Ceramic tiles with blue border and brown lion and castle
Architecture,  History,  Seville

A visit to the Real Alcázar of Seville

Once upon a time, when Seville was the capital of Al-Andalus, the ruling Almohade caliphate built a palace in the city which they named ‘Al Mubarak’ or ‘The Blessed’. It was the hub of both the city’s government and its artistic and literary life.

Little of that palace remains today, apart from some foundations. On these, in the thirteenth century, the conquering Castilians built their own palace to serve as both seat of government and royal residence, a function the Alcázar performs to this day.

Over time various rulers have added to and made their mark on the palace. Today it feels like several distinct palaces linked by courtyards and staircases. There is the thirteenth century Palacio Gótico built for Alfonso X El Sabio, designed to represent the triumph of Christian ideology against the Muslim past. There is the fourteenth century Mudéjar palace of Pedro I; and the fifteenth century first floor added by Isabella and Fernando, the ‘Catholic monarchs’. This latter is still used by the Spanish royal family and there is an additional fee to visit it.

Please join me on our recent visit to the palace.

Visiting the palace

Access to the upper floor, which we were of course keen to see, is strictly controlled, with limited numbers, tight security and no photography. This meant we had to pre-book a specific time at which we were to be at the foot of the staircase leading to this ‘inner sanctum’, which in turn meant that we were a little haphazard in our explorations of the rest. In this post I plan to follow our route but skip the gardens, which we visited part way through the afternoon and which I described in a previous post.

We entered through the Lion Gate, the Puerta del León, where our tickets were checked.

Red wall with battlements and image of a lion
The Lion Gate

This brought us into the courtyard or patio of the same name. This space was in the seventeenth century home to a theatre but today is shaded by bauhinia trees.

Bauhinia trees in the Courtyard of the Lion

It leads to the next, larger, courtyard, the Patio de la Montería. Facing us as we entered this was the façade of Pedro I’s palace, Palacio del Rey Don Pedro; but this we decided to leave until later as we knew it would take more time than we had to spare before our appointment at the upper floor.

High wall with rich decorated and arched windows
The façade of Pedro I’s palace

This façade carries the inscription ‘El mui alto y mui noble y mui poderoso y mui conqueror don Pedro por la gracia de Dios Rey de Castilla at de Leon mando fazer estos Alcázares y estos Palacios y estas portadas que fue fecho en la era de mil et quatrocientos y dos’. This translates as ‘The highest, noblest and most powerful conqueror Don Pedro, by God’s grace King of Castile and Leon, has caused these Alcázares and these palaces and these façades to be built, which was done in the year 1402’.

The House of Trade / Casa de Contratación

Leading off the courtyard to our right we found the Casa de Contratación, founded by Isabella I of Castille to oversea foreign trade and exploration. The government office housed here was responsible for collecting colonial taxes and duties; it approved all voyages of exploration and trade; and it maintained secret information on trade routes and new discoveries. The main room is known as the Admirals’ Room or Cuarto del Almirante. Here Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano planned the first circumnavigation of the world.

In the chapterhouse, serving as a small chapel off the main room, we came across an important painting, the Virgin of the Navigators (La Virgen de los Navegantes). This work by Spanish artist Alejo Fernández forms the chapel altarpiece’s central panel. It reflects the traditional iconography of the Virgin of Mercy, her arms outspread to protect the faithful; but in this twist on the usual images here she straddles the seas, uniting the continents. Ships cross the waters under her protection, and Spanish rulers and navigators shelter beneath her cloak. They include Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand II of Aragon and the emperor Charles V. A sign in the room prompted us to look closely to see the indigenous people of the Americas behind the Spanish, also benefitting from the Virgin’s protection after their conversion, by their conquerors, to the Christian faith.

The Virgin of the Navigators

The Hall of Justice / Sala de Justicia

Tucked away in a corner on the opposite side of the Patio de la Montería we found the Sala de Justicia, Hall of Justice. A sign told us that this was the first Mudéjar structure in the palace, built by Alfonso XI in the mid fourteenth century. Mudéjar can be defined as Muslim stylistic devices adapted to the Christian world. This was the residence of Pedro I before the construction of his new palace. It is decorated with plaster work that blends Muslim tradition with Castilian emblems.

The Hall of Justice

The Courtyard of the Plaster, Patio del Yeso

Beyond this room is the Courtyard of the Plaster, Patio del Yeso. This is considered the most significant of the Almohad Moorish remains in the palace.

Small courtyard with a pool surrounded by arched brick buildings
The Courtyard of the Plaster

On one side (the right-hand as you look at my photo above) you can glimpse the portico described on the information sign thus:

‘a jewel of the Almohad architecture. It consists of a larger central arch, on axis with the door of the room behind and flanked by three smaller arches on columns on each side. This portico is composed by lintels, so there is no weight over the arches, its only function is decorative’.

Details of plasterwork in the Courtyard of the Plaster

Levies Courtyard / Patio de los Levíes

With time to kill before our appointed time to visit the upper rooms we wandered back over the other side of the Patio de la Montería. Passing the rooms of the Casa de Contratación which we had already seen, we explored the tranquil Patio de los Levíes, with its Renaissance-style pilasters, and the adjoining Patio de Romero Murube, named for a former curator of the Real Alcázar.

