Showtime in Carmen's old stamping ground
Bizet's flamboyant heroine still haunts Seville, discovers Jeremy Atiyah. Even if she's really a Belgian tour guide called Johanna
It's and the solar whiteout is
not yet finished. But I'm on a walking tour of
07 September 2003
But she definitely resembles the character from Bizet's opera, and she is also
Off we go, with Carmen in the lead, heading on down to the tobacco factory. She is trundling a tatty old shopping bag on wheels behind her, from which she occasionally whips out an accordion. Then she begins to sing, rough little songs for Carmen and her lover Don Jose, whose two faces, on cardboard, face each other in an eternal stroppy stand-off above the accordion.
"Welcome to my factory!" she cries, when we get there. My idea of the tobacco factory from the Carmen story is of a handful of women in a seedy little sweatshop. In fact, this factory was the centrepiece of Spanish industry, and here it is: a monumental, square 18th-century palace, larger even than
And as Carmen now explains, you had to have very nimble fingers to get a job there. In other words, you had to be a woman, preferably (if rumours were true) a sultry, long-haired beauty with flashing coal-black eyes and a dagger in your garter, who would break out into a spontaneous foot-stomping, neck-arching, castanet-clicking dance routine every time the foreman turned his back.
No wonder the tobacco factory of
"It was all
Luxury, then, is nothing new to these streets. This is a city where architects could afford to worry as much about the smell and sound of their buildings as their appearance. We pass a sign advertising "LOVELY TYPICAL SEVILLIAN HOUSES WITH SMELL OF ORANGE BLOSSOM FOR RENT". From courtyards green with foliage and littered with oranges comes the trickle of water and the coo of doves.
We head back to the centre. Tourists in shady squares are thinking about the first drink of the evening. Horse-and-carriage drivers keep shouting "Hola Carmen!" as they trot past. Right by the Alcazar, we find ourselves on a street called Miguel Mañara, which prompts Carmen to break out into new raptures. "My hero!" she cries, crossing her hands lovingly over her heart, before beginning to tell the tale of her alter ego, that other Sevillian symbol of libertinism - Don Juan, later immortalised by Mozart as Don Giovanni.
It is not clear who came first, the historical figure Miguel Mañara or the mythical character Don Juan, who first appeared as El Burlador de Sevilla ("the Seducer of Seville") in 1630, in a play by the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina. But either way, sensual
Carmen, meanwhile, continues to talk passionately about Miguel Mañara. As a young man, she explains, Mañara had not only ruined the chastity of respectable girls, but also had even taken to murdering their fathers. Later in life he had done a famous about-turn, becoming a prior and spending his entire fortune on a hospital for the poor. Now he is regarded in
Now she sits us all down in the shadow of the Giralda and begins to sing about the circumstances of how she met Don Jose, her lover in Bizet's story. She had cut another woman's face, she calmly explains, after being mocked for her gypsy origins. "And Don Jose was one of those assigned to the job of taking me off to prison!" she adds, with a laugh. "That was how we met!" But before Carmen has time to explain further, the bells of the Giralda start ringing like crazy, swinging and ringing as if there is no tomorrow. The heat is crushing, but the sun has set and a Spanish couple will marry.
We walk down towards the river into the old warehouse area that used to back on to the port. The poor once teemed here in their thousands. But Carmen's beaming smile tells us a story: for here is the grand Hospital of the Caridad, the hospital built on the orders of her old friend Miguel Mañara. And there, in a courtyard opposite, overgrown with roses and long grass, we glimpse a forgotten statue of the man himself.
Yet another Sevillian wedding is taking place, just as we try to peer into the famous chapel of the hospital. The guests are in elegant silk and chiffon; we tourists in shorts and sandals. But there in the doorway lies the tombstone of Miguel Mañara. Carmen is clapping her hands in joy and exclaiming at the top of her voice, to the consternation of the wedding guests: "He wanted all the world to walk all over him!" But I can't help wondering if he wasn't just lobbying for sainthood. "With great humility, in his will," I now read, engraved in stone, "he demanded to be buried where all could tread on him... here lie the ashes of the worst man who has ever lived in the world." If that isn't a bad case of 17th-century spin, I don't know what is.
Meanwhile, we are about to emerge on the river itself. Over there in Triana, on the opposite bank, are some of the best and cheapest bars for fishy tapas in the world. Later, I'll sit there and look back over the city, while snacking on sardines dipped in sea salt and scorched on coals. But over here, our singing guide is bringing her story to a climax. We pause under the ancient vaulted ceilings of what used to be
And now here at last is the famous bullring of
But there is nothing funny about this place. Later I'll enter the ring to see shaded seats for princes and for owners - and broiling sun for everybody else. Ominous damp patches stain the sand. The intensity and the intimacy are too much; all of society can see itself in here. There is the small chapel, stuffed with virgins, where bullfighters make their prayers; and here, in the museum, is the stuffed head of a cow, the mother of the bull that killed
Ah yes, the picador. Carmen's fatal mistake. So there it was, outside the bullring, in a dusty square by the river, that she and jealous lover had their last argument. "Come to
At this moment I feel oddly emotional. All of us have fallen silent. Right by the river we find ourselves beside
Jeremy Atiyah travelled with
Carmen's guided walking tour departs daily except Tuesday and Sunday at from the corner of Calle Sto. Thomas and Calle Miguel Mañara, near the Alcazar entrance. What you pay is up to you.
Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).