BY Rachel Holtzman
Week 3: “Raquel, have you seen this house in the Santa Cruz neighborhood? It actually belonged to a Sephardic Jewish family in the 1400s.”
Week 1: “Díme, Raquel, have you talked in your orientation class about what the NO8DO symbol means?”
Week 2, 10, 5, 13: “Raquel, what did you think of the Alcázar? The Alhambra? The Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba? The Sagrada Familia?”
Week 4: “Raquel, please don’t tell me you like Las Setas. They’re too modern and ugly as sin.”
In the apartment of my host family in Los Remedios, a residential neighborhood of Seville, I could expect to be asked about architecture twice as much as anything else during our extensive family lunches. My host father, Emilio, is a retired architect and still paints and draws in his spare time. As my roommate and I got oriented in our city, we stumbled upon ancient Roman ruins, medieval castles and modernist structures that stir up controversy.
And with Emilio’s guidance, I learned that every building, no matter how old or how ordinary, has a story.
In his thick, fast Andalusian accent, dropping S’s everywhere, he’d tell me about a building he helped design in up-and-coming neighborhood Nervión, or suggest that I use a day off classes to visit an art exhibit inside the splendid house of the Countess of Lebrija.
As someone who’s lived in Seville his entire life, Emilio has a special eye for the stories that lived inside each wall, and he challenged me to connect with it, too. Finding the coolest buildings, the ones with stories still unfolding, became an experience that defined my time in Europe and in the city I’ve come to regard as my own.
Back in the heyday of the Baroque era, Seville was the center of the Spanish imperial court and a gathering place for painters, playwrights and architects of all kinds. Both before and after the Reconquista of Spain, Moorish and Jewish art created a vibe in Seville that couldn’t be found anywhere else. I was lucky enough to travel all around southern Spain, and in almost every place I traveled to – Cádiz, Córdoba, Ronda and Granada, along with Seville – past and present architecture overwhelmed me with rich design and beautiful, haunting human stories.
What’s more, exploring the richness of these palaces and houses of worship helped me find my own voice and my own inner sanctum. As I explored the inner pools of the Royal Alcázar, a palace in the center of Seville, I was blown away by the richness of the colors in the tiles, by the etching of words and abstract shapes in place of iconography and by the serenity and symmetry of the inner gardens.
While my orientation took me there during the second week of my stay, return trips with my friends and alone gave me the chance to sit by beautiful flowers, avoid peacocks, and imagine what the palace would have looked like under Moorish rule and under Queen Isabella.
The space created the perfect mixture of calmness and curiosity, because although it showed so many details on the surface, every time I went back, I returned to my apartment in Los Remedios with more questions than answers.
On every subsequent trip, whenever I had free time, whether in a group of fifteen or on a solo trip, I would make time to peer inside cathedrals, royal palaces (hellooooooo Madrid!), old government buildings and neighborhoods untouched by catastrophic earthquakes and earth-shattering bombings.
History, technique, style and life leapt out of the textbooks and become more than testimony to what they have witnessed. I’d point out the Hebrew letters still visible in the medieval, now-unused synagogue of Córdoba. My roommate would rave about the colored tiles in Gaudi’s bourgeoisie, Catalan modernist Casa Batlló in Barcelona. Buildings continued to intrigue me more than beaches, especially as Seville settled into a rainy winter.
Sometimes, while walking around or traveling, I connected with a detail in a building so much that I’d feel as if I were leaving a piece of my soul there. I could talk about Granada’s Alhambra, the last Moorish stronghold, for ages. As a known history nerd, I’ve bored plenty of friends with the history of the Reconquista.
But I’d never heard of the lion fountain, a Romanesque beauty from the 1100s sitting perfectly in a hidden courtyard inside the fortress. The curves of the lion’s ears and legs were simple, realistic and true, lacking the Alhambra’s typical embellishment. When I asked about who made the lions, I was told it had been the work of Sephardic Jewish stonemasons. My people.
My own people had left their mark on the palace and on history, and that revelation made me truly grasp Emilio’s enthusiasm about architecture for the first time. Every work of art tells a story, but every piece of architecture has a story still unfinished. Hundreds of years from now, people will still try to get a peek into the hidden rooms of the Royal Palace in Madrid, burst into laughter in the gardens of the Alcázar and look out for swirls of Arabic script in the Alhambra.
Seville may have been the key to the sea and the Americas in the past. Andalusia’s rich history and culture are, past and present, always there to explore. But its architecture is its beating heart – one which gave me access to more visual stories and soul-searching than I ever could have dreamed.