Savoring Sevilla

 

Sevilla is a moveable feast, a feast for the senses. The air smells of oranges and incense and garlic, and something indefinable that is probably tapas cooking at the neighborhood bar—tapas that you can purchase with just the change in your pocket. The buildings are a riot of architectural styles and colors, tied together with tiled patios to peer in, wrought iron balconies that speak of warm nights and tendrils of wind, grassy roofs, and Moorish embellishments. And from one neighborhood to another, there are trees full of glossy leaves with vibrant oranges like wacky March Christmas trees with bright orange decorations.The early spring light is vivid and shifting as the sun ducks behind clouds, creating a moodiness that is swept clear in the next moment by the sun's triumphant return.

A feast for the soul. I'm thinking of flamenco music and dance, certainly, but something more. Everywhere there is the sound of of people talking, laughing, sharing, connecting. Strangers are welcomed in a way I've always equated with slow, small town life. Not as fancily dressed as other European cities, most women are fresh-faced—the people are casually and effortlessly present to life. English is spoken less here than in any other European city we've traveled to, and even when people speak English, they will answer in Spanish if you begin with Spanish, no matter how bad that Spanish is. They nod like they understand and keep the conversation going past the point of necessity, with smiles and openness. They are patient, and kind. Warm beyond reason.

And of course there was the food—consistently amazing, whether in a restaurant, or displayed at shops or markets, or tantalizing us with scents from open windows. The foods took us aback with the variety, the color, the ingenuity. Shopping for food, or just shopping at all (even in the pharmacy), was a way to connect with the flavor of the city and the people lucky enough to live and work in this vivid place. And so to give my readers a window into how we savored Sevilla, I'll dedicate this first Spain post to those moments of transaction.

I can't write about marketing and connections without first writing about Pepe. We chose to rent Pepe's apartment because of the number of reviews that raved about Pepe as a host. We debated renting another apartment that was bigger and slightly fancier, but then Keith wondered aloud, "If we were coming to Spello for the first time, would we want to stay in a huge and fancy apartment or a great apartment with Angelo to greet us?" Well, that sealed the deal—we opted for Pepe's—and I think it was positively providential that we did, because otherwise our trip would not have been the same. The apartment was perfect, and he gave us a walking tour of his wonderful neighborhood the first night that ended in sharing tapas and beers together.

Later that night, Pepe brought over a bottle of his father's sherry, as he has turned to winemaking in his retirement. We saw photos of the vines and the bodega, and talked to Pepe about his thoughts of bringing tours to his father's sherry-making operation. I can see this being a delightful addition to a trip to Sevilla, and I hope he begins to offer this possibility to guests. Sherry is part of the culture here, and though I am no expert, I really enjoyed the bottle we made too-short work of. Visiting a farm, seeing how the wine is made, particularly if it means spending time with this family, would be a wonderful part of a visit to Sevilla. We met his family accidentally as we were wandering around looking for breakfast one morning, and stumbled upon where they were congregating. They encouraged us to join them at Bar La Esquinita, and we were swept up in the joyousness that is this family. His father was beside himself with happiness that we enjoyed his sherry and wanted to talk about its aromas, and when Pepe told his mother that Nicolas wanted to stay in Sevilla, she thought for a moment and said maybe she'd keep him—as perhaps she'd do a better job raising him than she did with Pepe. The kind of thing that can only be said well in a family with so much love, that there is extra seeping out the edges. Pepe roared with laughter and hugged his mom. His parents left with hugs and kisses, as Pepe and his girlfriend were taking them to their flight to the Canary Islands, and his dad picked up our tab. To our incredulity.

