Stamping ground

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2012, 12:00am


It's not an expression you hear often, but there are clouds on the horizon in southern Andalusia. A tourist poster come to life, Seville is famed for its searing sunshine, brutal bullfights and flamboyant fiestas, all set to a sound- track of flamenco guitars. Tourists descend in droves, drawn by a wealth of architectural and artistic treasures. If ever a city merited its World Heritage status, it's Seville.

At least it did, until work on the Pelli Tower began. According to Unesco, the 40-storey skyscraper currently under construction will radically alter the visual integrity of the former Moorish capital. The heritage body has recommended - so far in vain - that Spanish authorities lower its height. Unless a compromise is reached in the next couple of months, the cultural bigwigs may cross Seville off their list of worthy sites.

Coming from Hong Kong, it's hard to imagine so much fuss about the impact of just one tall building. That is, until you discover that the only other 'skyscraper' in the city is La Giralda, a 13th-century bell tower.

Architecturally scarred or not, sizzling Seville has a passionate personality that seduces the senses and sets the pulse racing. Spontaneity is key, and life here is lived for the moment.

Deciding when to visit takes a little longer. Guidebooks warn against planning a trip to 'the frying pan of Spain' in July or August. Many residents escape to the coast at this time, leaving behind sunburned tourists to dash around risking heatstroke.

It is possible to take in the sights at the height of summer but a bit more planning is required. Start early, nap in the afternoon, then set out again in the evening. Pause at one of the cafes beside the languid Guadalquivir River and savour the breeze. And don't forget to walk on the shady side of the street - it'll feel five degrees cooler.

Sevillanos generate their own heat during the celebrations of the Feria de Abril (April 24-29, this year). Senoritas in ruffled polka-dot dresses flirt with matador wannabes on horseback; sherry flows like the Guadalquivir and everyone spends the nights stamping, clapping and twisting their wrists until they drop.

The feria can feel like a party to which you're not invited, however. Hundreds of marquees belonging to prominent local families, businesses, trade associations and political parties are off-limits unless you're lucky enough to know someone 'on the inside'. Vacant hotel rooms are as scarce as sober Sevillanos and the general crush isn't to everyone's tastes.

Those in the know reckon Seville is at its best when locals have put away their glad rags for another year and the city has returned to 'manana mode'. The weather is gorgeous in May and finding a room is a cinch. The narrow streets around the Plaza de Armas offer up a cluster of reasonably priced boutique hotels just a short distance from all the sights and sounds.

A fun way to explore is on two wheels. The Sevici bicycle-sharing scheme is extensive but inexpensive and you can register online. The city boasts 120 kilometres of bike lanes, and many thoroughfares such as Avenida de la Constitucion are pedestrianised. Just remember to keep your eyes and ears alert for trams.

Start your day by pedalling to the district of Santa Cruz, an Andalusian cliche of whitewashed houses and shady streets. Balconies blossom and flamenco guitarists practise their fretwork in orange-scented plazas and unassuming cafes. The neighbourhood also has its share of historical monuments hidden down lanes that all seem to converge on the cathedral - the largest gothic building ever constructed.

Sooner or later - preferably later, as this is Andalusia - it's time for lunch. The Spanish ritual of grazing and snacking is approached with great gusto in Seville. Many of the city's estimated 4,000 tapas bars come in clusters, and the neighbourhoods of La Macarena, Arenal and Santa Cruz provide rich pickings. In the more atmospheric places, hams hang from the ceiling, sherry casks double as tables, and the walls are stained nicotine yellow.

Take your cue from regulars and tuck into bite-sized portions of solomillo iberico (pork tenderloin) and pimiento relleno de merluza (red peppers stuffed with hake). And when your fellow customers retire for their three-hour siesta, make sure you do the same. There's a long night ahead.

Maria Luisa Park is a good spot in which to see and be seen as dusk falls and locals gather for their paseo or evening stroll. Sevillanos are show-offs, so dress up, strut your stuff and play them at their own game.

Adjoining the park, the wide open spaces of the magnificent, crescent-shaped Plaza de Espana seem never-ending compared to the compact warren of streets that make up central Seville. Walls in the plaza are adorned with tiled mosaics which depict historical scenes from each of Spain's provinces.

If the plaza looks familiar, that's because it has featured as a backdrop in several movies, including Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Shaded galleries offer respite from the heat during the day, but as the sun goes down, locals and tourists alike rent rowing boats and glide around the moat splashing one another.

Dinner is taken late in Seville, very late. In fact, the city feels like a Cinderella in reverse, as many Sevillanos don't step out until midnight.

Arrange for a horse and carriage to deliver you to the Hotel Alfonso XIII for drinks and you'll really think you've stumbled into a fairy tale. Proving that not all construction projects in Seville are making the wrong kind of headlines, the iconic five-star hotel has just reopened its doors after a 10-month makeover. With an illustrious roll call of former guests, including Monaco's Prince Rainier, Audrey Hepburn and Ernest Hemingway, the relaunch has created a city-wide buzz akin to its initial opening in 1929.

The hotel website ( uses expressions such as 'completely renewed', 'renovated' and 'remodelled'. Words that must sound a lot more reassuring to Unesco ears than '40-storey' and 'skyscraper'.

Getting there: Qatar Airways ( flies from Hong Kong to Madrid via Qatar. The high-speed AVE train takes two and a half hours from Madrid to Seville.