Tearing Through the Heart of Spain by Train

Staggering through the sights and sounds of four cities: Seville, Valencia, Málaga and Cuenca.  
Tearing Through the Heart of Spain by Train 7
A peek into the baroque-style belfry of Santa Catalina, one of Valencia’s oldest churches. Photo by: holbox/Shutterstock

Seville

On a hot autumn day, at the end of a long tour, my guide Manuel Moraleda Malagón paused. We were in front of the tomb of Christopher Columbus. The body of Columbus—Spain’s most famous son (or Italy’s, depending on how you estimate it)—had resting places around the world before it finally stopped here. “He was a great navigator during his lifetime and remained one after he died,” said Malagón, a genial, bearded man, proudly delivering his punchline. “He got a round tour of the world for free.”

We are inside the Seville Cathedral—the world’s largest such Gothic structure—which like most European cathedrals is designed to overwhelm. Renaissance paintings crowd the chapels on either side. The organ alone, the second largest in the world, is a piece of art. The Gothic spires arch upwards dramatically. Except, unlike most European cathedrals, this one was built during Muslim rule in the 1100s as a mosque. The old structure was transformed under Catholic conquest, except for the Giralda, a single minaret which was repurposed for its new role as a bell tower.

The Tomb of Christopher Columbus is one of the biggest attractions in the Seville Cathedral. Photo by: Imagining Dreams/Getty Images

The Tomb of Christopher Columbus is one of the biggest attractions in the Seville Cathedral. Photo by: Imagining Dreams/Getty Images

Across from the cathedral is the Alcázar, the royal palace—built again and again over itself, a dizzying canvas of styles, patterns and designs. The gardens alone, are worth it.

But aside from being defined by these two attractions, Seville is the kind of Spanish city that unspools in the streets—the pedestrian-friendly, car-restricted streets.

I entered several of the churches and found mass in progress on a Sunday, worshippers crowding at chapels. The alleyways were thick with people over the weekend—a marathon was in progress here, a loud march over there. Seville wasn’t just a pretty picture for visitors, it was a city that felt alive and relevant in and of itself.

And Malagón was sure to inform me that Seville really was the heart and soul of the country. “The two things you think about when you think about Spain are flamenco and the bullfight,” he said. “And both are from here.”

Flamenco was a form that grew and was honed by the gypsy population that settled here after centuries of nomadic journeys from South through West Asia and North Africa. The bullfight has been around since the Romans, continued by the Arabs and adapted to its current form sometime in the 1700s. The fight season ends before October, but the ring, Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería, is open through the year.

The Alcázar is a complex of different architectural styles, from Moorish to Gothic. Photo by: John Turp/Getty Images

The Alcázar is a complex of different architectural styles, from Moorish to Gothic. Photo by: John Turp/Getty Images

The audio guide talked it up as a “cathedral” and one of the “loveliest bullrings in the world”. Still, the tradition is plagued by controversy and has been banned in some other parts of the country, with increasing opposition from younger people. Walking through the plaza’s art gallery, museum and chapel gave an insight into bullfighting’s centrality to cultural life. Walking through the narrow passage into the bullring itself, surrounded by 12,000 empty seats, the clear sky above, the oval ground opening up on all sides, provided a sense of Gladiator-through-the-eyes-of-Russell-Crowe.

The light seems to be particularly kind to Spain and most so here in Seville, where buildings and streets glowed. It was Spain red in tooth and claw, and to go through its streets was to experience the distilled concentrate of Spain-ness, whatever that might be. More than anything the city was infected by all shades of orange: burnished, pale, burnt sienna, gaudy. Oh, and there was one more.

Malagón pointed to the sky during the course of the afternoon, a sheet of plain, unadorned blue. “That,” he said, “is why we called it Sevillean indigo.”

 

Málaga

The Centre Pompidou with its definitive design is, in the words of local guide, Cabrera, a sign of Spain barreling to the future, meshing old and new. Photo by: Leongoedhart/Getty Images

The Centre Pompidou with its definitive design is, in the words of local guide, Cabrera, a sign of Spain barreling to the future, meshing old and new. Photo by: Leongoedhart/Getty Images

Andalucía pulsates with heat. It was 26°C when I got off the train. “We have three springs and one summer,” said Antonio Montejo, from the tourism board, who was taking me around. “And it never rains here.” At the port lurked cruise ships and on either side of the newly redone walkway by the river, people were starting to settle in for lunch just past 2 p.m.

Málaga’s Catholic heritage is still leavened with traces of its Islamic past. The medieval Muslim Alcazaba fort lords over from its height, the church stands where the mosque once was and Arabic inflections have slipped into the language. “When Christians took over Muslim cities they were fascinated, and wondered, how can they do it better,”said Andres Cabrera, an eloquent and thoughtful local guide. “The buildings were not easy to demolish. And they respected the buildings, so they adapted them into churches.

Lording over Málaga from a hilltop, the medieval Alcazaba fort exemplifies how the city’s Catholic heritage is still leavened with traces of its Islamic past. Photo by: Urbancow/Getty Images

Lording over Málaga from a hilltop, the medieval Alcazaba fort exemplifies how the city’s Catholic heritage is still leavened with traces of its Islamic past. Photo by: Urbancow/Getty Images

But before any of that, I was assaulted by an array of art. Montejo was quick to inform me of the number of museums. He kept muttering the magic number: 36. Cabrera was no less enthusiastic about the city’s gradual transformation and modernisation. He was certain it was barreling to the future, meshing old and new. “We are,” he said, “the French of Spain. We love to keep talking about ourselves.”

