And if travel is like love, it is, in the end mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. Pico Lyer
The holiday did not begin well for Diane. Unbeknown to her, she had dropped her Iphone in the road and the taxi driver had managed to run over it. It was badly cracked but as usual she could see the funny side. We managed to get through security without setting off the alarms and I was totally relieved that my hand luggage was not weighed. Juggling our camera bags, suitcases, coats, coffees and breakfast rolls we sat down. We had not even taken our first mouthful, when a rather miserable looking gentlemen approached us and asked us to vacate our seats saying they were reserved for Weatherspoon’s customers only. Recent alterations to the airport appear to have removed the open seating around the cafes and the signs are not obvious.
The first major decision to make when we arrived in Seville was whether to pay for a taxi to the hotel or just get on a bus. As the taxi fee can be up to 34 Euros to travel a mere six miles, we decided to catch the bus and as luck would have it, there was one waiting right outside as we left the airport. We had no idea where to get off and while Diane referred to the little map that came with the travel book she had bought, I sat back and looked at the views. The outskirts of Seville seemed full of traffic. I was certainly not expecting five lanes, populated by horses and carts, taxis, cars, lorries, motor bikes and within the town itself trams and as many bikes, if not more, than we are used to in Cambridge. The heat ensured that there was an aura of fumes just above head height. Several bus stops passed, while Diane tried to work out the map. Finally, realising we had missed our stop and with a sense of heightening panic, we got off the bus at the bus station. We couldn’t find it on the map so we just guessed which way we should be walking.
One of the first things we learned about Seville was that pedestrians only have a certain time to cross the road. Oddly, it appeared that the wider the road, the fewer seconds were allocated. After the time is up, regardless of who is still on the crossing, the traffic revs, races and weaves between people who are unfortunate enough to be slow. There are no amber lights, so pedestrians are either within the green and safe zone or racing the red and potentially dead zone. Running with a heavy camera bag and a suitcase increased the chance we wouldn’t get across in time. We got into the habit of counting down loudly to each other as we ran. I was a nervous wreck by the time we finally reached the smaller streets. Thinking we would be safer, both from the traffic and the fumes, I was slightly disappointed to find that there was a continuing need to have eyes in the back of your head as motorbikes zoomed past, cyclists rang their bells and the tram came out of nowhere! As for the fumes they still hung heavy in the air, just above our heads, and I could constantly smell diesel.
Fairly tired, we soon realised we were totally lost. It was an hour and a half since we left the airport. Diane consulted the map and I endeavoured to read the road names in my best Spanish accent. Finally we saw a sign for Tourist Information. We squashed into the tiny lift and when the doors opened we were in a small room, two flights above the ground. We waited our turn, as the young woman talked to two young male travellers in very good English. We showed her the name of our hotel and waving her arms she directed us saying we were very close. We booked an evening at the Flamenco Museum and discussed the jump on, jump off bus system before setting off for the hotel once again.
Now we knew the direction to walk in, we thought we would take a short cut through a dark and narrow alley. Half way up, as it widened slightly, I became aware of two men dressed in outfits that would not have been out of place on the film set of ‘The Godfather’. I didn’t like the look of them at all. Their eyes followed us as they stood by the side of a black BMW. It’s weird, the things that come into your head at times. I just remember thinking, ‘Don’t worry your camera is insured’, as if the theft of that was the worst thing that could happen to me. We turned a slight bend in the alleyway and we were both relieved when we looked back to see no-one following us.
Finally we were more than delighted to arrive at our hotel. It was just as pictured on the internet and we knew we had made a good choice. Moorish in architecture with arches, cream marble floors and comfortable settees it was just what we had hoped for. We dumped our suitcases and set off to enjoy our first tapas.
