Seville: a historic city prepares to play host to world's fair crowds

December 08, 1991|By Zeke Wigglesworth | Zeke Wigglesworth,Knight-Ridder News Service

Seville, Spain -- The 1992 Expo will be a major test for Seville, the capital of Andalusia and a city infamous for its street crimes against tourists. It will be interesting to see if the city can put a lid on the thousands of pickpockets, petty thieves and moped-driving armed robbers that make being a tourist here so exciting -- and also to see if anybody dies from the oven-hot weather, which regularly soars to well over 100 degrees in the summer.

The Expo will be on a big island in the middle of the Guadalquivir River, which runs through Seville. The river once was a major artery for Americas-bound explorers.

During Spain's age of discovery -- and before the Guadalquivir River silted up -- Seville was the headquarters for European trade with the New World, by decree of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Seville has other claims to fame. It's the flamenco capital of the world. The cigar factory where Bizet's Carmen did her thing is here, and it's also the setting of two other famous operas -- "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Barber of Seville." Seville is building opera house for these and other offerings. The new Teatro de la Maestranza is supposed to be ready by May, with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo as operatic director.

In the heart of downtown Seville, a city of 650,000 whose principal sights are easily reachable on foot, is a Gothic cathedral, begun in the 15th century. It is the third largest church in the world (St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London are Nos. 1 and 2) and contains what is reputed to be Columbus' widely traveled remains. He died in Valladolid in 1506 and was subsequently interred in Seville, then in Santo Domingo in the Caribbean and possibly in Cuba. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, a tomb believed to be his was returned to Seville and installed just inside the cathedral entrance.

Beside the cathedral is Seville's most famous landmark, a 300-foot bell tower, La Giralda, which was originally the minaret of the Great Mosque -- where the cathedral now stands -- and regarded as one of the most beautiful minarets in the Muslim world.

Seville, which was founded as a Phoenician trading post more than 2,000 years ago and later became a Roman town, had been captured by the Moors in 712, who left a lasting imprint.

Across from the cathedral square is another reminder of the Moorish past, the Alcazar, or royal palace, where King Juan Carlos stays when he visits Seville. The architectural style is known as mudejar, from the term for Muslim subjects of Christian sovereigns. It's a wonderful Arabian Nights kind of palace, with its intricate geometric decorations, lovely courtyards and salons leading to terraced gardens filled with fountains, pools, sculptures, flowers and trees of all kinds.

One of the most important collections of historical documents in Europe is found in the Indies Archives, housed in a building near the cathedral. The collection -- with nearly 50,000 files -- includes maps, charts and letters from Columbus, Magellan, Cortes and other great Spanish explorers. One of the goals of the Spanish government this year and next is to computerize the files.

Tourists planning to see the world's fair will find rooms hard to come by. Emilio Casinello, who's in charge of the Expo, says some visitors might have to stay two or three hours outside of town, but there will be rooms for everyone.

The fair runs from April 20 to Oct. 12, and more than 100 countries are expected to participate. The U.S. Congress has appropriated $13 million for the Seville fair and another $1.5 million for another Columbus celebration to be held next summer in Genoa, Italy.

The Expo site -- La Cartuja island in the Guadalquivir River -- covers about 530 acres. The 15th century monastery of Santa Maria de las Cuevas, once the only building on the island, is being restored, and its outer lodge will become a royal pavilion where King Juan Carlos will receive visiting dignitaries. Columbus supposedly lived at the monastery for eight years.

The biggest foreign pavilions will be those of Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Spain hopes the Expo will attract about 20 million visitors during its six-month run, half of them foreigners.

Like Barcelona -- where the 1992 Summer Olympics will be held -- Seville is a city under siege by construction workers. Spanish government investment totals about $1.5 billion on the actual Expo site, with $7 billion more being spent on roads, rail and other infrastructure.

Twenty new hotels are under way, and officials are forecasting a total of 75,000 beds by next spring (current hotel capacity in Seville is about 10,000). Another 100,000 beds will be offered in homes and apartments within an hour and a half of the city, and 600,000 more beds are two and a half hours away on the Costa del Sol.

Officials in Seville say they plan to ask local citizens to rent out their extra bedrooms as part of a bed-and- breakfast program.

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