I finally left Seville, from where I sent my last postcard, as Spain entered what the government are calling the new normal. However, passing through Ronda I saw that the people do not necessarily agree. The term ghost town has, by necessity, been vastly overused in these pages, but what else can one say? The lovely old historic restaurants like Hermanos Macías, opposite Spain’s most historic bullring, and the classic Almocabar, named for the gate in the Moorish battlements it sits beyond, are both closed. Continue reading “My column in The Telegraph: Gaucín – A postcard from Spain’s most picture-perfect town”
Europe’s most sensuous city in a time of social distancing
But no imagining could have been quite as dreamlike as finally stepping off the bus at the Prado de San Sebastián, where they once burned heretics, but now welome tourists.
The Sevillian sunlight in late June has that perfect golden slant, between the chilling white of winter or the infernal yellow of true summer which comes at the end of July. The temperature here is already mid-30s in the shade and a coronavirus cleansing 40 degrees in the sun.
I am met by my old friend, Nicolás Haro, a native of the city, who I have not seen since the pandemic began.
“It has been strange, mi amigo, to be locked away because the government lacked the hospitals and personal protective equipment to allow us to be together. After all, we will all catch this virus.”
I agree with his fatalism, but, for the moment at least, Seville is one of the clearest places on Earth, with a mere seven Covid-19 hospital patients in a city of over a million, and just two in intensive care.
Despite this, we drive down almost deserted streets and those people we do see are masked and separated. The bars and restaurants for which the city is famed are shuttered.
I hope so as well, but also I cannot help feeling that I have never seen Seville so alluringly peaceful. With its bustle and feverish heat, rendered in purified form by its twin emblems of bullfighting and flamenco, Seville has always struck me as an overwhelming sensuous city. Now it is its grandeur that is on show, the remnants of a wealth that once outstripped all other cities on Earth.
In over 20 years of visits, I have never seen it look so striking.
“It is waiting,” says Nicolás simply.
It will not have to wait for long, for all the signals are that by the end of June quarantine-free travel will occur between Seville and the rest of Europe, possibly even the UK. For now I have the city to myself and am determined to take full advantage.
I decide to retrace the steps of my usual pilgrimage, as described in these pages, and am delighted to find Bodega Antonio Romero open, even if I begin the evening as the only customer there.
However, my other favourites – Casa Matías, Casa Morales, Las Teresas – we find shuttered, and I retire to bed.
Even that is trickier than usual: the owners of my two mainstays, the Hotel Inglaterra and Las Casas de la Judería, had both told me they were closed. So I reach out to an old friend, Patrick Reid Mora-Figueroa, whose family owns the exquisite boutique Hotel Corral del Rey. To no avail. “Sorry my friend, I’m in Marbella – we’re closed until September.”
Deciding to put to an end to further exchanges I contact Marriot International, which runs the largest, grandest and most historic of all the hotels in the city, the Alfonso XIII. Closed until July 1.
Luckily, Nicolás’s brother Kinchu owns the nicest short-stay apartments in town, Almansa 11, a series of rooms carved out of the Marqués de Villamarta’s former mansion in the old El Arenal district of the city, so I finally find my rest.
The next day, Monday, Spain begins to reopen, including the Balearic Islands to certain forms of foreign tourism. But in Seville, where the Alcazar welcomes visitors for the first time in months, hearing the exclusive use of the Spanish language in the streets and bars has its own charm.
“It is as though the Sevillanos have reconquered the old city centre, where once it was so filled with tourists many locals stayed away,” says Nicolás.
We start the day at the usually packed El Rinconcillo, the oldest tapas bar in existence (founded in 1670) where Javier de Rueda, whose family have owned it for the last seven generations, greets us at the bar.
From there we crisscross the city, from the taurine characters who prop up the Bodega San José next to the bullring, to Casa Cuesta over the river in old Triana, at each stop meeting with more and more people – although all distanced, all protected, all obeying the measures which finally brought the virus in Andalusia to its knees.
And as the day draws to a close, and we sit down to dine at the finest white table cloth restaurant in the town, Casa Robles, with its perfect chuletón steak and its exhaustive list of riojas, I once again quote to myself the motto of the city which is engraved on every lampost and manhole cover, and which occurs to me each time I visit: Sevilla no me ha dejado, “Seville, she has not deserted me.”
After two months of draconian Spanish lockdown, with fines for ‘bad attitudes’, I’m dreaming of the feria
1st May 2020
After six weeks of house arrest without even the opportunity to go to the village shop like their parents, or to go to the park like their pets, Spain has finally released its children – those aged 14 and under, with supervision, within a kilometre of home, and for no more than one hour a day.
