MENTION Spain and most people will think of flamenco dancers, bullfights, sunny beaches, seafood, and siestas. These exotic visions spring to life in Andalusia, the country's southernmost province, which attracts more than its fair share of the millions of tourists who visit the country every year.
Conveniently for these visitors, the essence of Spain - its romance, its colour, its history - is concentrated in the capital of Andalusia, Seville. A few days spent on its streets is all it takes to be infected by the locals' enthusiasm for life, and the attraction is such that most visitors are sad to leave this cauldron of bubbling humanity.
Excitement is no newcomer to this city. As long as history has been recorded, it has been the scene of major social events. Julius Caesar arrived in 45 BC, when it became a major commercial centre. A vivid reminder of those days still remains in the well-preserved amphitheatre at Italica, just 12 kilometres north of Seville. From the eighth to the 15th century, the Moors from North Africa held sway, and many of their architectural achievements still remain. The subsequent dominance of Christianity in the area was accompanied by historical events such as Columbus' journey to the Americas, which established Seville as the gateway to the New World.
As the city flourished, it spawned artistic feats such as the operas The Barber Of Seville, Carmen and Don Juan. It has also become home to the Gypsies, with their flouncy skirts, tight trousers and wild flamenco, a brand of music that moves even the most moribund listener. In 1992, the city was suddenly flung into the 21st century as it geared up to hold the World Expo. The event has left Seville with new bridges, roads and hotels, as well as a high-speed train which links it to Madrid in less than three hours. The Expo pavilions now constitute a scientific theme park.
However, the city's main sights remain its grand historic buildings. Chief among these is the cathedral, which took 100 years to complete and was built with the specific intention of making those who saw it believe that only madmen could attempt such an enterprise. The result is the largest gothic building in the world, a monument to the extremes of religious fervour. Just inside the cathedral's entrance is an imposing monument to Christopher Columbus. La Giralda, the symbol of Seville, was once the minaret of a mosque which stood on the site, and now functions as the cathedral's bell tower. It is possible to climb to the top of the tower for a sweeping view over the city's rooftops, and right below, the symmetrical patterns of the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of Orange Trees).
Other buildings of interest include the Alcazar, a curious blend of Islamic and Christian architecture, which has some wonderfully meditative gardens, and the Archivo de Indias, a repository of documents relating to the conquest of the Americas. A little further south is the Plaza de Espana, which, like the cathedral, is a breathtaking work of massive proportions. In front of the Plaza, the Parque de Maria Luisa with its shady corners and thousands of birds is a lovely place to enjoy the natural surroundings.
Having taken in the main sights of the city, it is time to soak up the atmosphere of contemporary Seville. The best way to do this is to take a walk round one of the typical barrios of the city. The Barrio de Santa Cruz, the old Jewish quarter, has narrow streets which twist and turn back on themselves, sometimes ending in tranquil squares. The houses are painted in rich yet subtle shades, many of them allowing glimpses of cool patios set back from the street. Hardly a window exists without its window box, and the scent of geraniums and petunias fills the air. Antique and souvenir shops tempt shoppers with their wares, leather products being one of the best buys.
Witnessing a bullfight is not for the faint-hearted, but anyone curious about this classic Spanish activity can visit one of its major sites at the Maestranza bullring in Seville. The season runs from April to October and fights take place on Sundays as well as special holidays, which are frequent. Ticket prices vary greatly, depending whether one sits in the sun or shade, near the front or back.
Where food is concerned, it is as well to adopt the attitude of 'When in Seville, do as the Sevillanos.' This involves a small breakfast of strong coffee, perhaps with a few churros (a kind of doughnut). Lunch is the main meal, and often the main event of the day, stretching from one to five in the afternoon, allowing time for the famous siesta. This brings the chance to taste the delights of Andalusian gastronomy. Probably the most famous local dish is gazpacho, a cold creamy soup of tomato, cucumber, onion and garlic. Fish and prawns also feature strongly, and the rice-based paella is another strong favourite.
Having eaten so heartily in mid-afternoon, many forego an evening meal, preferring to nibble on tapas - bite-sized morsels which accompany drinks. Tapas take their name from a small plate used to cover the drinking glass like a lid, and offer the chance to sample a wide variety of local delicacies such as hams, cheeses, tortillas (Spanish omelettes), and olives. The perfect accompaniment to these tapas is jerez, or sherry. There are numerous types of these fortified wines, the most popular being fino, manzanilla and amontillado. Care should be taken with their consumption, however, since the alcoholic content is deceptively strong.
As midnight approaches and most people around the world are preparing for bed, the Sevillanos switch into top gear to start on the real nightlife. This may involve a flamenco show, featuring dances such as the fandango, the tango and the farruca. Apart from some lightning-fast guitar playing and clacking castanets, the dances are accompanied by hand-clapping and foot-stomping. Los Gallos is one of the most popular venues to experience this highly-charged form of entertainment which gives outsiders a glimpse into the passion and soul of Andalusia. More international styles of nightlife can be found in piano bars, clubs and discotheques, some of which are packed right through till dawn, such as La Carboneria and Discoteca B-60.
Sometimes it seems the locals never sleep, but it is likely that once in a while visitors will want to rest their weary limbs. Cheap accommodation is difficult to find, although hostels and pensions like Pension Cruces in the Barrio Santa Cruz provide a friendly base from which to explore the city without breaking the bank. Those who do not need to count the pennies may like to try one of the paradors, which are palaces and castles converted into luxury hotels for tourists. The nearest to Seville is the Alcazar Del Rey Don Pedro parador, where Catholic monarchs once lodged, situated at Carmona 33 km away. The tastefully-decorated rooms have superb views of the local countryside. Reservations are usually necessary only during Easter week and the April Fair, when Seville is full to overflowing.
After the sometimes hectic atmosphere of Seville, a visit to the smaller town of Cardoba, 140 km to the east, allows a more restful pace to activities, though this former capital is also full of character. Metre-wide alleys draw the curious past whitewashed walls and the ubiquitous window boxes into a world of the past. Sections of the city have stood unchanged for centuries, such as around the Posada del Potro, one of Miguel de Cervantes' favourite watering holes. Similar to Seville, the most famous buildings in town are the Alcazar (more magical gardens) and the Mezquita, with its hushed atmosphere beneath an infinity of arches.
A visit to the south of Spain is incomplete without a trip to the beach, and just 100 km southeast of Seville, the port of Cadiz signals the start of a fascinating exploration of the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light), one of Spain's less-developed coastal areas. In some villages, like Vejer de la Frontera, women swathed in black from head to toe flit through the shadows, a reminder that the Arabic influence has never completely left Spain. Down on the coast, endless beaches near Conil and Tarifa tempt us to walk away from the world, accompanied only by the soothing swish of waves on the fine sand. At day's end the sun sinks into the Atlantic - a fitting finale to our stay in simmering Seville.