We had been to Seville, Spain, twice before, and this short trip was all about family–family members who live in Seville (Ken’s brother, his wife, and their daughter) and family members who would meet us in Seville (our son and grandson) for the first week of January 2023. In order to get there on New Year’s Eve, we took an afternoon bus from Lagos, Portugal, at the end of our house sit to Plaza de Armas in Seville. We were picked up and whisked off to the AirBnB we would share with son and grandson, and then we all headed to the home of the Sevillanos to ring in the new year.
Seville is such a lovely place to wander. Our grandson hadn’t been before, so we took the opportunity to re-explore the city and visit a few highlights.
Casa de Pilatos
On our first day in town, we attempted to visit Alcazar (Real Alcázar de Sevilla) but discovered that all bookings were full and we would need to reserve for another day. We continued our stroll while niece Carmen (our personal tour guide) scrambled to find other options for us. The decision was to check out Casa de Pilatos, which didn’t require a reservation. Construction on this palace began in 1483 and it is now the permanent residence of the Dukes of Medinaceli. The buildings contain at least 150 examples of azulejos (Spanish glazed tiles) from the 1530s, one of the largest collections in the world.
The Christmas lights in Seville were pretty fantastic. We were not alone on the evening we chose to go into town to see them. The streets were filled with people just walking and talking and enjoying the lull in events between New Year’s Eve and Epiphany.
Itálica (Conjunto Arqueológico de Itálica)
About 10km from the center of Seville in the village of Santiponce is the excavation of the Roman city Itálica. Though only part of the city has been excavated, there is an impressive collection to view. You can explore the amphitheatre and then wander beyond it to find foundations for homes and businesses, many with examples of the intricate mosaic floors from over 2,000 years ago.
The last time we visited Itálica was on a 40°C+ summer day and I remember being far more interested in the nearest shady spot than I was in observing the ruins. On this pleasant January day, we comfortably spent a few hours walking the streets of this ancient town.
We finished our day in Itálica with tasty tapas at Restaurante Brasería Horno Gregorio, just a short walk away from the ruins.
Alcázar (Real Alcázar de Sevilla)
The royal palace and its gardens are hard to miss while visiting the historic center of Seville as they cover about 25 acres of land. After failing in our first attempt to visit, our reserved second attempt was a success.
The palace is a blend of various architectural styles including Islamic, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. It was initially built as a fortress by the Moors in the 10th century, but it has undergone several expansions and renovations over the centuries. We made our way through ornate courtyards, grand halls and lush gardens, and saw oodles of intricate tilework. Real Alcázar reflects the history and culture of Spain and is considered a must-see site while in Seville.
Tres Reyes Parade
Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, is a Christian holiday, celebrated on January 6, to mark the arrival of the three wise men (magi) who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. In Spain it is celebrated with a parade in many towns and cities, and the parade in Seville is a big one. We were looking forward to sharing this craziness with Alex.
Crowds lined the streets to watch multitudes of costumed kings and other characters walk or ride the route on floats. As they passed by, everyone cheered and hollered, encouraging the riders to share their treasures. Candy and other gifts rained down by the handfuls–sometimes by entire bagfuls. Parents holding babes or toddlers sheltered their heads or turned away to avoid having their children pelted with treats. Kids held out open backpacks and bags and scrambled on the ground to scoop up as much of the loot as they could. Someone passed Alex a plastic bag so he could collect more than what his pockets could hold, and then that group handed back handfuls that they collected and didn’t want. Alex was great about sharing the wealth and passed his own extra handfuls back to a girl who was sitting atop her dad’s shoulders behind us where the tossed candy wasn’t quite reaching.
When the parade ended and people headed away, the streets were a confettied mess of smashed hard candies, cellophane wrappers, and myriad other treats that hadn’t been claimed. Cue the street sweepers.
We all bundled into our rental car one morning for the drive to Aracena, a town about 90km northwest of Seville.
La Gruta de las Maravillas
The main attraction, and the one that we had reserved a timeslot for, was La Gruta de las Maravillas (Cave of Wonders). Though we found ourselves joining a Spanish tour, we were provided with an audio system that the guide controlled so we could hear each narration at the correct location.
La Gruta is a natural cave system beneath the town. It was very strange to wander through shops and restaurants in the village to a little storefront where we checked in for our tour, follow our guide through the building and then right into an impressive cave. At one point during the hour-long tour, we were told that we were standing beneath the Aracena castle.
Though the cave and its stalactites and stalagmites are believed to have been formed over millions of years, La Gruta was only discovered in 1850 and opened to the public in 1914. Stairs and walkways allow access to a series of strategically lit underground chambers. The size of the cave and the beauty of the formations were breathtaking.
Though photography is not allowed (no explanation for this is provided, but many feel that it is related to the paid professional photographs of all visitors available on exit), rebel son Kyle managed to discreetly snag a few that show the beauty of this site.
El Museo del Jamón
A short walk from La Gruta is El Museo del Jamón, a museum dedicated to the production of Iberian ham, a product the area is well known for. You can visit the museum for free with your La Gruta tickets. It doesn’t take long to go through, but it was interesting to learn about the history, process, and cultural importance of this product.
Of course, we had to go try some Iberian jamón at lunch. Since it was the Sunday after Epiphany and the off-season for tourism, not every restaurant was open, and the ones that were open were full. We managed to squeeze into Restaurante Artesanos Juantxo and enjoyed a selection of local foods including the famous (and delicious) cured ham.
On a side note, to illustrate the cultural and culinary importance of jamón in Spain, especially around the holiday season, here is a photo of the impressive jamón section in the Carrefour grocery store in Seville where we shopped.
Castillo de Aracena
Our last stop in Aracena was the 13th-century hill-top castle and church. Unfortunately, it was misty and foggy when we headed up the hill. The promised views were non-existent and the castle was closed, but it made for an eerie view of the gate.
Unfortunately, Ken’s brother Dave was incapacitated post-surgery and sister-in-law Elo was working at her peluqueria (hair salon) so they couldn’t join us for much of the time. Kyle’s wife, Candice, was unable to travel as she had just started a new job in the Netherlands. But we had the best guide with our niece, Carmen, which also allowed for lots of cousin time. And we managed visits and several meals with everyone throughout the week. Elo even went back to her salon on a precious day off to give both Ken and Dave much-needed haircuts.
- Bus from Lagos to Seville: Flixbus, €20 for both of us, 5 1/2 hour trip.
- Casa de Pilatos: Entry fee €10 for the main floor and an additional €5 to view the upper living quarters with a guide.
- Alcázar: Entry fee €13.50 per person, €6 over 65, free under 13.
- Aracena cave: €12.50 per person, €10 over 65. Prices are a little higher in the high summer season.
- Itálica: Entry is free for EU citizens, €1.50 for everyone else. We arrived just as the site opened and there was nobody in the ticket booth yet. A security guard waved us in without paying this exorbitant fee.
- Rental car: Gold Car, €62.70 for a compact car for five days, taxes in (insurance covered by credit card), including €39.75 for an extra driver (the total base rate for five days was €14!).
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