Arriving in Seville from Barcelona by bullet train, I inhaled the scent of orange blossoms. My taxi squeezed down narrow cobblestone streets laid out in the days before cars existed. Church chimes lightened my path to a downtown park, where Flamenco students danced, their ruffled sleeves and shawls lifting like wings in a tepid breeze. Free, fleeting, lively, proud, spontaneous. Ah, charming Andalucía, the culture of Spain adorned with traces of ancient Moorish civilization.
The story of Flamenco spirit can best be told through the women accompanying their husband-traders to Seville livestock fairs in centuries past. Their lively calico robes, bearing the thumbprint of Gypsies (Romani people), caught the eye of upper echelon “ladies,” who by mid-20th century adopted the flair for themselves. With this rousing endorsement, Flamenco joined “mainstream” southern Spain identity. Through the ensuring decades, ornamentations such as flowers, combs, lace, stitching, jewels, belts and fans graced the female figure and tresses as hems grew shorter, sleeves longer, and then hems lengthened again.
Seville on a Whirl
Flamenco’s evolution unspools like a dream at the Seville Flamenco Museum, a multi-media mix of rolling screen TVs, earphones, taped histories and artifacts from famous dancers. This gallery is one of Seville’s most popular attractions. Interactive exhibits explain the history through costumes, paintings and photography. Shelves of Flamenco realia including prints, magnets and bookmarks await in the gift shop. The museum also offers evening dance performances.
Flamenco exhibitions are held at various locations throughout Seville. I attended one organized through my hotel. A trio of dancers, two women and a male, stamped and glided to the beat of hands, heels, guitar and a voice calling out in canto. The tempo of clapping buoying heels in motion was never so apparent as the showpiece of this alluring tradition.
Seville is full of casual, outdoor dining under colorful umbrellas. Along the street, musicians entertained, sometimes singing or drawing laughs, such as the “headless” accordion player. Over three days, I studied the collection at the Museo Bella Artes, walked the gardens of the Alcazar, marveled at the World Heritage Cathedral, and climbed steep steps to the historic Maritime (naval) Museum Torre del Oro on the edge of the Guadalquivir River.
Arcos de La Frontera: Medieval Times, Enduring Tradition
Leaving Seville, I traveled south by public bus to Arcos de la Frontera, one of Spain’s “White Towns,” where morning glories, bougainvillea, begonias, petunias, marigolds and plumeria brightened my mood. My taxi ascended to the Hotel Parador on the edge of a cliff in the old city. The view below opened to an exquisite panorama of a fertile valley where cars resembled wind-up toys coursing a track as the land stretched into the setting sun. An adjacent church clanged on the hour.
Steps away, a medieval labyrinth of stone paths undulated along structures with angled entryways, creating the feel of life in previous ages. Sporadic tapping echoed through twisting passageways. Could that be Flamenco coming from a wall overhead? I remembered reading that special nails in dancers’ heels enhance resonance, converting shoes into a percussive instrument. When I asked a young restaurant waiter about the reverberations, he was quick to reply, “They’re practicing.” It was as if “they” were most everybody in town and Flamenco a life guarantee.
A 2013 New York Times article entitled, “Flamenco’s Foreign Saviors,” described an increase in “Flamenco tourism.” One expert noted that visitors’ romance with Flamenco schools has injected millions into the Spanish economy.
While I enjoyed walks to the new part of Arcos de la Frontera, my heart and appetite stayed corded to the old town, rich in churches and clerics past. My favorite restaurant, the Bar La Cárcel, served smoked salmon, lettuce hearts with mackerel, and pancakes/crepes with bacon spinach and ricotta cheese. The fact that locals frequented this eatery validated its authenticity.
Málaga: Vibrant Birthplace of Pablo Picasso
Onward to Málaga, a two-pronged trip, first by bus to the nearby town of Jerez, where I transferred to train, seamlessly streaming east to the Costa del Sol. From the moment of arrival in this seaside birthplace of Pablo Picasso, I sensed a vibrant city. Birds chirped, churches chimed, the Mediterranean sparkled. High on a hill, La Alcazada Fortress and Gibralfaro Castle watched over the port like an older brother.
There’s much to do in Málaga, from the museum of the same name, to the historic Ateranzas Market, to the waterfront populated by joggers, cyclists and power walkers. The outdoor Roman theatre was a sight to behold.
Daily, I sauntered through the Paseo del Parque saturated with flowers and foliage on my way to downtown, where garlands of miniature holiday lights serve as a gateway to shops, almond carts, churches, and restaurants. I spent hours outside cafes where I leisurely watched pedestrians pass arm-in-arm in flowered sweaters, vests, bows, flip flops or heels, canes, and fragrant body wash.
It wasn’t unusual to see an impromptu Flamenco exhibition by young women stamping and swaying while they clapped and called out fiery phrases of inspiration as shoppers gathered. Their white sleeves fell over their hands like the spathe of calla lilies. I’d seen similar graceful sheaths, coverlets and flounces in magazine ads and on clothing racks back home in the U.S.
Indeed, folded fabric is no stranger to Americans; we loved it down Prince’s chest, around David Bowie’s neck, and peeking out of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s cloak. Whether layered on sleeves, chests or hemlines, the look of gathered ruffles has reignited fashion runways worldwide.
One afternoon, I approached the dancers to admire their blouses with the long wispy sleeves. They suggested I visit El Rocio, a shop just blocks away that catered to Flamenco wear. There, I bought a mint green blouse with dense rows of ruffles on flared sleeves and down the front. Seven pairs of Flamenco earrings begged to come with me also. Of all the souvenirs I brought back to the U.S., none are more cherished than my Andalucian earrings and ruffles.
If You Go
-The Seville Flamenco Museum: http://www.museoflamenco.com/
-Restaurant Bar La Cárcel in Arcos de la Frontera: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g229461-d1747976-Reviews-BarlaCarcel-ArcosdelaFronteraCostadelaLuzAndalucia.html
-“Flamenco’s Foreign Saviors,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/world/europe/flamencos-foreign-saviors.html
-The Store “El Rocio” in Malaga: http://www.flamencoelrocio.com/; or https://www.facebook.com/trajesdeflamencaelrocio.es/?fref=ts