Sizing Up Seville

This sultry Spanish city has long seduced visitors with its grand historic architecture and vibrant flamenco culture. Now, an influx of new hotels, contemporary art, and creative restaurants is giving travelers yet another reason to put Seville on their wish list.

Photographs by Matt Dutile

Left to right: The tomato talo at Eneko Basque; the rooftop bar at Hotel EME Catedral Mercer provides a front-row view of Seville Cathedral and its iconic bell tower.

There is a hidden choreography to every city. A rhythmic flow of people navigating the agenda of their daily lives.

Perched on top of the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, 10 stories above the cobblestones of Seville, I have an unfettered view of the dance. A man in a white blazer with a mop of curly hair swerves to avoid a flock of tourists behind an orange flag. The steady clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage echoes in an open square. Young lovers canoodle beside a bubbling fountain. Life in the Andalusian capital is certainly endearing.

Smiling, and sliding backward with my camera to frame the scene between one of the flying buttresses on the roof of Seville Cathedral, I almost trip over a bulbous protrusion jutting from the brickwork. “Be careful of the oil wells,” our guide remarks, belatedly, to a dozen other gawking tourists, gesturing at a handful of mushroom-shaped stone caps. They’re a relic of a time when the nave below our feet was lit by oil-burning chandeliers, which hung so high above the floor that the only practical way to refuel them was via channels cut through the roof.

Turning to gather myself, I spot my wife, Laura, as she pantomimes a “sorry” from across the way. It’s our first day in Seville, and this 90-minute tour between buttresses and domes of the cathedral’s roof provides a lovely view over Seville’s charmingly compact historic center. The guide points out the ramparts of Real Alcázar, the peaks of the Plaza de España, the Giralda bell tower — originally built in the 12th century as a minaret — looming above us, and the domes of a dozen other nearby churches. And flowing past it all is the broad Guadalquivir River, which spills into the Gulf of Cádiz less than 100 kilometers to the southwest.

Seville is an undeniably romantic place, and for my money the most beautiful city in Andalusia. But it also has a reputation for clinging too tightly to tradition and resting on its 16th-century laurels as the center of Spain’s New World commerce. While Barcelona and Madrid attracted the cool crowds, Seville, for many, was defined by old-school tapas, flamenco, and the architectural marvels of its Renaissance heyday. Yet the city has begun to move on. There’s now a contemporary edge led by an intrepid collection of artisans, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs who have set out to prove that their city is much more than the relics of its glorious past.

Left to right: Overlooking the historic Plaza Virgen de los Reyes; chef Antonio García of Eneko Basque.

Left to right: Lightly breaded grouper with mayo dots at Restaurante Cañabota; inside Seville Cathedral.

Emerging from a siesta into the dusky final hour of daylight, we head for what has become our favorite neighborhood wine bar, Lama La Uva. Here, owner Ana Linares offers wines by the glass from an impressive range of the country’s designated wine regions, not just the big ones like Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

“I worked for many years as an engineer, but I was always a wine lover,” Linares tells us while delivering a ruby-red blend of syrah and carignan from Catalonia. “I dreamed and studied about wine every day at my job. One day, I left and opened my shop. As we say in Spain, I jumped in the pool.”

From our table on the sidewalk, we watch as the city awakens from its afternoon slumber and comes alive with the evening. There are two faces of Seville, day and night, each with its own character. At this hour, a group of skateboarders are practicing kick-flips under the enveloping shade of the Setas de Sevilla (aka the Metropol Parasol), the city’s most audacious piece of contemporary architecture. The wooden honeycomb-like structure stretches over Plaza de la Encarnación like a gigantic sunshade, its undulating canopy held aloft by thick concrete columns. Underneath, in what was once an ugly car park, is a popular food market; and below that, a subterranean museum displays the Roman ruins and relics unearthed during the site’s excavation.

Dinner awaits at nearby Cañabota, a slip of a restaurant that earned its first Michelin star this year for the quality of its flavor-packed and beautifully plated seafood. Over the course of a few languid hours, we’re served raw razor clam in a sherry emulsion, caviar-topped white shrimp tartare, lightly grilled sea bass over smoked cauliflower cream, and breaded grouper slices with perfectly pink cores and dots of mayo on the side. Like our seats at the counter fronting Cañabota’s open kitchen, the food is delightful and direct in its honesty.

