I fell in love with Seville a lot more than I had expected to. The three months I spent there were filled with churros, sunshine (and rain), wandering around the city after work, exploring other places around Andalucía and meeting new friends. As part of the Erasmus+ work placement programme I was on, a historical walking tour was organised for us so we could get to know the city better. While I tend to avoid organised tours when travelling, I loved hearing about the history of Seville in greater detail. A lot of what these local guides tell you can’t be found in Lonely Planet.
Here are some of the stories that stuck with me the most.
If there is anything more representative of Seville’s long history than La Giralda, good luck finding it. The bell tower with its distinctive facade and the woman who sits on top watching over us all is an emblem of the city. You can catch glimpses of it through the narrow streets from almost anywhere. The changes wrought on Seville are written in its stones. It’s a history book, you just need to know how to read it.
Start from the bottom and work your way up. The large sandy-coloured blocks that make up the foundations were originally from Roman temples in the area. Seville may have started before the Romans, probably around the 8th century CE, but the Romans left the first big impression. So it’s only fair La Giralda starts with the Romans too. Soon the large blocks turn to thin bricks, a sure sign you’ve reached the Moorish part of the tower. Built in the 12th century, the tower formed part of the grand Mosque, being its tallest minaret. By the time the Christians came to reconquer their city, four hundred more years had passed. The mosque became a cathedral, but even the Christians could see the tower was too important to tear down. So they kept it, and like many so-called “Christian” buildings or places, they simply claimed it as their own, adding the top section with its intricate decorations and bells. Last, but certainly not least, the statue was added – the lady, shield in one hand, palm leaf in the other, who stares out over the city. Interestingly, she’s not actually a statue. She’s a weathervane. If you pay close attention (and have amazing eyesight), you may notice she’s facing a different way each time you walk past. It’s where her name (and thus the name of the tower) comes from: La Giralda, “the spinner”.
Interesting fact: climbing La Giralda is easier than it looks, as there are no stairs inside until you reach the top. The Muslim Amman, leader of the faith, had to climb the tower five (check) times a day to call out the prayers. He did not feel like climbing that tower each time, so instead of steps there are actually ramps so he could ride his horse up instead. I’m still trying to decide if that’s insanely clever or incredible lazy.
The story of Susona
Next to the Alcazar lies Barrio Santa Cruz, the city’s Jewish Quarter. Turn down a small laneway called Calle Susona and you might notice a small plaque tucked away in a corner. Inscribed on it is the last wish (or warning) of Susona, a young girl who lived in the neighbourhood in the late 15th century. Her family, though originally Jewish, had been forced like all the rest to convert to Christianity, a conversion that for many was only superficial. Susona fell in love with a Christian boy (isn’t that always how it goes?). One night, on that very corner, she overheard her father and a group of other men plotting to riot against the Christians of the neighbourhood, who, they claimed, had been oppressing them for too long (probably true). Terrified for her lover and his family, she reported her father and the other men. Along came the Spanish Inquisition to round them up. Until that point, the Inquisition had merely tortured and imprisoned those who were found guilty of crimes against the Christian faith (a very broad spectrum). But they decided to step up their game with Susona’s father and his compatriots, who became the first fatal victims of the Spanish Inquisition in Seville.
So what happened to Susona? Did she get her happily ever after? Unfortunately, this isn’t that kind of story.
Susona went back to her lover, who promptly rejected her on the basis that he could never trust anyone who betrayed their family in the way she had. The ingratitude. Heartbroken and filled with regret, Susona confined herself to her house. She requested that upon her death her head be removed from her body and hung on that fateful corner as a warning to others to never betray their families as she had. It is said the skull hung there for two hundred years before being removed and replaced with the plaque you see today. Personally I wish they’d left the skull, but maybe that’s just me.
The Burning of the Jewish Quarter
Remaining in the Jewish Quarter, you might be surprised to learn that the buildings surrounding you are not hundreds of years old, as you might expect, but far more recent than that. The entire neighbourhood was burned and abandoned for many years before being restored. Here’s what happened.
