If heaven really does exist, then let's hope it looks a little bit like the inside of Seville's Alcázar. Built primarily in the 1300s during the so-called 'dark ages' in Europe, the architecture is anything but dark. Indeed, compared to our modern-day shopping malls and throw-away apartment blocks, it could be argued that the Alcázar marked one of history's architectural high points. Unesco agreed, making it a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Originally founded as a fort for the Cordoban governors of Seville in 913, the Alcázar has been expanded or reconstructed many times in its 11 centuries of existence. In the 11th century Seville’s prosperous Muslim taifa (small kingdom) rulers developed the original fort by building a palace called Al-Muwarak (the Blessed) in what’s now the western part of the Alcázar. The 12th-century Almohad rulers added another palace east of this, around what’s now the Patio del Crucero. Christian Fernando III moved into the Alcázar when he captured Seville in 1248, and several later Christian monarchs used it as their main residence. Fernando’s son Alfonso X replaced much of the Almohad palace with a Gothic one. Between 1364 and 1366 Pedro I created the Alcázar’s crown jewel, the sumptuous Mudéjar Palacio de Don Pedro.
Patio del León
From the ticket office inside the Puerta del León (Lion Gate) you emerge into the Patio del León (Lion Patio), which was the garrison yard of the original Al-Muwarak palace. Just off here is the Sala de la Justicia (Hall of Justice), with beautiful Mudéjar plaster work and an artesonado (ceiling of interlaced beams with decorative insertions). This room was built in the 1340s by Christian King Alfonso XI, who disported here with one of his mistresses, Leonor de Guzmán, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Spain. It leads on to the pretty Patio del Yeso , which is part of the 12th-century Almohad palace reconstructed in the 19th century.
Patio de la Montería
The rooms on the western side of this patio were part of the Casa de la Contratación (Contracting House), founded by the Catholic Monarchs in 1503 to control trade with Spain’s American colonies. The Salón del Almirante (Admiral’s Hall) houses 19th- and 20th-century paintings showing historical events and personages associated with Seville. The room off its northern end has an international collection of beautiful, elaborate fans. The Sala de Audiencias (Audience Hall) is hung with tapestry representations of the shields of Spanish admirals and Alejo Fernández’ 1530s painting Virgen de los Mareantes (Virgin of the Sailors), the earliest known painting about the discovery of the Americas.
Cuarto Real Alto
The Alcázar is still a royal palace. In 1995 it staged the wedding feast of Infanta Elena, daughter of King Juan Carlos I, after her marriage in Seville’s cathedral. The Cuarto Real Alto (Upper Royal Quarters), the rooms used by the Spanish royal family on their visits to Seville, are open for (heavily subscribed) tours several times a day, some in Spanish, some in English. It’s essential to book ahead (954 50 23 24; tour €4.50). Highlights of the tour include the 14th-century Salón de Audiencias , still the monarch’s reception room, and Pedro I’s bedroom, with marvellous Mudéjar tiles and plasterwork.
Palacio de Don Pedro
Posterity owes Pedro I a big thank you for creating this palace (also called the Palacio Mudéjar), the single most stunning architectural feature in Seville.
Though at odds with many of his fellow Christians, Pedro had a long-standing alliance with the Muslim emir of Granada, Mohammed V, the man responsible for much of the Alhambra’s finest decoration. So in 1364, when Pedro decided to build a new palace within the Alcázar, Mohammed sent along many of his best artisans. These were joined by others from Seville and Toledo. Their work, drawing on the Islamic traditions of the Almohads and caliphal Córdoba, is a unique synthesis of Iberian Islamic art.
Inscriptions on the palace’s facade, facing the Patio de la Montería, encapsulate the collaborative nature of the enterprise. While one announces in Spanish that the building’s creator was ‘the very high, noble and conquering Don Pedro, by the grace of God king of Castila and León,’ another proclaims repeatedly in Arabic that ‘there is no conqueror but Allah.’
At the heart of the palace is the wonderful Patio de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens), surrounded by beautiful arches, plasterwork and tiling. The sunken garden in the centre was uncovered by archaeologists in 2004 from beneath a 16th-century marble covering.
The Cámara Regia (King’s Quarters), on the northern side of the patio, has stunningly beautiful ceilings and wonderful plaster- and tile-work. Its rear room was probably the monarch’s summer bedroom.
From here you can move west into the little Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls), the heart of the palace’s private quarters, featuring delicate Granada-style decoration; indeed, plasterwork was actually brought here from the Alhambra in the 19th century when the mezzanine and top gallery were added for Queen Isabel II. The Cuarto del Príncipe (Prince’s Room), to its north, has a superb wooden cupola ceiling trying to re-create a starlit night sky.
The spectacular Salón de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors), at the western end of the Patio de las Doncellas, was the throne room of Pedro I’s palace. The room’s fabulous wooden dome of multiple star patterns, symbolising the universe, was added in 1427. The dome’s shape gives the room its alternative name, Sala de la Media Naranja (Hall of the Half Orange).
On the western side of the Salón de Embajadores, the beautiful Arco de Pavones, named after its peacock motifs, leads into the Salón del Techo de Felipe II , with a Renaissance ceiling (1589–91).
Salones de Carlos V
Reached via a staircase at the southeastern corner of the Patio de las Doncellas, these are the much-remodelled rooms of Alfonso X’s 13th-century Gothic palace. The rooms are now named after the 16th-century Spanish king Carlos I, using his title as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
Patio del Crucero
This patio outside the Salones de Carlos V was originally the upper storey of the patio of the 12th-century Almohad palace. Originally it had consisted only of raised walkways along the four sides and two cross-walkways that met in the middle. Below grew orange trees, whose fruit could be plucked at hand height by the lucky folk strolling along the walkways. The patio’s lower level was built over in the 18th century after earthquake damage.
Gardens & Exit
From the Salones de Carlos V you can go out into the Alcázar’s large and sleepy gardens. Immediately in front of the building is a series of small linked gardens, some with pools and fountains. From one, the Jardín de las Danzas (Garden of the Dances), a passage runs beneath the Salones de Carlos V to the Baños de Doña María de Padilla (María de Padilla Baths). These are the vaults beneath the Patio del Crucero – originally that patio’s lower level – with a grotto that replaced the patio’s original pool.
Concerts are sometimes held in the gardens during summer; see www.actidea.com (in Spanish) for more information. There is also a fun hedge maze, which will delight children. The gardens to the east, beyond a long wall, are 20th-century creations, but don’t hold that against them – they are heavenly indeed.