Seville, the capital of Andalusia, is about two hours from the coastal town of Tarifa, where on a sunny day you can see Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar. But the distance seems much shorter. Seville has more than a little of Marrakech in its bones: The streets are ill lit, the best restaurants are some of the cheapest in town, and a private palacio is far chicer to stay in than a glittering hotel.
I get my first glimpse of this side of the city—the bohemian, charming, old-world side—at just such a house: Casa Real Alcázar. It delivers me beyond the clichéd landmarks, lovely as they are, of the cathedral and the bullring and the squares wrapped in the perfume of mature orange trees. I can feel the old Seville in the palace's 13th-century walls, in the hushed efficiency of its butler and cook, and in the silence of the flower-filled courtyard. The stillness is seductive, as captivating as the pierced butterflies in glass cases in the upstairs drawing room. The colors of their wings—turquoise, scarlet, indigo, white—are echoed through the house, in its embroidered linen pillow slips, zebra skin-covered chairs, and jasmine pouring over wrought-iron balconies. A silver hairbrush lies on a marble dressing table. Editions of Harper's Bazaar from the forties fill the bookshelves. Sun-bleached tiles speak of a rarefied history; so, too, the silk-covered walls displaying family oils, pastels, and photos of European royalty playing polo, on boats, on the beach, and hunting wild boar. This nine-suite palace—which, with the right contacts, can be rented—is home to Hernando Bárcenas Fitz James Stuart, son of the Marchioness of Tenorio, a granddaughter of the Duke of Peñaranda, who was a nephew of Eugénie de Montijo, the Empress of France. From the bedroom windows you look over the palm-filled gardens of the King of Spain's palace, Real Alcázar. Highborn names simply roll off the tongue.
"You have the most beautiful garden in the world and you don't have to pay for its staff," muses my escort, Cédric Reversade, as we stand on the marchioness's balcony in the town's historic district. Reversade, a dapper Frenchman and former professional flamenco dancer—with a penchant for Hermès—books private palaces all across Europe for some 60 high-end clients. Andalusia is his passion, particularly Seville, where he has been coming for years to eat, shop, and shoot the breeze with a clutch of chic Sevillians and other Europeans who consider the city their second home. Use Reversade as you please: as party planner, shopper, house booker, or cultural guide. He is expert at everything. In the past I have wandered through Seville's warrenlike lanes, which date from ancient Roman times. What I saw then, however, was no more alive than if I had been walking along the corridors of a museum. The city keeps itself hidden, like a dancer concealing her face behind a fan, forever tempting the observer with the possibility of even richer pleasures. Only with someone like Reversade does the fan drop and those pinned butterflies begin to fly.
Seville's proximity to North Africa accounts for not only the Islamic inflection of the city's local culture but also its devout Catholicism. For five centuries Seville was an Islamic city, until Catholic defenders reconquered it in 1248. (Semana Santa, or Holy Week, still bears this fervor.) Seville can also be deeply glamorous, the Renaissance art and architecture a testament to its former wealth. In 1503 the crown awarded Seville a monopoly on Spanish trade with Colonial America. For nearly two centuries it was the New York City of its day: cosmopolitan, energetic, vital. Despite a rapid fall from grace—because of plagues, the silting of the harbor, a 17th-century government preference for Cádiz that wrested away Seville's business with the New World—the people remain carefree and vivacious. Go out here and you will be up all night. Make one friend and the parties will seem to never stop.
Reversade is just that sort of friend. When he meets me at the airport, he has just finished showing a Swiss banker some venues for his 40th-birthday fête. The client chose the 16th-century Casa-Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija; Reversade has gained access to the upstairs floors, normally closed to the public. The palace is brimming with Roman artifacts, among them mosaics and broken busts from Itálica, one of the empire's greatest cities, whose ruins stand a 30-minute drive from Seville. Everywhere are antiques—cabinets, porcelain, trunks—gathered by the palace's former countess of Lebrija, who traveled extensively through Europe and the Americas before her death in 1938. It is an intimate space, not overpowering, and so loaded with history that you wonder if the banker will have enough room to dance.
