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“Where there’s a church there’s going to be a pub,” my father used to say, driving us home from Sunday afternoon outings in the countryside. He would scan the horizon beyond the fences and hedgerows for spires or bell towers; tell-tale signs of sleepy villages away from busy main roads. Sleepy villages, which, according to his logic, were required to have a pub tucked among their clusters of half-timbered cottages and redbrick houses. Not that my three sisters and I were on the lookout. Usually tired from shouting and chasing one another about, we couldn’t wait to get home. None of us were nearly old enough to drink alcohol. More often than not, while our parents sat inside enjoying themselves, we would be made to sit outside in the car. There we would squabble over a couple of packets of crisps and four bent straws sticking from the two bottles of lemonade we were expected to share evenly. I’m still not absolutely sure whether Dad’s sharing thing came out of naïve optimism, calculated cynicism or plain stinginess.
Things are slightly different in the La Macarena district of Sevilla. Whereas even the smallest plaza with a bar has a church, not every plaza with a church has a bar. Brought up under the guidance of a father like mine, you notice little things like that. Angelica and I were in the city during the busy holiday week of Corpus Christi. If the churches weren’t exactly overflowing, the bars certainly were.
The capital of Andalusia is just under two hours from Conil by bus. Yet, short of packing crocodile rifles, we were treating it as though we were going on an expedition up the Amazon. It’s so long since we’ve ventured far from the pueblo for more than a day, we got in a bit of a tizz. Sammy, the dog, had to be delivered to Susanna first. It was going to be a holiday break for him too. Not that he does much anymore. His days of chasing sticks are over. Not that he ever did chase them. He just looked up, as if to say, “I may be stupid but I’m not that stupid.” Ducks and chickens were more his line. Well, any sort of poultry really; cooked, uncooked or still running about. With Susanna’s sizeable chunk of land to gaze at, he could look forward to spending his days stretching his paws out on the patio. But now he’s almost twenty, he can only day-dream of chasing her ducks and chickens. Once he was settled in, we were off to hook up with my sister and her husband over from England. After a few days seeing the sights of Granada they were renting a flat in La Macarena.
Apart from being a song and a dance La Macarena is a barrio in Andalucia’s largest city, Sevilla. And speaking of chickens, which I was before interrupting myself, to judge by the racket, you could think the entire population of Sevilla shifts down the road to Conil for July and August. They are such a noisy bunch, to have them as neighbours over summer is like living next door to a henhouse constantly being raided by a skulk of ravenous foxes. Windows wide open; they spend sweltering nights yelling conversations at each other as they fight to be heard above TVs blaring out Mexican soaps. That’s whenever they’re not clapping their hands like tommy guns and falling about drunkenly to rowdy flamenco songs. They do like to enjoy themselves down Sevilla way, so with Corpus Christi in full swing we fully expected to bear witness to some righteous, if not riotous, times.
Most likely beginning life as a Tartessian settlement as long ago as 7,000 years, modern day Sevilla grew out of what was originally founded as the city of Hispalis under the Romans. At the end of the Roman era it fell into Visigoth hands, only to be conquered by the Moors at the beginning of the 8th century. That’s how it remained for the next 500 years till it returned to Christian rule following the Siege of Seville, which lasted from July 1247 to November 1248, when it yielded to the forces of Ferdinand III of Castile as part of what was known as the Reconquista. Exactly 200 years later, as the last Moors finally departed the Iberian Peninsula, began one of the darkest periods of Spanish history. The Spanish Inquisition was conceived in Sevilla when Dominican friar Alonso de Hojeda persuaded Queen Isabella of the existence of a secret adherence to Judaism by Jewish converts, during her stay in the city from 1477 to 1478.
Chequered histories have bequeathed Andalusian cities with their own unique style, and Sevilla is no exception. While the tall buildings of Cádiz possess certain majesty, the higgledy-piggledy anarchism of Sevilla serves as an accurate reflection of the city’s inhabitants. If Cádiz is the drawing room of an elderly aunt, Sevilla is the bedroom of her unruly young niece.
Graffiti is a common feature of many Andalusian urban areas and is very evident in La Macarena. Sometimes enlightening and entertaining, at other times it disfigures walls and doors, exacerbating impressions of decay and threat. All too often, it is a visual manifestation of underlying discontent and deprivation. Nevertheless, the barrio, once known as the poorest in all of Spain, is undergoing regeneration in the face of callous austerity. Most of the renewal is due to the creative endeavours of the barrio’s inhabitants, rather than from government grants, or loans from banks. Artists, dancers, designers and musicians have moved in, lending La Macarena a lively, exciting atmosphere. Music from pours from doorways of patios and studios, and shops flourish, as grassroots enterprises take root to fill the gaping financial chasms created by the failures of endless bureaucracy and bloated big business. New cafés, bars, boutiques and restaurants are springing up everywhere, all offering alternatives to the shackles of chain stores and the weary familiarity of greasy fast-food outlets. Many have incorporated graffiti into their public image creating entire façades using graffiti artists, as they realise the advantage of adopting the form, instead of fighting it. Some residents have cheered up boring garage doors with colourful images and pictures. This if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em attitude seems to discourage unwanted tags and scrawls to a certain extent. There is a feeling of renaissance in the air particularly around the appropriately named calle Feria, which translates as market in this case, but can also mean carnival or holiday. As well Sevilla’s oldest covered market for fresh meat, fish and vegetables; calle Feria also plays host to bric-à-brac stalls on Thursday mornings. Unfortunately, Angelica and I were due to leave the day before. And I love bric-à-brac markets so much I won’t go to heaven unless it has one. Perhaps, I’m jumping the gun a bit there.
