Monday, January 14, 2008

Jack was still feeling a bit poorly as we made our way back to the airport for our flight to Seville. After a breakfast of coffee, breakfast rolls, and the worst OJ ever (it tasted like it had been cut with water and lemon juice), he napped in the airport, which was blessedly quiet that day, and again on the plane. I was fascinated by the in-flight magazine of Vueling, which was in Spanish and English (but not always both for each article), and contained very little that would make it comparable to other magazines of the same genre. There was an article where people talked about their dreams, and one where hand-written essays by random people in Amsterdam's Vondelpark were printed. A lot of content seemed to have been written by non-professionals, but the art and layout were great. It's produced by some uber-hip company named Le Cool, appropriately enough.

We touched down in Seville and caught the bus into town. It was sunny and about 10 degrees warmer than in Barcelona, feeling somewhat Floridian. We had a map in the guidebook with the hotel marked on it, but I still thought we were lucky to find it as quickly as we did, because it was located in the old town amongst the maze of tiny streets. I think that was the only time while we were there that we ended up where we wanted to be without a lot of backtracking.

We checked into the hotel Amadeus, a very nice place with a classical music theme, and got some suggestions of eating places from the woman at the front desk. As we were heading to the elevator to go to our room, a couple walked up to the desk and asked if they were still serving breakfast. Sadly, the answer was no. It was 2 p.m.

The first order of business was to procure some grub. Since one of the woman's suggestions was close to the hotel, we made our way there. To take advantage of the pleasant weather we grabbed a table in the plaza fronting the establishment . Without asking to be seated. Big mistake. In Brussels you seat yourself unless you're at a restaurant where you made reservations. Usually the staff is so busy that they just wave you in the general direction of open tables with a slightly exasperated air. There didn't seem to be any proper procedure in Barcelona, and since the approximately four staff people standing around at this Seville restaurant were ignoring us when we tried to make eye contact to get a table, we just picked one out and sat. And sat. After what seemed like enough time to melt a glacier, one guy took pity on us and gave us menus, taking our order within a reasonable timeframe.

It being lunch, we got beers and appetizers and entrees. Jack ordered fried potatoes with eggs and chorizo followed by fried fresh anchovies. I got a cold octopus salad with boiled potatoes, and then taquitos made with bacalao (rehydrated salt cod). Jack's first course was pretty good, but I thought my octopus was a bit slimy in places and underseasoned. I kept stealing the fried potatoes off Jack's plate. When the entrees arrived I was surprised to discover a plate full of nothing but cubes of battered and fried cod, with a small garnish of battered and fried eggplant. What IS a taquito, anyway? We may never know. Jack had a large plate of anchovies prepared the same way. They were both very delicious, but suffered from a lack of anything to break up the monotony. The bacalao had meatier, firmer texture than fresh fish, and the residual salt gave it a pleasant but not overly salty flavor. I definitely need to try that at home.

It soon clouded over and we thought about regretting sitting outside. We decided against it for the following reasons:
+ the lottery ticket guy, who made his way past us twice, chanting his spiel as if it was a one-note song (these guys (and occasionally women) were all over the city, we later discovered)
+ the cat with the short corkscrew tail, who could readily identify the weak spot at the tables and would place his paws on a patron's leg to try to get some food
+ the security guy standing in front of the garage next to the restaurant, occasionally giving someone a menacing glare, but mostly chatting amicably with the wait staff
+ the shoeshine guy, looking worse for the wear, who was employed by someone at a neighboring table
+ the cognac guy, who had a tower of ice, liquor bottles and snifters arranged just so, and who would approach people that were finishing their meal and offer them a sample, which he would provide without messing up the gleaming tower
+ the cognac guy giving the shoeshine guy a sample, and the latter sitting on a tree planter sipping from his snifter contentedly

We got coffees to jazz ourselves up for an afternoon of wandering, but by that time the cognac guy was on his break and/or studiously ignoring the tourists who were obviously not in his demographic target, so we didn't get to taste it. Oh well.

And so we were off to the races. Seville is much more compact than Barcelona, and in fact they have just this year installed a single tram line that extends for all of 1.4 km to supplement the bus-only transportation network. I can't imagine under what circumstances people would be compelled to use it, but they were. They are also planning on reopening their subway in the near future, which was abandoned for 25 years. But for our purposes it was easy enough to walk to where we wanted to go.

We gawked at the cathedral, the Giralda tower (left, from later in the day) and the Alcazares Reales across the street. Seville is rife with Moorish-influenced architecture, so its appearance is quite different from that of Barcelona, which has mostly stuffy classically-inspired buildings punctuated with the occasional Modernisme structure. Not wanting to visit these sites so late in the afternoon, we headed towards a green space on the map, which when we got close enough we found was interspersed with some buildings visible through the trees that looked interesting. We ended up at the semi-circular Plaza de EspaƱa, which was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition (and is apparently featured in the Star Wars II movie). A lot of national pride when into the building, which featured ceramic tile maps of all the provinces of Spain including their primary cities and products. Above the open-air passageway were the heads of famous Spaniards, none of whom I recognized except for El Cid. There was some kind of fancy belen set up in a large tent in the center of the plaza, but I was getting a weird vibe from it like they would try to convert us if we went inside, so we skipped it.