Cabrera, a tall Kabir Bedi lookalike, was a passionate escort through the new Centre Pompidou, whose definitive design marked it out. I confessed I was no friend of the contemporary. Give me the impressionists any day. He was dismayed, but determined to convert me. “The artist wants to challenge you,” he said. “You don’t have to like it, you have to feel it.” The centre—“not museum” as he stressed to confirm its contemporaneity—is the first outside of Paris. It is true, I felt very challenged by the video installa-tions and some of the artwork. It did not appeal on first glance. Luckily the confusing sensations of the contemporary were written over by the far more accessible and well-worn pleasures of Picasso following a visit to the Picasso Museum, built around his family’s private collection. Although the artist was born here in 1881 and lived here in his early years, no museum existed until the late 1980s. Until 1975, under the dictatorship of Franco, Picasso was a persona non grata and spent most of his life in Paris.

 

Valencia

The funky modern buildings comprising the City of Arts and Sciences are best explored on a bicycle. Photo by: Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola/Contributor/Getty Images

The funky modern buildings comprising the City of Arts and Sciences are best explored on a bicycle. Photo by: Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola/Contributor/Getty Images

Of course, Valencia has the mandatory historic city town with a cathedral as its centre of gravity. Of course the streets invite words like “charming,” “quaint” and other ill-fated clichés. So instead, for a minute, let’s talk about nature. Running through the city like a nerve is an old, nine-kilometre-long riverbed. The waters of the Turia river were diverted a long time ago, giving spaces for swathes of gardens, parks and jogging tracks to spring up. Valencia also has the cultural and architectural complex, the City of Arts and Sciences, whose funky modern buildings have been designed by the starchitect Santiago Calatrava.

Further up, the Oceanogràfic, said to be Europe’s largest aquarium, stretches across 1,10,000 square metres. I am not a big fan of such establishments, but I concede it was impressive. The man who handed me the brochure at the entrance was especially insistent about the jellyfish. “The most important in Europe,” he said. What could be so important about jellyfish? I saw several species and then grudgingly came around to them. The Japanese, it’s curly tendrils trailing the water, the moon jellyfish as delicate as embroidery, the amakusa jellyfish with their lacey filaments.

Parades, both festive and solemn, mark the Feast of Corpus Christi across Valencia. Photo by: Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images

Parades, both festive and solemn, mark the Feast of Corpus Christi across Valencia. Photo by: Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images

The “immersive” Bioparc hosts a bunch of species in as natural an environment as possible. It was past 3 p.m. when I went, so many were sluggish, or half asleep. I would have cracked a joke about siesta, but had been informed at lunch earlier, that the siesta stereotype was nothing more than an urban legend.

And since we must not ignore the more well-trodden paths of the city, I can confirm that the old town with the Colon market, Silk Exchange and Water Tribunal is everything you want it to be and more—Romanesque, baroque, Gothic, and wonderful. A long strip of beach was deserted when I visited, but held up the promise of good times. The adjacent avenue is lined with bars, including the La Pepica, whose high ceilings and traditional tiles have been preserved, and where Hemingway once drank.

 

Cuenca

The rain in Spain is really a pain. When I arrived in Cuenca, the old city was backlit by a pale shadow of the approaching clouds. They hung fat all afternoon, a steady spray marring the pleasures of the old town. The Jesus statue perched on the opposite hillside disappeared in the mist. Even god didn’t stand a chance against climate change.

I had never heard of Cuenca until I was handed a ticket with the city’s name on it. An hour out of Madrid, the walled town, recognised as a World Heritage Site, is mostly frequented by domestic tourists. The old city sits atop a height, some of its oldest buildings overhanging the steep incline. To reach it from the opposite side of the river, where I was staying, was to face up to a special kind of vertigo by crossing a 33-foot bridge with a 131-foot drop. “Oh but it’s very safe,” said tourism official, Ana Maria Chacón, as I looked straight to the finish line, never letting my gaze drop.

The walled town of Cuenca is a World Heritage Site, and has been at the heart of the country’s abstract movement. Photo by: Ventura Carmona/Getty Images

The walled town of Cuenca is a World Heritage Site, and has been at the heart of the country’s abstract movement. Photo by: Ventura Carmona/Getty Images

Since any European town visit must organise itself around the cathedral, I bowed to convention. The Nuestra Señora de Gracia Cathedral is a sprawling structure, created many times over many centuries. Religiosity is somewhat in remission in Spain, as it has been across the continent in the past decades, and like elsewhere the cathedral inheres as a piece of art rather than simply a utilitarian place of worship. The stained glass windows have all been styled in the abstract.

This is especially fitting since Cuenca has been at the heart of the country’s abstract movement and with its Museum of Abstract Art, lays claim to having set up Spain’s first such museum in the 1960s. “It was important for Cuenca in a double sense,” said Diego Berenguel, who took me through the town. “Many artists came to live here and created this cultural life, and for a small city to have all these artists and this museum was really important.” It also has the Fundación Antonio Pérez, that holds a contemporary collection.

Despite the long and repressive dictatorship of Franco, abstractionists managed paint to flourish, and flocked in droves to this tiny town.

But Cuenca delivered most emphatically at lunch, when the beer came accompanied with fried queso. “In other places you’d have to ask for this plate separately,” said Berenguel. “In this region, when you order beer, it comes free as an appetiser,”. Four squat squares of cheese lined up in the slim plate, bookended by strands of lettuce and a celery marmalade. Fried things are always good, fried cheese is simply the next logical step in goodness. The paella came after. As did the rain, that followed us all afternoon as we wound through ancient buildings looking at ancient things.

Essentials

Getting Around The AVE is a high speed rail network linking the major cities. It is smooth, efficient and punctual, with on-board entertainment to boot. Madrid is well-connected to Seville, Valencia, Málaga and Cuenca.

  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.

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