The Patio de los Levíes on the left and the Patio de Romero Murube on the right

Visiting the Upper Royal Residence / Cuarto Real Alto

Blue stairs with walls decorated with tiles
Stairs to the Upper Royal Residence

Visits to the first floor of Pedro I’s palace are as I mentioned strictly controlled. You have to buy tickets in advance; and visitors are required to present themselves at the foot of the stairs fifteen minutes before the time on their ticket. We were there promptly, in time to take photos of the beautiful staircase decorated with tiles. In the past this upper floor would have been used in the winter months; being higher it receives more sun and is less exposed to the elements. Meanwhile the lower floor was ideal for the heat of a Seville summer, with plenty of shade and cooled by breezes from the many patios.

At the top we were welcomed and briefed. No photos were to be allowed and bags, cameras etc had to be put into the lockers provided; the guide kindly lent us the required euro to operate these. Oddly mobile phones were permitted but couldn’t be used for photography. I wasn’t sure why they were excepted from the ‘leave everything in the lockers’ rule; however I kept mine with me as I like to keep track of my steps each day!

We were given an audio guide each, set to our chosen language. Then our small group of about a dozen tourists was summoned through the doors which were locked behind us. We were accompanied from room to room by a silent security guard whose only role seemed to be to check we behaved ourselves; and that we all moved on at the appropriate point in the commentary on the audio guide.

The security is perhaps unsurprising; this is, after all, still the private residence of the royal family, used by them whenever they visit Seville. I have no photos to share so you will have to take my word for it that the rooms are sumptuous and well worth the extra you must pay to visit. They include the chapel of Isabella and her bedroom, an ornate dining room with the table set for a state banquet, the audience room and several ante chambers, and a mirador that looks down on to the Alcázar’s most celebrated courtyard, the Courtyard of the Maidens or Patio de las Doncellas.

After our visit to the upper floor we decided to explore the gardens which I have already described in a previous post. We also had a refreshment break on the pleasant terrace of the self-service café in the grounds.

The Gothic Palace / Palacio Gótico

Returning from there we found ourselves in the Gothic Palace. This is the earliest of the Christian structures, built over the old Almohad Palace. It consists of two long rooms set parallel to each other, and two smaller rooms placed across them at each end. One of the larger rooms, the Gran Salón, is decorated with beautiful tiles, a sixteenth century addition.

The Gothic Palace rooms

The other large room is the Tapestries Room, Salón de los Tapices. According to the sign this room was badly damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and later restored. The tapestries that give it its name are copies of originals commissioned by Philip II. They depict the military campaign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V against Tunisia and the details in them are intriguing.

Tapestry in the Gothic Palace

I was puzzling over one depicting a map, unable to get my bearings on it, when an English couple arrived with their private guide. I confess to a bit of eavesdropping at this point and was fascinated to discover the reason for my bewilderment; the map is upside-down!

Large tapestry map
The upside-down map tapestry

At the bottom we have the Mediterranean coast of France and Spain, with Barcelona from where the Spanish ships departed near the centre. To the left you can see Sardinia and Corsica. Top right are the Straits of Gibraltar, and the coast of Africa fills the upper part. Now it all makes sense!

The Palace of Pedro I / Palacio del Rey Don Pedro

It is perhaps unfortunate that we left this part of the Alcázar to the end of our visit as we were running low on time and, in my case, energy. Nevertheless I found its many rooms stunning! Here are some of the highlights.

The Courtyard of the Maidens / Patio de las Doncellas

This we had already glimpsed looking down from the upper floors. Visitors follow a one-way path around this; I lingered for a while trying to get a shot without anyone in it, in vain.

The Courtyard of the Maidens

The name is a reference to the apocryphal story that the Moors demanded an annual tribute of 100 virgins from the Christian kingdoms of Iberia. Its arches are of elaborately carved stucco, almost lace-like in appearance, and the inner walls covered in ceramic tiles. Recurring motifs include the shell, a symbol of fertility and life, and the hand of Fatima for protection.

The upper floor was added in the later 16th century; it is therefore Renaissance in style, but the whole appearance of the courtyard is very harmonious.

The Courtyard of the Dolls /  Patio de las Muñecas

This much smaller courtyard gets its name from the small faces that decorate some of the arches. Unfortunately I only realised this later so omitted to look for and photograph them! The courtyard’s mezzanine and the top gallery were added in the 19th century for Queen Isabel II; they were taken from the Alhambra and don’t quite match the original style, but I thought they looked very pretty nevertheless!

The Courtyard of the Dolls

The Hall of the Catholic Kings Ceiling / Sala del Techo de los Reyes Católicos

This room was added to the palace during the time of the so-called Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. The decoration on its ceiling includes their symbols: a yoke, a sheaf of arrows and the motto tatomota. The latter refers to the fact that both monarchs were equally valued and powerful. The coat of arms incorporates all the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century and is crowned by the eagle of St. John.

Looking up at a decorated and carved wooden ceiling
Ceiling of the Hall of the Catholic Kings

The Hall of the Ambassadors / Salon de Embajadores

This is perhaps the most lavish of all the rooms in the palace. It takes the form of a cube, echoing the Muslim Qubba, in which the lower part symbolises the earth and the domed ceiling the heavens.

The Hall of the Ambassadors

The hall was built during the reign of Al-Mu’tamid in the 11th century and was originally the palace’s throne room. Under Pedro I it was remodelled, with more decorative elements added in plaster work and tiles. The orientation was also changed, no longer facing Mecca but towards the northeast, to open off the Courtyard of the Maidens. This was where Pedro would receive his most important guests. And here too, in 1526, Emperor Charles V and Isabella of Portugal celebrated their marriage.

This beautiful room is as good a place as any to finish this ‘tour’. It’s been a lengthy one but with so much to see here that was perhaps inevitable. And yet, there are areas we ran out of time to visit, so this post could have been even longer!

I visited Seville in November 2021


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