We got there after ten days in Portugal; it was my first trip to Spain – an introduction that led to a life-long romance.
The reception on arrival was cold, brutal: at the first restaurant, we waited for half an hour before a server would deign to serve us, and then another half hour before we got the food – a dry, rubbery and tasteless omelette that would have done well to stay in the kitchen. Naturally, no bread or water while we waited; when the bread came eventually, stale and equally tasteless, we were charged for it – and no butter. The contrast between the warm welcome we received everywhere we went in Lisbon, Faro and Madeira was striking. We thought perhaps it was just the one place; we were to discover that the standard of service and friendliness in southern Spain was markedly different from – that is, significantly worse than – that in Portugal. Then there was the perplexed couple in the American Express office: all their luggage had been stolen – from the trunk of a car parked in a busy thoroughfare and left alone, locked, for only five minutes. If only the cooks and the servers were as efficient as the thieves …
Ach – service, shmervice.
It was difficult not to fall in love with the city (and, eventually, the country). We had just come from an island overflowing with exotic flowers, and yet were mesmerised by Seville’s abundance of colour. The architecture was captivating, and its people among the most beautiful I have seen anywhere. But for the traffic, the smog, the heat, the thieves and 25% unemployment, I could see myself living there. Well, that and the uncertain driving of the Spaniards, who did not seem to have any regard for the pedestrian or the pavement on which one walked, let alone other cars, traffic lights, cops, buildings or street markings.
Me being me, our first tourist port of call was the cathedral. It is reputed to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the third or fourth largest church altogether. My memories of the interior are fuzzy and generally not positive. It has none of the grace of Notre Dame, the history of Reims, the light of Bourge or the charm of Chartres. The grimness of the cathedral was particularly striking given the lightness of the Alcazar practically across the street. Yet again, the human trumped the divine. We spent the afternoon walking around the orange and lemon groves; picked a few and ate an orange by the reflecting pools.
We then set out for a walk around town. We crossed the Guadalquivir – and I think it was the south side of the river – to where there were a few bars that were just filling up. A particular bar caught my eye, or rather, my ear: it was playing Granados’ Danza Oriental. The rest were full of rowdy teenagers and loud music. And so it was that we settled on Casa Grande, the faded skeleton of a once proud meeting place for the young and the young at heart, now a sleazy tavern on the banks of the Guadalquivir, across the narrow alleyway from the neighbourhood police station.
The red velvet of the sofas and the chairs was torn and faded, the once gilded carvings had lost their lustre, the brass railings and door handles looked dirty and badly in need of a shine, and the tap – it looked like an antique – was broken and no longer dispensed drinkable beer. Where once, it seemed, the Seville society trod and chatted, looking across the river at the beautiful outline of the city skyline against a moonlit sky, now drunken men slumbered on tables stacked with empty bottles and glasses.
And the stains on the carpet? Once, I suppose, the carpet sported spilled champagne and the finest Bordeaux or Rioja; now – now it was difficult to tell which was the real colour of the carpet and which the stain. But the guitars were playing on and refused to be drowned out by the pounding of the beat of modern music in the neighbouring clubs. We went in and sat down on the only available seats at the bar. The bartender, a small bespectacled man of indeterminate age, looked at us, muttered something incomprehensible, and gave us beer. Only one kind of beer was available, and it tasted as though it had grown stale and flat along with the old bartender and the older bar and the decrepit furniture. But something in the atmosphere was reassuring. Whether it was the music or the old bartender, it felt good to know that some things do last, not just mirthless cathedrals or Moorish palaces, but the essence of a culture, of a people; carpet stains and hand marks on brass railings and faded velvet sofas and torn curtains and chipped statuettes and smoky wall papers and old bartenders; the stench of rotting fish – was it from the river or the nearby market? – and of cheap alcohol, mixed with the ancient lingering traces of expensive perfumes of bygone times, or even spilt blood when the Republicans had crossed the Guadalquivir; the echoes of the silly chatter or perhaps war commands that must have filled this room in their time. Were we insane to have picked this place?
We stayed there for a couple of drinks; not a single word passed between us; nothing needed to be said. We were too enchanted and revolted by this place, we were absorbing the atmosphere, and the guitars kept on playing, and there was nothing to say.
When we left the weather had cooled down a bit, and it was much more comfortable to walk around than it had been in the afternoon.
The next day we headed south, to Cadiz and Gibraltar.