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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Between Fantasy and Fairytale: The Real Alcázar in Seville, Spain

I’m not eloquent enough a writer to be able to put into words just how incredibly special a place the Real Alcázar of Seville in Spain truly is. Sure, I could wax poetically about the intricate architectural details of the palace buildings or recount the genius behind the vast gardens that somehow manage to create an oasis of peace and tranquility right in the middle of the city, but nothing I can say could ever compare to experiencing it with your own senses.

Despite the flowery prose that is sure to await you in this post, I have to stress that I really do mean it when I say that the Alcázar is one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever visited: It is - quite simply put - so fantastical a place that doing anything, but dedicating an entire blog post to it, felt slightly blasphemous and so I figured there could be no better way for me to finally start recapping my travels to Spain last September.

Seville was the first stop on our trip through Andalusia and when my boyfriend and me arrived in Seville after a long day of flights and train rides, we were quite literally ready to just fall into bed. But since Spain was hardly the kind of place where you go to sleep early, we decided to resist the temptation of our comfy hotel bed and went out for a little evening walk instead.

I know no place that does summer evenings quite as well as Spain: Once the sun starts to set and the temperatures begin to drop, every town seems to awaken from a deep slumber and the streets quickly fill with people intend to make the most of life. Little children run about the squares, lost in their games, while the adults enjoy drinks in the many tapas bars that crowd the sidewalks and busy chatter fills the air with a contagious energy. Even as a self-proclaimed introvert I could hardly imagine a better place to be – and the cheerful atmosphere of the night made me excited for the days to come.

On the way back to our hotel, we chose a more quiet path and suddenly found ourselves face to face with the Real Alcázar for the very first time. No pictures and no words could have prepared me for this moment: Seeing this palace with my very own eyes and in the darkness of the night nonetheless, made the Alcázar look larger than life and I immediately felt mesmerized by the sense of history that seemed to permeate the air.

Big lights were casting an almost golden glow over the ancient walls surrounding the palace and the stark contrast between the deep black sky and the light shrouded the Alcázar in a veil of mystery. I could almost imagine the voices of old whispering their tales to the wind and see the shadows of the people who once inhabited this mighty residence flicker in the light and everything about the Alcázar seemed to beg me to come a little closer. Needless to say, we knew that we would have to retrace our steps first thing in the morning.

As frantic as Spanish evenings can be, as slow are the mornings. Except for a few shopkeers starting to set up their stores and some bright-eyed tourists strolling through the narrow alleys, the streets were virtually deserted and the sense of quietness lay over the town,  I relished in both the calm and the fact that I had been able to comfortably sleep in and when we reached the gates of the Alcázar just after it had opened at 9:30 am, we were pleased to see that the queue was still quite short and moving quickly.

It also helped that we were traveling during shoulder season and therefore missed both the worst of the crowds and the worst of the heat. The Alcázar was still quite busy, just as the rest of Andalusia, but not uncomfortably so and with temperatures around 30 °C each day, we still had plenty of occasion to wear our summer clothes. From what I have heard from others, the amount of visitors can get quite overwhelming during the high of summer, so do take this into consideration if this tends to bother you.

During the day, the Alcázar didn’t quite command the same secretive allure it had been enveloped in the night before, but I still couldn’t help, but think that it was quite possibly one of the most beautiful place I had ever visited. My boyfriend sometimes likes to point out that I’m not the kind of person that is easily impressed and while I don’t really think that this is completely accurate, it is true that I don’t tend to fall into enthusiastic praises as soon as I see an old building. The Alcázar, however, drew me in so much that I couldn’t stop gushing about it for the rest of our visit.

We took our time exploring the palace grounds, dipping into as many secluded courtyards as we could find, and kept marveling at the many intricate details decorating the rooms. The Alcázar was unlike any other place I had ever been to before and my senses almost struggled to absorb all these new impressions. I also kept on snapping pictures because everything was just so incredibly photogenic – could anyone blame me?

Like many other words in the modern Spanish language, the word Alcázar is of Arabic origin and refers to a palace or a fortress. While the first cornerstones of the Alcázar of Seville were laid as early as 913 and then further build upon during the Almohad Caliphate in the following centuries, most of what you can see today was only constructed after Seville became part of Christian Spain in the course of the Reconquista.

Even when Spain was a predominantly Christian nation again, Islamic influences continued to be popular in architecture for a very long time. Many of the most iconic buildings of the Réal Alcázar – including the Palacio de Don Pedro in the picture to the right – therefore may look reminiscent of classic Muslim architecture, but actually combine elements of both Christian and Islamic design in a style now known as Mudéjar.

Today, the Alcázar of Seville still functions as a royal palace when the royal family of Spain is in town and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with the Sevilla Cathedral and the Archivo de Indias for almost thirty years because of its significance for preserving our memory of medieval Spain.

For the most part, though, it is simply an awe-inspiring place in which you can easily get lost in for hours and where you can also seek a welcome respite from the harsh Andalusian sun, since the shade-filled rooms create a sort of natural air conditioning. And if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to get enough of all the geometric patterns and tall round arches that decorate the palace!

Eventually, we found ourselves in the gardens that make up most of the Alcázar’s plot and spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon wandering along the paths that were trailing through the vast park. It was easy to get away from the crowds that had slowly started to fill in over time and the further away we went from the palace buildings, the more quiet and peaceful it got.

We had heard many a person and guidebook rave about the gardens of the Alcázar and nobody had been too excessive in their praise. Gardens in Spain are simply nothing short of glorious: With brickstone walkways and little buildings and fountains popping up everywhere, they don't feel like mirages of nature in quite the same way as English countryside gardens do, but it is hard to think of any other word to better describe them than paradisicial. And the gardens of the Alcázar in Seville are especially lovely!

As impressive and significant for the history of architecture the buildings of the Alcázar may be, for me the gardens were the absolute shining star. Breathing in the sweet smell of the flowers reminded me of childhood visits to China, while seeing the palm trees rise above all the other plants instantly prolonged summer in my mind. If you disregarded the odd occasional sign of modern civilization, it also wasn’t too hard to imagine yourself away to Dorne in Game of Thrones.

We spotted orange trees whose fruits were still vibrantly green and tiny Pomegranate trees with even tinier pomegranates and occasionally the odd peacock would appear and gracefully trot away into a different direction. I could have easily stopped every five steps to take yet another picture, but at the same time I also wanted to savor the moment – a hard balance to strike in a place as stunning as the Alcázar!

If you love gardens and old palaces, a visit to the Real Alcázar should be your top priority in Seville. You can easily spend at least half a day exploring the area, depending on your propensity for photography, and I recommend heading there early in the morning to avoid long queues or having to rush later on. We only left once our stomachs made themselves known and when we figured we should probably try to see more of the city of Seville itself, but I am already looking forward to a day when I can visit the Alcázar again.

Have you been to the Alcazar of Seville before and have you been as blown away as I have?

Further Reading:

The Royal Alcazar in Seville, Spain on Simplicity Relished
The Absolutely Stunning Real Alcázar de Seville on The Wanderblogger
Official Website in English with Opening Times and Entry Fees


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