Co-owner Juanlu Fernández is the grandson of a fishmonger. As he pours us glasses of a nutty sherry, he tells us that product-driven concepts like his are long overdue. “This is my city, and it’s a great moment now for Seville to grow and change.”

The southernmost canopy of the undulating Metropol Parasol.

Left to right: A presentation of cockles and green peas at Cañabota; contemplating the chalkboard menu at La Brunilda, a tapas restaurant in the El Arenal neighborhood.

The surrounding Centro district is where most of Seville’s historic landmarks reside. Foremost among them is the cathedral, which stands on the site of a former mosque built during the time of the Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula. Upon its completion in 1529, it became the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Christopher Columbus is entombed there.

Across the square, Game of Thrones fans join the seemingly eternal queue to enter the Real Alcázar palace complex, which stood in as the fictional kingdom of Dorne in the HBO series. Crowds aside, it’s enchanting. Fountains bubble between the manicured gardens, the morning light casts evocative shadows across the intricate Mudéjar plasterwork of the Patio de las Doncellas, and sumptuous tapestries triumphantly celebrate Christian conquests.

Over the course of a week, we check off most of the district’s obligatory stops: Plaza de España, built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929; the 15th-century Monastery of Santa Paula; the Flamenco Dance Museum, where we catch one of the daily performances; the Museo de Bellas Artes, with its priceless collection of Sevillian baroque paintings by masters like Murillo, Velásquez, and Valdés Leal. The cobbled heart of old Seville is nothing if not walkable.

The area is a jackpot for shoppers as well. Down a side street off orange tree–lined Calle Mateos Gago is the baby-blue entrance of Populart, a haven for the beautiful hand-painted azulejo (ceramic tiles) that have been made in Seville since the Islamic era. It’s also stuffed with pottery, engravings, and other antiques. “My mother founded this shop while she was pregnant with me,” says Leonardo Campos, who has been running it since she retired in 1998. “It’s a part of me.”

A 10-minute stroll north is Tenderete, another gem for ceramics from more contemporary sources. Straw handbags and hats, handcrafted ceramic dinner sets, and terra-cotta pots adorn the walls. A bright yellow pitcher in the shape of a rooster catches my eye — too large, alas, for me to carry home.

Nearby, in a gallery-filled area known as the SoHo of Seville, is the studio of Jaime Abaurre: Más Cara que Espalda. “The name means ‘more face than back,’” the artist explains with a mischievous smile. “It’s an expression that you’re a bit of a scoundrel — a little cheeky. And since I mainly paint faces, it’s a bit of a funny wordplay for my style and my personality.” As he shows us his fine-line drawings (including an abstract work informed by The Last Supper), Abaurre tells us he originally thought he’d have to move to Madrid to develop his art, but that Seville turned out to be more progressive than he had expected. “The style of Seville is changing,” he says. “It’s still old and respectful of the past, but in the last 10 years it’s become modern and trendy too.”

Left to right: A bedroom at Hotel Casa 1800 Sevilla; ceramics for sale outside Tenderete.

Left to right: Artist Jaime Abaurre at his studio; bottles of wine at Lama La Uva.

Sandwiched between the Alfonso XIII Canal and the Guadalquivir River is the working-class neighborhood of Triana. A little less polished around the edges than its counterparts in the city center, this is where most Sevillanos will tell you “old school” Seville still resides. In the mornings, teams of rowers scull up and down the canal like water striders.

The area was once famous for its tile factories. A ban on coal-burning ovens in the 1970s shut them all down. One has since been converted into the Centro Cerámica Triana, a museum that houses restored kilns, pigment mills, and displays of ceramics from across the centuries. Its exterior is a striking metal facade stacked with hollow pottery rings.

Businesses in the neighborhood are proudly decorated tip-to-toe in tiles, especially Alfarería 21, a bar and restaurant that has taken over the former site of the Montalván ceramics factory. It’s worth a visit just to ogle the azulejo-covered walls, but the food is good too, with little twists on classic staples like marinated sardine toast, roast Iberian pork, and corvina fish with baked vegetables.

Left to right: Tapas at Alfarería 21, a former ceramics factory in Triana; a 16th-century sculpture of St. Jerome by Pietro Torrigiano in the Museo de Bellas Artes.

