arab designs. What was once the Moors’ orchard is now an informal garden where peacocks strut.

We entered the gardens through the Puerta de la Marchena which was formerly the entrance to the palace, erected during the time of Isabella I of Castille. I liked the little lion crouched above the doorway. The gate has an interesting history. It was put up for sale by public auction in 1913 and purchased by the US press magnate William R. Hearst. But Alfonso XIII intervened and claimed the right of first refusal, thanks to which the gate remained in Seville. It was reinstalled at the Alcázar in this new location in 1914.

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Detail of the Puerta de la Marchena

Near here is an azulejo panel depicting San Fiacre, the patron saint of growers of vegetables and medicinal plants, and of gardeners in general.

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San Fiacre

The gardens are dotted with palm trees and orange trees, laden with fruit when we were here (November).

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Palm and orange trees

The central area, known as the Jardin de las Damas or Garden of the Ladies, is the most formal of the larger gardens. It is overlooked by a gallery which separates it from the Jardin de la Danza / Garden of the Dance. The planting is interspersed with fountains, pools, statues and pavilions.

The most striking fountain is the Fuente de Neptune, Neptune’s Fountain, made of Genoese marble and topped with a 16th century bronze statue of the god.

At the eastern edge of this garden is another fountain, the Fuente de la Fama, the Fountain of Fame. This is an ‘organ fountain’ from the 17th century, the only one of its kind in Spain and one of only three in Europe. Above the small terracotta statue in my photo is another, of a trumpeter. The system uses water pressure to provide air to the statue's trumpet, making it sound. The ‘organ’ plays hourly according to the Alcázar’s website, but we didn’t hear it sound during our visit. Perhaps, like so many things, it has been silenced by the pandemic?

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Statue of Neptune left, and Fuente de la Fama right

At the far end of the Garden of the Ladies is the Pabellon de Carlos V or Pavilion of Charles V. This is the oldest building in the gardens, dating from Moorish times. It was probably originally built as a qubba. Charles transformed it on the occasion of his marriage to Princess Elizabeth of Portugal into a Renaissance garden retreat.

Near here is the Cenador de Leon, the Lion Bower, a small 17th century building topped with a blue and white tiled dome. Its fountain is a stone lion, from whose mouth the water flows.

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Pavilion of Charles V on the left, the The Lion Bower on the right

Wherever you go in this part of the garden there are attractive views back towards the palace. I even caught a glimpse of La Giralda, the cathedral’s striking bell tower (formerly the minaret of the mosque that once stood there).

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Views from the garden

The local parakeets are attracted to the date palms in particular. They were hard to photograph there but I caught some resting briefly in a bare tree nearby. These are Argentinean or Monk Parakeets; they are an invasive species which the city council here is trying hard to control, as they threaten local kestrels and giant bats. They are different from our London ones, with an even louder screech it seemed.

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Argentinean or Monk Parakeet

In the English Garden beyond, peacocks were strutting across the lawns, strewn with the vivid petals of bauhinia trees.

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Peacock among the bauhinia petals

The gardens closest to the palace are known as the Historic Gardens. They were laid out in Muslim times but were remodelled in the late 16th and early 17th century in the Renaissance style. We followed the series of small courtyards, their flower beds rather bare at this time of year, back eastwards to one of the gardens’ highlights, the Galeria de Grutescos or Grotto Gallery. This is the result of the transformation of the old Almohad wall into a gallery lined with grotto-like stone work (the grutesco) and Renaissance paintings. The path on top affords a view across the gardens.

The pool here is where the water was collected from the city’s Roman aqueduct, rebuilt by the Almohads to provide water to the palaces and gardens. Water still spouts into the pool from somewhere beneath the palace, and a statue of Mercury stands in the centre. This, like the one of Neptune we had already seen, was the work of Bartolomé Morell. He was also responsible for casting La Giraldillo, the huge weather vane on the top of the cathedral’s bell tower, La Giralda.

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The Grotto Gallery, and statue of Mercury

After spending some time strolling in and photographing the gardens we had a refreshment break on the pleasant terrace of the self-service café in the grounds, with more peacocks wandering between the tables pecking at crumbs.

The Gothic Palace

Returning from there we found ourselves in the Gothic Palace, the earliest of the Christian structures, built over the old Almohad Palace. It consists of two long rooms set parallel to each other, and two smaller rooms placed across them at each end. One of the larger rooms, the Gran Salón, is decorated with beautiful tiles, a sixteenth century addition.

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In the Gothic Palace

The other large room is the Tapestries Room, Salón de los Tapices. According to the sign this room was badly damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and later restored. The tapestries that give it its name are copies of originals commissioned by Philip II. They depict the military campaign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V against Tunisia and the details in them are intriguing.

