- since 2011 -

Seville for divvies

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Once, twice, three times a sucker for southern Spain's city of dreams...

September 1996: going solo

Like me, Manuel isn't a good flyer. He's got that telltale slightly demented look. He's reading the same passage in his book over and over again, looking up every five minutes or so and scanning faces for sudden tension when there's the slightest rumble in the fuselage or flutter in the air pressure.

The Spanish captain comes on, introduces himself in near-perfect English and announces that we're cruising at an altitude of approximately 30,000 feet above sea level in clear blue skies and that the temperature in Seville is, ooh, about 33 degrees and sunny and that below us on our right we should be able to make out the coastline of France. We may just encounter a spot of turbulence along the way, but it's nothing to worry about so enjoy the flight and he'll catch up with us later on.

I light another cigarette* - only my second so far - and he leans across the aisle and asks if I have a spare one. Least I can do. I thought he looked Spanish, I'm certain now. Everyone smokes in Spain. I give him a light and he thanks me and leans back, inhaling deeply and quietly.

He's a few years older than me, maybe late 30s. He looks like Scottie from Star Trek. Like the captain (of the plane, not the Enterprise) his English is excellent. I try out a few Spanish phrases and he smiles politely, stroking his clean-shaven chin. His blue shirt's similar to mine, but there any sartorial similarity ends: it's tucked inside a pair of immaculately-pressed khaki slacks for starters, and their hems are suspended above smart brogues and colourful socks. Every inch the dignified, upper working-class gentleman. We had them back home once, too.

We hit the expected turbulence and my trained eye notices Manuel's knees shaking as we bump up and down, so I keep him talking. He works in Milton Keynes for a computer company and he's going home for a few days to see his family. We pull Robert De Niro faces debating Real Madrid's chances in the Champions League.

This is the third time he's been back home. I notice the ring on his finger and picture a wife in a black-and-white polka dot dress: robust hips, blue-black hair wrenched back in a lace ribbon, whiplash eyebrows and beautiful dark Andalucian eyes.

L'amour est un oiseau rebelle. I'd discovered Seville in a seductive piece from a Sunday newspaper's travel section. Exotic Moorish legacy and pretty flamenco in, like Liverpool, a former European gateway to the New World. It even has its own tobacco warehouse (the setting for Carmen and now part of the university) with slightly more orange trees and jacarandas than our one at Stanley Dock. Add a Spanish great-great-grandmother and the spell is cast.

On Charles Pickman: first read about this guy in Andalucia: The Rough Guide (1994 edition). He's one of those forgotten Liverpudlians that never seem to appear in local history books. Born in London, in 1822 he sailed from Liverpool to Cadiz to take over a ceramics business (decorative tableware etc) started by his late brother. He bought the derelict Cartuja monastery in Seville and converted it into a factory, introduced new industrial techniques and watched the business go global. He changed his first name to Carlos and received many awards, including the title of Marquis of Pickman. Located in the Expo92 site, the old factory is now the Andalucian Heritage Institute and the company is still going strong. There's more here www.lacartujadesevilla.es

While we're on the subject of Liverpool-Seville links: on a pagoda in Roscoe Gardens off Mount Pleasant there's a tiled panel from the city of Seville commemorating Jose Blanco White, a Spanish writer and political exile who worshipped at the Renshaw Street Unitarian Chapel in the 1830s and is buried nearby; Sewills, makers of ship's watches and chronometers, were founded off Park Lane in 1800 by Jewish refugees reputedly from Seville, from which the name may be derived; Christopher Columbus set sail from Seville, so it's no wonder that the city has so many monuments honouring him - but his statue outside Sefton Park's Palm House is the only one of its kind in Britain, and you'll also find his bust on the façade of the Hargreaves Building (now Racquet Club) on Chapel Street.

Doors to manual. Seatbelts on. We're coming down. We swoop and plunge on the bronco ride back to earth as the air pressure dips in instalments. That's the undercarriage cranking open and the wheels coming out. Touchdown. Whuuump! Brakes. Eeerrrccchhh! Whoooeeer! I turn to Manuel and wink and he grins at me like a ventriloquist's dummy.

After baggage reclaim I head for the taxi rank and bump into him again. He introduces his cousin, also called Manuel, here to pick him up. Have I booked a hotel? Not yet, is there a place he could recommend? Manuel talks to Manuel. "We give you a lift."

Window wound down, breathing in Seville on a humid, early-autumn evening. Orange blossom, river slurry, sherry. Driving on the wrong side of the road, past the otherworldly Expo 92 site and over a bridge that looks like a big white harp. Passing the silhouettes of cypress and palm trees, signs that say Junta de Andalucia, to some serene and cool apartments in the Patio de la Alameda with balconies that look out onto a flower-strewn inner courtyard. Half the price, twice the style.

