Photograph by John Kernick
Photographs by John Kernick
From the February/March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Pata negra hams hang above the small wooden bar of El Rinconcillo like Christmas stockings. Around me, servers are delivering tapas of marinated anchovies, fried croquetas, and exquisitely sliced ham in an improvised ballet that has taken place here since 1670, when this Seville restaurant first opened its doors. Moorish hand-painted tiles, variations of which seem to adorn every corner of this ancient Spanish city, decorate the walls. The conversation buzzes in the Andalusian Spanish I learned to understand while living here in the 1980s. Suddenly, I notice an elderly man shuffling toward a woman at a nearby table. He’s wearing a suit he might have purchased in the 1940s and an expression on his face straight out of a Goya painting. With great ceremony, he hands the woman a waxy paper napkin with writing on it. “A poem for you,” he says. Then he bows. She reads it aloud.
Viste de negro
Tiene una melena maravilla y
Eres mas Hermosa que la noche con
I arrived in Seville an hour ago, after six years away; the dulling anywhereness of air travel still covers me like a shawl. Yet a few moments inside El Rinconcillo are enough to remind me why this city is my favorite. A courtly man approaching a woman he doesn’t know, spontaneous verse in hand, with the sole intent of acknowledging her beauty, is something that typically doesn’t happen in the 21st century. It still happens here.
A comet’s tail of patrons, each one holding a glass of something, trails out the front door and onto the street. Yet apart from its long history, this wood-beamed bar is just one of dozens, even hundreds, of similar bars throughout the city. In the nearly 30 visits I’ve made to Seville, including living here for nine months while researching a book a quarter century ago, I’ve never set foot in the place. Nevertheless, I know it intimately.
MORE THAN ANYWHERE ELSE I have been, Seville resists change. From its passion for bullfights to a fondness for the pageantry and spectacle of the Catholic religion, the capital of Andalusia always has reveled in its traditional way of life.
“Sevilla is a feminine city,” author James Michener wrote in Iberia, his 1968 masterpiece about Spain. He noted “the forbidding femininity of a testy old dowager set in her preferences and self-satisfied in her behavior,” then added, “It is not by accident that Sevilla has always been most loyal to movements that in the rest of Spain are in decline.”
This puts it in a tricky position for the Internet age, which dictates that a city looking backward risks being left behind. But for those of us who return to smell the orange blossoms, walk beneath old church arcades, and applaud the artistry of bullfights, such predictability is nothing short of miraculous.
“Every time you come here, you say the same thing,” my friend Irene López-Melendo chides me when I call to say I’ve arrived. “Nothing else you know is as constant as Seville.”
When I’m in Seville, I fall back on old habits. For one thing, I sleep hours later than at home. The city sits in Spain’s southwestern corner, an hour’s drive from the Atlantic Ocean and at the far western edge of its time zone. It really should be in the next one over, with Lisbon, not Berlin. The narrow streets don’t receive full sunshine in the springtime until late morning, yet the sun lingers until nearly 10 p.m.
As a result, Sevillanos dine even later than most Spaniards, often not until midnight. That means arriving at work bleary-eyed if you’re a resident, one explanation for the city’s famed lack of productivity. Beyond that, the old buildings have thick walls that deter the heat and wooden shutters that close tight against the day. Thus it’s barely a surprise when I open my eyes my first morning just moments before the church bells toll noon.
I’m staying at a hotel, Palacio de Villapanés, that I remember as an ornate private residence. On my way for a cup of tea, I cross burnished parquet floors under vaulted ceilings. Portraits of matadors line the freshly painted walls. My minibar, I’ve already noted approvingly, is stocked with Manzanilla sherry.
The whole city seems to have a new coat of paint. Formerly downtrodden neighborhoods appear to be thriving. When I last visited, the Alameda de Hércules, one of Europe’s oldest public gardens, was overgrown with weeds; its two Roman columns presided over an informal parking lot for the Cineplex, and drug addicts made deals under the poplar trees. I’d get propositioned as I walked to see a movie, even in daylight. Now I see tapas bars on all sides, filled with crowds of people snacking and sipping.