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Tapestry in the Gothic Palace

I was puzzling over one depicting a map, unable to get my bearings on it, when an English couple arrived with their private guide. I confess to a bit of eavesdropping at this point and was fascinated to discover the reason for my bewilderment; the map is upside-down! At the bottom we have the Mediterranean coast of France and Spain, with Barcelona from where the Spanish ships departed near the centre. To the left you can see Sardinia and Corsica. Top right are the Straits of Gibraltar, and the coast of Africa fills the upper part. Now it all makes sense!

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The upside-down map tapestry

The Palace of Pedro I

It is perhaps unfortunate that we left this part of the Alcázar to the end of our visit as we were running low on time and, in my case, energy. Nevertheless I found its many rooms stunning! Here are some of the highlights.

The Courtyard of the Maidens or Patio de las Doncellas

This we had already glimpsed looking down from the upper floors. Tourists are guided on a one-way path around this, and I lingered for a while trying to get a shot without anyone in it, in vain.

The name is a reference to the apocryphal story that the Moors demanded an annual tribute of 100 virgins from the Christian kingdoms of Iberia. Its arches are of elaborately carved stucco, almost lace-like in appearance, and the inner walls covered in ceramic tiles. Recurring motifs include the shell, a symbol of fertility and life, and the hand of Fatima for protection.

The upper floor was added in the later 16th century and is therefore Renaissance in style, but the whole appearance of the courtyard is very harmonious.

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The Courtyard of the Maidens

The Courtyard of the Dolls

This much smaller courtyard gets its name from the small faces that decorate some of the arches. Unfortunately I only realised this later so omitted to look for and photograph them! The courtyard’s upper two floors were added in the 19th century. They are perhaps something of a pastiche of the original style, but I thought they looked very pretty nevertheless!

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The Courtyard of the Dolls

The Hall of the Catholic Kings

This room was added to the palace during the time of the so-called Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. The decoration in the room includes their symbols: a yoke, a sheaf of arrows and the motto tatomota. The latter refers to the fact that both monarchs were equally valued and powerful. The coat of arms incorporates all the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, and is crowned by the eagle of St. John.

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Ceiling of the Hall of the Catholic Kings

The Hall of the Ambassadors

This is perhaps the most lavish of all the rooms in the palace. It takes the form of a cube, echoing the Muslim Qubba, in which the lower part symbolises the earth and the domed ceiling the heavens.

The hall was built during the reign of Al-Mu'tamid in the 11th century and was originally the palace’s throne room. Under Pedro I it was remodelled, with more decorative elements added in plaster work and tiles. The orientation was also changed, no longer facing Mecca but towards the northeast, to open off the Courtyard of the Maidens. This was where Pedro would receive his most important guests. And here too, in 1526, Emperor Charles V and Isabella of Portugal celebrated their marriage.

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The Hall of the Ambassadors

We had been in the palace and its gardens for many hours and still not seen everything, as there were several special exhibitions we’d skipped over, and corners of the grounds left unexplored. But the afternoon was wearing on and I for one was tiring, so we decided to call it a day. If we go back to Seville one day we can perhaps return to the Alcázar to do Pedro I’s Palace more justice and see the bits we missed!

Last evening in Seville

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In the Antigüedades Bar

For our last evening here we decided to eat in a bar we’d passed a couple of times and thought looked cosy, the Antigüedades Bar.

We chose to eat inside as it was a chilly evening, but with so many windows open I wondered later if we might not have been warmer on the terrace with its many braziers! The tapas was good but all served very quickly; we wished we’d ordered only a few at a time. Still, we had a good meal and enjoyed the wine too.

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The Antigüedades Bar

We finished the evening with another stroll to take a few more last night photos before tomorrow’s departure.

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Seville at night

Monday, and time to go home

We were disappointed to find Gusto closed this morning and had to go a little further afield for our breakfast, to Pastelería La Canasta, which seemed to be a local chain and pretty popular. The pastries were good but we didn’t think the coffee was as good as Gusto.

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Last glimpse of the cathedral

Then it was time to check out of the lovely Bella Sevilla hotel, which we would definitely return to if we come back to the city! We had decided that rather than catch the airport bus where we had got off, at the Torre d’Oro, we would walk a bit further to the main bus station. That would ensure that we didn’t have any problems getting on if the bus were full.

The walk of about a mile took us down some streets we hadn’t previously explored, but once we were a few blocks away from the cathedral they became less interesting.

As it turned out the bus was busy but not full. We got to the airport in good time and everything went smoothly there and on the flight. I had a window seat and was able to take a few photos of the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth as we flew in over the south coast.

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The Isle of Wight from the air

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Portsmouth from the air

Then it was the familiar pattern of negotiating the airport which we did very quickly as it was much quieter than usual, followed by a train to Victoria and the Tube home. Our little ‘experiment’ in flying again had gone well and we’d enjoyed our dose of warmer weather despite Saturday’s rain.

We’d also timed our trip well; a few days later the Omicron variant started to rear its head and travelling became more complicated again, for a while at least. But it didn’t stop us for long, as you will see …

Posted by ToonSarah 18:59 Archived in Spain Tagged architecture seville history palace garden spain Comments (8)

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