Given that the average size of an apartment in Seville, our regional capital, is less than 600 square feet, one can only marvel that domestic violence has not been a bigger problem.
Of course, with three quarters of a million fines being issued by police and the Guardia Civil during that period, perhaps people did what they naturally do and simply found a way around an impossible set of laws. One could hardly blame them. The social contract is wearing thin.
One of the categories of fine listed in a recent document from the national government includes €2,000 for “inappropriate attitude”. What exactly would be appropriate right now? Perhaps one should not be surprised that a revenue stream is being taken advantage of as the Spanish economy goes into the steepest decline since the Thirty Years War. Continue reading “My column in The Telegraph: After two months of draconian Spanish lockdown, with fines for ‘bad attitudes’, I’m dreaming of the feria”
It doesn’t feel like lockdown has been eased here in Spain when armed police still stop you at every turn
16th April 2020
We wake today in our village of Jimena de la Frontera – a full month into lockdown – to the news that the social democrat Prime Minister is planning to extend confinement by another month, while his hard socialist deputy has called for nationalisation of everything up to the coronavirus itself. We live, as the Chinese like to curse, in interesting times.
That same deputy’s criticisms of the Spanish Head of State, King Philip VI, for wearing military uniform in his rather dignified public appearances as Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces were ill-advised, though, with even left-wing allies pointing out that their own communist heroes – Che Guavara, Castro, Chavez and Maduro – were wont to adopt the same fashion, although normally to a far darker purpose than Spain’s constitutional monarch.
Along with the announcement of prolongation, they spoke of a loosening of the lock-down. For example, one can now exit one’s habitation to purchase a “necessary” pizza from the takeaway, rather than just its equally “necessary” frozen cousin from the supermarket. Personally, this writer finds this hardly a loosening of the manacles. And if anyone doubts the reality of those restraints, the view from the balcony of the Spanish Marines questioning anyone leaving buildings on my street is quite clear. Continue reading “My column in The Telegraph: It doesn’t feel like lockdown has been eased here in Spain when armed police still stop you at every turn”
Will the Spanish summer be too hot for coronavirus?
8th April 2020
Predictably, the left-wing coalition that governs Spain has extended our confinement to quarters. This is done in a singularly Spanish manner: no outdoor exercise, with police or armed forces personnel checking your grocery receipt to ensure you did not dawdle on your way home. With 50,000 fines for breaching the rules in Madrid alone, the government seems to have found a way to raise some of the money they lost putting our economy into what they call “hibernation.”
This is, of course, the same government that defied all medical advice and allowed a third of a million people to march arm-in-arm through the streets of Madrid on International Women’s Day last month. Inevitably, hospitalisations in the capital quadrupled within five days, and the course was set for the present contagion.
However, after 24 days of climbing the walls and running around the apartment – some 40 miles covered in 1,600 laps of a small two-bedroom flat – the data finally seems to show the curve is not only flattening, but beginning to descend. Here in our little town of Jimena de la Frontera, the voice of hope can be heard, in part because of what many regard as the bane of the town: its summer. Continue reading “My column in The Telegraph: Will the Spanish summer be too hot for the coronavirus?”
A postcard from Spain, where the Marines have arrived to enforce our draconian lockdown
20th March 2020
The Marines rolled into town on Friday to ‘support’ the police and the Guardia Civil. Admittedly they arrived in olive green pick-up trucks, not Humvees or 4-tonners, and were only kitted out with 9mm pistols strapped to their thighs, not full assault rifles, but those who questioned my last postcard from Andalusia, where I spoke of “martial law in all but name”, should be under no illusion about the Spanish style of lockdown.
As I predicted, last week the government extended our fortnight of house-arrest to a full month, and this week they instituted even harsher measures, putting the economy into “hibernation” in the government’s terrifying phrasing. Continue reading “My column in The Telegraph: A postcard from Spain, where the Marines have arrived to enforce our draconian lockdown”
Here in Spain there is martial law in all but name – surely the British wouldn’t put up with it
20th March 2020
It was when they taped off the children’s playground on the Plaza de la Constitución, as though it were a crime scene, that we knew the rumours were true.
All that Saturday the streets had been empty of people save the town’s ex-pat population as the Spanish government debated at every level – local, provincial and national – about what would put on ‘lockdown’ and how. I came down from my balcony to investigate as the local police pinned a notice to the swings, reading “Proclamation: Preventative Measures for the Protection of Citizens against the Coronavirus”, written in the name of the Mayor, and followed by a list of closures ranging from the municipal library to the 12th-century Moorish castle which stands guard over our Andalusian hilltop town.