Reversade works the inside track. Owners seem to trust him with their palaces, gardens, and haciendas. He also, as it happens, has a reputation for hosting the best balls in town. He tells me of a picnic in the fields outside Seville, where 40 guests arrived in horse-drawn carriages and drank sherry to a backdrop of flamenco. A few weeks prior, he had given a party on the grounds of Cortijo Torre de la Reina, an old fortress with three and a half acres of formal gardens inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. (It also has 13 guest rooms, some dressed in Fortuny fabrics, but the location—neither in nor out of Seville—is rather disappointing.)
Reversade takes me deeper into the heart of the city—and deeper into his address book—to the Church of San Luis de los Franceses, with its perfect cupola, and the Fundación Focus-Abengoa, with its little hidden balconies resembling royal boxes. In both places he has staged private concerts and recitals (earlier that day, Reversade approached a classical guitarist playing in the street, hoping to engage him for an event later this year). We make our way to La Casa de Pilatos, where Reversade can arrange weddings. It's a Mudejar palace (a blend of Christian and Islamic architectural traditions) with courtyards flanked by marble loggias, sheltered bowers, clouds of roses, and pillar-straight palms. According to legend, the public gardens were fertilized by the ashes of the Roman emperor Trajan. His urn, delivered to the first duke of Alcalá by Pope Pius V, was kept in the library until a mischievous servant scattered its contents where lemon trees now grow.
No one can stay at La Casa de Pilatos; in fact, only a handful of Seville's palace owners accept guests. Besides Casa Real Alcázar, the 16th-century Casa Cadenas in the fortress town of Carmona, 20 minutes from Seville, is such a place. Set among olive and cypress trees high above the Andalusian plains, it has 11 recently restored bedrooms packed with antiques: colonial Spanish beds, an ancient suit of armor, a 17th-century writing desk. The drawing room occupies the former stables—a room with marble columns ("In Andalusia," says the owner, "our horses have always been very well kept"). On the top floor is a salon available for private dinners, decorated with framed letters from former Spanish kings. Cadenas is a world of secret rooms and quiet passages, far grander than its fortresslike façade might imply. It is blissfully protected from Spain's high summer heat by three-foot-thick walls and shady patios laid with pebbles from Córdoba. The staff includes a butler and cook, and breakfast is served on the family's monogrammed Portuguese porcelain. Without Reversade, the place is unbookable; with him, the owners, who are his friends, become animated hosts.
After attaining a more profound sense of the city, I turn to Seville's shops, many of them dusty, tucked-away boutiques carrying the personal collections of their owners. At Bastilippo, locked drawers contain layer upon layer of Spanish shawls, or mantillas, some of handmade lace, some with Brussels appliqués, others with glorious 19th-century embroidery. It is a shoebox of an address. "At first sight there doesn't seem like much in this tiny room," says co-owner Fernando López. "You need to give yourself the time to explore and digest." I follow his advice and soon unearth treasures, among them a 19th-century tortoiseshell hairpiece shaped like a bird in flight and inlaid with gold. It is quintessentially Sevillian, of the kind worn by women during the annual Feria de Abril (the colorful party that follows the solemn Semana Santa). Afterward I drop in at the antiques store owned by Ana Abascal—once a muse to Richard Avedon—and her daughter, Patricia Medina. Both women are tall and slim with sleek black hair and dark brown eyes. I fall in love with their finds: mirrors, desks, paintings, a fifties crocodile card box, an 18th-century toy Pegasus with wooden wheels and a leather saddle embroidered with filaments of silver, green, and red. "Seville is a traditional city," Medina says. "Ninety-nine percent of antiques dealers sell the same things. But there are other, more surprising, aspects. That's what I'm interested in—finding things that aren't obvious."
