As a young and angelic choirboy in the early 1970s I sang every week to the glory of God at St John’s Church in Caterham. But the experience never left me with a lasting faith.
Listening to Canon Vile droning on from the pulpit, the endless hours of practice and the weekly Sunday school visits resulted in a schoolboy rebellion against organised religion and the concept of an all-seeing deity. These days I’m a confirmed heathen.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a cathedral, a church, a mosque or a synagogue. Some may associate them with a meaningful religious experience but for me they’re all about history and architecture.
On our final day in Seville we spent an hour or two appreciating its cathedral. But only after taking our time over an excellent breakfast in hotel and going for a walk in the Santa Cruz district on another warm and sunny day.
We’d been skirting the cathedral throughout our stay in the city and it was certainly an impossible building to ignore, a huge pile dominating the centre of Seville and one of the largest Christian cathedrals in the world. It’s so big that I couldn’t really take it all in, let alone take a picture of it.
In some respects, the cathedral is like Istanbul’s monumental Aghia Sofia in that it’s a mix of both Islamic and Christian traditions. It stands on the site of the 12th century Almohad mosque, and there are still Moorish architectural features scattered about the site to remind us. The most obvious is the handsome minaret (La Giralda), Seville’s greatest bell-tower.
Once the Moors had been flushed out of Spain, the conquering Christians set about finishing the building. The result – the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede – became the largest church in the world by volume, a monumental celebration of Gothic.
Inside it’s bonkers. Giant columns, vast open spaces, beautiful stained glass, numerous garish chapels, the roof of the nave disappearing into the heavens. Regrettably, I couldn’t miss the grim religious art, both sculptures and paintings. Some of it was quite gruesome, not least a very realistic decapitated head that I took to be a representation of John the Baptist after he’d met his miserable end.
Several rooms were given over to the church’s treasures – gold and silver forged into crosses, cups and more. It was all incredibly lavish and undeniably the work of skilled people but not my scene at all. In fact, all it did was highlight the sheer wealth of the catholic church, and ram it down our collective throats.
It repelled me. This was organised religion at its worst, absolutely overloaded with wealth – wealth that could be put to much better use in the slums of the world. But that’s not what the church is about despite the so-called teachings of Christ. It just wants wealth and power, and cardinals and bishops adorned in jewels.
I tried to calm my vexation by admiring the incredible craftsmanship on show in the fabric of the building, the collective effort of thousands of very talented people over the centuries. We passed the devoted at their prayers and the non-believers snapping away at anything that moved (or didn’t).
So we climbed up La Giralda, the minaret dating from the 12th century. An easy climb it was too up the 37 storeys because there are no stairs. Instead, the tower has a series of ramps from one floor to another, apparently installed so that guards could gallop up on their horses in centuries past. Lazy buggers.
At the top we got predictably fine views of the cityscape, north, south, east and west. The river Guadalquivir shimmered in the afternoon light and the bells clanged for 1pm, the shock almost inducing heart failure in those of us standing just feet away. The tower is certainly a fine symbol of Seville.
We walked from there to the river, crossing at the handsome Triana bridge. We stopped for a drink on the other side and watched the pleasure boats going up and down but the river front seemed a bit of a missed opportunity.
I would’ve liked to have explored the old working class area of Triana, where many of Seville’s great tiles were manufactured in the distant past, but time was against us and we only managed a walk down a couple of quiet streets in this now gentrified district, dodging dog shit.
We crossed the river near the old military tower, the Torre del Oro, and wandered back into the old city for some excellent tapas at El Pasaje. In fact, it was probably the best meal of the weekend. Bizarrely, we ended up chatting to an American actor we’d seen a few months before in the West End production of The Book of Mormon. As you do…
We completed our sightseeing at the Hospital de los Venerables, famous for an attractive courtyard and an over-the-top Baroque chapel, but otherwise just OK as a stop. I’m sure, though, that the ancient priests who retired here in the dim and distant past were happy to call it home.
And that was that. We said goodbye to Seville in the early evening, heading for our Club Europe flight home, to a rainy and windy Gatwick, on a British Airways Airbus.
Seville had won me over. I’d found it to be a handsome, lively city, elegant but not stuffy. The weather had been great for November, the attractions plentiful, the historic district a charming maze. I just wish we’d found some better restaurants…