We had arrived in Spain intent on eating plenty of churros, and found that our favorite ones were at Bar La Esquinita (Pepe told us their secret is potato). Other delicious ones were at the one-room shop Pepe showed us on our first night—a shop that actually sells fresh churros in the morning, and then fried fish in the evening along with rotisserie chicken. We enjoyed them in the glorious Plaza San Lorenzo, a plaza that quickly became our favorite—probably because it was around the corner from our apartment, so we were able to experience its activity at different times of the day, and felt how it was a central part of the community. From weekday mornings when suited adults filed through the plaza on their way to the bar for their cup of cafe con leche and a roll with a tiny bottle of olive oil nestled beside it, to early evenings when young children played soccer while their parents went into church, to late nightswhen a concert in one of the churches could be heard throughout the neighborhood, and the people stood outside the open doors to better hear the music. This plaza was always alive, and any opportunity we had to munch on churros while we watched our children play amongst the Spanish children, we grabbed with gusto.

 

Our first visit to a market was the Feria market, and it was here that we all began our love affair with Sevilla. I challenged the children to each find something they'd never seen before, and it was all too easy. Unusual mushrooms, something that looked like feathery asparagus, giant green squash, among all the other vibrant, intriguing produce. As usual, we were fascinated by the fish vendors. I think Siena figured out why—they have the curiosity and intrigue of a butcher stand, but without the blood to make us squeamish. We purchased a kilo of jewel-like strawberries, a bright bunch of radishes, bread, donuts with anise, a can of pistachios from a vending machine, and cheese. I hadn't planned on getting cheese, but when I was investigating the display case, a woman began talking to me about what cheeses she liked, how they were all delicious from this stand, that the ham was also a good bargain. I was surprised by how readily she began talking to me, and this was my first of many experiences with Sevillan people who want to connect, and aren't at all troubled by the language barrier. I struggled with Spanish and she, and others, waited patiently while I got out a sentence that I can best describe as Spitanglish (A broken mixture of Spanish, Italian, and English), and then she would respond like I had said nothing odd at all. I was thrilled that I was able to summon enough Spanish to ask that the cheesemonger to slice our cheese, and he was thoughtful enough to first cut the rind off. Places to sit are harder to come by than I envisioned, but luckily Keith recollected how close we were to Alameda de Hercules, so we went there to enjoy our spoils. High on our first marketing triumph, Nicolas went into a shop to buy a bottle of water with his handful of Spanish words, and returned victorious. After our feast, the children played on the playground structure, serenaded by two guitar players jamming on a nearby bench. Welcome to Spain...can we stay forever?

The market in Triana was similarly wonderful, but clearly older, as each stall had the name of the vendor in beautiful tile bannered across the top. We found out later that the market has been on this spot—which was formerly the seat of the Spanish Inquisition—for 200 years. An amazing market, with fishmongers that moved like flamenco dancers, twirling in a constant graceful stream of motion. And other vendors that reached out to our children in ways that astonished us—moving a sign out of the way so that Siena could take a better photo of the fearsome toothed merluza, offering them treats, chasing after them with their forgotten change when we sent them off with €5,00 to buy whatever they wanted while Keith and I enjoyed oysters and cava at the seafood and sushi stall. It was at this market that we tried the most extraordinary cheese. Pepe, once realizing that I am a devoted cheese lover, told us we needed to try Torta de Casar. Wow. It's a cheese that is so runny Pepe referred to eating it as "dipping." But it was not strongly scented, so the boys didn't have a conniption when we opened it. I find runny cheeses to usually be earthy, with notes of mushrooms and hay and musk and eggs. This was higher, sharper, sweet and flowery which is supposedly due to the thistle rennet. It was almost like a very runny sharp cheddar. Absolutely wonderful, particularly with the jamon Iberico we purchased alongside it—the jamon that prompted our children to declare they like Spanish jamon better than Italian prosciutto, and Keith almost agreed.

We also pursued non-food-market marketing. We sought out the Cabildo market on Sunday because I had read that it was a hub for collectors, and we thought it would be adventurous to try to find this plaza that is right across the street from the cathedral, and yet hard to find as you have to go through a hidden archway. Plus, I thought it would be fun to see the plaza that I'd heard was lovely, and it would be interesting to see what people collect. The piazza was indeed lovely, but very, very crowded. And it was mostly filled with coin collectors, which I find less than intriguing. We didn't linger.

