Being a tourist is not the same as being a traveler or a member of a community. I will not be able to say that I know Paris after I’ve snapped photos of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. I am not living in Sevilla to check off a list of important buildings, but rather to integrate myself in the city as a true sevillana. However, sometimes touristy places can be a good starting point in a journey, if you use them to learn about the history and culture of a society rather than as a backdrop for a photo that makes your friends think you’re some cultured hipster. (Okay except listening to Spanish, French, and Italian music while running with Spanish monuments in the background totally makes me cultured, right? Haha.)
One of the reasons I chose this program in Sevilla is its proximity to the Arab world in North Africa and its rich history with the Islamic Conquest. Sevilla is the capital of the region Andalucía, which the Moors called al-Andalus, and it was one of the last major cities under Moorish control when the Europeans reconquered Europe. Relics of Moorish tradition abound in Spain, especially in the south—refurbished mosques and watch towers, architecture, gardens, even language. Did you know that a third of the Spanish language is derived from Arabic? (For example, the Spanish ojalá, which roughly translates to “I hope that, God willing…” comes from O Allah).
For my senior thesis at TCU, I am studying the integration of Muslim migrants in Western Europe and its effects on European foreign policy in the Middle East. Sevilla is no longer a Muslim hub, but it is the perfect city to uncover some background knowledge and enjoy the cultural fusion that recalls a historic period. Plus, as I travel around Europe this semester, I can observe attitudes towards Muslims in various countries firsthand, just to spice up my research a bit and make it personal. Yes, guys, I did indeed already ask a Spaniard who spoke pretty good English how to say “nerd” in Spanish. It’s empollón, in case you were curious.
All that to say, here is an array of “touristy” sights I’ve seen so far, some with Moorish history, others with a European Spanish flair and more modern history, all illustrative of a beautiful blend of cultures:
1. La Torre del Oro– The “Golden Tower” in English, la Torre del Oro is situated along the Guadalquivir River, which means I get to pass by it multiple times every single day to get to the main part of the city from my apartment (pretty neat scenery, eh?). La Torre del Oro is an old watch tower that was part of the wall that the Moors built around Sevilla. Now it is open to the public as a naval museum. Inside, you’ll find artifacts of Spanish colonial history, including canons; navigation equipment; paintings; and models of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa María. If you remember your second grade social studies lessons, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue…from Spain. Nowadays we recognize that colonialism can have some major long-term, not-so-positive consequences, but it’s still interesting to learn about.
2. Pabellones de la Exposición Internacional de 1999- The Giralda Center, where I took language intensives this past week, had a tour of los pabellones, the pavilions, one afternoon (aside: by “afternoon” I mean 5 PM..still getting used to that not being evening). Our guide told us that this exposition was planned for the beginning of the 1900s to relieve tension between Europe and the Americas. But then the Spanish-American War happened. Then World War I. And the Great Depression. And the Spanish Civil War. And World War II. And Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. So the Exposition was delayed all the way up to 1999. Participants included Iberia (Spain and Portugal) and some American countries, and each was supposed to have a display that showed what the country had to offer to the world, why it was valuable. We saw several of the pavilions on the tour, including ones for Sevilla, the US, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Guatemala.
3. La Catedral de Sevilla y La Giralda- La Giralda is the grand tower of the third largest cathedral in Europe. One night a couple friends and I visited and took photos from the outside and at the gate of courtyard, and we also went inside the sanctuary. The streets of Sevilla can be pretty loud at times, but it was amazing how silent the sanctuary was. There were plenty of tourists inside, but also a few people praying to saints or quietly reflecting in the pews. The other day we actually went inside to tour the cathedral, and I was amazed that such a massive structure with impeccable attention to detail was built in a time of way less-advanced technology. We climbed up the winding way to the top of the Giralda and were greeted with the most beautiful view of Sevilla. Just a warning, the bells do in fact function; I was a little jumpy after that.
While there is a major trend towards secularism in Europe, Catholicism remains an integral part of traditions, particularly in the south. It’s interesting to contrast European Catholicism with American Protestantism. In the US, even the most traditional churches seem fairly contemporary in contrast with the ornate historical cathedrals in Europe, which include relics of saints and holy objects that seem so far removed from Western modernity and traditions I’m used to. Sevilla is a major hub for la Semana Santa, Holy Week, but even still, Mary Alice told us that a lot of the celebration is revered tradition rather than religious devotion, which I find interesting in contrast with more zealous ancestors during the Inquisition. My host family does not regularly attend Mass, and I’ve been told that regular attendance is no longer common. Even though I’m not Catholic, I would love to attend Mass at some point this semester just to learn more about it. (If it wasn’t apparent before with my senior thesis topic, I think the relationships among religion, politics, and society are FASCINATING).
P.S. If you say you’re not Catholic, then your Spanish host mom may ask you with great concern whether or not you have a religion. Just a heads up if that’s a conversation you’d rather avoid.
4. La Plaza de Toros- La Plaza de Toros is the largest bullfighting ring in Spain. We just stopped by the outside yesterday afternoon (Monday tours are free so we’ll go inside later). Bullfighting is a revered and popular tradition, but young Spaniards are beginning to push back against it on animal rights grounds. Personally, it would trouble me to watch the bullfight and I do not plan on watching one. There is some cool architecture inside the arena that I’d like to check out, however.
5. La Plaza de España- After the tour of los pabellones, my friend and I went to the Plaza de España since it’s right next door. I’ve seen a lot of really cool things in Sevilla, but the Plaza was a whole new level of marvel. I don’t think I said anything other than “Oh, my God” for a good 10 minutes. The Plaza is a huge structure with a moat, fountain, bridges, and multiple levels of beautiful architecture that I’ve only begun to uncover. Tiled seating areas show intricate maps and names of various cities in Spain. I only saw one vender selling fans on the steps; other than that it was just people walking, talking, living. I saw a couple runners and have run there once myself, and it made me wonder if the sevillanos get used to all the beauty in their city or if they still marvel at it the way I do. My guess is they probably don’t take photos of random hotels just because the design is cool, but what about things like the Plaza de España? Hmm, no sé, I don’t know.
6. La Real Alcázar- A UNESCO World Heritage site, this palace and garden, once a Moorish fort, is insanely beautiful, huge, and right in the middle of the city next to a cathedral (talk about your religious pluralism!). Alcázar means “royal house” or “house of the prince.” Intricate tiles and engravings fill the walls, and the gardens are decorated with iron gates, fountains, and orange trees. Inside there’s an exhibit of 16th Century Moorish tiles and 18th Century ceramics. Everything about this place is amazing; I could spend hours here. (Aside: Marble floors are FREEZING. The things photographers do to capture a photo they want….)
Sevilla is a city of rich history; a melting pot of European, Mediterranean, and Arab cultures; and home to beautiful marvels that mark the unique character of the city. Words and photos only do so much to describe it. So if you have the opportunity, come explore Sevilla for yourself!