Diamond in the Rough
Seville: Of Longing
By Russell Brown
Apr 20, 2007

It never would've occurred to me to attend a bullfight, what on first glance appears to be a cruel, ritualistic slaughter of a scared, defenseless bovine. After all, I was the kid who became a vegetarian for ten years after spending a summer at a working farm; and am an adult who spends his off-time raising money for the L.A. Zoo and other pro-animal groups. But when my friend Annette came to visit while I was living in Seville for a month, she proposed that it was a must-do activity, an integral part of understanding the city and its culture. I relented, and made my way to the Maestranza, ready for gore, guts and righteous indignation.

Much to my surprise, my reaction to the bullfight was quite different than I had imagined. When the animal first enters the arena, he is proud and tenacious as he trots around the stadium and the crowd cheers, complimenting his strength and vigor. But as the battle continues, and he is slowly taken down, the bull seems to experience what might be considered an entire life cycle -- from the glory of youth to repeated disappointments and struggle to a final moment of reckoning. It ends up being a kind of spiritual dance, and while indeed it is cruel, it is also somewhat true.  I suppose I'm not the first to suggest that a bullfight is a metaphor for life, but it struck me how these creatures -- man and beast -- are so integrally connected in the animal's final minutes. It happened every time: Just before his death, the bull and the matador share a moment of silent understanding, where both seem to reflect on their entire  journey in an instant. Time stands still as they share this ecstatic moment, where all joy and sorrow are frozen. It's a moment of longing -- of regret and happiness working simultaneously -- and one that encapsulates what I so love about the city in which it is taking place: Seville.

When people talk of visiting Spain, the standard must-sees are Barcelona and Madrid, and often you hear Toledo and Bilbao or even San Sebastian mentioned in the same sentence. From past observation, for many tourists, Seville is often a last minute addition (if it is added at all) and it is usually just for a night or two. On my most recent trip, two backpacking college students told me that they stopped there for a night on the way to Granada, and while they liked it, didn't really see much reason to stay. My heart sank -- how could they speak this way of my love?

I suppose the appeal of the city doesn't present itself easily. There are no world-class museums or really famous former residents or even an event on the level of Oktoberfest or Carnival. But for me, it's this feeling of longing -- of romance, of alegria ("high spirits"), of history, and most of all, of the passage of time -- that defines Seville's allure. It's a place where you can't help but reflect on the grandness of life and realize both its sadness and glory. It's like that moment in the bullring, where it all seems to come together.

Throughout Seville there are countless squares (plazas) and each has its own brand of emotion. With dozens of orange trees forming a large rectangle with a fountain in the middle, the Patio de las Banderas is, for me, the most sensual place in the city. I've never walked through without the sounds of flamenco guitar -- which seems to mix desire and wisdom together -- filling the night. The massive Gothic cathedral is visible just outside the entrance, which adds an element of vastness. You can't make it through here without reminiscing about a time when you were swept away by a love affair, and crave for that experience to happen again. The same feeling fills the back alley bars of Triana, where old Spanish gents and tough broads practice the passionate beats of seduction, loss and happiness that constitutes the art of flamenco dance, perhaps the most recognizable cultural export of Seville.

A couple of winding passages from the Patio de las Banderas is another favorite: La Plaza de la Cruces, where three white columns stand eerily in the middle of an empty square with their own conjuring power. You start to fantasize wild theories about what they those structures represent -- thoughts of Roman centurions or perhaps noble priests, although there is evidence as to their meaning -- but surely it is something severe and dramatic. Both places are links to the past -- whether your own or of history -- and so, they both also carry the feeling of ghosts, a tinge of death. 

But then, of course, there are the plazas of energy and fire. In San Salvador, young teenagers and old veterans share the stairs as a bench under the Parroquia del Divino Salvador, a pink baroque church which seems happy to add to the festivities. I've heard glasses break there countless times -- the perfect soundtrack for a place that is filled with optimism and acceptance, like those bulls when they first enter the ring. Around the corner is the Plaza Alfalfa, where you can find the best tapas in the city, and that's saying a lot in a place where every block can summon a perfect plate of albondigas (meat balls) or gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce) or espinacas (a kind of spinach dip, generally with garbonzo beans) or anything made with the sublime bacalao (salted cod). I suppose everyone has had tapas at some point, but there's something different about them in Spain -- you eat at the bar, and the experience is communal. The small plates generally cost around 1.50 euroes, unlike in the States where a single tapa can often be an entire dinner. This emphasizes the variety of the food, the social experience of a meal, and the yearning to indulge different pleasures in small doses. They've mastered it in Seville, and I can't think of any place I'd rather be than in an old-fashioned tapas bar at 3 in the afternoon in the spring, looking out at kids playing in a nearby square, and sampling the cheeses and hams and peppers of Andalucia. And again, it's this perspective on life, this desire to live with joy, that is somehow mixed with the notion of fleetingness, that is so palpable in Seville. It's as if the residents know to make the best of it now.

If this all seems overly dramatic, perhaps that's also a function of a city where drama itself is an important tourist attraction. Every year in April, the semana santa draws thousands from all over the world to watch the processions of floats which march through the cobblestone streets during the week between Easter and Palm Sunday. These pasos -- each celebrating a different saint -- are massive, and adorned with candles and incense and gold and silver. Following behind are hundreds of Nazarenos in conical hats who march slowly to mournful drums and horns. It's the best, most exciting live theater you could imagine, and members of the audience can often be seen praying or even crying as the procession passes. This is Seville at its most passionate, its most grand, and its most knowing that there are things beyond our experience on earth and that our time here is short.

But really, to sum up any city as historic and vibrant as this is really an impossibility. I guess I've always just had an inexplicable love affair with Seville. Even the word looks and sounds beautiful to me. Perhaps it's irrational and steeped in a desire for a type of life I want to live: filled with romance, long afternoons, orange trees, olive-oiled food, hot dancing, and sensual music. And so, maybe this is a vision of the city that I've created for myself, that I wanted to exist, so I made it up. But then again, if Seville is a city fueled by longing, what better setting for such a dream?

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