It’s hard to beat those Andalucians for energy. The last few days went in a blish (that’s shorter than a flash, marginally longer than a blip) from a rainy Malaga through a misty Carmona to end – at last – in the clear autumnal light of Seville. Instead of my usual solo or duet travel, I found myself in a heaving group of over 30 nationalities, most of whom had never been to Andalucia before. In between being bussed and guided around we were force-fed vast quantities of excellent food and drink. At times it felt like being a goose en route to foie gras status. It’s a while since I’ve been on a press-trip to Spain and I had forgotten just how much this goes on – whiling away an entire afternoon in a restaurant is just for starters as dinner only seriously kicks in around 11pm. Luckily there are quite a few cafés around for recovery, with or without a Virgin Mary poster for company on slow days.
In the end this incredible mix of nationalities all bonded, although there was a distinct froideur from some of the Russians and a clique-iness among the Americans. Otherwise, as everyone worked in the travel-biz as either tour-operators or hacks, there was a lot in common. What was missing was a sense of Spanish-ness as I found myself discussing the intricacies of the Hong Kong handover with a Chinese-Canadian who had witnessed it back in 1997, or how to deal with Ramadan with a Muslim Malay (who seemed to be fasting on alternate days), Portuguese fashion with two very hip young Lisboans and new Danish cuisine with a lady from Copenhagen. It could hardly have been more cosmopolitan.
But when a flamenco singer opened his or her mouth those shivers zapped down my spine and I knew exactly where I was. In photos it always looks so cliched but the reality never fails to stir me. The best was an occasion years ago when a taxi-driver in Cordoba parked his car in front of a convent on a dark and deserted square and proceeded to regail me and my companion with howling flamenco laments. It was well past midnight – so possibly made a good wake-up call for the nuns’ first prayer.
This time, the flamenco show at Seville’s Tablao Arenal was intense, extremely professional and an endlessly varied treat. Of course it’s touristy too, but so what. One young male dancer exuded that classic ‘I know how brilliant I am and I’ll show you’ (stamp stamp snap snap) and a veteran woman singer with dramatically pencilled eyebrows let rip from her chair. Four younger women dancers kicked, stamped and flounced magnificently while guitars and that fabulous syncopated clapping kept the rhythm churning.
The other Andalucian thrill on this trip was Carmona. Now I have to admit that despite having travelled zillions of times through Andalucia I somehow missed out on this small hilltown just east of Seville. That was a mistake because it’s a lovely place that was a major crossroads in Roman times. Well before that it was built by Carthaginians, and later was rebuilt by the Moors before the Reconquista threw them and their brilliant civilisation out. All this is visible in the fortifications of a massive, semi-ruined castle that crowns the town. You can see the successive arches in this picture – from Moorish back to Roman, with plenty of room for chucking burning oil on any invaders.
Then it was glorious Seville, its stunning little plazas, leafy orange-trees (from which every bitter orange is exported to England for marmalade), beautiful Moorish monuments, hordes of tapas-aficionados milling outside bars and the gentle Guadalquivir river that brought Seville the riches of the New World in the 16th century. Today the galleons have been replaced by kayakers. There is 21st century change too as a tram swished past us on a trial-run that will eventually go underground and become Seville’s first metro. Construction has been agonisingly slow due to endless archaeological discoveries – a bit like the good old days (oops – was that decades?) of Rome’s metro construction. Then it was back to London via the slow-burn nightmare that air-travel has become, wishing I was still sitting in that flamenco bar.