Special Report: The Travel Convention preview

Special Report: The Travel Convention preview

Listen: Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer discusses the themes of this year’s Travel Convention in Seville and answers questions from agent readers in the Travel Weekly podcast

Seville hosts next week’s Travel Convention. Ian Taylor urges delegates to see some of the city

Dive into Seville’s history with a tour of the Alcazar

Hanging out in Seville is a pleasure in itself but visitors should try to take in a sight or two – one of which should be the Alcazar, or royal palace.

In fact, the Alcazar comprises three palaces, built at different times at the behest of the Christian kings of Spain, and one of which expresses a remarkable fusion of medieval Christian and Moorish art.

Seville lay at the centre of the Islamic Moorish empire of Spain from the 8th to the 13th centuries and the Alcazar was originally the site of a Moorish palace and subsequently a military citadel. Following the ‘reconquest’ by the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Leon in 1248 the citadel was converted into a royal palace.

The first, Gothic palace was largely destroyed by the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt in baroque style.

The second palace, the palace of Peter I, was built from 1364 in a hybrid Moorish-Christian style. It expresses the cultural integration of the time before the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition more than 100 years later and the fall of the last Moorish city Granada near the end of the 15th century brought a new era of intolerance and repression.

But in the 14th century, the Muslim caliph of Granada sent craftsmen to work on the palace. In the royal bedroom, Arabic script around the room declares “Glory to the great king Philip I, may Allah protect him and deliver him great victory”, repeated as a mantra.

Alongside Christian and Islamic motifs, six-pointed stars represent Judaism – combining the three great religions of the city in the fabric of the palace.

Between these, a third palace – known as the House of Trade – dates from the 16th century and was built as the centre of the Spanish empire’s commerce with the ‘New World’ at a time when Seville was the empire’s greatest port.

It includes the room from which the Portuguese explorer Magellan organised the first trip around the world, and the Chapter House used to plan the expeditions of Spanish galleons to the Americas and routes to avoid English pirates.

Outside, the beautiful palace gardens – laid out in Islamic style – were used as a backdrop for the Game of Thrones series.

Together, the Alcazar, the cathedral and the 16th-century Archive of the Indies close by, comprise a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Size up the splendour of Seville’s huge cathedral

Seville Cathedral has two striking features. The first is its size – it’s the biggest Gothic cathedral and one of the three biggest cathedrals in the world, alongside St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome.

The second is the cathedral bell tower, the Giralda. The brick-built minaret of the mosque which previously stood on the site, the Giralda is the most-beautiful building in Seville.

The Spanish conquerors of the city in the 13th century converted it into the cathedral bell tower, merely adding the bells. They also preserved the Courtyard of Orange Trees (Patio de los Naranjos) which formed part of the mosque.

In fact, initially, they retained the entire mosque, converting it into a cathedral. But the structure was damaged by a subsequent earthquake and replaced by the Gothic cathedral on which work began in the 15th century. The cathedral was completed in just over 100 years, although its final form belongs to the 19th century.

The Giralda is worth ascending both to appreciate the building and for the views of the city it offers from the top. Rather than the narrow steps inside most minarets – and medieval towers – the ascent of the Giralda is via ramps wide enough for mounted horses to pass one another.

Inside the cathedral lies the tomb of Christopher Columbus, whose remains – there is some dispute as to whether they are authentic – were moved from Cuba in 1902. This is also the burial place of Hernando Colon, second son of Columbus, who amassed a great library that is housed in the cathedral complex.

Seville Cathedral’s altarpiece is the largest and ‘richest’ in the world, with the wood carving adorned with two tonnes of gold shipped from the Americas. The detail is extraordinary, right down to the cuticles of the fingernails of figures even at a height where such detail is barely visible.

The cathedral is home to works by the 17th century baroque painter Murillo, who was bornin Seville, while its two baroque organs are considered among the best in the world.

Feel the fervour of flamenco by watching a show

Seville was a birthplace of flamenco, along with Jerez and Cadiz, and home to many of the extended Gitano families from which flamenco’s greatest artists have come.

Anyone with time would do well to visit the city’s flamenco museum (Museo del Baile Flamenco), founded a decade ago by Christina Hoyos, one of the greatest flamenco dancers of the modern era.

Flamenco originated among the Gitanos (‘Gypsies’) who were largely ostracised from Spanish society but who earned a living performing in the cafes and bars of Seville, Jerez and Cadiz in the 19th century. Some of the best flamenco venues retain elements of these bars with small wooden stages for a singer, dancer and guitarist.

Flamenco’s popularity later extended beyond Andalusia when tourism developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Gripping in its passion and intensity, flamenco witnessed in the right venue can be utterly unforgettable. The museum presents daily performances.

Explore the former Jewish quarter of Santa Cruz

Close by the Alcazar and cathedral lies the oldest district of Seville, the former Jewish quarter of Santa Cruz.

Once the intellectual heart of the city, Santa Cruz was protected by the crown in the first centuries of Christian rule. But the walls built to protect the quarter became the walls of a ghetto following the Inquisition in the late 15th century. Today, Santa Cruz’s narrow streets are wonderfully atmospheric.

The city beyond is equally pleasurable to wander. Most major sights are on the north bank of the Guadalquivir river, but there is at least one area to the south worth exploring – Trianna, which lies between two of the central bridges.

This was the Gitano area where the great families of Sevillian flamenco came from. Many of the families were driven from the area by developers at the end of the 20th century, but Trianna remains worth visiting and Betis – a street of glorious, coloured houses on the southern bank – is unmissable.

The convention venue and main hotel, the Barcelo Sevilla Renacimiento, lies just across the river to the south of the city centre. If there is a time, a boat trip on the Guadalquivir is worthwhile. There is a departure point close by the venue. Ask the hotel for details.

Listen: Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer discusses the themes of this year’s Travel Convention in Seville and answers questions from agent readers in the Travel Weekly podcast

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