"It is the smell of Seville", announced the charming saleslady as she spritzed perfume onto a sampler pad and handed it to me outside a little shop in Barrio Santa Cruz. She pointed to the trees and said:
"Made with the blossom of the oranges, and jasmine, like Coco Chanel."
It was a wonderful heady scent, and the lady was right – the essence of Andalusian orchards and Moorish jasmine did seem to perfectly sum up the spirit of Seville.
In Spring the sweet fragrance of the white blossom wafts through the city from the Alcazar's arabesque paradise gardens and the thousands of ornamental orange trees that border Seville's streets and squares. Even the vast chasm of Seville Cathedral is filled with the scent produced by the large orange orchard enclosed within its walls.
But I was visiting Europe's hottest city in June and, arriving around lunchtime, my strongest impression was of the blistering sunshine and heat rising in waves from eerily quiet streets. Wise locals had, of course, scurried inside for a siesta, but I wanted to make the most of my limited sightseeing time.
My curiosity was instantly piqued by Barrio Santa Cruz, at the very heart of Seville, which I didn't expect to be so olde-worlde and maze-like. Amid the puzzle of cobbled corridors and little tree-planted squares, I gazed longingly into the cool stone interiors and shady atriums of Santa Cruz's 17th-century houses.
It was a stroll with no specific goal so I followed my nose into a decent tapas bar – Bodega Santa Cruz. After an icy drink and a delicious chorizo flamenquin snack, I found myself on the edge of Santa Cruz staring across the Plaza de la Virgen de los Reyes at the giant proportions of Seville's gothic cathedral.
With the late-afternoon sun still beating down it seemed like a good time to seek solace inside the immense chambers of the world's third largest cathedral and climb the ramps of the tall, latticed stone Giralda bell tower that was once a minaret belonging to a 12th-century mosque. The elaborate ecclesiastical decoration was gaudy for my tastes but there is certainly something celestial about the immense columns and arches, and the ethereal golden glow of the domes and high vaulted ceilings.
Flashing past chapel-after-chapel within one enormous chapel, I sought out the cathedral's most famous features – the tombs of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella – before ascending the Giralda Tower for a birds-eye perspective of the area.
Brave new world
As well as a reminder of the Moorish influence on Seville, the cathedral evokes the powerful historical link between this city and the New World. Seville was the place where Queen Isabella sent Christopher Columbus on his voyages to the Caribbean and Latin America, and it was also the main port of call when the wealth started pouring in from the Indies.
The next morning I set out with a map along Seville's grand central avenues to see some of the renaissance results of this colonial bounty. My cheap and cheerful hotel, La Casa de la Luna in a narrow street of the old quarter, was so close to the Real Alcazar that I could hear the high-pitched cries of its resident peacocks. But my intention was to explore the most exposed outdoor spaces before the sun was high in the sky and then dive into the exotic rooms and shaded gardens of the Moorish Alcazar.
I was immediately struck by the splendour and extraordinary scale of the Royal Tobacco Factory that stretches the length of San Fernando. It was once the largest industrial building in Europe and today it's a vast temple to learning – the University of Seville. Its biggest claim to fame is as the fictitious workplace of Carmen, the title character from Bizet's opera.
Heading south past the former factory I discovered yet another dramatic place – Plaza de Espana – a wide paved half-moon terrace centred on a grand fountain and hemmed by a crescent-shaped waterway and colonnaded pavilion. I took my time admiring the size and symmetry of the building and the delicate tiled alcoves representing each of Spain's provinces.
The Plaza sits on the edge of Maria Luisa Park, which is dotted with other pavilions from the 1929 Expo, so after spying a few of these I continued my self-guided walking tour looping back north along the banks of the wide River Guadalquivir that keeps Seville well-watered despite the scorching sun. Here, the interesting 12-sided Toro de Oro, that the Moors built by the river in the 13th century, is a helpful landmark for navigating the city centre. Close by, you can board a boat tour along the river, but unlike London most of the notable buildings are out of sight of the water.
As a fairly recent convert to TV series Game of Thrones, I had seen glimpses of the Real Alcazar when it doubled as the Water Gardens of Dorne. To me the palace looked more Moroccan than Spanish, so learning that Spain's Catholic monarchs employed Moorish craftsmen to build it in the 14th century made perfect sense. The craftsmen must have done a good job because the ornate palace has survived the test of time remarkably well.
The intricate glazed tiling is still intact and the view from beneath the crenulated arches of the galleried courtyards is of a tropical garden utopia. Although I was far from alone in the palace, exploring between the lush orange groves, palms and exotic foliage, hearing the trickling fountains and springs from the bordered pathways of the Ladies Garden, was a totally soothing and tranquil experience.
Although it's situated to the very north of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood, the museum-house of Casa Pilatos is a great chance to glimpse behind the high walls and heavy doors of Seville's gorgeous renaissance mansions. Its sumptuous interiors are a beautiful example of classic Andalusian architecture with blue and white tiled walls, wedding cake plasterwork, heavy dark wood ceilings, and of course fountains and foliage in the colonnaded atriums.
A visit to Seville wouldn't have been complete without experiencing the passionate flamenco, so I decided to combine an early-evening visit to the Museo del Baile Flamenco, that has a live hour-long show starting at 7pm, with dinner in nearby Plaza del Salvador. The museum and square are both within a short walk of Seville Cathedral, so again I had the luxury of getting to know the city on foot. After spending an hour browsing the museum's exhibits I took a seat beneath the courtyard stage for a flamboyant whirl of fiery foot-stomping with singing and fancy guitar finger-work that was much more powerful and enthralling than expected.
The Plaza del Salvador, lined with orange trees, is an attractive setting for alfresco dinner and drinks. Pedestrianized like all good squares, it's enclosed by colourful traditional buildings with large windows and iron balustrades that match with the curling street lanterns. From my pavement table, I ogled the most monumental building – the Iglesia del Salvador – a robust and broad terracotta-and-cream church offset with circular windows, swirls, little turrets and stuccoed flourishes.
One of the wonderful things about a short break in Seville is the close proximity of all the city's main highlights. From my base in the old quarter I was able to walk everywhere and was a stone's throw from the Alcazar, Seville Cathedral and Barrio Santa Cruz – all of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In fact the furthest I strayed from this area was to visit Seville's oldest tapas bar – the charismatic El Rinconcillo dating from 1670 – and the city's newest landmark structure – Parasol Metropol.
Amusingly nicknamed "the mushrooms" by locals, a companion quipped that the architect must have been eating the "magic" variety when he designed it. Personally it reminded me of a huge chunk of honeycomb and the curviness was reminiscent of Gaudi. It was definitely worth making a detour for.
I travelled to Seville in the sweltering heat of summer, but the best time to go is probably early spring when the city is fragrant with white orange blossom flowers and the climate is more clement for strolling and sightseeing. That said, there are enough indoor attractions in the city to provide some respite from the midday sun.
It's fitting that Seville should share something in common with an iconic fashion house like Coco Chanel. I mused that, even without its signature scent, Seville's sophisticated, statement structures, fine detailing and creative flourishes, make it feel like a couture city... though I'm sure Paris would disagree.