Knowing that more was sure to come we stayed at Bar Pastor until closing time. The next morning we woke up to find the police sealing that bar, and all the others. It had begun. Continue reading “My column in The Telegraph: Here in Spain there is martial law in all but name – surely the British wouldn’t put up with it”
My article in today’s Daily Mail (original as image below).
THE THRILLS OF SEVILLE
By Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Flamenco is just one way to enjoy the wild spirit of this elegant Spanish city
SEVILLE’S motto is “she has not deserted me”. In the 13th century the city rose in favour of King Alfonso the Wise against a rebellious son.
Nowadays, it’s the tourists who do not desert her. From the Gothic splendours of the cathedral to the alleys of the old Jewish Quarter, it is a place to wander and wonder.
AS THE birthplace of Roman Emperors, Trajan and his wall-building successor Hadrian, Seville’s classical origins are apparent. There are magnificent ruins, including at 25,000-seat amphitheatre, at nearby Italica.
By the 16th century Seville was at the heart of Spain’s Golden Age, due to its exclusive Royal license for all trade with the newly discovered Americas.
Notorious fictional knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, was born here in 1597 while his creator was in prison in the Royal Jail of Seville. The country’s greatest painter Diego Velázquez was born here two years later. Continue reading “My article in the Daily Mail on Seville”
I recently did an interview with fellow author – a specialist on Spanish and Moorish History and Art – Jason Webster for the Idries Shah Foundation (online here) on my interest in Sufism and my history in el mundo de los toros, ‘the world of the bulls’ in Spain.
Sufism is perhaps best described as a mystical form of Islam more closely related in its theology and philosophy to Buddhism than the other interpretations of Mohammed’s teachings, and as a result is the most internally persecuted variant of that religion both historically and during its current civil war.
Idries Shah was a noted author for many reasons but most of all introducing the ideas of Sufism to the West, as he did to me via his book The Caravan of Dreams.
Sufism’s link to the corrida de toros, a dance with the evident threat of – and executing with a sword the magnificent reality of – a Spanish fighting bull may seem distant, but they are there.
One link is purely circumstantial: I first read his writings immediately before I discovered Spain because, as I say in the interview, his was one of the few books I took with me when I went to live in the Sahara desert. When I returned to Europe, it was by ferry from Tangiers, so I landed in – and fell in love with – Spain. (Almost exactly twenty years ago to the day.)
I hope I brought out more than such minor personal and geographical links, though, in my rather digressive responses to Jason’s questions, ranging as they do from German philosophy to the Qur’an, Oscar Wilde to William Shakespeare.
Now I must return to work on the second edition of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, to take advantage of a resurgent publicity in its favour, such as in the most popular magazine in bullfighting, 6Toros6 (right), or in my long feature in the most recent issue of the Boisdale Life (see post above.)
Anyway, once again, the interview is here.
Having spent the early part of the summer writing the second edition of the Wallpaper* City Guide: Madrid for Phaidon Press, I thought it worth reminding people that I did the same for their guidebook to Seville in 2014.
These guidebooks tend towards the modern – unsurprising given that Wallpaper* magazine is design led – but I have always found a way to include establishments which aren’t defined by their youth, but by their quality.
Seville – where I have been coming for 20 years – has its finest month in September, especially this year with the 20th Biennial of Flamenco opening on September 7th in la Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza, the great bullring – the oldest of its kind in Spain – and running shows throughout the month – some for free – everywhere from the grand Teatro Lope de Vega and the Royal Gardens of the Alcázar Palace to the Church of San Luis de la Franceses to Café Alameda.
Then, on the 29th, in that same ring, the most famous bullfighter in Spain, the one-eyed Juan José Padilla, is fighting his last ever bull as a professional. And this is no washed up matador making a last stand, he was ranked number one in Spain when he made the decision to retire last year, and has triumphed across the country on his final tour. (In Pamplona when I saw him he was extraordinary.)
I’ll write more about this further down this post – he is a personal friend and mentor after all – but to make it easier, I’ll say here that, tickets for that Saturday’s corrida are available to purchase and print online from the English-language version of the official site of the bullring by clicking here. (Tip: you want to sit as close to the centre of the ring, i.e. the sand, as possible, and preferably in the sombra, ‘shade’, or sol y sombra, ‘sun’ that becomes shade as the evening progresses.) The other matadors that day and the next are all extraordinarily talented – and ranked in the top ten for what that’s worth.
Continue reading “Seville in September”