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In spring, they say, the fragrance of orange blossoms is so intoxicating you are likely to swoon. We will have to come back. It was early January when we were in Seville, and the ubiquitous orange trees were still bright with brimming fruit. The image lingers along with those of azuelos, Andalusian ceramic tiles, embedded in sidewalks and garden walls; myrtle hedges surrounding flower beds where lilies bloomed and white pigeons circled above; Moorish domes and Gothic towers beneath a perennially azure sky; and the sound of hooves, clippity-clop against stone pavement, as horses drew open carriages on tours around the city.
What did “NO8DO” mean? We saw it everywhere -- on civic buildings, in store and bus windows, on banners hung from balconies the week after Christmas. Finally, someone explained that the figure "8" resembles a hank of wool, “madeja” in Spanish. Replacing the numeral with the word, the sign would read "No madeja do.” But through a slight change of pronunciation, “ma” is transformed into “me-ha,” and the phrase becomes "No me ha dejado" meaning “They never forgot me” which is what King Alfonso X, at war with his son Don Sancho in the 13th century, said - “they” being the citizens of Seville.
The citizens of Seville still remember. The past carries weight here. You can’t miss the history, the omnipresent sense of reflection back to the period when three cultures: Arab, Jewish and Catholic lived together in relative harmony for more than 500 years. The impact of this unique commingling still stamps the city, perhaps nowhere more forcefully than at its very heart, a short walk from where the original doorway, the Puerta de Jérez, opened into a then walled city. This is the area of the Alcázar, the cathedral, and the legendary neighborhood of Santa Cruz.
Seville’s famed Alcazar – a UNESCO World Heritage site – remains hidden behind towered walls. A huge complex of buildings, patios, gardens, and palaces, it has been a royal residence from the time it was built in 913 up to this very day. Over the course of 1,100 years, it has been added to, embellished and renovated first by the Muslims, who had conquered started their conquest of Iberia in 711, made Seville their main capital, and ruled until the re-conquest of 1248, and then by successive Christian monarchs starting with Ferdinand III and followed by his son Alfonso X of “NO8DO” fame. In the 14th century, Peter I enlisted Islamic carpenters and craftsmen from Granada and Toledo to build a palace in their distinctive Arabic style, and although Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque design mingle throughout the Alcázar, it is this "Mudéjar" art and architecture: the intricate lace-like plasterwork, multiple horseshoe-shaped arches, carved pine and cedar doors, domed wooden ceilings, arrangement of chambers around open courtyards, and fountain-studded gardens which embody its spirit.
A tour of the Alcázar is an Andalusian time journey from the Muslim period of al-Andalus through the golden ages of the 16th and 17th centuries, when the great wealth of the New World entered Spain via the port of Seville, through the rises and falls of succeeding centuries. In the House of Trade, Queen Isabelle received Columbus after he returned from his second voyage, Magellan organized the first trip around the world, expeditions were planned and records of trade were kept. In the Ambassador’s Hall, a space of exquisite Mudéjar design with triple horseshoe arches and walls covered with plaster ornamentation representing geometric forms, plants and shells, a Star of David appears in the wrought-iron carvings of an arched doorway – a testament to the important political and economic role played by the Jews of Seville.
Seville Tourism Bureau
The city’s magnificent cathedral (above), third largest in the world after St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s (some say St. Paul’s doesn’t count because it’s not a Catholic church), is a short walk from the Alcázar. Of the 12th-century mosque that once stood on this site, all that remains is the tower beneath the belfry and the surrounding patio. The rest was replaced with the gorgeous golden Gothic structure one sees today although like the Alcázar, the cathedral blends historical styles from Renaissance chapels and paintings to Baroque organs. At its very top is a turning weathervane in the shape a woman, La Giraldilla (the turning one), who represents the triumph of Catholicism.
A climb up the winding stairway to the bell tower is rewarded with a panorama of red-tiled roofs on top of white stucco structures, golden towers, palm trees, plazas and gardens. Taller buildings are way off in the distance, the result of a law that prevents construction of any building higher than the cathedral. A happy consequence of this fiat is that the city’s historic ambiance is maintained, urban density is limited, and the many palaces, churches, public buildings and plazas – all located in the central district -- can be viewed with perspective.
Smack up against both the cathedral and Alcázar is Seville’s historic Jewish quarter, Santa Cruz. We exited the Alcázar directly onto a street where a man seated against a wall painted a deep shade of gold was playing traditional Spanish music on a guitar. The street sign on the wall read “Juderia,” even though there has been no Jewish community here since the anti-Semitic assaults of 1391. A few blocks away is the small and dim Santa Maria la Blanca Church that once had been a synagogue although nothing reminds the visitor of this former use. The narrow, winding byways of Santa Cruz are lined with art galleries, guest houses, and restaurants. The atmosphere is carefree; even on a January afternoon, people were sitting outdoors, enjoying coffee in the bright winter sunshine. But evidence of a previous Jewish life is nowhere to be found.
Still, some say haunting echoes of a Sephardic presence can be felt -- particularly in the barrio’s flamenco clubs. Scholars have commented on the intriguing connections between flamenco and the tragic fate of Spanish Jewry. The dance form took root after 1492, when those Jews who would not convert to Catholicism were exiled; it flourished underground in caves and other out-of-sight locales. Many flamenco melodies are like those of Hebrew prayers. And there are linguistic similarities like the Hebrew cantor (liturgical singer) and flamenco cantaor (singer), the Hebrew jalel (to encourage) and the flamenco jaleo (the hand-clapping and shouts of encouragement that accompany the dance), even the name flamenco (“Flemish” in Spanish) which was how Conversos (Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism) in Spain referred to the sacred music of their co-religionists who had emigrated to Flanders (modern-day Belgium) where freedom of worship was permitted.