Left to right: A welcome tray at the Mercer Sevilla; Leonardo Campos at his ceramics shop, Populart.

There’s no shortage of classic watering holes around central Seville. Taberna Manolo Cateca, established in 1952, houses a collection of more than 200 sherries, the fortified wine made exclusively around the Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera. A wide variety of Spain’s other favorite aperitif, vermouth, can be sampled at Yo Soy Tu Padre, a traditional vermutería near Plaza de la Gavidia. Over a four-part vermouth tasting, owner Esteban Mujica explains that the sweet wine (made from white macabeo grapes) is aged in oak barrels for two and half years before being mixed with 37 different herbs. All of them are his grandfather’s recipes. “We had to close during the pandemic,” he says. “But so many people kept e-mailing and asking me to open back up, so I knew we had to.”

And for craft cocktails, there’s the rooftop bar at the EME Catedral Mercer Hotel. The highlight here is really the view: a front-row seat to Seville Cathedral and the Giralda tower.

The EME is one of a growing number of luxury hotels in the city. Sister property Mercer Sevilla occupies an elegantly restored 19th-century palacio in the El Arenal neighborhood; another historic conversion, Hotel Casa 1800, has just 33 rooms (plus a rooftop pool) a stone’s throw from the Real Alcázar. But what sets the year-old Radisson Collection Hotel at Plaza de la Magdalena apart is its showstopper of a restaurant, Eneko Basque, the latest outpost of acclaimed Basque chef Eneko Atxa. This is where we have our last dinner in Seville.

Sliding into a plush olive-green booth, we’re greeted by executive chef Antonio García. A native of the nearby town of Utrera, he tells us, “Chef Atxa’s arrival is really important for Seville. There hasn’t been a concept like this before; it really raises the city’s gastronomic credentials.”

The food melds the Basque country recipes of Atxa’s grandmother with ingredients from around Andalusia. We start with a trio of raw oysters — one in a pool of ponzu broth, another cloaked in tomato-leaf granita — arranged on a shell-shaped dish amid a swirling fog of dry ice. Next comes a talo (corn tortilla) topped with a colorful bounty of fresh tomatoes, basil emulsion, viola flowers, and pearls of caviar oil. Each bite delivers a sweet, summery blast of flavor. This is followed by wheat stew infused with mushroom and grilled pepper juice, topped by a runny egg yolk that we mix in with the rest of the dish. It’s a perfect rich counterpoint to the talo.

García joins us after dinner as we recount our favorite meals and memories from our time in Seville. I ask him what he thinks makes the city so enchanting.

“I think it’s the people,” he says. “Our expressions are out there for you, our joy and our sadness, and how we make visitors feel welcome.”

That certainly jibes with our experience of the Andalusian capital. After a couple weeks in this evolving city, we feel more open, more welcoming to people and new adventures. Perhaps a little of that Sevillano magic has rubbed off on us too.

Left to right: Sculling on the Alfonso XIII Canal as it flows past Triana; Neo-Moorish flourishes await in the colonnaded inner courtyard of Hotel Alfonso XIII.

The Deets
Where to Stay

Seville’s grandest hotel since 1929, Hotel Alfonso XIII, a Luxury Collection Hotel (doubles from US$450) looks as good as ever thanks to a multimillion-dollar renovation a decade ago; expect coffered ceilings, azulejo tiles, and mosaic-covered colonnades. On a more intimate scale, Hotel Casa 1800 Sevilla (doubles from US$100) occupies an 1864-built mansion in the Santa Cruz neighborhood.

Sidewalk dining in Centro.

 

Where to Eat and Drink

Alfarería 21
fb.com/alfarera21triana

Cañabota
canabota.es

Eneko Basque
enekoatxaseville.com

La Brunilda
labrunildatapas.com

Lama La Uva
lamalauva.com

Taberna Manolo Cateca
fb.com/manolocateca

Yo Soy Tu Padre
6 Calle Padre Tarín

 

 

Where to Shop

Más Cara que Espalda
mascaraqueespalda.com

Populart
populartsevilla.com

Tenderete Sevilla
instagram.com/tenderetesevilla

 

This article originally appeared in the September/November 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Seville Discourse”).

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