As we leave Sevilla on the bus for our next destination, I read the tourist brochures and study the map and make a list of all the important sites we did not visit. This is an essential part of the Backside Guide to Spain – marking the famous sites you don’t see and dividing them into those you regret and those you don’t. (Maybe our tagline should be The Backside of Spain Means No Regrets?)In our case, among the famous sites we did not (see the inside of) in Sevilla was the Alcázar (long lines and large tour groups waiting hours in the hot sun; and we’d already seen the Alhambra); the Cathedral and Giraldo Tower (ditto, plus it’s so huge we couldn’t find the main door – so I made a drawing instead).
Our grand problem with Sevilla was never getting our bearings. In five days, every time we left or returned to our hotel in the labyrinthian streets of the old quarter, we had to consult the map, and we still got lost. (The image below captures perfectly our confusion.) Or rather maps, plural, as Michael and I each had our favorites, which we guarded jealously and argued over endlessly, Michael complaining bitterly that none were oriented to North. By the last days he was carrying his compass (we still argued). We were not alone – comically, the streets in the old town were full of tourists like us with heads down over maps, gesturing and arguing and walking off in different directions.
One night we got so helplessly lost that even the maps didn’t help – plus the minuscule type was impossible to read in the dim light. It was after midnight, but we’d been to the opera and were in excellent spirits, so we argued just a little as we spun around in the Plaza de Museo, and then asked for help. A passing señor pulled out his phone and quickly showed us our mistake and how to retrace our steps. (BTW: I will never come to Spain again without a smart phone.)
Seville is so full of old art and architecture that no matter where we went in our head-spinning wanderings we were surrounded by ancient history. First came the Romans (we saw Roman ruins and mosaics circa 200 BC, discovered by an underground parking construction project in 1990); then the Visigoths invaded from Germany (we never found their style). Christians took over in the first century, but then the Moors invaded from northern Africa in the 7th century and settled in for several centuries to build marvels, still in evidence because when the Christians came back with a vengeance in the 10th century (the re-conquest) they converted the mosques and palaces and towers into churches and palaces. This preserved Moorish art and architecture and the juxtaposition of the two culture has been the most interesting part of our trip.
So what else did we enjoy of the backside of Sevilla? For me, the highlight was visiting the Archivo General de Indias, right between the Alcazar and Cathedral but with very few visitors. I’d heard about it before we came – it’s where all the documents of the conquest of South America are kept – but I’d been told that to gain access I would need special documents, authentication, recommendations and so on. So my only hope was to simply see the place.
The first day we waltzed right into the old archive, housed in one of those Spanish palaces, built by Queen Isabela for the merchants to keep all the records of the plundering of the New World, and saw a great exhibit, La Frigata de la Mercedes, about a Spanish Armada ship loaded with gold and silver coming from South America and sunk by the British in 1804 as it approached Cadiz, Spain. Two hundred years later, American treasure hunters found the ruins, hauled a half million silver and gold coins and other treasure back to Florida. Spain brought a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court and was settled in its favor. Spain hauled everything back here (my guess is not everything, given the American guys got there first) and the Archivo de Indias exhibited the story in all its splendor, including a mirrored room with the gold and silver coin.When I asked about the present-day archive, I was told to come back the next day to another building around the corner with (1) identification (2) a graphic pencil and (3) A4 sheets of plain white paper, folded in half. That was all I could take into the archive. Thrilled, I showed up as instructed and was vetted, photographed, given and ID and password and shown by a very patient archivist how to use the digital archive.
The Museum of Science was another off-the-tourist-trail find. It was in the Peru Pavillion from the 1929 Expo, Spain’s extravagant effort to join the 20th century, filled with stone alpacas and mosaics of Inca designs. The entire building was covered in black netting, giving it a macabre feeling, countered by ecstatic school kids screaming with delight at the exhibit of “Excreta y pedos” (shit and farts). Although M. enjoyed that one too, we were there to see Inventos de Leonardo Da Vinci, twelve genius designs realized in wooden models, including the bicycle, helicopter, flying machine (with nod to the Wright Brothers, centuries ahead), parachute, military tank with spiky wheels and iron balls on chains that whirl around to take off heads, paddlewheel boat, and a prototype of the portable Bailey Bridge, which we’ve seen used in emergencies several times in Latin America.Every government building in Sevilla seems to be in a 15th-18th-century palacio, hospital, convent, tower or pavilion, with the exception of the bus station, where we approached from the back side yesterday to buy our tickets for our next trip. And this morning, having a quick coffee in the station, we saw a news crawl on the TV saying Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Hurrah! This will give our eventual winner, Hillary, something to chew on as she polishes her platform.
A last word for two friends we were delighted to meet up with in Sevilla: Pedro Cantaro and Javier Andrade. Both first known four years ago in Cañar, where we crossed paths one day when I was documenting the opening of a community tourism project, and they were working on a book of photographs, Los Ecuatorianos. At lunch near our hotel, Pedro introduced us to some of the best food we’ve had in our four days of wandering the streets of Sevilla, and that evening Michael and I passed by the gallery where Pedro and Javier were teaching a photography class and they gave me a copy of their book. I hope we meet again one day.