Trains in southern Spain are always flooded with light. The abundance of sun provides a sharp counterpoint to the blessedly cool Renfe air-conditioning. You often don’t realize how crisp the air is until you move through the train and are momentarily hit with a blast of stuffy outdoor heat in the accordion spaces between cars.
There are only two routes that have Jaén as their terminus: one heading north to Madrid’s bustling Chamartín station, the other veering west, to the sea-side city of Cadíz. I’d taken the Cadíz train on my way to Córdoba earlier this summer, but had never gone so far along the track. There was significantly more topography this far west. At one point we sped past an impressive castle on a small, high hilltop, its town spread out around the hillsides below, an urban skirt that had been shaken out and settled. We flashed past it at such a velocity that I had barely had time to noticed the castle was there before it vanished on the track behind us. Piecing my route together later I realized it must have been Almodóvar del Rio, an eighth century Muslim stronghold that rises up out of a curve in the train tracks about 25 kilometers south-west of Córdoba. At the next stop, an older couple boarded the train, faces and arms tanned leather by the sun. They carried taut plastic bags full of possessions, and hoisted a hamster cage in front of them as they navigated the narrow passage way. When they moved down the aisle, I saw that the cage held a tiny, quivering white puppy. Eyes wide with uncertainty, he whimpered for the first ten minutes of his ride, then sprawled across the bottom of the cage, fast asleep.
We arrived at Santa Justa in the late afternoon. After confusedly spilling off of the track into the streets, a friendly train-station employee helped me find my bearings, and we struck out for Calle José Leguillo. I realized immediately that Seville is a city in which the contemporary horizon battles for space with the much older strata lying underneath it. Glimpses of antiquity abound. Turn your head at an intersection with a modern-day pharmacy and Cruzcampo café-bar, and out of the corner of your eye you’ll see ancient walls erupting out of the entrepreneurial florescence of twenty-first century life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Encarnación Square, where the undulating futuristic waves of the Metropol Parasol hunker contentedly amidst the ornate spires of sixteenth-century churches. Tellingly, the recently completed space-age structure is far more popular with the city’s younger crowd: shirtless young men one-up each other with bike tricks on its expansive terrace, and gaggles of well-dressed teenage girls swill sodas and text on its stairs and escalators.
The next morning we set out for Plaza San Marcos, an easy place to find due to the consistency of its entrepreneurs: the square held not only Taberna Dos Leones de San Marcos, but also Farmacia San Marcos, Supermercado Bazar San Marcos and Drogueria San Marcos. Breakfast was a bollito de leche, carefully selected after a focused perusal of the square’s sole panaderia. These sweet, yeasted rolls are made with milk and painted with egg yolk. The dough is airy and fluffy, the top of the bun burnished with gold. Tearing off lightly sweetened chunks of bread, your fingers become adorned by the large granules of sugar sprinkled atop the bread as a finishing touch. My hands rapidly received a thick coating of the saccharine dust – it was difficult to eat attentively given the tortuous nature of the route that leads from Plaza San Marcos to the Catedral.
Tall, narrow, and winding, the alleyways of Barrio Santa Cruz are notorious for confounding visitors. Tripping along the cobblestone streets, shaded from the persistent sun by the sheer height of the surrounding buildings, you hear only the quiet echo of distant footsteps far behind you. Navigating the neighborhood, you feel temporarily caught outside of time, removed from the touristy hum of surrounding streets and lost in the urban equivalent of a sheltered grove.
Santa Cruz finally relented and spit us out in front of the Alcázar, a sixteenth-century palace built to mimic the majesty of the Alhambra. It was predictably breathtaking, the intricacy of the architecture matched only by the sheer volume of people flooding its corridors. Islamic palaces in Andalucía are remarkable for their awesome detail; an entire visit can be spent in a single room, slowly taking in the decades of artisanship incarnated in ornate swirls of scriptured marble and brightly painted mosaics. Fully appreciating the aesthetic requires a gradual immersion, like lowering oneself into a cold pool in the heat of the summer. Stand in front of a wall and you are first aggressively assaulted by the sheer grandeur of it: height, symmetry, color, composition. Soon you realize that not a single surface has been left unattended to – every doorway is carved, every cornice embellished, every wall panel costumed in bright tile. The final epiphany comes in your appreciation of the most delicate details: the tiny dolls’ heads and nautilus shells nestled in the columns of the Patio de las Muñecas, the infinite tiled tessellations of the Patio de las Doncellas, the symmetrically oscillating hues of the menagerie decorating the walls of the Cenador de la Alcoba. These last glimpses belie the craftsmanship inscribed into the walls, the undaunted tenacity of artisans who spent years tenderly carving, sculpting and painting intimate details they knew most visitors would never notice or attend to.