“Seville is doing really well,” López-Melendo tells me when we meet for a glass of wine at an Alameda bar. “But the question is whether it’s sustainable. Andalusia doesn’t actually make anything, so tourism is very important. If we change the city too much, people won’t want to come.” She’s 50, from an old-line conservative family that was still mourning the death of Francisco Franco when we met in 1989. A student then, she and her group of friends would meet at the same bars nightly. Any attempt I’d make to steer the group toward somewhere down the street or around the corner would be met with incredulity.
“Hombre,” she’d say. “Our group goes to these bars.”
So I understand her discomfort watching the city evolve. I, too, sense an accommodation to today’s international travelers, who might expect CNN in their hotel room, perhaps even sushi for dinner. As I take the meandering walks that the labyrinthine city all but demands from its visitors, I’m surprised to find paths for jogging—though I can’t imagine my Sevillano friends doing any form of exercise—and a gleaming new Metro system. Thankfully, they don’t appear to have supplanted the elements that make Seville unique. On pedestrian Calle Sierpes, I step inside Juan Foronda, a store filled with the lace mantillas that women wear during Seville’s annual April fair, or Feria.
There is one controversial addition to the cityscape: The Metropol Parasol, a huge canopy structure that looks like a crosshatched potato chip. Supported by columns thick as bridge piers and sprawling across most of two city blocks, it was designed to shade reincarnated Plaza de la Encarnación and to “activate,” in architect Jürgen Mayer Hermann’s words, this workmanlike part of the city with new bars, restaurants, and shopping venues.
I wander beneath the canopy, thankful for the shade on a warm day, then take an escalator down to see Roman ruins that were excavated during its construction. From there, I ride an elevator up to the structure’s top level (a three-euro fee includes, in a wonderfully Sevillano touch, a complimentary glass of beer or wine). Stepping out, I find myself up on an elevated boardwalk that dips and curves with the wood “parasol” like a bobsled run. Before me extends a panorama of the city—a series of panoramas, actually, because the vantage point changes with every step I take. I want to be disdainful, because placing this post-modern construction—what López-Melendo called “a big mistake”—in the midst of an ancient city is a ridiculous idea. But each turn brings an unexpected vista, and I stop and stare. Soon, I’m rehearsing what I will say to López-Melendo. “What it does, it does very well.” And: “You have to admit, there really is nothing like it anywhere else.”
“Seville is a place with so much force in its traditions, it’s very difficult for it to accept the new,” artist Ricardo Rodriguez Llinares, a native of the city who co-owns the restaurant ConTenedor, tells me over dinner that night. “We’ll never be Barcelona. In rhythm and in climate, we’re really very close to Africa. But in the 21st century, one must adapt that rhythm for modern life. The challenge is to do things well, with care, yet keep them our own.”
I find myself reconsidering my opinion of the Parasol as an un-Sevillano structure, change for the sake of change in a city that is truest to itself by leaving well enough alone. I realize it actually represents the same grand gesture Seville’s cathedral, the third largest in Christendom and the city’s centerpiece, did when it was built in the 15th century. The Parasol is secular, to be sure, but it’s the mark of the current generation on a place that has long relied on tradition—and the detritus of a lost empire—for its grandeur. Isn’t that what keeps a city alive?
ON SUNDAY, I WAKE with a palpable sense of expectation. A bullfight is scheduled for the Maestranza, the oldest, most storied bullring in the world. I haven’t seen one there in years. Seville is considered the most taurine city in Spain. Along with Holy Week, bulls—toros—rank as the primary local obsession.
“Seville is the city of the bull,” V. S. Pritchett wrote in his book The Spanish Temper, adding the telling detail that on the day King Ferdinand VII shuttered the city’s great university, he opened a school for bullfighters.
One of my books chronicles Spain’s 1989 bullfights. Seville’s take place in spring, and I return to see them as often as I can. After attending perhaps a hundred here, I’ve developed a ritual for bullfight day. First, I visit a news kiosk and buy the morning newspapers. Then I settle in at a café, where I enjoy my version of a Sevillano breakfast—a hunk of bread and a wedge of the omelet-like tortilla española—and read what the critics say about that day’s protagonistas, as they often call them.
