¡Hasta la próxima vez, Sevilla!

el Alcázar

Our last full afternoon and evening in Seville was spent with walking around inside and outside the Alcázar de Sevilla, an originally Moorish fortress remodeled several times, and still currently in use today by the Spanish royal family. If we saw any of them while visiting, we didn’t know it. We got there kind of late in the day, and it was a little rainy and cool. We took great interest in the pottery and tile exhibit contained in the Alcázar itself. We enjoyed climbing around in the walls of the fortress and were thrilled to see a squadron of peacocks wandering the gardens; dismayed though to see them chased by kids of various ages.



el Barrio Santa Cruz

We got several recommendations to stay in this neighborhood. In the end, we ended up with a hotel we really liked outside of that neighborhood, but strolling around there on our last morning before heading back to Germany was really nice. One square in front of a church was suddenly packed with people; we think a wedding service had just let out. It certainly was charming, if a bit surreal, with the Cinderella-style architecture all nestled in amongst typical urban scumminess. Orange trees lining the streets sure do account for the most pleasant-smelling street trash I have yet to step in. Check out the last picture here — foreshadowing Fukushima?


Leaving

Not recommended (only because we didn’t try them, and it’s airport gift-shop snack food fare) — ham-flavored airport stuff.

Heartily recommended for breakfast sometime while you’re there: Churros y Chocolate. Think funnel cakes, but not sweet. These are dough strips, deep-fried and greasy. Dip them into the thick, rich, sweet chocolate to sweeten them up. We followed a sign from the main drag outside the Cathedral that said something like

¡Prueba nuestros churros exquisitos y chocolate! 50 metros ➜

…so we took a chance on one of our last mornings in town and were not disappointed.

Really, by anything, in the whole region. I’d like to take a car or bus trip along the coast and check out the small town scene next. ¡Adiós, Sevilla!

España en el Temprano 2011 — el Tercer Día, Parte Uno: viajar en tren

Or: Spain, Spring 2011, Day 3, Part 1: train travel

Following some advice from our extremely helpful and friendly hotel staff, we opted to do our third day on this trip outside of Sevilla in Córdoba, instead of Granada like we’d originally planned. We got a very pleasant taste of the Spanish train system and had plenty of good luck with the weather and the old walled city in Córdoba.

First challenge: picking a train station from which depart Seville. The rail network connecting Seville to other cities offers plenty of frequent options in all directions and classes of ticket, so we weren’t too worried about just showing up and picking a train based on whatever looked convenient at the time of our arrival. Our concierge recommended taking a taxi to the Santa Justa train station and departing from there. At first, we thought that was a little weird, like

  1. Why isn’t there there a Hauptbahnhof?, and
  2. Would all the bus and tram lines in the city naturally lead to said missing Hauptbahnhof?

Then we remembered, this is Spain, and not Germany.

We paid about 10 or 12€ for the taxi ride from the Casco Antiguo to Estación Santa Justa and put our Deutsche Bahn skills to work. At first glance, the layout of the train station seemed pretty much like many others we’d seen in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.: a shopping area, ticket service counters, snack bars. We tried to use the ticket automats to seek out a hin-und-zurück connection to Córdoba, but gave up quickly owing to vocabulary deficiencies (indeed, I often struggle with these in English, too).

the Spanish national rail system's nickname
So we headed off the ticket counter and were shocked and amazed to find not just one massive line, but in fact five or six different ones, organized by urgency of service need. If you need help with an immediate departure, there’s a line for that. If you need help with a departure sometime today, there’s a line for that. If you need help with a departure on another day…there’s a line for that — and it all worked (both in Seville and Córdoba). And guess what: while waiting in line — anywhere in Spain, actually — we never felt the need to define and defend our personal space. It’s not like Spain is (that much) bigger or more densely populated than Germany; it’s just that they’re not seeking every opportunity to gain 4mm on their closest competitor in the race

  • to the ticket counter
  • onto the bus
  • into the museum

I have never seen the DB ticket counters organized in such a way, and for how often their long-distance trains are delayed and passengers must be re-routed, you’d think they’d implement a system like that. But OK, this wasn’t the last instance in which RENFE impressed us with its professionalism and organization.