After several hours of immersion in Mudéjar splendor, we ambled back out into the streets. Ominous clouds massed behind the cathedral, accenting the gothic grandeur of its weathered gray stone, the ornate Giralda spire and flying buttresses piercing the gathering storm. The weather was the result of the unseasonably cool temperatures – Seville in July is noted for its abominable, inhumane heat, normally sweltering in the low forties. We, however, were gifted with the summer low of only twenty-eight degrees.
Bolstered by this unusual meteorological blessing, we spent the rest of the weekend traversing the city. First we struck out for the east bank of the Guadalquivir, strolling past the squat, tawny cylinder of the Torre del Oro, finally crossing the river at the Puente de Isabel II. The neighborhood on the opposite bank is named Triana, a lively quayside sprawl of houses, bars and restaurants that was just setting up for its feria, or celebration week, with a row of riverside tents serving beer and wine at all hours of the day and night. This area had a distinctly more local vibe. Well-dressed denizens ambled along the bustling thoroughfare of Calle San Cantio or relaxed in the shade of restaurant umbrellas for an afternoon beer, while small children raced around the streets, covered in ice cream. We returned the next day after a stroll through the expansive, bird-infested swathe of Parque Maria Louisa, watching the ongoing feria preparations from across the river over a plate of boquerones drenched in lemon juice. From the opposite bank it was clear that even the skyline silhouette of the city bristles with architectural contradictions, magnificent cathedral spires jostling for space with brand new apartment buildings, the gaudy 18th-century coloring of the Plaza de Toros underscored by the ascetic severity of the modernist sculptures decorating the river-bank in front of it.
The tug-of-war between modernity and antiquity had also leaked into our own neighborhood. Elaborate, colorfully-roofed churches sprung up every few blocks and blue-lettered tiles still spelled out street names, but recent construction was eating up Calle San Luis. The entire center of the road had been gutted and surrounded with metal fencing and cautionary netting, a patient abandoned mid-operation still draped in stretcher sheets. This did not prevent locals from determinedly going about their business; despite the late afternoon hour, the neighborhood café-bar was still bustling. We walked in off the street, noticing an immediate drop in temperature in the concrete cool of the cerveceria. The proprietor was a cheerful, rotund man with a sun-creased face. He pushed up the shirtsleeves of his paper-thin blue button-up, set his hands staunchly atop the metal bar, and looked at me expectantly.
It was the ambiguous Spanish hour of siesta, that span of time that starts sometime late after lunch and stretches until at least seven at night, when some establishments are still open for business, but others are firmly and decidedly closed. There were still people in the bar, but it was clearly a neighborhood joint, where the line between friend and customer was blurred, if it existed at all. “¿Es possible de tomar una cerveza?” I inquired uncertainly. His face split into a grin. “¡Si, si, por supuesto es posible!” he chuckled, gently teasing me for my foreign timidity. He bustled off to fill small glasses with ice-cold beer, calling out “¿Algo mas?” as he levered the taps. When I asked for the bill he jotted the total in white chalk on the hammered tin countertop, then wiped it away immediately with a rag.
We caught the last train back to Jaén, forging north-east as dusk slowly settled over the landscape. The journey itself had been characterized by the full spectrum of Iberian light; the shadowed morning hour lost in the narrow streets of Santa Cruz, the eerie, midday darkness of a summer storm Plaza del Patio de Banderas, and the blinding assault of the late afternoon glare on the Calle San Luis. The return trip proffered one more example, as the sun gradually retreated across the country-side, soaking the rolling hills and squat olive trees with the last orange-gold vestiges of the day’s light.