Protagonists? Yes, because bullfighting isn’t a sport, as many Americans assume, but an art and a spectacle. In newspapers, it’s included in the cultural section, alongside theater and opera. Today’s performance will feature three apprentice toreros, or novilleros. One, Francisco Lama de Góngora, is the nephew of Curro Romero, a bullfighter so popular here that a statue of him stands outside the Maestranza. “Until you have seen him … you have seen nothing,” Orson Welles, a bullfighting aficionado, is said to have declared about Romero. But bullfights are the most unpredictable of arts. In no other discipline is a force of nature actively trying to discourage aesthetic creation.
After lunch, I change into a pressed shirt and a sport coat. If I had remembered to pack a tie, I’d wear that, too. Nice clothes aren’t obligatory; plenty of tourists show up in T-shirts and shorts. But dressing well signifies respect, a recognition that the participants will be risking their lives in the pursuit of art, or, at the least, entertainment.
As for the animal-rights aspect, locals point out that the toro bravo breed would have disappeared long ago without bullfights, and the economic justification for devoting vast tracts of land to bull-grazing wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, the life of a fighting bull seems infinitely better than that of a bull in captivity. And the promoters of bullfights often donate the carcasses of the slain animals to feed the poor. If you don’t eat meat or wear leather, you have the moral wherewithal to protest. Otherwise, consider a corrida a more visible but surely no less humane version of the slaughterhouse.
At 5:30 p.m., an hour before the bullfight begins, I walk to a bar near the Maestranza for a ritual Spanish brandy. Then I enter the turreted, gold-and-white main gate. As always, my breath catches when I emerge into the glazed-brick bowl and see the almost iridescent yellow-orange sand blanketing the ring.
The Maestranza combines the charm and scale of Fenway Park with the heft and importance of Yankee Stadium. It is many wonderful things, but comfortable isn’t one of them. Dating to 1765, it is scaled for the more diminutive human body of that era. I’ve paid nearly $60 for my ticket, yet I’m shoved between neighbors on either side, my knees jam against a woman in front of me, and a man behind me presses against my spine. It’s like a two-hour flight on a bargain airline.
My seat is in the shade, six rows from the sand. When the first bull of the six I’ll see comes close enough that I can hear it panting, the man beside me leans in. “Up close is where you really see a bullfight,” he says in Spanish.
I nod but turn slightly away to deflect conversation. Like most disciplines worth caring about, bullfighting rewards careful attention. If you’re chatting or otherwise distracted, you may miss a moment that makes the whole day worthwhile. There is no instant replay in the bullring.
Lama de Góngora shows some proficiency with his first bull. He maneuvers the cape well and moves like a dancer. But as he proceeds, the emotion in the plaza dissipates.
“Nada, nada—nothing, nothing,” the man beside me says before long, and I can’t disagree with him. After the two other bullfighters have taken a turn, Lama de Góngora faces his second bull. He is determined to succeed—that is evident by the look in his eyes and the urgency with which he calls out to the animal.
“Toro! Unhhhh! Toro!”
This time, though, the bull is lacking. It stands still in the sunlight, its tail swishing, refusing to charge.
“Cuando hay toros, no hay toreros, y cuando hay toreros, no hay toros,” is the old Spanish maxim. “When there are bulls, there are no bullfighters. And when there are bullfighters, there are no bulls.” I say it to my neighbor as we walk out. He nods in agreement. It’s a sentiment I’ve expressed countless times in the same corridor over the past 25 years.
But I won’t be disappointed for long. I am in Seville, with the night ahead of me. Leaving the bullring, I walk along the Guadalquivir toward the Torre del Oro, a 12-sided tower built in 1220 by the Moors, which right now glitters in the early evening sun. Down a side street, I spot a bar I haven’t visited before. From the outside it looks vaguely international, like a place I might see in Brooklyn or Belgium. But when I enter and take in the tiles on the walls and casks of sherry behind the bar, I know exactly where I am. The Seville of my memories.
*Vision in black / You have marvelous long hair and / You are more beautiful than the night with stars! / Kisses
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