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Sample history, shopping and Spanish spirit in Seville

It was well after 10 p.m., and the tables scattered around the small square in the Barrio de Santa Cruz were full of people. A group of young people launched into a traditional emotion-filled flamenco song, complete with guitars and the intricate syncopated clapping that marks the style.

Conversations flowed, waiters and waitresses from the restaurants lining the ancient square brought beers and food, the moon smiled down like a generous, welcoming host.The start of another night in Seville.

The city is the capital of Spain's Andalusia province and reflects brilliantly that southern region's ancient roots, modern cosmopolitanism and overriding joie de vivre.

It offers the traveler reminders of a 2,200-year history, shopping, labyrinthine medieval neighborhoods to explore, beautiful parks and squares to relax in, and a great night life. The locals are friendly and vivacious.

The heart of the old city is the mile-long area stretching from the Plaza Duque de la Victoria south to the cathedral and great castle and on to the sprawling Parque de Maria Luisa. It is tourist heaven, with a lot of things to see and do all within walking distance.

The Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, bounded by the cathedral, the alcazar (castle) and the Barrio de Santa Cruz, is tourist central but nevertheless a must-see and a good place to start a daylong walking tour.

The cathedral was built in the 15th century, when Seville was at the height of its prosperity. Only St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London are larger. None is darker. Although the cathedral houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus and many artworks and relics, sightseeing is hampered because of poor lighting.

Visitors can enter the cathedral freely early in the morning, but at 10 a.m., everybody is ushered out, and admission is charged until evening. The admission ticket includes entrance to the Patio de los Naranjos, a beautiful courtyard and fountain that date to the great mosque built on the site in 1184-96 and torn down to make way for the cathedral.

The cathedral also includes the Giralda bell tower, originally the minaret of the great mosque. Topping out at 322 feet, the tower has a viewing platform about two-thirds of the way up, reached by a sloping ramp, not stairs.

The nearby alcazar was built in the 14th century in the mudejar style, a combination of Moorish and Gothic architectures, by Pedro the Cruel (and what a person had to do the earn that nickname in the Middle Ages, when cruelty was common as dirt, I don't want to know). It and its grounds are beautiful, however, and the alcazar remains the official residence of the king and queen of Spain when they are in Seville.

From the alcazar, go south, across Calle San Fernando, to the Hotel Alfonzo XIII, the city's premier hotel, built in the 1920s in a beautiful mudejar-revival style. Though the rooms are pricey, you can stop in for a drink and some upscale tapas (appetizers) at the bar on the hotel's central courtyard. And if you're reserving a chunk of money for one excellent dinner while in town, you might return in the evening, when the hotel's restaurant serves Andalusian dishes raised to haute cuisine by the chefs' interpretations.

Now, sightseers and shoppers might want to part ways. Sightseers can go up Calle San Fernando and around the corner, past a statue of Spanish national hero El Cid, to the Parque de Maria Luisa and the Plaza de Espana.

Shoppers will want to head north from the Alfonzo XIII, along Avenida de la Constitucion to Plaza Nueva and then farther, on Calle Sierpes or calles Tetuan and Velazquez, to Plaza Duque de la Victoria. These main streets and their side alleys and byways are lined with shops and stores of all descriptions, from large department stores to tiny gift shops.

Shoppers should know, however, that in Seville, like the rest of Spain, most stores close at about 2 p.m. and don't reopen until 5 p.m.

Spaniards seem to have their own unique biological clock, and things don't really get going until 10 p.m. or later. But then, it can be quite lively well into the early-morning hours.

Maybe that's because no one wants to part company with the beautiful Spanish moon.


Additional Information

If you go

Getting there: Several airlines fly from the United States to Madrid. From there take a connecting flight or the high-speed train to Seville. Or rent a car and drive - take the scenic NV-N630 route through Extremadura and plan a night's stay along the way.

Caution: Seville has a reputation for petty crime such as purse snatchings and thefts from parked cars. Put passports and valuables in the hotel safe, carry only small amounts of cash and one credit card, and don't leave things in the car.

Leave the driving to them: Driving in Seville, especially in the old section of the city and the Centro, can be a daunting and frustrating experience. You're better off parking at your hotel or one of the large public garages that cost a few dollars a day, and walking or taking taxis to get around.