One of the greatest delights Portugal offers an explorer is its fine collection of azulejos: beautifully decorated mosaic tile work, some dating as far back as the sixteenth century, covering the walls of churches, monasteries and affluent villas. So prolific are azulejos across Portugal that it is generally assumed to be a native Portuguese art form. Yet, the technique was actually introduced to the country from the Spanish city of Seville.
Although Islamic caliphates were driven out of Andalucía in the Middle Ages by Christian forces, the newly appointed Castilian noblemen and monarchy were rather taken by the Moorish architecture their predecessors had left behind. They particularly liked horseshoe arches, plasterwork and azulejos, and began adopting and adapting these Islamic techniques not just for themselves but for trade. As a result, Seville became a major centre for the production of azulejos, and on a visit to the city in the early sixteenth century, the then King of Portugal Manual I, was so impressed by the ceramic work there, he brought the technique back with him to Sintra. Consequentially, his court copied the style and azulejos flourished in the Portuguese kingdom.
The best surviving examples of original azulejos in Seville can be found in the glorious Real Alcázar. This collection of royal palaces and gardens was built upon and adapted from the remains of the palace built here by the preceding Almohad caliphate. Little of the original Islamic palace remains here, but its influence is everywhere. Successive Castilian kings drew inspiration from, tweaked and extended the original palace to create what is now an eclectic mix of palatial visions.
The place of azulejos in Seville’s history has been immortalised at the Plaza de España. Just a short distance away south of the Alcázar, the plaza and its huge semi-circular building were constructed in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition fair held in the city that year. It is a huge monument to Spain reflecting its architectural history as far back as the Moors. Along the building’s inner perimeter is a huge collection of azulejos alcoves, each alcove and azulejo representing a Spanish province.
This mish-mash of architectural styles and revivals may jar for some and may seem gaudy to others, but seen in isolation, the azulejos and the scale of azulejos here are stunning and seem a rather suitable way to celebrate the kingdom the Spain. I just wonder what will happen to those azulejos reflecting the provinces around Barcelona should Catalunya declare independence over the next few days (October 2017) and break away from Spain.
The Real Alcázar is a must when visiting Seville. Unsurprisingly, everyone else has the same idea so queues and waiting times during the day can be very long, and can be incredibly unpleasant under the sweltering sun (queues snake around Plaza del Triunfo where there is little shade or cover from the weather). It is a good idea to book tickets in advance to skip the queues, but then once inside the crowds can be infuriating, depending on the time of day.
Although a satisfactory visit will entail a few hours, I would suggest arriving an hour before closing time to beat the queues, the crowds, and especially in the Summer, the heat. Stay and linger until closing time, particularly in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro when the crowds start to dispel and some fabulous photos can be taken without (too many) tourists wandering into shot.
If staying in Seville for a couple of days, visit the Alcázar more than once to truly appreciate everything it has to offer. Try not to visit the cathedral and the Alcázar in one day as this will cause cultural overload and fatigue.
Opening times vary across the year. More details and how to purchase tickets online can be found on the official Real Alcázar website here.
The Plaza de España is open to the public day and night and there is no entrance fee. The surrounding building however, now houses government offices and, apart from the walkways are not usually accessible to the public. It is easy to reach the plaza via the Parque de María Luisa on foot from the Alcázar and Old Town, but for those who wish to take it easy, the nearest metro stop is Prado de San Sebastián and buses 30 and 31 stop by the entrance to the plaza.
Metropol Parasol: Seville’s magic mushrooms
A touch of Seville’s Real Alcázar in Malaga
Lisbon … views for miles and decorative tiles