Spain (Andalucia)

April 22, 2023

When Stephen's dad was originally making plans for this trip prior to Covid, there were two non-stop flights per week between Seville and Toulouse, one on Tuesday and the other on Saturday.  He was making plans enough in advance, though, that Ryanair, the one airline running nonstop flights, hadn't yet published their schedule.  We just figured it would be the same.  However,  for these two weeks in April, Ryanair decided to run the flight on Sunday instead.  On the bad side, it gave us one less day in Toulouse.  On the bright side, though, this gave us a night to experience the Feria de Sevilla.

The Feria was, in fact, all that people could talk about since the end of semana santa two weeks earlier.  It is, one could argue, the center of the social calendar for Sevillanos.  We did our best to try and get an invite to one of the casetas, but we did not succeed, so instead we (Stephen, Eli, and Heather) decided to just head down and check out the scene.  We walked from our hotel down toward the park with throngs of others doing the same.  The men were mostly dressed in jackets and ties, and the women in dresses with a unique Spanish flair (lots of polka dots on display).  For the groups of high school and college age men and women going down, it looked like a high school homecoming dance or fraternity/sorority formal.

At midnight on Saturday, they do a lighting (kind of like the scene from Meet me in St. Louis at the World's Fair) and then the crowds enter the tent area.  After the lighting, we walked around checking out the scene.  It is very festive, like 1200 wedding parties going on simultaneously.  There was a mix of more traditional (flamenco) and contemporary music being played in the tents.  We did decide, though, that the flamenco show we saw failed to introduce us to one of the very important styles of flamenco.... Wedding Party Flamenco.  It's kind of like the "white man's overbite" of flamenco, with a lot of moving around of the hands and things by drunk people.  We saw a lot of that in the tents.

There are, actually, a number of casetas that are sponsored by the city and open to the public, but they are quite crowded.  There is also a "tourists' caseta" that is sponsored by the Department of Tourism, so we went to find that to see if we could get in.  We found it, and asked the bouncers if we could go in as we are tourists.  They said yes, but that only with a reservation.  He showed us the URL for the webpage where we could make reservations (hopefully this is the site that is up every year).  You apparently have to do it at least a day in advance, but on Saturday they did have open reservations for Sunday, so it's worth a try if you're in town for the Feria and have no other access to a caseta.  The music and overall environment seemed better overall than the public options.  We headed to one of the public tents to get a drink and then continue to walk around.  

They also have an area with carnival rides and such.  We walked through that area as well.  

April 21, 2023

Today was our last real touring day of the trip, and we headed out to see the white villages and Ronda.  We had a great and friendly guide, David, who took us to a couple of villages whose settings were really beautiful and each different.  The fact that the villages are white isn't what makes them remarkable (there are lots of white painted or limewashed houses around Spain).  The settings of the "white villages" in this area is what makes them special.  David took us to two: Zahara de la Sierra and Setenil de las Bodegas.

Zahara is built up toward an old Moorish fort.  Setenil is built into a valley with lots of cave homes and businesses.  David had lunch with us at a place he recommended in Setenil; 3 of us had the jamon iberico loin again... we won't be able to get it after we leave, so we're having as much of it as we can.

After Setenil, we headed to Ronda.  Ronda is most famous for the puente nuevo (new bridge).  It really is as dramatic as it looks, but the town overall is quite dramatic situated on these two huge protrusions of stone which reminded us of the monasteries in Meteora, Greece.  David generally suggests that people stay overnight there so you can see the town and bridge all lit up, and we had imagined that would be the case (although we're not getting to do it).

On our way back into town, we started talking about the Feria de Sevilla (the Seville Spring Festival).  It's held every year two weeks after Easter weekend.  It starts this Saturday night at midnight.  All our tour guides have mentioned what a big party it is, but it was hard to really grasp how the whole event functioned.  In talking more with David, we have a better sense now, and he even took us to the park grounds where all the "casetas" are set up for the week.  So basically how it works is that different social clubs where you have to be a member set up elaborate tents (think wedding event sized) with living rooms, kitchens, dance floors and stages, etc. and then the members spend all week at the tent (pretty much as much of the days and nights as they can) eating, drinking, dancing and partying.  If you're not a member of a social club, if you have a friend in one of the clubs they can invite you for an evening.  That's how David is going this year.  As he drove us around, there was row after row of casetas for 9 or 10 football fields long... upwards of 1,300 tents.  Some had people in them and were clearly already starting the party early.

