The best stop in southern Spain is Sevilla. The city is a delight from a sightseeing, eating, and live-music point of view. And it's always changing. After a few days in town with the help of excellent local guides, I am right up to date for the 2014 edition of our Rick Steves' Spain guidebook. Here are a few updates in advance:
Recently Sevilla unveiled a giant, mostly wooden canopy in an attempt to revitalize the formerly nondescript Plaza de la Encarnación. The gigantic, undulating canopy of five waffle-patterned, mushroom-shaped, hundred-foot-tall structures provides shade, a gazebo for performances, and a traditional market hall. It's nicknamed "The Mushroom," and, while the market is busy each morning, locals still don't quite know what to make of the avant-garde structure. (It's pretty lifeless in the afternoon and evening.) One ramp leads down to the ancient Roman street level (where a museum displays Roman ruins found during the building process). From the basement, a €1.30 elevator takes you up to a terrace for a commanding city view and a big walking loop. Doing this scenic stroll, you feel like you're walking a roller-coaster track without the train. While "The Mushroom" is a bit newsy, I found it not worth the time or trouble. (You can get a fine view for free from the rooftop bar of the EME Catedral Hotel, across the street from the cathedral.)
All over Europe, cameras are photographing cars entering central zones where only taxis, locals, and those with hotel reservations are allowed. With hard economic times, traffic cops are enforcing these laws mercilessly with stiff fines. In Sevilla, the hotels recently softened the situation. Scary as the signs are, those with hotel reservations in the off-limits zone can ignore them: Drive to your hotel, park where they tell you, and -- as long as your hotel registers your license-plate number within 48 hours -- you are legal. But in general, driving in city centers throughout Europe is getting tricky...and potentially very expensive.
Sevilla loves its religious processions. Any time of year, you're likely to bump into a giant crowd following the slowly plodding entourage of a float with a blaring marching band.
The Church of the Savior (Iglesia del Salvador), Sevilla's second-biggest church after its cathedral, has a chapel featuring the city's second most important procession statue. The Christ of the Passion chapel is filled with the sadness of Jesus' crucifixion. It features a gripping 1619 statue of Christ carrying the cross to his death. For centuries, the faithful have come here to pray, and then kiss Jesus' heel (up the stairs behind the altar). Like many churches in southern Spain, it's built upon the site of a ruined mosque. In the courtyard, which served both houses of worship, you can really feel the presence of the earlier mosque. The former minaret is now the bell tower, and the arches, which date from the days of the mosque, are half-underground. The surviving mosque, now underground, functions today as part of the church's crypt.
The heel of Sevilla's beloved Christ of the Passion is kissed all day long throughout the year by pilgrims and local Catholics alike.
Seeing the faces of statues chiseled out throughout my travels, it seems our inability to tolerate each other has been a challenge for a long long time. Seeing this statue, once again I thought that "Can't we just get along?" is a universal plea.