The other market was the art market, also on Sunday, outside Sevilla's art museum. That was fabulous—so interesting to be outside a museum that collects historical works of art, while strolling between displays of truly modern artists–artists that in today's world, which values productivity and currency, still feel the pull to create. We hadn't planned to buy anything, but once there amidst the artwork, we felt lead. All day long, I would announce to myself, "Ha! I bought art today!" Siena felt similarly enchanted—she keeps talking about how amazing it felt to buy art, and we all agree that the art market was one of our favorite parts of our trip. (Well, maybe not Gabe, given the fact that he is still practicing the flamenco clapping techniques that Pepe taught him; I think the flamenco ranks high on his list.)

And then there was our cloistered-convent marketing. This was one aspect of our trip that I had been particularly excited about—the opportunity to buy sweets from cloistered nuns. When planning a trip, I always try to reserve a day at the end with no firm plans, so that we have the flexibility of shelving activities, knowing we have this bonus day if we need it. I was grateful, as we hadn't been able to visit the convents as planned on Friday, nor had we yet visited the Cathedral. So our last day became filled with the bits of plans that hadn't worked out on the other days, but with the added bonus of having Pepe guide us along on our walking tour. When we had accidentally run into him at breakfast at Bar La Esquinita with his parents, we discussed possibly getting together the next day. He called when we were at breakfast at the bar again, the next day, and though he'd just had breakfast there, he trotted over with his dog Cora and we spent much of the rest of the day with them. Our children each remarked that they loved how Cora would trot along beside Pepe, totally calm, and gaze up at him once in awhile with a look of adoration. My children also said that's pretty much how they felt too—totally in love with Pepe.

Pepe showed us where he had attended school, pointing out the fence on the roof where the playground was; showed us aspects of the city we never would have noticed (like the face of City Hall which was begun around 1492 with great embellishment—but when the New World money ran out midway through the ornate work, the latter third of the building was left without carvings), he filled in the holes in our understanding of Spanish history, and he assisted our purchase of convent treats. The descriptions I'd read of the lazy susan revolving in and out with the treats did not do the process justice. First of all, with both convents we visited (Convento San Leandro and Convento Santa Ines), the window was located inside a tranquil courtyard. And second, the lazy susan was itself a work of art. It was hard to hear the whispery voices of the nuns when they called out "Ave María Purísima," so having Pepe there to respond "sin pecado concebida" to prompt our order was helpful. We came away with a box of yemas (a candy made with egg yolks and sugar whisked in a copper pot) and a box of cookies flavored variously with anise, chocolate, and almonds.

Even just walking down the streets of Sevilla was like marketing. A briny scent would call us into an olive shop where patrons were bringing back their reusable tubs to refill with olives, and the worker insisted on us sampling even past the point of our purchasing. A man would stand in a thoroughfare with a basket of seafood and demand that we try his tiny cooked shrimp, like potato chips, and then he moved on before we could buy any. Bakery shop windows beckoned with evocative displays of intriguing treats. When Pepe pointed out the anise and honey twists he favors, the bakery worker held out samples for us. But the bakery treat the kids loved best was the bread (Nicolas dubbed the crusty, flavorful rolls, "Sir Crust-a-Lot"), and the bakery treats Keith and I loved best were torrijas. These are sort of like unctuous french toast swimming in a light honey syrup, sometimes with a dab of cream on top. Even ice cream figured in our Sevilla passeggiatas—my favorite flavor was Siena's "Crema de Sevilla," flavored with lemon and cinnamon which I didn't think would blend, but was ultimately highly marvelous.

And around every corner was tapas—always the possibility of one more bite, one more nibble, one more way to astonish our senses that were already overloaded with the wonders of Sevilla. As we made our way winding through narrow streets and broad avenues, we were exalted, again and again, by this extraordinary city.