They also have public casetas, but that's more like a tent where you can buy beer like what you would do at a state fair in the US (and they can sometimes attract a bridge and tunnel element).  They also apparently have a tent for tourists, but David said it's not much of anything.  We (Eli and Stephen) are going to go and check out the scene for the lighting of the casetas at midnight on Saturday and see if the public casetas are really as depressing as David made them seem in comparison to the private ones.  We're also going to try and post on Instagram to see if someone will take pity on us and send us and invite to their fabulous caseta for Saturday night (although typically it's not a night when there is much going on).

April 20, 2023

Today there was some confusion on our tour.  We were supposed to have a car and a driver to take us around on a 3 hour city tour (start singing the theme from Gilligan's Island) before we got on the train back to Sevilla.  Unfortunately, the tour company (we booked via Viator) swapped guides for our tour at the last minute and they didn't mention to the guide about needing to arrange for transportation vs. it just being a walking tour.  Needless to say, we weren't happy with the situation.  Luckily, our guide made the best of the situation, found us cabs, took care of the cab costs, and we were able to get most of the tour done, even with Judy having a rough time with her knee (she sat our the last part in the Cathedral).

Eddie also got his chance to have churros y chocolate (and Heather, Eli, and Stephen each got some too).  We all agreed that the churros were secondary to the chocolate, but that they were overall just okay.

Our train ride back was uneventful, but everyone decided that they were kind of over going out to eat, so we ordered burgers in for delivery and just hung out.

April 19, 2023

Today was our tour of the Alhambra.  The tour started at noon, so we had a late breakfast and relaxed at the hotel before taking a taxi up the hill.  Judy had twisted her knee the other day, and so was concerned about walking and stayed home.  We missed having here there as she would have definitely enjoyed the gardens.

We started in the gardens and then wound our way through to the actual palace.  Our guide, Hector, was very good, and explained about the romantic and scientific restorations that had been done at different times and how they affected what we were seeing.  One of the more interesting tidbits we all honed in on was that the fountains in the romantic restoration were typically bigger and louder than what was done during the scientific restoration.  Moorish architecture would have encouraged just bubbling of the water (a much quieter fountain) to encourage serenity and meditation... and it was true, the European style fountains did become grating to listen to over time.

The gardens and palace were very beautiful.  Similar to what we saw in the Alcazar in Sevilla, but on a much larger scale.

For dinner, we headed to a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet.  It was billed as a tapas place, and you would have thought that from the name, Picoteca 3 Maneras (picoteca means location of the bites).  The dishes, though, really were quite large and we totally over ordered.  The food was very good, though;  we agreed they had the best bacalaitos (codfish fritters) we've had anywhere so far (and we've basically had them everywhere).  Our other faves were the fried portabella special and the ravioli dishes we had.  The truffle nachos were pretty good, too.  

April 18, 2023

We packed overnight bags and headed to Granada for a mini visit within our visit to Seville.  Granada is now about 2 1/2 hours by high speed train from Seville (although it takes a circuitous route and you can drive between the two in about the same time).  We took the day easy, and had a leisurely lunch at a Moroccan restaurant, and the 4 of the 6 of us headed to Hamam al Andalus for a spa experience.

Two of us were able to get the full exfoliation experience, but they only had 2 slots left at the time we wanted to go, so the others did the baths and a regular massage.  The pools are coed, so you need to bring a swimsuit.  The baths were very beautiful with mosaic tile, Moorish decor, and filtered lighting.  The experience including the massages was about 85 euros each.  We couldn't obviously get shots of the hamam for privacy reasons, but you can get an idea of what it's like if you click the link.  Since we had a full lunch, we did a light dinner at a Shawarma stand (Eddie and Judy got a croissant at a cafe nearby). 

April 17, 2023

Today we had our tour of Sevilla.  We started by walking toward the river to understand the role that Sevilla played in Roman and in Discovery times.  In the 16th century, Sevilla was the "port" (even though it's not on the sea), where ships would depart from and return to when going to the Americas.  It was considered safer as it was inland on the river.  We walked by the bullfighting stadium (a remnant of the Roman period when they would fight lions), and then headed to the Maria Luisa Gardens and Plaza Espana.  We had seen Plaza Espana from the other side, but it is really cool from the actual Plaza.  It was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. 

From there we walked through the old town, passing through the Jewish quarter on the way to the Alcazar and the Cathedral.  The Alcazar was the Palace of the first king after the Christian (re)conquest of Spain.  It was designed in a Moorish style because all the best craftspeople were Muslim at that point.  It also had some very nice gardens from the 19th century.  We headed to lunch and then to the Cathedral of Seville.  The cathedral was built on the foundations of the former mosque, and so is square in plan.  The only thing left of the mosque here, though, as compared to Cordoba, is the patio area.  The Cathedral is in the Spanish gothic style, and the altar is very impressive.

