TIM MAGEE finds he could easily live in SEVILLE and is charmed by its LOW-TECH LIFESTYLE …
The shopkeeper neatly folds the newspaper in half, then folds it again in the other direction, hinting at a hat, a boat or a paper plane, until last week’s Diario de Sevilla is quartered around his thumb. In a finale, he cups the cone with one hand and tightens the paper bouquet around my eggs in one swish twist with the muscle memory of an expert florist or sushi chef. The shop is one of the near-extinct ultramarinos in Santa Cruz. The size of a van, it looks and feels like a Spanish street altar.
Origami man is 80 easy, and solid teak. A leaner Brando from Apocalypse Now, with a brown bulb polished by the Andalusian sun, he’s carefully wrapped tight to perfection, like my eggs, in a pristine beige grocer’s coat. It’s just me and Brando. There is no noisy till, no tech. No sign of this century at all and only one of the last – a bread-bin-sized radio droning a fuzzy soundtrack to my pointing, nodding and gurning.
He reaches up to a tiny notebook and scratches the price in pencil. The same price as yesterday. I’m not really here for the eggs. They’re good eggs and the cones feel celebratory, a happy way to start the day, but I mostly like the slow-mo morning ceremony and banking another memory – for the next time I start mentally screaming while flapping something plastic at a barcode self-service at home.
There’s a part of your brain, the basal ganglia, our BG, that plays a role in emotion, seeing patterns and memories. It has the starring role in how something becomes a habit. Walking to the same place to buy eggs is something I might like to add to my BG. I would love this habit if I lived here. I could live here. There goes my fickle earworm.
A Rubik’s cube in my head where the mixed colours have been replaced by food, sunshine, wine, culture, being close to the sea, and being close to Ireland. Subconsciously I’ll twist, turn and see if I can slot these into something so compelling that I could up sticks. I’ve been to Seville before and to the province many times, driven by an obsession with sherry and pigs, and I’ve spent more time up the road in the Portuguese capital – I could live there too – than at home. Nearby Cadiz might be a happy life sentence too.
March is a good time for Seville, before Semana Santa, Feria and holy mayhem, as Andalusia’s capital has as many orange trees as most towns have lampposts. In March the orange blossom, delicate white flowers of the azahar, decorate the streets and squares like scented confetti. I was there in June, which is the jacaranda’s turn; high-voltage ultra-violet frills that are almost too giddy for even this garden city. Of course you can come here in full-on summer too – if there’s something wrong with you. If life in a stone oven doesn’t get you, the banjaxed eating times will.
Seville is the city that never sleeps, very well. They do siesta though, which is the only sensible thing to do. Ignore the crowds of happy machine-gun prattling midnight dining Spaniards. Don’t sit down for actual courses when you should be in the leaba – graze. Sit still under an orange tree for an hour with chilled fino, some of God’s own olives and anything else delicious that costs less than a postcard, and then head for the cool of your room for an afternoon reset, like everyone else. If you are all walked out then most of the taxi apps work now in Seville. They are priced the same as here. Nothing else is. It is difficult and unnecessary to spend more than €1.60 on a glass of good wine, half that on decent coffee or vermouth.
If you are a first-timer ignore all the new stuff – stay in Santa Cruz and hang out in Triana. Try Hotel Mercer (Calle Castela 26) or an Airbnb in the old town. Still known locally as the Independent Republic of Triana, a city outside the city walls, in its heyday its nomadic population was made of sailors, soldiers, prostitutes and bullfighters. Home to the Spanish Inquisition, gypsies weren’t allowed within the city walls so they lived here. Flamenco was born here.
I’d seen flamenco before, some of it sounding like a tomcat with a nail gun fighting El Kabong. I was wrong. You should go to Seville to bear witness to real flamenco, specifically to Casa de la Guitarra. What feels like a classroom, with 30 people, kicked off with a bearded Ben Affleck on flamenco guitar. Speaking exchange student English, he looked like guitar was his hobby. I was wrong again.
He was joined on a stage not much bigger than a large dining table by the local cante flamenco star, a retired poker-faced gypsy from central casting. Half an hour later the sound of Affleck’s extraordinary playing and this stare-y Bojangles clapping that had given me a pain in my jaw from clamping down on the embarrassing need to yell olé. Realising that simply having a presence could be a musical instrument, I’d forgotten about seeing a flamenco dancer.
Until she appeared from a hatch behind the stage and stared down every living thing in the room into silence in a heartbeat. A shuffle, laser-guided elbows, a stamp and stare so primitive, then the possessed trio grabbed us all by the throat and dragged us across the last few centuries. She might have been in her 20s, or 40s, who knew, with 200-year-old eyes that she’d robbed off a demon.
I was too busy being scared of her and angry at myself for never chasing the real thing. Angry at myself too for not making the direct non-stop connection between actual flamenco, the incomparable guitar that’s used as a drum, the stomping, yelping and my favourite album, The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. The record had a topless flamenco dancer on the cover too but this 17-year-old couldn’t see beyond her.
There are postcard snippets of Seville in Granada and Cordoba but they’re museum towns. While circling around again and again throughout the years and not really paying attention, I hadn’t felt this resurgent blazing racy city that has managed to still feel like a village slowly twist my arm right around my back. I will love living here.
Where to eat
Café-Bar Las Teresas has a series of skinny ham carving knives on the wall with their vida laboral dates of use written over them, needle sharp, whittled down to slivers by the daily whetstone. The dapper octogenarian who stands working underneath them was carving one credit card slice of oak-fed happiness, at a time maybe the busiest, yet calmest ham barber in Seville. www.lasteresas.es.
La Antigua Abacería de San Lorenzo is part shop, part deli, a living breathing 17th-century Dionysian doll’s house restored and rammed to the rafters with delicious small plates and shared plates. Neighbourhood restaurant is a commercial term these days but Abacería actually is one. Order “Lo Que Diga Ramón” – what Ramón says. Ramón is the man. www.antiguaabaceriadesanlorenzo.com.
Around since 1670, Il Rinconcillo is the city’s oldest bar with the most accomplished, if possibly surliest, chalk-wielding waiters. It can feel a bit like the Johnnie Fox’s of Seville, but the menu would probably be just as familiar now to hungry time-travellers from the era. Go early and stick with the tried and tested – their best ham, of course, and one of their tortillas. www.elrinconcillo.es.
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