We’re on assignment in Seville now, researching original angles on what might be Spain’s most vibrant city. We’re staying in a boutique hotel known as the Alcoba, which has been translated for me as an old Moorish word meaning ‘a place where lovers meet’. I wonder if it might once have been a more literary way of saying ‘knocking shop’.
We’re spending as much ‘research time’ as possible capturing the atmosphere of the local hangouts of old Triana quarter – concentrating on tobacco-stained torero cafes and gypsy flamenco joints. When I first visited Triana about 20 years ago it was still considered a mildly lawless place: the Sevillana bandit country, where late at night anything might happen. Today it’s gaining a reputation as an increasingly trendy Spanish Soho but is still the best place for visitors who really want to sample Andalucian city life.
Seville is, of course, rich in historical monuments but the soul of the great Andalucian cities is most often to be found in the timeless backstreets with their Gitano (Gypsy) traditions. The quarter of Triana (some experts say that the name derives from Latin for ‘those across the river’) has long been famous as the celebrated birthplace of the lustiest flamenco musicians and the most fearless matadors. It is also a neighbourhood with spectacularly bi-polar tendencies – although the locals see nothing strange in their increasingly fervent devotion to the local Madonnas as Semana Santa fever begins to build.
It’s a neighbourhood that highlights some facets of Spain that are fast disappearing – going the way of the last of the roving knife-sharpeners who whistle their way through the old quarters, and the gas delivery men who bring not only gas but local gossip to the housewives of the barrios. We’re heading out to hunt down a few of these local traditions as they still exist in old Seville: the ceramics workshops and carpenters; the leatherworkers hand-stitching boots for vaquero cowboys; the butchers who still deal in horse-flesh and fighting bulls.
After all, it’s even possible to feel nostalgic about squat-toilets now that there are possibly only a few dozen left in the country.