We headed towards the platforms much earlier than we thought necessary. As we approached the long escalator leading down to the tracks, a woman asked us show her our tickets. She checked them, and allowed us to pass onto the escalator. At the bottom of the escalator, our bags (just backpacks full of camera stuff and bottled water and guide books and other typical tourist stuff) went through an x-ray machine. At that point, we remembered what might justify the extra security “just” at the train station. Post-baggage-screening, a guy in another smaller ticket window checked our tickets yet again and pointed us to toward the train car containing our reserved seats. A smiling Zugbegleiterin greeted us there and welcomed us on board into the spacious, roomy, clean, and pleasant-smelling train car. We were travelling in tourist-class seats on a high-speed line (think ICE equivalent). Nice!

Here are some final bits of knowledge gleaned from the experience:

  • Even if you buy a one-way ticket originally (perhaps, because like us, you were travelling on a loose schedule at best), hang onto it. You might be able to show that one-way initial ticket at the ticket counter for a price reduction on the way back. It’s probably still cheaper to book a there-and-back ticket at the outset, if you can, but RENFE has some sympathy for the spontaneous traveler, expressed in the form of a discounted one-way ticket back.
  • These are the classes of trains we saw while thinking about getting from Seville to Cadiz or Granada or Córdoba:
    • AVE

      Top-level. Most similar to the ICE-level trains in Germany. But the tourist class tickets for the AVE felt like ICE first-class tickets. Seems more expensive than 2nd class ICE travel for the approximately the same distance (say, from Regensburg to Nürnberg), but it was definitely a step up in terms of customer service and personal comfort. They even handed out free headphones to watch the video playing on the ceiling-mounted monitors.

    • AVANT

      Somewhere in the mid-range of the pricing, and almost as fast as the AVE (at least for the Sevilla-Córdoba route). From the outside, these trains looked a lot like AVEs.

    • Media Distancia

      Much cheaper and slower than the other two. The ones we saw in the train stations looked like DB RE/RB equivalents.

  • Most importantly: it’s not Germany. You can’t expect to walk up the platform one minute to departure, board and seek out your seat while the train rolls out of the station; the extra security measures require more time. Expect to be on the platform at least 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure, and that ought to work out nicely.

Sevilla — el Día Dos

We chowed down at the Bar Estrella our first night in Seville, thanks to our hotel staff’s recommendation for a local, not too touristy tapas bar in the area. The waiter was hard to understand, and with our habilidades del idioma, we surely weren’t the easiest, either…but we made it work and didn’t have to fall back to speaking English. He was good-natured about our attempts, and we could see that he appreciated it. Throughout the whole trip, we never found a single case where someone tried to switch to English on us after we started out in Spanish — what a refreshing change from our first couple years of living in Germany!

The English-language menu was the only thing we found in the place that seemed the least bit tourist-oriented (they had a small, paper, English version on the table of the Spanish-language menu published in chalk on the wall and out on the street), and it was a godsend. Nuestro vocabulario de la cucina no es suficiente. Especially for excluding things like seafood or squash. We tromped around in the rain a bit, killing time, waiting for the restaurant scene to wake up for the night.

The next day was also a bit rainy, but it eventually blew out. We spent most of the day in and around the world’s third largest church building. It has a special significance to those of us familiar with Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, since its design was inspired by this cathedral. The sheer size completely wore us out, which is why we didn’t get a whole lot else done this day. Except eat some jamón. You can always do that. It’s hard not to. We were still tired from our full-day-of-arrival travel, so a quiet walk through a peaceful place was a nice way to start the first real day of vacation. It annoyed us at first that the Cathedral had an admissions fee, (they don’t require one at our Dom!) but we got over that quickly, once we got inside. I was pretty shocked and amazed that they didn’t prohibit flash or tripod photography (except in some very specific areas) inside the cathedral. We spent a good three hours walking around the guts of the place and climbing the tower — a twisty-turny continuous spiral ramp with interesting viewpoints and exhibits along the way up/down instead of 32 flights of stairs. We really could have spent more time in there, as the audio guides were rich in detail, but after about the twenty-second stop on the audio tour, we started to lose track of exactly which of the 80 chapels currently loomed before us.

Click ’em to embiggen ’em.

Hotel Alminar

The Joint

Álvarez Quintero, 52
41004 Sevilla, España
Phone: 954 293 913
Email: reservas@hotelalminar.com
Web: http://www.hotelalminar.com

I was very pleasantly surprised by this hotel. After looking at several options on booking.com, the Hotel Alminar had the combined advantages of great location (one minute walk to the Cathedral), great rating on booking.com and TripAdvisor and the right rate. That said, I don’t put that much stock in TripAdvisor reviews, but it’s useful for cross-checking.