Manuel has a quick word with the woman at the desk and turns back towards his brother's car. I thank him and he shrugs and smiles. "It's what we do in Seville. Have a nice holiday."

Moorish Spain condensed: in April 711AD, on a big rock by the Mediterranean, a Visigoth sentry screwed out his Byzantine Light, turned to his mate and said, "Aye aye - I don't like the look of that" and nodded towards the sea where a huge fleet of Berber ships with sleek white sails was fast approaching.

The sentries legged it (like the rest of the Goths - except King Roderick, who had his earphones on and wouldn't be disturbed listening to The Sisters of Mercy) and the invaders landed. They were led by Tariq ben Ziyad, the governor of Tangier. He called the big rock the Mountain of Tariq, or Jabal Tariq in Arabic, or Gibraltar if we're being corrupt, and he called the land all around it al-Andalus, which loosely translates as a great place for a round of golf. He was soon followed by more Arabs who settled all over the place and built fabulous palaces with exotic gardens, public baths and a ten-pin bowling alley.

Collectively they were known as the Moors because it sounded a bit like Morocco, and they proceeded to introduce gold coins, street lighting, sofas, astronomy and lovely handwriting to the Iberian peninsula while the rest of Europe, which was largely populated by dullards in chain-mail football tops, looked on enviously.

The Moors were generally quite nice to the Christians and Jewish people who still lived there and even gave them tax breaks if they became Muslims - which loads of them did, so the economy collapsed and the whole place split into little kingdoms that squabbled over the best holiday resorts and played Let's Have A Jihad (rubbish ones by today's standards) against the infidel armies of Castile and Aragon up north and an heroic mercenary called Our Sid.

The Moors had their own stars like Muhammad ben Abbad al-Mutamid, the governor of Seville in the 1050s, who fancied himself as a ladies man and once covered the hills of his kingdom with almond petals so that it looked like snow to his queen Gilda, who was from northern Europe and missed the dismal weather.

It was this kind of fannying about that encouraged the Christians to reconquer parts of their land and forced the Moors to seek help from a fundamentalist militia back in Marrakesh called the Almoravids, who practised a form of Islam so strict it made the Taliban look like the Sally Army.

They repelled the forces of Alfonso VI, the original King of Leon, but liked it so much they decided to stay and wouldn't leave until the Almohads, another bunch of religious hard-knocks from over the water, kicked them out and took over in 1151.

Over the next three centuries the Christians clawed back the land, occasionally hiring shifty-looking gangs of Crusaders from Flanders and England who'd taken a wrong turn on their way to Palestine, to sit outside Moorish castles until the pools panel awarded an away win and they casually slaughtered the inhabitants.

By 1492 the last Moorish kingdom, Granada, had fallen - its ruler Boabdil sent packing with some terrible stick from his mam: "Don't cry like a woman for what you could not defend like a man." Under reigning monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who were mates with Christopher Columbus, the Spanish deported the remaining Moors and swapped holy war for circumnavigation. Next stop: the edge of the world.

* The days when I smoked and you could smoke yourself senseless on airplanes.

April 1997: with Senor Deco

A year later I'm back, puffing and blowing with my mate Declan up the endless steps to the top of the Giralda, looking down on the spires and domes of the massive cathedral (whose home-made marmalade is a must) in the Barrio Santa Cruz, the old Jewish quarter, and picking out the Tower of Gold, the old tobacco factory and the white walls, courtyards and terracotta roofs of the working-class Triana district on the other side of the Guadalquivir River.

We check out the vast plaza, cool fountains and crescent-shaped canal at the Parque Maria Luisa, where scenes from, er, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones were filmed; sit and sweat over half-a-bottle of agua mineral among myrtle hedges and gazebos; smoke crap fags and do double-takes at the ceramic ducks and frogs.

We get dead drunk, flirt hopelessly with Spanish ladies. And we come up with 'the dream' in which I'd kiss goodbye to boring Blighty, move to Seville and open a bar. Friends would come to visit, assures Declan, to seek me out, wandering the narrow streets and asking for directions for El Wavy's to which locals would respond, "Senor Hueve? Si! Si! This way, por favor." (On account of El Wavy coming from Wavy Davy, which for a while was my nickname at work).

And there I'd be, leaning over some fancy balcony as the sun cast orange tree-shaped shadows on the pavement, perhaps dressed in a paisley dressing-gown and pair of Primark flip-flops (perhaps not), my own beauty with dark Andalucian eyes hanging off my arm, and me gazing down paternally upon men and women dancing to authentic flamenco on the packed street below, while swallows darted through the warm night air and stray cats slinked unnoticed through forests of table legs.

As it goes, I think the last tuppence of that generous payout went on a kebab on Kilburn High Street in June 1999. Still, you've got to have a dream.

