Seville, capital of Andalucia, lies on the mighty Guadalquivir -- one of Spain's longest rivers -- and is an enchanting city of leafy parks, mosaic-paved riverside promenades, winding medieval streets and grand squares lined with spectacular buildings and studded with fragrant orange trees.
It also has a history that dates back 2,000 years and is displayed in a dazzling array of buildings from Roman ruins and Moorish minarets to magnificent Baroque palaces, Gothic and Renaissance churches and more recently constructed futuristic extravaganzas.
For although it is proud of and eager to preserve its past, modern-day Seville -- which gained eight new river bridges, super-fast rail links and a vast international fan base after hosting the 1992 World Expo -- looks forward as well as back.
Since 2007, the city has gained a bike-sharing scheme and new tram and underground metro links, as well as more high-speed train services and even a trial electric car program. A major upside has been fewer traffic fumes, more pedestrianised streets and cleaner buildings.
But that's not all that recommends this fabulous city. For us, what makes Seville really memorable is its quintessential Spanishness.
Heartland of the flamboyant Flamenco and -- more controversially -- the bloody sport of bullfighting, Seville is also notable for the spookily spectacular religious processions which take place during Semana Santa (Holy Week), when living tableaux re-enact the Easter story, elaborate statues are carried from churches and sinister-looking white-hooded "penitents" process through crowded streets.
A rather more joyful festival takes place after Easter, when the Guadalquivir's west bank plays host to the Feria de Abril (April Fair, which oddly enough is sometimes held in May). This weeklong funfest involves around-the-clock feasting and dancing. Then in June the locals deck the streets with flowers and whoop it up again to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi.
And if you love tapas, those tasty tidbits that go down so well with a glass or two of ruby Rioja, Sevilla (as the Spanish know it) will be your idea of seventh heaven.
Most cruise passengers get to Seville on a day trip from the nearby big-ship port of Cadiz, but in my book that's very much the second-best way to arrive in this wonderful city.
If you can, find a ship small enough to navigate its way up the Guadalquivir -- a fascinating journey past basking fishing boats, lush vineyards, cotton fields and olive and citrus groves.
I watched the life of the Guadalquivir unfold aboard Saga Cruises' nippy little Quest for Adventure (now Saga Pearl II). P&O Cruises's Adonia can also get up the river, as can upmarket small ships like SeaDream II and Seabourn Legend, Azamara Cruises' two ships and -- at the other end of the price scale -- Fred Olsen Cruise Lines' Braemar and Voyages to Antiquity's Aegean Odyssey.
Another tip; join a cruise which stays here overnight if you can, as Seville is just delightful in the evening when the tapas bars which line its narrow streets fill with relaxed and stylish locals.
Grab a glass of wine, chilled sherry or ice cold beer; whistle up a few plates of tasty local delicacies like Jamon Iberico, olives, salty anchovies and puntillitas (fried squid) and then lap up the atmosphere of this lovely city.
Gaping in awe at the fabulous mosaics and general gorgeousness of the Alcazar, a grand 14th Century Moorish palace which -- although built a century after Moorish rule ended -- gives Granada's Alhambra a run for its money (and has fewer crowds and – arguably-- even lovelier gardens). It is the home of Spain's Royal Family when they are in Seville, and open to lesser mortals from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Sunday inclusive.
Taking in the grandeur of Seville's splendid Gothic 15th century cathedral, the world's third largest church after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London. It is near the Alcazar and has a Moorish aspect, as it incorporates some elements -- including a courtyard filled with orange trees -- from the 9th century mosque which formerly occupied the site. Of particular note is the cathedral's massive wooden altar, hand-carved over the lifetime of one craftsman with 45 scenes from the life of Christ. (Opening hours are complex and vary by season; check current hours before you go.
Puffing your way to the top of the 14th century Giralda (the Cathedral's bell tower) which is a World Heritage Site and rewards the energetic with magnificent views across the city.
Strolling around Barrio de Santa Cruz, the city's exquisite Jewish quarter that dates from the 17th century and is a heavenly mix of historic whitewashed houses, intriguing cobbled alleyways and beautiful plazas. It's a lovely place to spend a lazy morning or afternoon, as you'll find plenty of good cafes and well-stocked antique shops. The glorious mansions along Caledon del Agua are also worth a look.
Visiting one of Seville's key museums. These include the Muse Arqueologico on Plaza de America, which opens (June to September) from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. (Closed Mondays.) Entrance is free to people from EU countries, E1.50 to others.
Savoring the art of the Spanish grand masters -- including El Greco and Velazquez -- at the Museo de Bellas Artes, which is housed in a 17th century convent building in Plaza del Museo. It's open (in summer) from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed Mondays. Same fee as the archaeological museum.)
Go barefoot in the park. Maria Luisa Park is the city's largest and rated one of the loveliest parks in Europe. Filled with waving palm trees, fragrant pines and orange groves, it's a delight to explore its pavilions and secret bowers. It has the grandiose Moorish style Plaza de Espana -- which was built for the 1929 Expo -- at its heart, and from here -- for around E36 -- you can hire a horse and buggy ride for an hour-long ride around the park (there is room for four adults on board, so cut costs by booking with friends).