The following morning we were relieved to see that ‘continental breakfast’ did not just mean a few croissants. There was fruit, meats, cheeses, fresh bread and six different types of freshly made croissants, cereal, and, once we had worked out how to use it, wonderful coffee from the ‘do it yourself ‘pod machine. After a huge breakfast we bought a 24 hour ticket for the red jump on jump off tour bus. I emphasise the ‘red’ as there are actually two companies, one that runs the red bus and the other the green. We made the wrong choice as it turned out.
We made our way to a tiny square where the bus was due to pick us up at ten o’clock. We watched as two green buses arrived and took off quickly. At twenty past ten, our red bus finally arrived and we set off for the American Park on the outskirts of Seville. Little did we know that it would have been quicker to walk. At each bus stop we came to a halt and stayed still for at least fifteen minutes. Each time we stopped we watched at least two green buses overtake us. We had so much time to sit still, we attracted the attention of a passing taxi driver. He was stuck in traffic and used the time to blow us kisses!
When we finally arrived at the Plaza de America the first thing we became aware of, was the number of birds. White doves and pigeons were being fed by tourists. It looked like a scene from the well known Hitchcock movie. We took a few photographs trying to capture the essence of this entrance to the park. As we began to walk, we came across school children in a group. They seemed engaged in whatever was happening in front of them. As ex teachers, we just felt we had to see what it was that was holding their attention so well, when there was so much going on around them. As we approached, we caught site of a Roman soldier hiding behind a statue, and an animated gentlemen with a purple velvet jacket, who was gesticulating wildly in front of the children. Without warning, the Roman soldier appeared from behind the statue, shouting and waving his sword. He made me jump. However, the children were captivated and so were we in the end, despite the fact that we hadn’t a clue what he was shouting about.
We wandered on through the gardens, admiring the oranges growing there and the 200 year old trees with roots so dense and intertwined that they could feature in a fairy tale. Finally we left the park, and despite looking carefully at the map, we had no idea where we were going. We started to explore small alleyways until finally the vista opened up and we came upon the Old Seville Palace. This is a truly stunning building, too wide even for my wide angle lens and with too many tourists to get an uncluttered photograph. There before me however, was a solitary girl in a blue dress She was sitting between the striking blue tiles set into the brick work of the palace. It looked as if the picture had been deliberately set up. I grabbed some shots and then resumed my exploration of this huge and beautiful building with its rainbow fountain, small boats, symmetrical interiors and horse and cart transport.
Reluctantly, two hours later, we got back on the red bus and headed for the river. We wanted to find a different kind of Seville, off the tourist trail. After an extremely slow bus ride, we arrived at the river and began exploring. As we walked, we were surprised by a sheep whose head appeared above some grass on the river bank. It was a strange place, that seemed very different from the rest of Seville. Here we found the urban shepherd and his dogs, fisherman catching and gutting fish, and people living in tiny shacks next to billboards covered in graffiti. The whole area is bordered by the old Expo site and some of the once, iconic buildings, still look inviting, especially to photographers like us, but unfortunately we couldn’t find an entrance. By this time we were getting hungry and headed back towards our hotel looking for a suitable place to eat. It was dusk and by accident we stumbled upon a beautifully lit cathedral. Venturing inside we were amazed by the opulence of the decorations but it was clear there would be no confessions that evening, as the priest was fast asleep in his little box.
Eventually we found a pretty tapas bar and ordered eight dishes. Sitting outside in the orange lights, drinking wine and enjoying the various dishes we had ordered, the last thing we were expecting was the raucous sound of two tone deaf singers who suddenly appeared with an old guitar. They screamed and shouted a song standing right in front of us. I am sure their aim was to get us to pay them to go away. We looked at them with frozen angry faces, shook our heads and finally they moved away. It was a very loud end to what had been a great day of discovery and photography.
Macarena seemed to us to be an interesting area of Seville. The guidebook promised us, ‘authentic Seville’ where washing dominated the skyline and interesting and unusual sights and sounds of the Spanish could be enjoyed. We set off, on foot this time, without the inconvenience of the red bus. We walked, chatted, took the odd photograph and warned each other about the sudden arrival of cyclists, mopeds, cars, horse drawn carts and the tram.