Unlike other cities in Spain that are expending great effort to uncover and commemorate Sephardic history, perhaps most notably Gerona, Segovia, and Toledo, we saw no evidence of any movement in Seville to build a bridge to this intriguing aspect of its past. Bits and pieces remain like a street sign or the Hebrew inscription on Ferdinand’s massive tomb in the cathedral. But nowhere could we find mention of how the conquering monarch was presented with the keys to the city, inscribed in Hebrew, Arabic, and Castillian, by its Jews.
Marc Pendaries, the Belgian-born sales and marketing director of Seville’s Hotel Alfonso XIII, agreed not much attention is paid to Jewish history. “But,” he argued, “Seville is not a touristy town. And that is one of the things that makes it such a great city to visit. It’s so authentic. Go to a flamenco show. Sure, there will be tourists in the audience, but there’ll be at least as many local people. You won’t find identifying plaques on former synagogues, but you won’t find them on the many Roman remnants either. They recently came upon a big Roman ruin while digging for the subway that’s being built near the hotel. No one knew it was there.”
Few know the Santa Cruz Church was a former synagogue, but then again, it was demolished in the 19th century when Seville was briefly occupied by France, and by that time, its chief renown had long come from being the burial site of Bartolomé Murillo. To view one of the greatest collections of Murillo anywhere one need only take a 15-minute walk from the Santa Cruz area where the artist was born and spent much of his life to Seville’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The museum is located in a busy downtown section, set off a plaza shaded by palm trees and overlooked by a statue of Murillo atop a tall white pedestal. Originally the building was a convent built in the exaggerated Mannerist style of the early 17th century.
In the 1830s, as part of the nationalist movement, it was confiscated and filled with art that had been in convents and monasteries. Today it is a repository that straddles the centuries with outstanding examples of Spanish and European art whose collections are second only to the Prado among Spanish museums.
“You can feel the life of the convent here,” the art historian Alicia Caro Pérez told us as we entered through an archway lined with 16th-century tiled panels taken from Sevillian convents. Happily the original layout of this beautiful building was left intact. Its three patios are centers around which collections that include works by El Greco, Velásquez, Zurbarán, and Valdés Leal are organized, its magnificent staircase -- which has influenced staircase design throughout Latin America – remains as it was originally designed.
“During the Baroque period when Murillo painted, Seville was beset with cholera and plague,” Alicia said as we stood breathless in a room filled with works by Murillo and his pupils including the ethereal La Niña, with the swirl of cherubs surrounding the mother and child. “In 1649 alone, there were 60,000 victims; there would be dead people left on out the street every morning. This was the time the power of the church was very important, and artists’ main clients were the members of the church. Murillo was appreciated by the ecclesiastical institutions because his compositions with the little angels created illusions and beauty.
“At the same time,” she added, “his understanding of the psychology of those he represented gave comfort to the suffering and confidence in the state of the soul.” Seeing these works in a setting so close to where they were created and putting them into a context of time and place, the masterpieces radiated with additional meaning and power.
From the Museum of Fine Arts we walked in the direction if the Guadalquivir River where other works of Murillo are found at the Hospital de la Santa Caridad.
“The son of a rich tradesman, Miguel de Mañara, wrote a book called The Truth, Alicia told us, “in which he said the only way you can reach heaven is by performing acts of charity. He created this hospital for poor men who had no place else to go and helped complete construction of the adjacent Church of San Jorge. Both were furnished with the finest examples of Seville Baroque art and all relate to acts of charity and meditations on life and death.”
Standing in the small church surrounded by towering masterpieces created by such as Murillo and Valdés Leal, digesting images of Death extinguishing the flame of a candle with his hand and of the trials, hell and glory that follow death, the sunshine of Seville seemed very far away.
Ateneo de Sevilla
But it is the 21st century, and Baroque somberness and religiosity seem to have given way before a cheerful Latin temperament that is infectious particularly around festival times. The afternoon of the last day of our visit, we walked along the banks of the Guadalquivir River, the broad waterway that cuts through Andalusia from Córdoba to Cádiz, and came upon a crowd of young boys dressed in gowns of purple and white, some with little sheets of gold fabric covering their faces, others in black face. Some carried medieval-looking swords, others were blaring notes on trumpets. All were assembling for the long procession through the streets of Seville for the January 6th Festival of the Three Kings (above), more celebrated in Spain than even Christmas.
That night, we joined the throng walking across the bridge from the historic city center side of the city to the other side of the river, a neighborhood of modern apartment houses and shops set around a broad plaza. The crowd was enormous, and the mood was energized. There were teenagers, families with children, babies in carriages, grandparents too. People in surrounding apartment houses looked down from their balconies as peddlers wove their way through the throng selling great balloons in the shape of cartoon characters. Some people passed around pieces of the rosco de reyes (kings’ doughnut), a cream-filled ring traditional for this holiday. Others crowded into SRO cafes for beer and tapas. And everyone waited.
About an hour passed before the procession which had traveled throughout the city since early evening was spotted way down the avenue. As it slowly made its way to the plaza, the crowd surged in anticipation. Then it arrived: marching bands, colorful floats on flat bed trucks with people in costumes throwing packages of candy out to the crowd, the boys we had seen earlier in the afternoon blowing on their trumpets. It was a joyous mini Carnival as well as a fitting conclusion to our visit.
“NO8DO” Seville, lovely city of orange trees. We will never forget you.
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, and It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College in the MALS program. They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean.