By Fiona Flores Watson
They say that Seville is the most romantic city in Spain, and its most entrancing building by far is the Royal Alcazar. This complex of fortified royal palaces and gardens, dating from the 10th century, has a magical, fairtytale air which sweeps you back from present-day Seville, to the era of Moorish rulers, poet kings and medieval mistresses, with its hidden courtyards, shady pathways and exquisite Mudejar decoration.
When you come in, you’ll walk through the arches into the Patio de Monteria (Hunting Courtyard). In this large courtyard, the men would meet to go off hunting, and it also held the largest theatre in Seville for a time. But centuries before that it was planted with classic Islamic sunken gardens – walkways alongside the trees were at just the right level for picking fruit.
The extraordinary façade of the palace in front of you, the Palacio Mudejar, is a crazy layer-cake mix of Islamic mouldings, Sevillano columns and vivid blue Arabic inscriptions (“Only Allah is victorious”). This was built not by the Moors, as you’d think, but by the Christian King Pedro, and is the most outstanding example of Mudejar architecture in Spain – the name for Moors who worked under Christian rule. A lover of Islamic culture, King Pedro brought the best craftsmen from Toledo and Granada to create his dream palace.
Taking a brief diversion, off this courtyard to the right is the Sala del Almirant (Admiral’s Hall), where Columbus was received by Queen Isabella (of the famous Reyes Catolicos, who reconquered Spain from the Moors) – his sponsor – after his second voyage to the New World, in 1496. This hall was part of the Casa de Contratacion, which controlled trade with the Indies for two centuries – look out for the painting of the Virgen de los Navegadores, where you can see the biggest names of the day: Emperor Carlos V, Columbus, and fellow explorer Amerigo Vespuccio.
Enter the Mudejar Palace from the Hunting Courtyard, and you´ll veer off sharply to the left – designed so that the palace’s rooms were kept private from visitors’ curious eyes.
Follow the passageway, with its flagstone floor, colourful tiles and painted wooden ceiling, to the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens) – a delightful confection of intricate arcades surrounding a Moorish garden. Sit down in a tiled alcove to take it in – the exquisitely detailed mouldings on the arches, the star-patterned Mudejar azulejos, and the original sunken garden with orange trees and long pool (scandalously paved over for four centuries, it was only restored a few years ago).
At the far end is the star attraction, one of the most stunning rooms in Spain’s palaces: the Salon de los Embajadores (the Ambassadors’ Hall). Small but exquisite, this is famous for its mesmerising ceiling – a glimmering gilted wood dome, with hundreds of tiny mirrors; walls are completely covered with Arabic arches, motifs and intricate flowers; you can imagine a princess being serenaded by her love-struck knight on the theatrical balconies, supported by dragons. The triple-horseshoe Peacock Gate, which leads to the hall, is resplendent in regal cobalt blue and gold, adorned with images of birds. Pure Arabian Nights.
Leave plenty of time for the gardens – a huge walled network of Italianate and Islamic-style areas with towering palm trees. You’ll see the typical Muslim series of pools and fountains, calming, as well as arcaded pavilions, Renaissance statues, tiled benches and hidden paths.
For an overview, climb up to the Italian Grutesco, a long, narrow, arcaded wall with a walkway which divides the gardens. Built from volcanic rock to look like caves, its original purpose was to hide the Moorish castle walls – having conquered the Moors, subsequent Spanish monarchs wanted to hide all evidence of them. Walk along to the end for vistas in both directions from the balconied windows.
Back down at ground level, it’s easy to miss the Baños de Maria Padilla, in a vaulted space under the palace. These pools were used by Pedro’s mistress for bathing, and for assignations with her lover, the king. They’re very atmospheric, with the low ceiling, soft light and beautiful Gothic arches, and you can imagine the sweet nothings and secret plans which were aired in such an intimate space.
In the English gardens, to the right of the palace, there are peacocks wandering about, who will approach you – don’t worry they don’t peck; there’s also a greenery-swamped grotto in a pond. Sadly, picnics on the grass aren’t allowed, although a sneaky sandwich on a bench is fine.
On the way out, you pass through the Patio de Banderas, which is being excavated to examine remains from the Iron Age, and Roman and Phoenician eras; the treasures uncovered will be on display from 2014.
The Alcazar is still used as a royal residence; King Juan Carlos stays there when he’s in Sevilla. The first-floor apartments, built by Carlos V, can be visited on a guided tour.
The Alcazar is very child-friendly – not high-tech or interactive, but happily free from “Don’t touch” signs (no priceless furniture or ornaments to break), ample space to run around in, and best of all, kids aren’t charged. Add tame birds, fountains, a maze and a shop, and you have the makings of a perfect family day out – who knows, they may even absorb some history too. Here are my top kid spots: the waterfall at Mercury’s Pool – walk under the stream and touch it with your hand – you’ll be gently splashed. Kids adore doing this, especially on a hot day (but take a change of clothes). The peacocks – in the English Garden: very friendly and beautiful too. Grutescos gallery – endless windows to stick their heads out of (most will want to stop at every one for the different view). The maze – behind the Carlos V pavilion; every child loves getting lost – and then found.
Author’s insider tips * Get there early – it opens at 9.30am, and tour groups start arriving at about 11am, so 9.30-10.30am is the time to aim for; you’ll also avoid the heat in summer months * If you’re visiting in summer or autumn, look out for evening plays and concerts – classical, jazz and flamenco. One of the most atmospheric venues for live music, with floodlit palms and balmy night air, it’s an unforgettable experience in the moonlight. Exhibitions are also held.
Stop at the shop on the way out* – it has lots of beautiful gifts with gorgeous tile designs from the palaces, and some great books on history, art and architecture, including for children. The café, while a lovely spot with a great garden view, is less impressive. Service and food aren’t great
Opening hours: April to September 9.30am-7pm; October to March 9.30am.5pm
Admission: 8.50 euros; students and pensioners, 2 euros; free for children under 16 and Seville residents; audio tour: 3 euros; tour of royal apartments (first floor) is extra.http://www.alcazarsevilla.org/
Fiona Flores Watson is a sucker for Islamic architecture – the scale of the Taj Mahal and opulence of the Alhambra faded into insignificance when she first set eyes on the miniature perfection of the Alcazar. Here she shows you the highlights. She writes about her adventures in southern Spain in her blog, Scribbler in Seville