The stories of a couchsurfer

Sevilla: A step up, or a step down?

Plaza de España

Reentry to Spain. The country that had left a fairly negative mark on my travels when it was last departed. Between then and now, Portugal had made things even worse by reminding how easy travel can be when systems are well organised and the language isn’t such a barrier.

The next city on the itinerary became Sevilla (or Seville in English). This was the logical step due to it’s proximity to Lisboa yet although it was relatively close to it, there are no train lines that serve between Portugal and Sevilla and instead the bus was taken.

Sevilla failed the first test (or rather, I failed the first test of Sevilla) before it was even experienced. No Couchsurfers were found in the large town. This didn’t do anything to raise my expectations that Spain and my feelings towards it would change now that I’m in the more southern parts. It was Salamanca – the last place I was in before arriving in Portugal – that was the last place not to have produced a Couchsurfer for me, and now the first place on the itinerary after Portugal was unable to either.

Sevilla is notoriously difficult to navigate around, and I had heard warnings from various people that I had met about this when I told of my plans to visit Sevilla. Because my French phone internet doesn’t work outside of France (another unexpected European quirk), it meant that I was without the handy services of Google Maps to assist in finding my way. So the plan was to obtain a map at the bus station and figure out directions to my hostel using it. Yet this wasn’t a successful one, as the bus station didn’t even provide a simple map of the city. So I wandered around seemingly aimlessly in a general direction, knowing only the address of the place and a few main streets that it was close to. The streets were surprisingly quiet for Spain at around eleven at night so there weren’t too many people to ask and I couldn’t for the life of me find a map anywhere. Then, by sheer luck, I found a McDonalds which, presumably for favours of not being able to provide decent food, provide free internet. It turned out my general direction was pretty good and the hostel was just around the corner.

This would be the only time that my innate sense of direction would prove fruitful. Over the course of the next few days I continuously lost myself in an attempt to either get back to my hostel, to the train station or to any other sight I was looking for.

Sevilla is organised chaotically. The streets are very rarely ever simply straight and in the old city limits they become suddenly narrow and then cut off, either by a dead end or by the various squares that are littered throughout the town. It bemuses as to why it has been designed like this, as the geography that it lies on is very flat and it could have easily been designed with a series of crossing streets. Although it caused confusion when attempting to go anywhere, it was actually quiet enjoyable and more novel than the standard, more modern, model of city design. It created a deep sense of adventure where hidden secrets lurked around every corner. Those sometimes tiny squares that were mentioned are a joy to discover and there is always something worth seeing in the town.

The downside to it (besides getting lost when needing to get somewhere) is that incredibly car traffic is allowed on these streets, which are barely even wide enough to accommodate them. It means that pedestrian travel is inconvenient. Footpaths mysteriously disappear halfway along the road and then a car comes and you have to push yourself up against a wall to ensure it can get past. Other cities remedy this by not allowing car traffic and only scooters or by only allowing local traffic to pass, such as in Montpellier. Not in Sevilla, though.

Sevilla has many sights to see. Grab a tourist brochure and it will be stocked up with monuments or buildings worth visiting. But there’s also other things in the town worth visiting that won’t be on the brochures, seemingly forgotten of their beauty. Sevilla contains loads of buildings that don’t really serve a special purpose but are incredibly stunning for their colours and design, and these could be explored for a full day.

That’s not to say the more popular sites aren’t worth visiting. The cathedral, while nowhere near as impressive as that displayed in Salamanca, is still worth seeing. Again, the interior disappoints and it seems it’s a trend in these Spanish lands to ensure that the exterior is visually stunning and not worry too much about the interior.

Fitting, perhaps.

Next, there’s the Alcázar of Sevilla, a royal palace built at the time that much of Spain was under Islamic rule. Not knowing too much about Spain and it’s history beforehand, this was a surprise to me to learn that Spain had been for a large part of it’s history a Muslim state, but one that co-existed with Christianity amongst others. The Alcázar is paid for entry and at around eight euro it’s probably worth it, if only just. The gardens are not that spectacular but the architecture throughout is a sight to see. I’m writing this a few weeks after the visit and can say that if you’ve already visited other Alcázar or Alhambra throughout Spain, Sevilla’s is not going to be the best, but if it is the first one that you are seeing (as was my case), it’s worth seeing.

Instead perhaps continue on down to what perhaps is, to this point, the single most stunning thing I have seen in my European trip so far. Meeting people is my favourite thing about travel but the second favourite would be visiting those sites that you may not have even heard about (example Sintra) or perhaps know a little about but haven’t done much research and just being blown away with awe.

This happened to me with the Plaza de España, a monumental building reserved for government departments to do their work and a kind of dedication to the country of Spain. Each major city in Spain has one, but Sevilla’s would have to be the most impressive. An arched, red building curves around to create a semi circle, producing perfect symmetry across a hemisphere. At each terminus lies two large towers that are generally the first thing seen from afar. The building itself provides the perimeter of the hemisphere and just interior to it is a canal that follows it along. This means there are a series of bridges, beautifully decorated that span from the building to the interior of the plaza where a large, open, tiled space awaits. In the centre is a grand fountain that spits water metres high and completes the symmetry.

It’s incredible to think that this building is essentially an office, and people work and do their business here every day. That doesn’t stop the attraction of tourists though (in fact, it ensures it’s free entry) and there will be a lot of them, but not so much as to completely overcrowd you. The site is large enough to provide space for all.

This is something that will never be forgotten and will remain a favourite for a long time. For all the faults Sevilla might have, they seem to all be forgiven with the presence of this one, sublime structure.

And the faults of Sevilla do exist. For all that it seems incredible, it is a step down from Lisboa and indeed Portugal. The lack of helpful signage continues to be a problem and in a city where the streets twist and curve and end suddenly this can make for a lot of problems. If you’re planning to get to the train station one day, for example, perhaps do the route the day before, just to ensure you know of any pitfalls.

The people and their mentality had not changed much either. Not finding a Couchsurfer was just a sign of things to come. Although Sevilla attracts it’s fair share of tourists, it doesn’t really seem to accommodate them.

Service is not of the highest quality and again it appears that people lucky enough to hold jobs don’t appear passionate enough to keep them. I even went into an Irish pub there – the Merchant for those of you interested – and got bad service there from an Irishman. Perhaps the mood of the city is beginning to rub off on everyone else.

Ultimately I’m glad I visited Sevilla – if not only to experience the Plaza de España – but I was also glad to finally leave the place to and become one step closer to France.

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