This recherché spirit seems to pervade the smartest circles in Seville, and few of its citizens possess more refined taste than the decorator Manuel Morales de Jódar, who organizes antiques-shopping tours by special arrangement. He could be an Iberian Oscar Wilde, stroking his beloved pug while sitting beneath a grand portrait of himself in his drawing room at the top of a dainty marble staircase. As we talk and sip tea, I warm my legs under a table draped with floor-length velvet and let my eyes wander. The house itself is not grand in size; it is more like a perfectly cut gem. Morales shows me the rooms, ushering me past a Goya that is tucked in a corner among other pocket-size oils, and the bedroom, enveloped in overlapping layers of skins, silk, and velvet. The yellows, oranges, and blues of the house look exotic in the strong Sevillian light—the way they do in the smoke-filled tapas bars, dusky backstreets, and the city's shadowy old churches. A singular past clings to the Seville of today, a place you couldn't bottle, repeat, or find anywhere else—no more than you could re-create the taste of the marmalade sold at the Convento de Santa Paula by a smiling wimpled nun. "The city has Greek, Roman, and Arab history," says Morales, for whom Seville is still the center of the universe. "But her heart was never destroyed by wars. She remains among the most exotic cities in the world—and full of secrets that nobody knows."
Tapas The Inside Track
Alas, those poor turistas who must make do without the right information. For them, dining out, especially on the national dish (tapas), will never hold the magic found in the six addresses below.
BODEGUITA ANTONIO ROMERO This bright, stylish dining room is the place to pair delicate tapas with very good wine (the Vega Sicilia stands out). The bacalao with tomato sauce on grilled bread is terrific. Dinner, $35. At 19 Calle Antonia Díaz; 34-95/422-3939.
CASABLANCA When the king comes to Seville, he eats at this cramped, nondescript restaurant where the daily menu includes specialties such as fideos (spaghetti with clams and fresh mint). Come at noon; seats can be scarce. $ Lunch, $85. At 50 Calle Zaragoza; 34-95/422-4698.
CASA MORALES You won't find any tourists at this smoky haunt with ham hanging from the rafters. Try the black pudding (morcilla) and chicharrones: fat from Jabugo ham, served with fried garlic. $ Dinner, $20. At 11 Calle García de Vinuesa; 34-95/422-1242.
CERVECERIA MARISQUERIA ARENAL Not much more than a few tables next to a fruit-and-vegetable stall, this popular stand produces a daily feast of seafood straight from the ocean. Wash it down with shots of dry Manzanilla. $ Lunch, $30. At Calle Pastor y Landero, Mercado del Arenal; 34-95/422-0881.
LA ALBARIZA Seville's bull breeders gather at this chic riverside spot for drunken lunches over fantastic tapas. The chuletas de cordero lechal (delicate chops from 40-day-old lambs) are hard to beat; nearly as good are the giant sautéed clams with garlic, lemon, Manzanilla, and I peppers. $ Lunch, $95. At 6 Calle Betis; 34-95/433-2016.
TABERNA SOL Y SOMBRA An inexpensive favorite in Triana, the down-at-the-heels neighborhood across the river from the bullring, this cozy spot offers such staples as revuelto de habitas con jamón (fava beans with ham and scrambled egg). Dinner, $50. At 151 Calle Castilla; 34-95/433-3935.
CÉDRIC REVERSADE (44-207/788-7815; email@example.com) can book stays in private palacios (see below) and arrange parties at any of the venues mentioned in this article, including Casa-Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija, Cortijo Torre de la Reina, and La Casa de Pilatos.
WHERE TO STAY
CASA REAL ALCAZAR Rates at this house, which overlooks the beautiful Alcázar gardens, start at $3,035 per night for a minimum of three suites. Meals are additional and must be requested in advance.
CASA CADENAS This 16th-century house, 20 minutes from Seville, sleeps 18 and starts at $18,200 a week, with a cook and housekeeper.
ANA ABASCAL AND PATRICIA MEDINA ANTIQUES 15 Calle Fernández y González; 34-95/422-4540
BASTILIPPO 10 Calle Acetres; 34-95/421-1213
MANUEL MORALES DE JODAR (34-62/970-4499) leads bespoke antiques-buying tours, priced accordingly.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.