Carved out by horse trails and the passage of numerous cultures, Seville is a city that speaks the heart and soul of some of the most influential and powerful civilizations to pass through Southern Spain. Its Mediterranean location put the port-trade city, Seville (or rather, Sevilla), at the crossroads of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque. But its Arabic influence (in Spain known as the Moorish) is probably the most evident and luxuriously notable trait that Sevilla inherited. With rich, intricate tile work on its cathedrals, palaces, crumbling stone walls, and even the undersides of most apartment balconies, Sevilla does not let one forget that this was a city built by one of the most powerful Moorish dynasties, the Almohads. The weekend that I spent here excited a new fascination with the Mudéjar style, arguably one of the finest gifts that the Moorish dynasties left behind in Spain. Mudéjar–originally a name given to the Muslims that remained in Spanish territories under Christian occupation–is now a word more readily recognized as a distinct architectural style. Paid homage to by its distinguished buildings in the center of the city of Sevilla, the Mudéjar style is marked by ornamental work in brick, plaster, and (my personal favorite) ceramics.
Lost in a labyrinth of cobble stoned streets on a bright Saturday morning in the Santa Cruz district of Sevilla, three friends and I stumbled upon a wonderfully unassuming tile shop. Harboring a deep love of ceramics, one of my friends urged us inside, intent on purchasing at least one small tile… little did we know what a gem of a shop we had discovered. The salesman, a friendly Spaniard with a thick accent, asked us if we would like any help. Interested in a simple, bold green, floral tile, I asked: “¿cuánto cuesta?” He chuckled, telling me that the particular tile I chose was one of a set of four, marked at the price of 280 euros. Expensive taste bit me in the ass once again as I discovered that these tiles were dated circa 1350 A.D., and were in fact very special. My friends and I drooled over the beautiful geometric patterns married with vibrant florals for some time until, only after a brief history on Spanish ceramics from the kind shopkeeper (who at this point was well aware of our meager budgets), we returned to the orange tree lined, narrow, sunbathed streets that would eventually lead us to Sevilla’s true gem: the Real Alcázar.
The Real Alcázar, without divulging in a lengthy history lesson, is perhaps the epitome of the Mudéjar style: constructed under the reign of Pedro I in 1364, this royal residence was built within the confines of the Almohad rulers’ palaces. Craftsmen from the nearby cities of Granada and Toledo were shipped in to complete the job in under two years. The result: a jewel box of Mudéjar patios and halls, lush gardens, and enticing pools. Almost seven centuries later, the original Palacio Pedro I has become the centerpiece of an astounding complex that remains as home and retreat to a very long line of Spanish kings.
Lost (as I usually am–I can never decide if this is a character flaw or perhaps beneficial when traveling) within the confines of the walled-in palace, I became mesmerized by the dizzying complexity and sheer quantity of tiles surrounding me–to the right, left, above, and below. Hardly an inch of space was relieved of pattern, depth, and color. Only after providing my eyes brief reprieve on the peaceful, emerald gardens that filled the entire frame of each window that I passed while strolling along the spacious corridors, could I continue to appreciate the craftsmanship. And the walls and floors were really only half of it; above me, each horse-shoe arch and beamed ceiling burst with azulejos (colorfully glazed ceramic tiles, a craft introduced by the Moors and used to create fantastic mosaics in sophisticated geometric patterns) and complex plasterwork that could never be repeated with such precision today, at least not at a reasonable or ethical price. To me, the crowning glory of the palace seemed to be the Salón de Embajadores–one needn’t bother to look anywhere but up in this room. The domed ceiling, made of carved and gilded interlaced wood, dazzled. Those cookies–the spun, sugar-y ones that I believe are from Scandinavia that look almost too beautiful to eat–came to mind as I admired the delicate craftsmanship. Impeccably engineered and spectacularly fragile, this room made me (the Nikon camera laden, jeans and tee-shirt wearing, weary traveler) feel like a princess.
And this is where I will stop. Though the remainder of the day, as well as the following, was spent viewing (perhaps) equally spectacular cathedrals and towers (and of course the inside of bars for jerez, or sherry, the locally produced liquor that I never did take a liking to), my rapture with Sevilla’s taste for the splendid, indulgent, and luxurious stayed behind, in the Real Alcázar. With a name that translates to “royal armory,” the space could make anyone feel like a princess (or prince, of course) for a day.