Like a call from a muezzin when it starts, the tone grows gradually more profound. Rhythm gets stronger and more intense – now accompanied by the powerful stamping of feet from a dancer, whose long, pulled-back hair is black as the night, her arms flung out towards the empyrean. The guitar strums along with shouts from the crowd, punctuated by castanets. Then the tablao abruptly ends, leaving us breathless.
It’s eleven o’clock in Triana, a neighborhood in Seville. The November air is thin and chilly. Gas lamps cast a soft glow onto the streets. Across the river from the barrio antiguo, I sip the last drop of my beer. The cheers and clanking of glasses inside the dusty tavern can signify only one thing to the Sevillanos: the night has just begun.
Arrival in España
My travel partner and I had arrived in Seville only a week ago. It was my first time in the Andalusian capital, and to see the letters of my last name all lit up at the airport somehow made it feel almost instantly familiar, like I’d been here before.
Arriving, we skipped the city and headed off to the Andalusian countryside. For two nights, our plan was to chase the final days of summer in an 18th-century hacienda. We were thrilled to continue our way to Ronda, one of Spain’s oldest towns and famous for its 100-meter El Tajo fissure... but that’s a different story.
Without GPS, and relying mostly on the tricky road signs – Hacienda de San Rafael is marked only by a sign that says “km 594” – I invoked La Macarena, the weeping Virgin patron of the Sevillanos, in hopes that the next turn would lead us to our destination. Finally, after an hour or so, we veered off the asphalt onto a pebbled path passing several olive trees, each almost obscuring the road. At last a faint glimmer illuminated an unassuming metal cutout pointing to the entrance.
At dawn, the Hacienda de San Rafael could not have been in a more beautiful setting. We woke up looking out over rolling stretches of fields dotted with oak trees and shrubs. We’d left the city far behind for an entirely different world.
Tapas and sherry tasting
“Once this used to be a thriving olive farm. My parents started the restoration. Then my brother Patrick and I soon took over and began opening our doors to people looking for a hideaway,” Señor Anthony Reid Mora-Figueroa narrated.
He leans on the couch and gazes out the window as if surveying his small kingdom, while giving a pat to the hacienda dog Bruno. (The Reid brothers also run a luxury private boutique hotel, Corral del Rey, in the center of the old town of Seville.)
“From here, if you continue south, you will reach Jerez and it’s easy to get lost with the town’s old sherry bodegas,” he added – and with a laugh, “Just don’t get drunk!”
Road to Andalucia
Excited, I put on my boots to get a closer glimpse at the hilly countryside and marvel at the Moorish-looking fincas. My travel partner hit the gas in our rented Fiat 500, passing several farm tractors and dashing along the Spanish highway.
In no time, we reached the town of Jerez de la Frontera. It was midday. It's hard to resist partaking in the pueblo’s oldest temptation, sherry wine – a drink the British have been addicted to for centuries after Sir Francis Drake ravaged the port of Cadiz in 1587, taking with him 3,000 barrels of Sherry. I had a sip of the heavier kind, Amontillado and Oloroso, and even the dessert wines like Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel tasted wonderful. But I really enjoyed my glasses of Manzanilla and Fino, like white table wines, that I must admit made me a bit tipsy.
We figured out that it was best to have lunch at Puerta de Santa Maria opposite the city of Cadiz. By ordering large plates of boquerones (crispy fried fish) and a caña (small glass of beer), I found a perfect antidote for my noon intoxication.
I've always loved to meet and talk to locals casually when I travel, and true to form, we were approached by ten different men selling lottery tickets. We raised glasses as we exchanged wishes of good fortune. And good fortune it was that we were staying at a hacienda that appeared to be untouched by time. It was a great warm up for our trip back to Seville.
Exploring Seville's Old Town
The days that followed, we wandered through, in and out of Seville’s old quarters. A former Roman burg and a Moorish capital, its cobbled stone alleyways, old buildings and fortresses are a jumble of cultures and centuries, yet their allure is seamless. The city is still recovering from a 2007 economic crisis due to a construction bubble and rapid population growth. Tourism has been one of the few areas keeping Seville’s economy going. Today the city feels rejuvenated, a bull waking up with a roar.
In Seville, we find ourselves gravitating to the charming neighborhoods and attractions such as the 12th-century Catedral de Sevilla transformed with a mosque with its bell tower a converted minaret, now known as La Giralda. Then there’s the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Alcazar, or Archive of the Indies, which once housed the first caliph of Andalusia, Abdul Al-Rahman III.
As is the case every day in the nearby Barrio Sta. Cruz, the white-washed walls play a perfect stage for gypsy street artists. I was fascinated to see Andalusian cowboys in wide-brimmed hats swagger in the 2,000-year-old plazas while playful niños race under palms and orange trees.
Do as the Sevilllanos do
When in Seville, do what the Sevilllanos do: Eat late and eat where they dine, and indulge in some lazy afternoon siestas. Enjoy a sliver of jamon iberico, try some bitter oranges and perhaps on occasion or during a fiesta, join the local crowd for a bullfight as they cram inside the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza.
Take a trip in April and witness the city transforming itself from the eerie Semana Santa (Holy Week) – with its fiercely religious processions of black hooded cloaks – to the gorgeous ladies in colorful polka-dot dresses celebrating Feira de Abril. To resist is futile. Just like losing your way in the labyrinth of streets, you’ve got to go with the flow and discover the charming quirkiness in the details.
Anytime now, here in the distrito Triana, parties can erupt spontaneously. The night is young.
Against some bottles of beer, glasses of sherry passed around, the cheers and claps – once again, the gitano clacks his shoes, hands lost in the strum, and belts a deep, tearing wail. After gulping my last cerveza, I arise from my seat, knowing it’s too early for this heavenly noise to dissipate anytime soon.