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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Romance of the Real Alcázar in Seville

By Jim Bishop.

In keeping with the themes of our garden exhibit at this year’s San Diego County Fair and the influence Spanish architecture and gardens had on the 1915 Panama-California exposition, it seemed appropriate to recap part of a cycling tour of southern Spain we took in 2007.

Scott and I planned to spend a few days before the tour in Seville to explore the city. With no sleep and only part of our luggage, we arrived 7 hours late and stepped from our cab into a giant street party. The cab driver said he couldn’t drive in the historic district and we’d be able to find our hotel on foot through the labyrinth of narrow streets in the old Jewish quarter. Right. Our trip planning was a little off. Who knew Columbus Day in Seville, from where Isabella and Ferdinand launched Columbus on his imperial journey, was one of the biggest holidays of the year?

The streets of Seville are lined with 14,000 bitter orange trees. When we were there, the trees were brimming with fruit. They are far too bitter to eat and the fallen fruit is left in the streets to be swept away by the municipal street sweepers. However, the pungent fragrance of the blossoms and lush evergreen leaves have been emblematic of Seville since its time as a Moorish city. The fruit is also said to make the best marmalade; just ask the English.

A typical Spanish Castle Garden

We spent the next few days exploring the historic districts and parks of Seville. I soon learned that the style that I admired so much was called Mudéjar -- the name given to Muslims who remained in Spain after the Christian Reconquista. Their craftsmanship and architecture was apparent in many buildings. The style is a blending of the architecture from many cultures and civilizations spanning across the Mediterranean to the Far East.

Some of the best examples of this style are in the Parque Maria Luisa. The buildings aren’t particularly old since the park was created in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair. The park was designed by Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier in the Moorish paradisiacal style. It reminded me much of Balboa Park with its tile work, fountains, courtyards and towers and lush plantings of trees and palms. The centerpiece of the park is the semi-circular Plaza de España with a moat in front and 4 tiled cover bridges across it representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. The front of the Mudéjar building has tiled alcoves each telling the history of a different province of Spain. There was enough yellow and blue inspirational tilework here to keep me busy for the rest of my life.

Parque Maria Luisa

Between the park and the historic district are a few other famous landmarks. On the banks of the Río Guadalquivir sits the Torre del Oro. An incorrect legend says the tower, built in the 13th century, was used as a storehouse for all the gold and silver the conquistadors brought from the Americas. In reality, the name comes from the color of the mortar used for the building. This reminded me of just what is the true meaning of California’s Golden Gate? But I digress. It is true that Spanish Galleons did sail past here with their entire loot which made Spain at one time the richest country in Europe.

Torre del Oro

Nearby in the median strip of a very busy road sits the El Cid statue. A very similar El Cid statue sits in the center of Balboa Park near the Plaza de Panama Fountain. Ours has a much more peaceful setting.

El Cid statue in Seville

Of course, the main reason to visit Seville is for the historic district and Real Alcázar. Construction of the Alcázar began in 1364 as a palace and was modified and added onto by subsequent monarchs for almost seven centuries. The palace has countless Mudéjar arches, plasterworks, passageways, doors, courtyards, reflecting pools and fountains. Of course, this was all created long before air conditioning so the importance of courtyards, water, shade and green spaces played a significant role in creating livable spaces. The landscaped gardens in the back were the inspiration for the Alcázar garden that Richard Requa created in Balboa Park. The variety of plants in the gardens was rather modest compared to most public gardens in California, but the importance of hardscape for creating outdoor rooms and refuge from the heat and bustle of the city was unforgettable. As an introduction to historic Spanish buildings, the grace, beauty and diversity of it all was overwhelming. It all feels as though you have been there before perhaps in a dream.

The Alcazar Entrance

The first day of the tour we left Seville and followed the Río Guadalquivir upstream to town of Palma del Río where our cycling tour actually began. We spent the night in the Monasterio de San Francisco Hotel. It was from this Andalusian monastery that Franciscan monks set out for California to found the string of Missions that would become the major cities of California, including our own San Diego.

Inside the Alcazar

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