We exited the park and crossed the Guadalquivir River to see what we could see. We didn't spend much time in the Triana district west of the river, but it was a pleasant stroll. By this point Jack was running on fumes and talking about his skin hurting, so it was time for a break. Once he had rested up for a few hours, we set out again for a short walk to take in some of the sights under the cover of darkness.

The map and street signage being what they were, several missteps later we ended up at our destination, Plaza Nueva, the site of a Christmas market that had been closed for an hour by the time we showed up. We took our time walking back to the hotel, passing by the cathedral and getting some good night shots of the Giralda tower. We also saw the sister restaurant to one in DC, Taberna del Alabadero, that had a lunch menu posted featuring something in tobacco-flavored sauce and another item with prunes and pork dewlap. We filed away the location in case we needed something later in the week.

We stopped into a cerveseria for some beer and tapas for those of us who were in need of nourishment. It was a little after 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, yet we felt like we were closing the place down! A very different vibe than Barcelona. Since we had had a large lunch, we weren't in need of much, but my mushroom quiche-like concoction, topped with a thin slice of bacalao, was delicious.

The next day Jack hadn't improved much. We breakfasted in the hotel, in what used to be the building's courtyard but had been converted to the cozy lobby. We were presented with another strangely bad glass of orange juice along with our rolls and caffeinated beverages. Both times the orange juice appeared to be fresh-squeezed and tasted unspoiled, so I think they were just using bad oranges, perhaps from the ubiquitous street trees that were thoroughly laden with citrus, looking like vibrant Christmas ornaments. But it was enough food to get us started.

We made our way down the street to the cathedral, which Wikipedia informs me is the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world (but not necessarily the largest RC church). The site had originally contained a mosque, complete with a high tower that was used to sound the call to prayer. Only the tower remained, now topped by a belfry. And while the interior was clearly that of a wealthy church, Moorish craftsmen had been used, so it had a different feel than other Christian places of worship (a rear entryway leading onto the courtyard and the main building of the church in the background at left). The vaulted ceilings were festooned with intricately carved details, the doorways had that characteristic Islamic architectural shape, and so on. The church also contained the grave of Christopher Columbus, who was interred there a little over a hundred years ago, when his bones were moved there after having crisscrossed the high seas a few times on their journey between the old and new worlds and back again. There were some precious items laden with gold on view in the treasury, including this crown that looked for all the world like it had been purchased in some dollar store.

After touring the cathedral it was time to tackle the Giralda tower. Instead of stairs, the tower contained a series of ramps so that it could be ascended on horseback. Sadly, no horses were present during our climb, but we were nevertheless glad for the relative ease of climbing the ramps afforded. There were some excellent views from the top, and we were happy that it didn't strike the hour while we were up there, so we only had to endure a handful of very loud chimes for the quarter hour.

The church is one of those places that one imagines is always cold, and particularly so when the winter solstice is approaching and the sun isn't strong enough to radiate some heat through the thick walls. Upon exiting we were in need of some warming up so we went to Cafe de Indias, feeling that since we were in the spot where the whole caffeinated beverage craze began, they'd have some good stuff. Both of us opted to get hot chocolate, forgetting that in Spain hot chocolate is something that is traditionally eaten with a spoon because it is very thick. It was delicious, though, and defrosted our bones a bit.

More wandering eventually led us back to the hotel, where Jack was down for the count. Using the guide of activities for December provided by the hotel, I made my plans for the evening assuming Jack wouldn't want to go out. There was a free organ concert in the cathedral that night that I decided to check out, followed by a flamenco dancing spot if I was still antsy. So I hit the streets again.

The cathedral's cavernous interior was nearly unlit aside from the center spot, flanked on one side by the enclosed choir stall and on the other by the royal chapel, both guarded by wrought-iron gates. It was even cooler in the church by this time, and visitors who took off their coats soon realized their mistake and put them back on again. The concert by a German organist was lovely, and attracted an interesting variety of locals, students and tourists. The organ pipes were divided on either side of the choir stall and set high up, close to the ceiling. It seemed that the sound from the two sides was reaching my ears at slightly different times, which made it somewhat disharmonious, but after a while I was able to ignore it and just focus on the music.

Towards the end my mind began to wander to the topic of sustenance. I decided that if he was up to eating, Jack might appreciate some comfort food, so I went to the Irish pub across the street to see if they could handle some takeout. They could, so I ordered a cheeseburger and fries and a ladylike half pint of Guinness while I waited.

The guy sitting next to me watching Chelsea play someone on the TV struck up a conversation after a fashion, inevitably razzing me about Americans' improper use of the word "football". He was a Scotch-English merchant seaman who was vacationing in Seville. In spite of his profession, he admitted to never having been to the US, which I thought was strange.

Having procured the burger I hustled back to the hotel so it could be eaten warm. I was careful not to take any shortcuts, which I had learned inevitably would lead to another part of town and take twice as much time to correct. Jack and I ended up splitting the food and calling it an early night, which by this point was around 11, so really only early by Spain standards.

Next: Will the curative effects of the burger and fries be proven?

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