Explore nearby Cadiz (even easier if your ship has stopped there). Almost as charming as Seville, Cadiz is one of Europe's oldest cities and its narrow winding streets are filled with excellent food, wine and craft shops. It also has a beautiful 18th century Baroque cathedral and a well-stocked Fine Arts and Archaeology Museum.
Rent a car if you have time and head along Spain's Atlantic coast to the lovely beaches of Costa de la Luz, which are famed for their soft sands, rich wildlife and great bird and whale watching. (You can hunt down the best deals in advance at comparison sites like www.travelsupermarket.com or www.doyouSpain.com. If your visit is too brief, book an excursion to nearby Jerez, where you can discover the joys of Spanish sherry without the worry of having to drive back
The railway station at Cadiz is just outside the port complex. Allow one and a half to two hours each way for the journey but trains are fairly frequent. You can check timetables and current fares at www.renfe.es).
At Seville, the station (Station de Santa Justas) is on Agenda Kansas City, about a 15-minute walk from downtown. NB; If your ship is only in Cadiz for a day and you're heading off independently, do allow plenty of time to get to Seville and back comfortably before your ship sails.
Seville is THE place to enjoy tapas and the locals love nothing more than to spend an evening drifting from bar to bar, often standing at tall tables to enjoy a conversation over tapas washed down with beer, wine or sherry. Follow their example --and your instincts -- and simply stroll around the old town to find a tapas bar that takes your fancy.
A small plate of tapas typically costs between E2 and E4; if you're hungry (or like that particular food so much you want plenty of it, ask for a media racion (a medium portion) or a racion (a full plateful).
Recommended places for tapas include Casablanca tapas bar, on the river side of the cathedral (Tel: 954 22 4114 / www.bodeguitacasablanca.com ). It's open 12.30 to 17.00 and from 20.00 until late on weekdays (closed Sundays). Specialities include whisky tortilla, marinated monkfish, `fried milk' (a Spanish delicacy made from whey) and chestnut pudding.
Bodeguita Romero (Haring 10, Seville; 954 229556; www.bodeguita-romero.com ) also has a good reputation. It's open noon until 17.00 and from 20.00 to midnight (not Sundays); oysters are a house speciality and tapas costs from £2 per dish.
For traditional Andalucian cooking; Restaurante Modesto (Cano y Cueto, 5; Tel: 954 416 811/www.modestorestaurantes.com) is a good bet, as it has a lively bar and a rather fabulous dining room, its walls half tiled and half embellished with traditional Spanish artwork. There is also an outside terrace. Specialities include roast shin of lamb and fine Clams Villalua Marquis (prawns served with wild mushrooms), while Pastel Lemon Meringue (cake made with thin layers of sponge cake, lemon cream and meringue flambeed) is a pudding to write home about.
For a splashout stylish lunch: Taberna del Alabardero (The Beefeater Tavern) at Zaragoza 20 (Tel +34 954 50 27 21/www.tabernadelalabardero.es) is set in a grand and very elegant mansion. Lovers of puddings will be in their element here; options include Frozen Custard with Hazelnut Toffee, Italian and Citrus Brioche, French toast with Cinnamon Ice Cream. (Open weekdays 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. to midnight; closed Sundays)
If you're lucky enough to sail up the river to Seville you'll be parked at the quayside, a short and very pleasant walk away from the centre of town. Seville is an easy city to explore on foot provided you're reasonably mobile; just follow your nose along the river, or wander into its winding streets and you'll find a series of pretty neighbourhoods, each built around its own square.
If you're on a big ship calling at Cadiz, you're about 60 miles from Seville and can take a motor coach tour or catch a train there if you don't want to stay put and explore Cadiz (which is also delightful and very accessible from the port).
The heat, if you're visiting at the height of summer (in July or August), when temperatures can soar above 100F. You'll find some tree shade as Seville is a very green city, and the cavernous interiors of Seville's fine churches will also keep you cool. But if you're off walking do take water, a sunhat and plenty of sunscreen with you.
Pickpockets are a concern in any major city and Seville is no exception, particularly as Spain has been in the throes of a financial crisis.
Odd closing hours; many attractions are closed on Mondays and some bars close at 5 p.m. and reopen around 8 p.m. (remember, the Spanish like to siesta and then eat and party late!).
The official currency is the euro (for the latest exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com). There are plenty of ATM machines and exchange bureau in town and you can definitely find them at the railway and bus stations.
All major credit cards are widely accepted and foreign currency or travelers' checks can be changed at banks and exchange offices (cambios). If you have a Visa card, you'll find a global ATM locator at www.Visa.com.
Seville is very much a Spanish-speaking city, and though many shopkeepers and purveyors of tourist services have at least a smattering of English it is not widely spoken. Take along a phrasebook or language app if you really want to click with the locals.
A few phrases to start you off are…Good morning/evening: Buenos dias/tarde
In an emergency dial 112 from any phone to summon police, ambulance or fire services.