Ten minutes into our exploration we suddenly realised we had not read the map correctly. Instead of turning right, outside the hotel, we had turned left and instead of arriving in Macarena we were now standing outside the World Heritage Site, the Real Alcazar. The queue was short so we decided that as we were there, we would go inside. Realising they were offering a much cheaper entrance fee for those entitled to concessions, we handed over our two euros with a smile. The smile was not reciprocated. The austere looking lady at the entrance desk grimaced at us both and demanded our passports. I handed mine over, she checked it and aggressively forced it back into my hand saying that concession age in Spain was sixty five. Diane tried to point out that as we were in the European Union concession prices should be the same as in Britain where they usually begin at the age of sixty. Very angrily we were told to pay nine euros fifty or leave. By this time the queue was growing and in some ways I was relieved to know, that for once, I was actually too young for something! We paid up with smiles and entered, what can only be described as the most stunningly beautiful garden I have ever seen.
Tall exotic trees stand like sentinels alongside small mosaic squares with fountains and real as well as reflected arches. I found my way into what looked like a large cave, which contained a long channel of water and golden arches. Fortunately there was a low wall on which I could rest my camera, for a slow shutter speed shot. I got so carried away trying to take pictures of the amazing golden arches and their reflections, that I completely forgot about Diane.
When eventually I came out, I couldn’t see her anywhere. I had left my mobile in the safe in my room, so I had no alternative other than to retrace my steps. After fifteen minutes searching, I became more concerned that I wouldn’t find her and I was very irritated with myself for not agreeing a meeting place, should we lose each other. After thirty minutes and as I ventured further into the gardens, I suddenly saw her on a raised area of the garden. She saw me at the same time.
Resolving to avoid losing each other again we left the gardens and began walking towards the river, and Macarena. Suddenly, straight in front of us, we could see a huge structure that swept across the sky and in between buildings like some sort of space station. I had been told by friends before I left, about the photographic possibilities that may be afforded by The Parasol or Mushroom building. We climbed the stairs onto the first floor but could not see how to get up any higher. Deciding we would return the next day to explore it further, we headed off towards the river once again.
Our walk took us further down the river this time, where the huge iconic bridges built for the Expo exhibition dominate the skyline. From here we could see signs to Macarena. As we walked into the area we scanned the skies for washing to photograph but we couldn’t see any. Disappointed that the Spanish had not read the guide book and hung their washing out for us, we came upon the huge Camera Obscura Tower. Diane immediately wanted to go inside and take shots from the top. I was less enthusiastic about the possibility of having to climb up three hundred steps. The good news for me, was that it was closed. The bad news arrived swiftly, as Diane found the opening times and there was only twenty minutes to wait. We amused ourselves taking photographs in the park around the tower. I became focussed on a gentlemen working out by the side of the fountain while Diane took pictures of the many birds flying around us.
Opening time came and I approached the tower thinking I was not going to bother if there were lots of steps. I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the lift. We paid the entry fee and stepped into the tiny box. After what seemed like five seconds we came to a standstill and we had to climb a few steps to the top. I am not keen on heights and it took a while for me to relax and enjoy the view as we clambered around inside the cage at the top of this huge tower. The views were spectacular and the iconic bridges we had just seen at ground level became even more dominant and eye catching from this viewpoint. We were also pleased to see washing hanging on the rooftops of nearby buildings. It was there after all!
We were tired by now and estimated that we had probably walked at least five miles. Wandering on through the narrow streets we hoped to find a tapas bar. Whilst some less salubrious looking bars and restaurants were open, the nicest were still closed. As we neared the hotel we were stopped by a rather overzealous horse and cart driver. We refused his forceful offer to get in his cart, but decided it would be a good way of seeing more of Seville before the bars opened. We chose our horse, cart and driver carefully and agreed the price and approved the route before clambering into the comfortable carriage.