April 16, 2023

After a full day of sightseeing yesterday, we took today light today (or relatively light).  We had lunch at ConTenedor.  Stephen had seen this restaurant come up on a number of lists, and when he asked our guide for flamenco about the best place to get arroz de pato (duck rice) she hands down said this was the best place.  They do more of a contemporary take on classic dishes of Sevilla.  We had the duck rice, plus a whole bunch of other plates that we shared across the table.  Again we had the pluma de jamon iberico, and again it was Heather's, Ginger's, and Eli's favorite.  Stephen thought the duck rice was the best, but he thought the pluma de jamon iberico was amazing too.  The sweet potato saland and the duck breast were also good (but the duck breast was not as good as Evelyne makes.... we're looking forward to that when we get to Toulouse).

The meal was a leisurely place, so we had barely enough time to get home and rest for an hour before we had to head out again to our tapas cooking class.  We had a great time with Chef Maria, who helped us make some of the tapas that we had tried around town (and some better versions of some we had had but maybe didn't like as much).  We made a better version of the salmorejo, a great chickpea and spinach dish that was so rich without having any butter or milk but just with bread and mashed fried garlic (that we fried in the skin so it turned out like if you had roasted it in the oven),  and a great tortilla espanola (with onions, which is apparently a big debate in Spain).  

Ginger is skeptical of the flip.

April 15, 2023

Today we took a high speed train (about 40 minutes) to Cordoba, which was the capital of the area of most of the Iberian peninsula and North Africa at its height.  We did a walking tour of the city that included views of the old roman walls, how the Moors added on, and then how the Christians changed the city from there.  During the Moorish period, the city was alive with many different cultures (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) and you can see how they cross-influenced each other.  When the Mezquita was converted from a mosque to a church, they didn't destroy the old building, but repurposed it. 

The Mezquita was an amazing building.  Both Eli and Stephen talked about how they had seen images of it in Art History class in college, but it was mostly for the original Moorish architecture.  The building creates all new kinds of meaning when you see how it was changed over time.  

When we went to see the remains of a Jewish synagogue, we could see Arabic calligraphy in the designs on the walls because that was part of the style of the day when it was built.  We also got to see some private patios decorated with plants; these patios are considered world heritage by UNESCO, so they are taken pretty seriously.  They do a competition every May for who has the best patio design.  

April 14, 2023

After a very early morning flight, we had to store our bags at a luggage storage place in Seville while our AirBnB was being cleaned.  Eddie and Judy got on a hop on/hop off bus and got an overview of the city while Stephen, Heather, Ginger and Eli walked through the town.

After getting into our AirBnB and settling in, we did a tour this evening that included tapas and vermouth tasting, a flamenco show, and a tapas "dinner." Our guide was probably the best one we've had so far, and we all agreed we're into the tapas snacking throughout the day.  We also got introduced to vino tinto de verano.  We were informed by our guide that while Sangria might be the national drink of Spain, most Spaniards don't bother with it, but tinto de verano is the same idea and a lot easier.  It's red wine with lemon soda added, and ice.  It works as a very cooling beverage.  We also learned about all the different qualities of jamon iberico.  And jamon iberico isn't just about the thin slices you get on a charcuterie board; you can also get cuts that you would cook as well.  We had the "pluma" de jamon iberico, which is the last end of the loin, grilled and served over pumpkin (you can see it in the picture); it was insanely flavorful.  A fellow voyager on our boat whose family is still in Spain (but she lives in Orlando) talked about people she knew getting arrested at the airport, not for being a drug mule, but rather for strapping jamon iberico to their chest trying to sneak it in.  It really was that good.

The flamenco performance was in the courtyard of a hotel and lasted about an hour.  There are a number of different styles of dances, and everything is improvised between the dancer, singers, and the guitarist.  The flamenco performance was a bit polarizing in our group; some of really liked it while others were just lukewarm.  We all agreed that the female dancer was much better than the man, and that the vocalists weren't the best (but maybe it's just the style of singing that was also very melodramatic).  We weren't allowed to take photos other than at the very end of the performance.  Our guide is taking flamenco lessons, so she had some helpful insight in interpreting the dance.  According to her, most people in Spain will learn enough about flamenco to be able to clap along with the rhythms, or dance a bit, but not to the extent that we saw the dancers dance in the show.