Notes on tapas etiquette from Turismo Sevilla: 'Going out for tapas is a social event with a strict protocol established by true connoisseurs: flavours must be harmonised on a scale of increasing intensity and at an unhurried pace: eating more than 10 tapas is overindulgence and less than five is not enough; there should be no more than four people in the group, so that they can move freely from one place to another, stand comfortably at the bar and converse with ease'.

July 2006: unscheduled stop-off

Take 1: Miss Pringle, the flaxen-haired mermaid who lures my dinghy away from life's treacherous rocks, has gone for cool Mediterranean glam, mixing cerise kaftan with white trousers and bronze sequined sandals with shades perched languidly atop her goldilocks.

Even I've made an effort, clipping my toenails the previous evening out of courtesy for my trendy Birkenstock sandals. Because you've got to look the part on the sophisticated streets of southern Spain. When in Seville and all that.

Except we aren't in Seville - we're sat outside an alehouse in Llandudno.

We should been in Seville. We ought to be scrunching up the map and wandering past murmuring fountains and ancient churches and white-washed patios bursting with geraniums and shuttered buildings echoing with the clap and stamp of flamenco classes.

We should be plundering the boutiques of Toni Benitez and Adolfo Dominguez on the Calle Sierpes then sampling the finest tapas (jamon from the wild, chestnut-grazed pata negra pig) washed down with golden manzanilla in tall-stemmed glasses in some old bar strewn with pistachio shells and plastered with faded photographs of long-gone bullfighters.

Instead we're on the Boddingtons, vodka and orange and cheese and onion, staring at the Irish Sea as opposed to the Guadalquivir as a succession of elderly couples negotiate a zebra-crossing in super slow-mo, while inside a man in a bow-tie knocks out Chris De Burgh's back catalogue on a Bontempi organ. That isn't applause at the end of each number, it's a punter slapping his head to stay awake.

Flight 9206 departed John Lennon Airport for Seville at 17:10 hours today. At approximately 13:30 hours I'd informed Miss Pringle that my passport appeared to have expired at midnight two months earlier. Take a moment, please, to imagine the look upon her face as she absorbed this information in mid-suitcase-pack, the silence in the room punctured only by my gulp.

All is not lost - merely marooned on a desert island in the middle of a vast ocean. "I wouldn't mind," sighs Miss P, after her initial shock and hair-dryer fury, "but that passport picture is so old you've got a full head of hair."

Ryanair will only change our flights to a later date in person. Down at the airport, as people on 'our' flight queued to check in, Miss P is now starving as well as livid. "Shall we get something to eat while we're here?" I suggest, before ducking swiftly.

There is a crumb of consolation in the decent meal at Osborne's Café Grill on Llandudno's North Parade. We're practically on a roll the next day with a free rucksack thrown in with two beach towels from O'Neill's surf shop in Abersoch, further along the North Wales coast. At least it's sunny, sort of.

Take 2: made it, a month or so later. Here we are, standing on the same street in Seville where, in mine and Declan's impossible reverie, I'd been giving it the royal wave to all those delirious punters downstairs. The city has changed but only ever so slightly with creeping commercialisation - assisted by budget airline accessibility - bringing a couple of Starbucks outlets and a row of souvenir shops selling T-shirts with bull motifs, flamenco dresses and matching fans.

And Americans, loads of them - students at the plethora of language schools presumably, plus plenty of mid-life tourists with loud West Coast accents, little inclination to engage the indigenous Spaniard in his/her native tongue, and so many facelifts that their ears touch at the back of their heads. How hot is it? Touching 40 and too glaringly bright to take any photos in this, 'the frying pan of Andalucia'. Miss P approves.

In Seville there's a symbol found on everything from the walls of the town hall to the sewer covers to the sides of buses. It's NO8DO, a play on words that stands for No me ha dejado or 'She has not deserted me', uttered by Alfonso the Wise after the city remained loyal to him during the Reconquest. The '8' in the middle represents a double-loop of wool, the Spanish word for which is madeja, hence no-madeja-do. Fortunately for me, a certain Liver Bird's sentiments are the same.

'The Moors were generally quite nice to the Christians and Jewish people who still lived there and even gave them tax breaks if they became Muslims - which loads of them did, so the economy collapsed and the whole place split into little kingdoms that squabbled over the best holiday resorts and played Let's Have A Jihad (rubbish ones by today's standards) against the infidel armies of Castile and Aragon up north and an heroic mercenary called Our Sid'


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Peel on wheels

Walk on Water

Blue jays over Botetourt

Golden Virginia

Georgia on my mind

Strange Magic

Nurse Gosling's book of verse

Titanic 2.0

Love for sail

Bex maniacs

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Wings of desire

World cities works of art: some offcuts

World cities: some works of art

'I have no idea what other people do'

Raiders of the well looked-after Ark

Railroad blues

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The pub on the beach

On Savannah and Charleston

Still chasing the birds

The Liverpolitan
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