Soon amidst the horrendous traffic, we wondered whether we had done the right thing. Cars zoomed past far too close for comfort, lorries hooted and motorbikes revved all around us. The driver and more importantly the horse, seemed totally unperturbed. The driver seemed to have a death wish as he drove us out in front of oncoming traffic on the roundabout seemingly oblivious to the rules of the road. He swore loudly and muttered under his breath at other cart drivers who he perceived as getting in his way. When we reached the Plaza de America once again, loving the quietness of the surrounding gardens after the madness of the traffic, we were able to relax and enjoy the experience. Unfortunately, the cart driver was keen to point out every single religious statue in the park, most of which we hadn’t noticed on our first visit. We offered a smile and took it in turns to say a polite “Lovely,” each time he did so, hoping we were disguising our total lack of interest in these monuments. Having enjoyed the hour’s ride we set about finding somewhere to eat once again. We found an excellent restaurant ordered our tapas and wine and relaxed. No sooner had we finished when two more tone deaf singers approached our table. We looked at each other in disbelief. This time they were even more aggressive, shouting loudly and making a grating noise with the battered guitar. We couldn’t hear ourselves speak so we gathered our belongings and left.
The final day of a holiday is always rather sad. Despite the negatives of traffic fumes, out of tune singers and the odd miserable entrance fee collector we had loved exploring Seville. I had particularly enjoyed photographing the many characters we had come across on our walks. We set off on that final day, to explore the Parasol once again, this time finding the entrance to the sky walkways underground. I was dismayed however, when I reached the top of the Parasol, to discover that the settings on my camera had inadvertently been changed. I had been taking pictures in the Small RAW format instead of the large. For most photographs I had taken it wouldn’t matter, but for my reflected arches pictures taken in the Real Alcazar it was a bit of a disaster. They would be small at only five megapixels and I would not have the quality to produce a large print should I wish to. Putting it down to experience I changed the settings quickly and set about taking shots of this weird, abstract, mushroom like, building we stood on and the view surrounding it.
As we left the Parasol it began to rain for the first time. Covering our cameras in plastic bags we continued to take pictures of street characters as we walked towards the main cathedral. Diane decided to climb the stairs to the top whilst I continued to take pictures of people in the rain. As I walked, I suddenly realised I was back in front of the entrance to the Real Alcazar, so, on the spur of the moment, I decided to go back inside and retake the photographs of the golden arches. Needless to say it was the same lady taking the money. She grabbed my Euros, grunted and frowned at me as she gave me my ticket. I retook my photographs as quickly as I could and joined Diane. We made our way back to the hotel to get changed before enjoying, what was to be for me, the highlight of the holiday.
The Flamenco Museum in Seville is the only one of its kind in the whole of Spain. Underground in semi darkness the spectators sat in seats on three sides of the stage. In the dimmed light it was just possible to make out paintings of Flamenco dancers on the walls. The rules were simple. We could take photographs but we could not use tripods or flash. I tried different settings on my camera and took test shots. None of them were even vaguely good. I was hesitant to use the ‘A ‘on the dial of my camera as I had never done so before, but I wanted to try to capture at least the essence of the evening. I was not prepared for the sheer energy, passion, aggression and stunning dances that we were privileged to see that evening. Capturing the dancers’ constant movement in the darkness was very difficult and in the end both Diane and I became so mesmerised by the sensuality of the male dancer, we gave up taking photographs altogether and just watched him intently instead. Other women in the audience were also enjoying his performance as his feet and arms whirled and swung through the air and his face contorted emotions in the shadowy light. It was a totally stunning grand finale to our wonderful visit.
Like many beautiful places, Seville sneaks into your soul, curls up and sleeps there, waiting to be awoken in the future by memories and the many photographs you have stored in your album of life.