Sevilla also happens to be the hottest city in Europe. It steams. And I don’t mean hottest in the sense of most fashionable. Summer temperatures regularly break the 40º C barrier, and while we were there they were heading that way. Corpus Christi is a week for celebration. There were religious processions for the pious and rock concerts for the impious.
With so many tapas bars and restaurants to choose from, we were all eager to dig in. Like you might expect, quality varies from one extreme to the other, and it’s not just based on whether the locations look nice and how many diners are seated at tables. That’s the first mistake we made when happening upon a delightful little plaza of three restaurants with chairs and tables arranged in the centre. Nearly all were taken, so we swiftly snapped up one of the last two tables vacant, as though our luck was in. It was out. Served with jaded indifference the food tasted as if it all had been marinated in the same lukewarm, rancid oil for a couple of days before being cooked in old fat just hot enough to dip your hand in without it getting scalded. We left feeling slightly queasy and very disappointed. Makes you wonder why we felt it so necessary to make a show of eating it. We must be just as daft as all the other tourists.
Never mind, over the following days we found three excellent locations to pig out.
Though the claim is disputed by the Dominican Republic, the bones tomb of Christopher Columbus are reputed to rest in a tomb in Sevilla’s famed cathedral. The name E. Morales may not be quite as well-known as that of the Genoan sailor, who discovered America, but the tapas served at his bar have a reputation unsurpassed among locals and wayfarers alike. Not far enough away from the famous cathedral and the Alcázar to be entirely off the tourist trail, given that Sevilla is a very popular destination, Casa Morales is far enough away not to get swamped by the sort of tourists, who shove an elbow into your vacant tapas regions while sticking a camera lens up your nose. A traditional bar popular with Sevillanos, the tapas are delicious, marred only by the slightly doughy bread used for the montaditos. No matter, we managed to wolf a board of them washed down by glasses of manzanilla, an Andalusian fino.
You don’t get so many tourists straying too far down the shady lanes and alleys of La Macarena in search of a place to eat. Its slightly threatening air dissuades the less adventurous. And that’s just one of the things that makes it so special. For a brilliant pizza, at an eminently affordable price, El Nómada on San Marcos plaza right in the heart of the barrio is the venue. Baked in an old-fashioned open oven, the pizzas are of the no-nonsense, traditional type. Sitting across the road at a table outside the church of San Marcos, we shared a London made with pepperoni, onions and meat, and a Margherita with tomato, mozzarella and basil. Helped down by a couple of bottles of excellent Rioja.
I complained of my allergy, saying they bring me out in a rash of pus-oozing boils revolting enough make onlookers vomit. Angelica said she can’t help scratching her eyeballs till they bleed at very the sight of them. After trying every excuse we could thing of to avoid hooking up with the herds of tourists heading for the Alcázar, in the end we relented, joining the queue to enter Seville’s biggest attraction, for the sake of our guests. After all, they had flown all the way from England to see stuff like that. Not that the Alcázar isn’t impressive, and well-worth taking a peek, I just wish everybody else would keep away while I’m there. At least we didn’t have to wait too long.
Built mainly during the 1300s as a palace for Moorish kings, the Spanish royal family still use it as a hang out when they’re in the city. It’s a long haul on a hot day and we missed lots of bits out. Though my sister’s husband did his best to persuade us, none of the rest of us fancied the cathedral after that. From the outside, it looks so much like something dreamt up by Bram Stoker, it’s almost scary. Luckily, it was sunny on the day we saw it. I shudder to think what it might seem like looming out of a damp, grey mist on a cold winter’s morning. Instead of suffering more obligatory tourism, we went for the more voluntary type with a second visit to Casa Morales to sample a few more tapas and a couple of finos. I introduced my sister and brother-in-law to chicharrones. Available in many grocers and butchers shops, as well as tapas bars, the small pieces of fatty pork, fried to a crisp, are one the of the most moreish Spanish tidbits you will ever taste.
The stylish, and popular, Restaurant Contenedor is also in La Macarena. Having noticed it earlier in the afternoon, we were lucky enough to get a table on our last evening without having to book. The adventurous menu is written on a large blackboard brought to the table. Service is exceptionally good with both staff and management eager to please. There was live jazz the evening we went, played at a relaxing tempo on saxophone accompanied by electric guitar.
Next morning had us flopping onto the bus back to Conil like a pair of battleweary troops, our whirlwind tour of Sevilla having worn us out. Angelica slept for most of the journey, as I watched great fields of golden sunflowers flash by. Great place to go for a few days, try it.
Copyright © 2015 Bryan Hemming
El Morales (Casa Morales) 11, Calle García de Vinuesa
El Nómada, Plaza San Marcos
Restaurant Contenedor 50, calle San Luis.
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