The Real Alcazar in Seville: Palaces of dreams, gardens of pleasure
Ever since I had heard of the Real Alcazar in Seville I knew that I had to visit it one day.
Its beauty is legendary and unsurpassed, a feast for the eyes, a stage to let your dreams fly high. The buildings, glorious in their feminine playfulness, pleasing with their strict geometry, free of barriers to let the air flow. They invoked in me Arab fantasies of One Thousand And One Night.
No wonder that the Spanish royal family just couldn’t give up on this palace. It is their Seville royal residence to this very day.
No wonder also that the Game of Thrones production team sought it out to use its gardens and palaces as a set for the Water Gardens of Dorne.
No wonder that the Real Alcazar is yet another UNESCO world heritage site in the city of Seville.
So many reasons to visit, I suppose. Where to start?
A palace of kings
First traces of buildings can be found on the site of the Alcazar (Arab: ‘House of the Prince’) from the first century AD. Although it is hard to say these days, but my guess would be that there has always been a defence purpose that could be identified with the site.
The Moorish kings certainly did see the potential in the area and started to built a whole complex of palaces and military buildings in this part of the city. After them, the Christian kings would continue the expansion and fortification. The alcazar at one stage reached all the way to the banks of the Guadalquivir.
The complex as it stands today was built over an incredibly long period of time, almost 500 years, from the 11th to the 16th century with some later modifications.
As such, the Alcázar of Seville is not just a building, it is a whole complex of buildings.
And let’s not forget the stunning gardens that are just an integral part of the alcazar as are the palaces themselves. There are two main palaces that visitors can see – the famous mudejar-style palace which Peter of Castille built in the 14th century, and the adjoining Gothic palace which pales by comparison with its more famous neighbour.
The royal palaces
I think the best fun fact about the Royal Alcazar in Seville is that the most famous palace of the complex was built by Peter of Castile and not by Moorish princes. It is easy to get fooled here because the illusion is pretty much perfect. The geometrical patterns of the tiles, the ornate domes and ceilings, the water filled patios and of course the horse-shoe shaped arches all find their counterparts in medieval Arab architecture. But the truth is, this is a Christian building through and through.
Peter of Castille was just inspired to copy the Moorish architecture that he quite clearly admired. But there is no harem here and no Turkish baths. It is all just an illusion – a style that is called Mudejar, that is also found in many other places around the south of Spain.
In true Mudejar, the rooms group around the courtyards. They have wide open archways that provide much appreciated shade. Unfortunately, the rooms are not furnished. This would have made it easier to understand their different purposes.
On the other hand, the nakedness of the rooms let their stunning architecture shine – the ornate arches and domes in particular are absolutely awe-inspiring. The golden dome inside the Hall of the Ambassadors is one of the most beautiful domes I have ever seen in my life.
A garden of dreams
The verdant gardens of the royal palace are just as important as the palaces themselves. They are the epitome of Arab influenced garden design – the greenness of the hedges and trees are a welcome sight in the heat of Seville summer day. No wonder they count among the most visited points of interest in Seville.
Water plays an important role in the concept of the gardens. Its trickling and gurgling sounds in the fountains and ponds, the irrigation channels and waterfalls invite you to slow down your pace and just enjoy the moment. Flowers big and small are everywhere, their fragrance filling the air and making your head dizzy. Orange trees, such a typical tree also in the city’s streets, come with the promise of sweet fruit and childhood dreams.
The gardens supplied the household with food, but besides this practicality the pleasure factor is obvious. The gardens are here for everyone to enjoy. To find satisfaction in the orderly lines of the hedge rows. And to rest your eyes over the delicious greenness while enjoying the views from the Grotto Gallery. To cool down in the shade of wind-breaking walls where water all around you fills the air with the promise of refreshment.
One element of the garden stands out: The Mercury Pond with its prominent Mercury figure in the middle. Textured stone in the background mimic the look of rocks as you would find them in a grotto, encrusted with shells, corroded by seawater.
And there is more that meets the eye
What everybody tends to neglect is that there is more to see at the Alcázar of Seville then just the Mudejar palace and the gardens. There is also an exhibition with oil paintings (mostly nobles and royals) and the collection of beautiful handheld fans – a very Spanish thing indeed!
You can check out the collection of tiles and ceramics, the collection of tapestries and a stunning altar in the Admiral’s Hall. As pretty as these things seem, nothing compares with the beauty of the most famous part of the palace complex.
The Real Alcazar in Game of Thrones
Without doubt, the hit show Game of Thrones put the Alcazar in Seville on the map for many visitors who were previously not very familiar with Spanish royal architecture.
And indeed, the setting is just stunning – the stage designers had very little work to do to transform the palace and the gardens into the Water Gardens and Sunspear of Dorne. I am inclined to think that the author of the books, George RR Martin already had this location in mind when writing the books.
Just go back to Season 5 and study the scenes closely. The Mudejar elements, the gilded arches and domes, the ornamental gardens, they all come together perfectly as a backdrop to the kingdom that is ruling the arid and rocky south of the continent of Westeros.
What to expect when you visit the Real Alcazar in Seville
The Palace and its grounds are extremely popular with tourists that like to visit Seville all year around. When you plan a visit to the site do factor in big crowds. In particular weekends and during the high season in summer it can get very busy. I recommend that you book your ticket beforehand – this way you can skip the worst of the queues.
Since this is still a royal residence, baggage checks are in place for each visitor. Photography is not an issue unless you want to take commercial pictures or show up with a tripod. You need to lock away bigger backpacks for EUR 1, so make sure you have a coin ready.
Personally, I didn’t feel that I needed a guided tour (I have usually very little patience with guided tours anyway). But now that I am doing some research on the topic I wished I had access to someone I could ask more questions about the use of the palace.
In particular the Mudejar palace by King Peter of Castille is intriguing. And since there is no furniture it would have been nice to have more information on the purpose and use of the different halls, rooms and patios. If you don’t like guided tours like me, the audio guide that you can secure at the entrance would be a good alternative to consider.
Tips for visiting the Alcazar
I strongly recommend you pick a date and time with less likelihood of visitors. Even though the palace complex is huge and you will probably not feel the need to fight over space it is just more enjoyable to see the architecture and the delicate artwork with less people blocking your sight. When I say date and time I mean winter instead of summer, week day instead of the weekend, early morning instead of early afternoon.
You may want to factor in a couple of hours for your visit. Since you’ve come all the way you want to be able to truly enjoy the gardens, the buildings and the exhibitions. You can easily combine a visit of the Alcazar with a self-guided walking tour of the old town of Seville – another exciting point of interest. It’s basically right on its doorstep – finish your visit with some tapas and cool down with a jug of sweet sangria.
A last word of warning: Seville can get extremely hot in summer – it is one of the hottest places in all of Spain. So if you do need to visit in July or August make sure you start early to avoid temperatures that can easily peak at 45 degrees.