I’ve fallen…again. It’s my last evening in Seville and I have spent the past four days falling off curbs, walking into lamp posts and narrowly avoiding getting run over by mad Spaniards on mopeds. Although on this occasion the Manzinilla sherry may have contributed to my downfall, up until now it has been Seville. Yes, the city is to blame; how is a girl with the attention span of a nit meant to concentrate on where she is walking, when every corner she turns exposes a stunning gothic cathedral, an elaborately decorated palace or a cobbled street lined with elegant Sevillian orange trees? You see, London is a piece of cake when it comes to dashing about, it’s simple – you look miserably down at your feet at all times and follow the crowd. Seville, on the other hand, is hazardous, it’s like a living art gallery, and it’s not just the stunning architecture that leaves you glued to your camera like a tourist in Leicester Square, no; its hypnotic scents are out to catch you too.
As I left the hotel on my first morning in Seville, the smell of freshly pressed olives wafted across from a neighbouring village, then the sweet aroma of just baked pastries from a local cafe took charge. Whilst food scents the centre, the city’s backstreets are filled with the pungent perfume of incense which burns within its churches. Oddly, the only smell missing is oranges, although if you visit in February all of these bouquets are drowned by the overriding fragrance of Sevillian orange blossom which line the city’s streets.
But, it’s not only oranges that Andalucía is known for, the region is the motherland of almost everything the Spanish hold dear; sherry, bullfighting, flamenco and of course the prestigious jamon. Hot-blooded Sevillianos are obsessed with the meat, but not any old ham will do here; only that of the pata negra wins respect in this area. Literally translating as ‘black leg’, the term refers to the cured legs of the region’s black footed pigs, and can be seen hanging in Seville’s countless tapas bars.
When my hotel, the Hospes Casas del Rey de Baeza, invited me to experience the culture of Iberian jamon, I couldn’t refuse; I had to see what the fuss was about. It’s just ham, right? WRONG! This is key to Spanish life; at Christmas when we are snowed in and tucking into our Norfolk Blacks, Sevillianos are painstakingly slicing the four-year-old jamon leg they have bought for the occasion…for £300! Last year, Selfridges hit the headlines (and record books), when they sold a leg of the ham for £1,800, calling it ‘amazing value’. This is more than ham, this is like Spanish gold.
And I’m not exaggerating when I say ‘painstakingly slicing’; ham cutters of Spain are like the movie stars of America and the pop stars of England. The Spanish see ham cutting as an art form and it is not surprising when you consider the journey each leg has been through. The free ranging pigs can be found basking in the sun just 60km out of the city in a peaceful reserve surrounded by lush hills and orange groves. It’s the stress-free lifestyle, a diet of acorns and a high percentage of fat that gives the jamon its unique flavour. In three months the pigs put on a staggering 40 kilos, the equivalent of a whole teenager – having said that I think that is probably about the same as I put on during my three days in the city. To aid the flavour, the pigs have the life of Riley. For 18 months, anyway. After this the legs are salted, cured and left to hang for at least three years, when they are sold from £300. Unfortunately, as with every industry, the recession has taken its toll and jamon is set to become the new caviar; with stocks decreasing each year, prices will soon shoot up, so invest now!
To experience regional cuisine, avoid the touristic Santa Cruz area, the old Jewish quarter, and head to the city’s oldest bar, El Rinconcillo, located on Calle Gerona. This is as authentic as it gets, with groups of Spanish men standing around the bar enjoying tapas and sherry as the no-nonsense barmen work under the hanging jamon, chalking up their bills on the bar top. Make sure you also try the espinacas con garbanzos, a local garlicky spinach and chickpea dish spiced with cumin that pays homage to the city’s strong Moorish roots.
As I walked around the once Muslim streets, taking in the shabby whitewashed rooftops and colourful doorways, it felt incredibly reminiscent of nearby Marrakech. It’s hard not to see the irony of its past whilst you tuck in to yet another plate of pork.
In fact many of Seville’s landmarks have Muslim roots. The striking cathedral was built over the ruins of the old mosque, and La Giralda, the intricately patterned Muslim minaret which once adjoined the mosque, now proudly holds a renaissance bell tower. Access the tower via the cathedral for a bird’s eye view of Seville, its ancient city walls, the infamous bull ring and El Alcazar. As the name suggests, El Alcazar also stems from the Muslim period, although its Catholic inhabitants have left their mark. Make sure you allow a couple of hours to explore the impressive palace, its patios, and gardens.
Even my hotel, Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza, reminded me of a Moroccan riad, with its 41 boutique bedrooms built around foliage-fringed courtyards. The hotel’s amenities, however, take on a more contemporary feel with a small rooftop spa and outdoor pool area, comfortable, stylish rooms and enormous suites. Oh and its own ham cutter, naturally.
If you fancy joining the Spanish in a little fiesta before you retire, then head to Triana, the birthplace of flamenco. Just over the river, the area’s bohemian feel stems from its gypsy roots and today its pubs, bars and cafes line the bank of the Guadalquivir River. During the day, visit its ceramic shops and the renowned food market, piled high with everything from shark and snails to chorizo and you guessed it…jamon. At sunset it’s the perfect place to watch Seville’s skyline alight.
At night the city takes on a more romantic feel, with its elaborate buildings illuminated, the streets absorb a sepia tone, like a scene from an old Parisian film. Its residents awake from their siesta and flood the city’s tapas bars which spring suddenly to life.
On our last night we couldn’t leave without one last trip to El Rinconcillo, as we propped up the bar and prepared to leave the autumn sun, cobbled streets and of course the jamon, a letter arrived. It was a handwritten love letter to the three of us, it started: “To the three beautiful ladies, one with hair the colour of the sun, the other a shining chestnut, the other black”. It was soon followed by three stems of delicate blossom, “because you are as beautiful as these three flowers”. We stared at each other smiling but secretly all ready for the fight. We had all fallen for the final time. Another poem arrived; soon followed by the man himself…an 81-year-old called Valentine; it must be in the jamon.