SEVILLE, Spain — Any time is a good time to be in Spain, but, if you're lucky enough to be in Seville in April, count your blessings.
It is the time when Sevillanos pull out all stops to put on a pageant more than 130 years old. It's the time when Lenten vows are forgotten and women decorate a city already beautiful by wearing flamenco dresses with polka-dotted flounces.
April is when men wear the flat Cordoban hats, embroidered boleros and red cummerbunds. This is the week of the famous Feria.
My car was ready for me in Madrid, but the promised guide with the tantalizing name of Jesus was not; we would meet at my hotel in Seville. I drove across red plains dotted with whitewashed farmhouses and oak trees beneath which flop-eared pigs feasted on acorns. I drove past towns with chapels on high hills and through miles of vineyards showing new green leaves.
I had the road to myself except for an occasional sad-eyed burro laden with firewood. Once, a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Mercedeses whipped by, leaving a cloud of dust.
A narrow side road with ruts carved by wagon wheels led me to a walled town shimmering in the sun. Its gate was too narrow to admit my car. Surely this was a town of knights and ladies, I thought, but instead it was a ruin of cobbled streets, a falling-down casa invaded by weeds and vines, a Moorish tower and a small church seeming to apologize for being there.
Six men squatting around a cockfight scooped up their birds to let me pass; anything I wanted to know, I would have to ask the priest over there talking to two Guardia Civilis.
I asked the name of the town? Well now, that depends; the Romans who built it had a name, but the Moors who chased the Romans out had another. Now it was simply Our Lady named for his church, the Church of Our Lady the Virgin, and too insignificant to appear on my road map.
An Anglican bishop tapped the cobbles with an impatient gaitered foot while his wife, martyrdom etched in every line, sniffled and snorted at his side. The priest took us through his church, a church with blue Moorish tiles on the floor and a gilded Christ over the altar, arms outspread. A huge iron key opened a vestry, where red robes and skulls and broken chairs vied for room.
On to Seville
Seville's great, dark cathedral looms above the skyline: There's no doubt where you are. My short, overweight guide was pacing in front of Hotel Madrid, my base for the week. It's small, furnished in antiques and infinitely cozier than the posh Alfonso where I stayed two years ago at five times the rate of Hotel Madrid's $28 a day.
Jesus' lady-love, a chambermaid, bounced my luggage up two flights, threw open the windows and stumped off to fetch coffee. She wouldn't set many hearts aflutter with her brawniness and that hint of a mustache.
I leaned out the window that hung over the narrow, twisting street alive with passing carriages of women in costume, driver on high seat resplendent in Cordoban hat and flourishing a beribboned whip over the horse with bells on its collar. Couples walking arm in arm passed below, singing softly, feet shuffling in dance steps.
A hunting cart spilling over with costumed men and women passed, a guitarist strumming chords as the occupants sang. Nothing loud, nothing noisy. The city never sleeps in Feria week, nor is it ever still, but all motion and music and gaiety.
To get the feel of the Feria you have to get out into it. The main street from the cathedral to the cigarette factory made famous in "Carmen" is lined with red and white tents called casitas . Here is where families entertain other families; no outsiders, please. Some casitas are open to strangers, hosted by commercial concerns.
Gypsies Add Color
Carriages and carts of costumed occupants dash from one casita to another to sip sherry and eat cakes and prawns. Gypsies come across the river from Triana to add headaches for police but more color and sound to the ever-moving parade.
You can buy anything at the many booths. Leather goods, jewelry, mantillas and fans, cakes, soft drinks and camel bells. Something not for sale is the Spanish courtesy that ticks on 24 hours a day in all seasons.
In alley-wide Calle de las Sierpes (Street of the Serpents) where only pedestrians are allowed, there are not only shops in every nook and cranny but also beautiful, white Moorish houses whose paved courtyards are ablaze with flowers that spill right up to the wrought-iron gates that protect them.
I love those Arab houses built for privacy. Houses of fine delicacy and strength, with wide doors and patios shaded by pillars and filigree screens. And always water splashing in fountains, flowers and trees.
I bought a little jewel box in one of the shops, inlaid with cedar and locked. A locksmith opened it, and inside was a letter whose ink was already rusty and the parchment crisp.