There’s nothing like the Middle Ages to prove just how stupid humanity can be. This was before the enlightenment, before scientific thinking became a positive trait and not a sign of the devil, and before the church’s grip on the people began to lessen.
The Jewish tradition holds personal hygiene to be of great importance, so within this closed-off neighbourhood, people regularly bathed (well, more regularly than the Christians anyway) and hand washing was a normal thing. This meant disease (including the Black Death only 40 years previously) had a much harder time spreading between people, so in general there was a much lower death toll. But of course medieval Christians couldn’t connect the dots and made the astounding leap that the Jews had made a pact with the devil to not only keep disease away from them, but to spread it through the good, saintly Christians. Together with decades of anti-Jewish resentment that had spread throughout Spain and Europe, by 1391 tensions were at a boiling point. So these good, saintly Christians, fueled by passionately Jew-hating priests, attacked the Jewish quarter, rioting and burning, and killing over 4000 of the people inside, forcing the rest to convert to save their lives. While the neighbourhood survived with its newly-”converted” inhabitants, the quarter slowly decayed until it was little but a ghetto. Renewal projects were put in place in the 18th century, but much of what you see now is as a result of restorations made in preparation for Seville’s Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929.
While the buildings are (relatively) new, the streets and alleys remain the same. To preserve the essence of the quarter, the reconstruction stuck to the exact layout of the streets and squares, keeping those narrow lanes and pretty plazas. So while the walls around you may not be original, the twists and turns you make as you explore are straight out of history.
Walking around Seville, you’d have to be blind not to notice this symbol: NO8DO. It’s everywhere, from buses to buildings, under your feet and over your head. It’s the motto of the city, and it has an interesting story. And no, that’s not a number 8 or an infinity symbol.
King Alfonso X, known as ‘The Wise’ was the ruler of Castille in the 13th century. Unfortunately for him, in those days military prowess was a more desired quality in a leader than book smarts (that age-old battle between testosterone and brain cells). Alfonso had far more of the latter than the former, which ironically made him a much better ruler, not that his court could see that. His second son, Sancho, started a bloody civil war to assert his right to be heir instead of his late older brother’s infant children (woah, that sounds complicated). Alfonso sent out a cry for help to all the cities under his rule. Seville was one of the only ones to respond. Alfonso was eventually defeated, dying in the city in 1284. The legend goes that to thank them for their loyalty, the king had the famous symbol installed all over the city. The puzzle-loving king had the last laugh with this one, as it’s actually a pun. That infinity-symbol look-alike is a skein of wool, in Spanish called a ‘medeja’. So to read it aloud it says NO MEDEJA DO, or no me ha dejado, roughly translated as “it (the city of Seville) did not abandon me”.
Seville was Europe’s gateway to the New World, with a huge influx of exotic goods flooding the city. One of the most important new imports was tobacco. You can clearly see how important it was from the size of the Royal Tobacco Factory, the second largest building in Spain and now home to the University of Seville. The building, dating from the 18th century, employed thousands of workers, first male only, with the workforce becoming almost entirely female when the owners realised women could roll better cigarettes with their smaller, dainty fingers.
These girls became known as cigarerras. Their reputation was not that of upstanding citizens; other citizens looked down on them, eschewing them from society, especially because many of the girls belonged to the Roma gypsy population of Spain. They lived in the factory, many raising children as they rolled the tobacco. The most famous cigarrera is of course the fictional Carmen, the ill-fated seducer of the renowned opera, itself set in the Sevillian factory. With the low wages, the girls could not afford decent clothing, so they used the silk material the tobacco was packed in. This gave rise to the colourful gypsy costumes known all over the world. I’ve always been fascinated with the gypsy culture, so to step foot in such a historic part of their story was incredible.
Obviously these are just a few of the stories that make up the vibrant tapestry of Seville’s history. But I think it’s important to know a little more about these places than just the pretty facade you take a quick snap of before moving on to the next attraction. There are plenty more stories from Seville – would you be interested in reading about those as well?
Which was your favourite story and why? Tell me in the comments below!
This is a new series I’m starting where as well as blogging about places to visit and things to do there, I’ll also write about some of the stories and legends I hear while I’m there.
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.