Spain // Andalucía //

The Alcázar

Rulers of Seville have occupied the site of the Alcázar from the time of the Romans. Here was built the great court of the Abbadids, which reached a peak of sophistication and exaggerated sensuality under the cruel and ruthless al-Mu’tadid – a ruler who enlarged the palace in order to house a harem of eight hundred women, and who decorated the terraces with flowers planted in the skulls of his decapitated enemies. Later, under the Almohads, the complex was turned into a citadel, forming the heart of the town’s fortifications. Its extent was enormous, stretching to the Torre del Oro on the bank of the Guadalquivir.

Parts of the Almohad walls survive, but the present structure of the palace dates almost entirely from the Christian period. Seville was a favoured residence of the Spanish kings for some four centuries after the Reconquest – most particularly of Pedro the Cruel (Pedro I; 1350–69) who, with his mistress María de Padilla, lived in and ruled from the Alcázar. Pedro embarked upon a complete rebuilding of the palace, employing workmen from Granada and utilizing fragments of earlier Moorish buildings in Seville, Córdoba and Valencia. Pedro’s works form the nucleus of the Alcázar as it is today and, despite numerous restorations necessitated by fires and earth tremors, it offers some of the best surviving examples of Mudéjar architecture – the style developed by Moors working under Christian rule. Later monarchs, however, have left all too many traces and additions. Isabel built a new wing in which to organize expeditions to the Americas and control the new territories; Carlos V married a Portuguese princess in the palace, adding huge apartments for the occasion; and under Felipe IV (c.1624) extensive renovations were carried out to the existing rooms. On a more mundane level, kitchens were installed to provide for General Franco, who stayed in the royal apartments whenever he visited Seville.

Entry and the Salón del Almirante

The Alcázar is entered from the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral. The gateway, flanked by original Almohad walls, opens onto a courtyard where Pedro I (who was known as “the Just” as well as “the Cruel”, depending on one’s fortunes) used to give judgement; to the left is his Sala de Justicia and beyond this the Patio del Yeso, the only surviving remnant of the Almohads’ Alcázar. The main facade of the palace stands at the end of an inner court, the Patio de la Montería; on either side are galleried buildings erected by Isabel. This principal facade is pure fourteenth-century Mudéjar and, with its delicate, marble-columned windows, stalactite frieze and overhanging roof, is one of the finest things in the whole Alcázar.

The Salón del Almirante

As you will exit on the other side of the complex, it’s probably better to look round the Salón del Almirante (or Casa de Contración de Indias), the sixteenth-century building on the right, before entering the main palace. Founded by Isabel in 1503, this gives you a standard against which to assess the Moorish forms. Here most of the rooms seem too heavy, their decoration ceasing to be an integral part of the design. The only notable exception is the Sala de Audiencias (or Capilla de los Navigantes, Chapel of the Navigators) with its magnificent artesonado ceiling inlaid with golden rosettes; within is a fine sixteenth-century retablo by Alejo Fernández depicting Columbus (in gold) and Carlos V (in a red cloak) sheltering beneath the Virgin. In the rear, to the left, are portrayed the kneeling figures of the Indians to whom the dubious blessings of Christianity had been brought by the Spanish conquest.

The royal apartments

The royal apartments, known as the Palacio Real Alto, have now been opened for visits when not in use, and a temporary desk located in front of the Salón del Almirante sells tickets (€4) for a guided tour lasting about thirty minutes. This takes in the royal chapel with a fine early sixteenth-century retablo by Nicola Pisano; the so-called bedroom of Pedro I, with fine early Mudéjar plasterwork; and the equally splendid Sala de Audiencias – with more stunning plaster and tile decoration – which is still used by the royal family when receiving visitors in Seville.

Palacio de Pedro I

As you enter the main palace, the Palacio de Pedro I, the “domestic” nature of Moorish and Mudéjar architecture is immediately striking. This involves no loss of grandeur but simply a shift in scale: the apartments are remarkably small, shaped to human needs, and take their beauty from the exuberance of the decoration and the imaginative use of space and light. There is, too, a deliberate disorientation in the layout of the rooms, which makes the palace seem infinitely larger and more open than it really is. From the entrance court a narrow passage leads straight into the central courtyard, the Patio de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens), its name recalling the Christians’ tribute of one hundred virgins presented annually to the Moorish kings. The heart of the patio has recently been restored to its fourteenth-century original state after having been buried under a tiled pavement for four centuries. Archeologists have replanted the six orange trees that once grew in sunken gardens to either side of a central pool. The pool is now filled with goldfish – as it was in the time of Pedro I – a medieval way of eliminating mosquitoes in summer. The court’s stuccowork, azulejos and doors are all of the finest Granada craftsmanship. Interestingly, it’s also the only part of the palace where Renaissance restorations are successfully fused – the double columns and upper storey were built by Carlos V, whose Plus Ultra (“yet still farther”) motto recurs in the decorations here and elsewhere.

Salons de Carlos V and Embajadores

Past the Salón de Carlos V, distinguished by a superb ceiling, are three rooms from the original fourteenth-century design built for María de Padilla (who was popularly thought to use magic in order to maintain her hold over Pedro – and perhaps over other gallants at court, too, who used to drink her bath water). These open onto the Salón de Embajadores (Salon of the Ambassadors), the most brilliant room of the Alcázar, with a stupendous media naranja (half-orange) wooden dome of red, green and gold cells, and horseshoe arcades inspired by the great palace of Medina Azahara outside Córdoba. Although restored, for the worse, by Carlos V – who added balconies and an incongruous frieze of royal portraits to commemorate his marriage to Isabel of Portugal here – the salon stands comparison with the great rooms of Granada’s Alhambra. Adjoining are a long dining hall (comedor) and a small apartment installed in the late sixteenth century for Felipe II.

Patio de las Muñecas

The last great room of the palace – the Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls), takes its curious name from two tiny faces decorating the inner side of one of the smaller arches. It’s thought to be the site of the harem in the original palace. In this room, Pedro is reputed to have murdered his brother Don Fadrique in 1358; another of his royal guests, Abu Said of Granada, was murdered here for his jewels (one of which, an immense ruby that Pedro later gave to Edward, the “Black Prince”, now figures in the British crown jewels). The upper storey of the court is a much later, nineteenth-century restoration. On the other sides of the patio are the bedrooms of Isabel and of her son Don Juan, and the arbitrarily named Dormitorio del los Reyes Moros (Bedroom of the Moorish Kings).

Palacio de Carlos V

To the left of the main palace loom the large and soulless apartments of the Palacio de Carlos V – something of an endurance test, with endless tapestries (eighteenth-century copies of the sixteenth-century originals now in Madrid) and pink, orange or yellow paintwork. Their classical style asserts a different and inferior mood.

The gardens

It’s best to hurry through to the beautiful and rambling Jardines de los Reales Alcázares (gardens), the confused but enticing product of several eras, where you can take a well-earned rest from your exertions. Here you’ll find the vaulted baths in which María de Padilla is supposed to have bathed (in reality, an auxiliary water supply for the palace), and the Estanque de Mercurio with a bronze figure of the messenger of the gods at its centre. This pool was specially constructed for Felipe V in 1733, who whiled away two solitary years at the Alcázar fishing here and preparing himself for death through religious flagellation. Just to the left of the pool a path beyond the Puerta de Marchena leads to a pleasant cafetería with a terrace overlooking the gardens. South of here towards the centre of the gardens there’s an unusual and entertaining maze of myrtle bushes and, nearby, the pavilion (pabellón) of Carlos V, the only survivor of several he built for relaxation.