Arriving in the early evening, we found the hotel pretty easily and were greeted by the very friendly desk staff, who got us checked in and gave us some good dinner suggestions. The hotel itself is in a small building in a very small street and the “lobby” and breakfast rooms take up as little space as possible. We went up to find out why – the modern room with dark wood ceiling beams and white and beige decor was quite generously proportioned! There was plenty of room for us to take off backpacks and put down our suitcase without jockeying for position. It was even easy to walk around the bed. The amazement continued into the bathroom – a nice, roomy shower cabin, fully enclosed with glass wall and door, a spiffy sink, all made out of one piece of transparent glass and pretty beige and gold tilework. The room also had a good-sized closet with safe and minifridge in it and a small bench, perfect for holding the suitcase. The bed was just okay – two twins pushed together – and the pillows were a little meager. To our delight, though, there was in-room wireless, easy to connect to with a strong signal. The room was immaculate and very comfortable.

The next morning, we went down to the breakfast in the tiny breakfast rooms. Again, given how generous the guest rooms are (and there are some located on the ground floor), I understand why the breakfast area is so small. They manage to provide seating for up to 12 guests at once. There was coffee available from an automat (not adequate), juices, milk, cereal, bread, sliced meats and cheeses, yogurt and fruit. They also had a very strange “toaster” that consisted of a carousel part and a grill-like part, neither of which toasted the bread beyond “tastes sorta stale.” So, we were less than impressed with the hotel’s spread. Luckily for us, it cost guests 6€ each for breakfast, so for the following days, we just opted out.

We asked one of the desk attendants for some help in planning our time in the region and she truly went above and beyond. We told her about our plan to go out to Granada to see the Alhambra, a three-hour train trip each way. In spite of having repairmen there asking her questions, answering the phone and working with a trainee, she took the time to really lay out the pros and cons of our plan and even told us that the information we’d picked up at the tourism office was 3 years out of date! Given our short stay, she suggested Córdoba as an alternative day-trip. It was only one hour each way and, in her opinion, the town itself is nicer than Granada. All in all, she must have spent 20 to 30 minutes with us just going over our options and said over and over again, “Please come to us with any other questions! We are here to help!!”

I would definitely recommend the Alminar to anyone staying in Sevilla. The rate we paid for a double was 90€/night, not including breakfast. Checkout time was noon and the desk staff was happy to hold our bags until we were ready to head for the airport. Another important point – the building is accessible to the disabled. There are no thresholds on the floors, there is an elevator and a gentle ramp at the street door. In Europe, this is a rare find in a medieval core.

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Andalucía 2011 — Día Uno

Long has Spain — any part thereof — been on our list of “gotta-go-theres.” We bought a Frommer’s Spain 2009 finally after several years of not making it happen (blame Provence) and still never made any progress in planning until this year finally. Sarah had heard nice things about Sevilla, and thinking about how far inland it is, perhaps the Pescados and Mariscos saturation level would be a little lower (as compared to a directly coastal city like Cádiz or Barcelona, for example).

I don’t remember if an airfare special prompted us to book, or if we selected the weekend (in the dregs of German Winter) and then sought out the airfare, but however we did it, it worked out. It seemed easy while we were planning it, but from start to finish, door-to-door, we ate up a whole day in just getting there. We caught an 8:44 train from Regensburg down to Freising, boarded a flight around 11:00 and changed from one plane to the other in Palma de Mallorca with an effectively negative layover (thanks to a delayed departure from Munich). Seville’s airport seems perfectly manageable and not too chaotic. We found the tourism info booth in the arrivals area and inquired as to the best route into the Casco Antiguo, the part of town containing the Catedrál, the Alcázar Real and our hotel. She was helpful in pointing us toward the bus, showing us on a free inner city map where the bus lets out in relation to our hotel, and even gave us a flyer about reserving tickets to visit the Alhambra in Granada. “Great,” we thought. We wanted to do a side trip to Granada anyways, so it seemed all our bullet points were lining up nicely.

We took the Airport bus into town — about a 30-minute trip for a very reasonable 2,40€ per person. After a little initial kerfuffle about in which direction to head (I am still astonished that not all maps are printed with North towards the top), Sarah’s excellent sense of direction prevailed and we got to the hotel just as the sprinkles started coming down.

We found our hotel, just spitting distance from the Cathedral, checked in, and started wondering what to do next. So we headed downstairs and tried our luck with the hotel staff. The guy on duty recommended the Bar Estrella, practically just around the corner, and that was a great tip.