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Splendour of Spain
THEY kiss everywhere in Seville. Turn the corner and you almost collide with a kissing couple. Walk through a narrow alley and you're blocked by a kissing couple. Queue to enter a cathedral and you must endure a couple snogging before you.
You wait patiently for these human obstacles to clear because you know the sights beyond them are worth it. You also understand why they're always kissing - the city is too beautiful and romantic not to be. (Single travellers prone to feeling sorry for themselves should take this as a warning.)
At their finest, the grand attractions of this ancient city look like they are being Photoshopped with every 10 steps you take. Splendid baroque cathedrals rise before you with ornate facades and interiors. Incandescent mosques built in the 8th century can take a jaded traveller's breath away.
Even the quieter corners in the Jewish quarters look like they've been artfully lit for a Hollywood movie about Natalie Portman finding love in Spain, titled Eat Pray Ole!
Seville and its neighbouring city Cordoba belong to the greater region of Andalusia, which sits in the southern end of Spain.
Both cities are included in Insight Vacations' Amazing Spain & Portugal tour package, which also covers Lisbon, Evora and other beautiful Portuguese cities. The competitively-priced package includes good meals and hotels.
Over thousands of years, Andalusia has been the site of several invasions by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths and the Moors. While a history of war, fear, blood and pogroms is nothing to joke about, these conquerors left a rich legacy now embedded in the cities' physical and cultural landscape.
The Moors had a huge influence on Andalusia. Arriving in 711, these mediaeval Muslims turned the city of Cordoba into Europe's centre of art, science and literature. They created majestic mosques that were among the most revolutionary buildings in the world.
Then in the 13th century, the Christians reconquered Andalusia from the Muslims. They transformed Spain into a powerful Christian nation with Seville as its port. Instead of tearing down the mosques, the Christians built their beautiful cathedrals around or next to them. In most cases, they tried to make the churches more splendid than the mosques to show the world who was in charge.
Today both Seville and Cordoba are no longer the epicentres of art and trade - but they have mosques, churches and royal palaces that can leave you dazzled for weeks after your visit.
Seville's top attraction is the stunning Real Alcazar (Royal Fortress). The palace complex occupies 14,000 sq m, while the gardens measure 17 hectares.
If the walls could speak, they would tell you storied tales in several languages of kings, queens, barbarians and virgins who have lived, loved and died here over millenniums. The walls themselves bear beautiful visual proof of their architects from first the Arabic period, then the late Middle Ages' Mudejar, through to the Renaissance, Baroque and the 19th century era.
It was first built in the 10th century by Caliph Abd al-Rahman III and expanded by later caliphs. After the Christian reconquest, Alfonso X and Pedro I called on Moorish craftsmen to create the finest example of Mudejar architecture in Spain. The Palace of King Pedro I - also known as the Mudejar Palace - incorporates the artistic expression of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities who co-existed in Andalusia.
The Mudejar design even appears in the nearby Seville Cathedral, the world's third largest church. Legend has it when the builders designed the cathedral in the 16th century, they were determined to create something so monumental that people would think they were mad.
Walking in, you'll be instantly awestruck by the warm glowing arch ceilings that tower some 10 storeys above you, giving you a feeling of being ensconced in some giant womb. Spanning 1,068 sq m, the massive cathedral has numerous chapels, altars, statues and artworks - topped by the tomb of Christopher Columbus, one of the first European explorers to reach the Americas.
On this writer's first night in Seville, Insight Vacations sprung a lovely surprise - one of many on the trip - by taking the tour group on a night horse-carriage ride through the picturesque Plaza de Espana and the Maria Luisa Park. The latter has enough ponds and mini-palaces to prompt an American journalist to gush: "New York's Central Park has nothing on this park!"
As part of what Insight Vacations call its Signature Experiences, the horse carriages stopped at El Patio Sevillano where the group got to witness the best flamenco dancing in the city. As feet stomp, skirts fly and daggers are drawn to replay scenes from the opera Carmen, Seville over-delivers on its promise of exoticism and sensuality. It's enough to make you want to kiss someone too - or at least order another drink.
Cordoba's time capsule
About 143km away from Seville is Cordoba, another elegant city with a central mosque and cathedral attraction. The journey from Seville to Cordoba is two hours long, but Insight Vacations' tour bus - a luxurious Mercedes Benz with business-class legroom and free Wifi - makes it a whiz.
In Cordoba, the stunning Mezquita (Spanish for "mosque") is proof of the many religious changes Cordoba has undergone over the centuries. It was built as a mosque by the Moors in the 8th century, on a site where a Roman temple once stood.
After two centuries of development, it became the glorious heart of more than 1,000 mosques in Cordoba. Its prayer hall stretched to infinity with almost 1,300 columns. (Of these, 856 remain). It also held an original copy of the Koran and an arm bone of the prophet Mohammed, making it a pilgrimage site for Muslims.
In the early 13th century, the Christians took control of Cordoba and returned the city to Christendom. The conquerors were bowled over by the lavish architectural innovations of the mosque and decided to build a cathedral within its premises. Over the centuries, other Christian kings added various features to the Mezquita, turning it into a sublime architectural oddity unlike anything you've ever seen.
For the modern visitor, it is a strange experience to wander through the large Muslim prayer hall, only to enter a gilded cathedral filled with Biblical images and crucifixes. But what has not been destroyed allows the visitor to step back in time to imagine a history of victories and defeats, faith and fear - and gaze reverentially at what beauty men can create when truly answering to a higher power.
- The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations. For more information, visit www.insightvacations.com or call 6922 5950/6922 5978. There is currently a S$128 airfare deal per person (excluding taxes and fuel surcharges) with Lufthansa if you sign up for an Insight Vacations tour. Upcoming tours include the 11-day Elegance of Great Britain holiday priced at US$2,995 (originally US$3,425) and the 11-day European Spotlight priced at US$3,355. Also, check out Kiss92 FM every Monday at 6.30pm as DJ John Klass tells you about Insight Vacations tours and some of its current deals. Visit Insight Vacations at Natas Travel Fair this weekend, Singapore Expo Hall 8.