Even if you arrive by inconspicuous taxi, rather than gilded, horse-drawn carriage, this city sanctuary is a place for kings and queens of any realm. Entering the huge, wrought-iron gates of Seville’s sultry Palacio de Villapanés, we’re flanked by towering marble columns, and it’s akin to stepping onto a film set. Stumbling across Kristen Scott Thomas smoking a cigarette in one of the oversized cane chairs would feel right. (I’m mixing countries, I know, but I’m conjuring to the Moorish elegance of ‘The English Patient’).
While the atrium and traditional riad-style courtyard, with its baroque fountain and orange trees, might hark back to the palace’s heritage, the lavishly refurbished rooms epitomise 21st-century luxury. Stylishly sombre-hued, the decor mingles panelled walls, rich brocades and sleek modern fittings. Sure there are flatscreen TVs and Macs in the suites, but c’mon folks, enjoy a holiday. Enjoy some old-fashioned lo-tech time: this sun-kissed beige-stone abode has been around since the early 18th century when the first Marquis of Torreblanca del Aljarafe set about building this palacio.
Sun-drenched Seville is cold in winter, but we’re blessed with glorious weather. Waking up to spotless blue skies, vitamin-D-inducing rays and orange trees is like mainlining Prozac. On our first morning, after a whirl with the Bulgari products in our pretty mosaic-tiled bathroom, we breakfast in the hotel in what must have been the palace cellars. All-white with fresh orchids it’s super elegant and celebrated for its Andalucian cuisine, but really all we want to do is get into the sunshine and make like the Spaniards with a café con leche and pastry in one of the little bars (the only thing that Seville has more of is oranges). If it were the searing summer months, chances are we'd only make it as far as the small plunge pool on the rooftop.
Seville, or Seveeya, as you should utter it sexily, is a concentration of all the best Spanish clichés (no boozy British stags here). It’s a place of blood, passion, and partying (with a week of piety in April); after all, it’s the city of Hemingway, Don Juan and Carmen. There are attractions enough to fill every second of a long weekend: the fairytale Gothic Cathedral and its famous tower the Giralda (sadly closed this time of year, but good reasons to return); the Museo de Bellas Artes, stuffed with treasures to rival the Prado in Madrid, including Velasquez and El Greco masterpieces; and of course the Alcazar palace. Built on the site of a Moorish fort, it is spectacular, but the real joy is the gardens: with alluring names like the Courtyard of the Maidens or the Patio of the Dolls it is an exotic paradise of reflecting pools, fountains and palm trees – a balm for citified spirits.
We find ourselves wandering the winding streets, eating, drinking and hanging out, and then eating and drinking some more. Which is basically what the Sevillanos seem to do. Palacio de Villapanés is walking distance from the city’s historic heart and we soon find ourselves in Plaza del Salvadore. It is so full of people of all ages, dressed in their finery, eating chips and drinking beer, soaking up the sun perched on the steps of the church, that we are sure we must have stumbled on a festival. Nope. It is just a regular Saturday morning in Seville.
You need to adjust your watches (and stomachs): lunch no earlier than 2.30pm; never have supper before 10pm; and siesta, naturally, in between. Before you know it, it is time to tapear – the verb to go from bar to bar (that is how seriously they take their tapas here) and Seville brags some of the best purveyors of this small-plate cuisine in Spain. El Rinconcillo is our starting point: one of the oldest and most famous tapas houses, the ceiling here is as crowded with giant hams as the tiled walls are with bottles and the floor is with bon viveurs. For supper, Bar Eslava in the barrio San Lorenzo district has been highly recommended by a charming girl at the hotel: unprepossessing from the outside, as narrow and crowded as a train carriage in rush hour, it is super popular for its delicious food – and it’s cheap as patatas bravas.
On Sunday, after stocking up on festive goodies in the food hall of department store Cortes Ingles (another tip-off from the lovely hotel staff), we explore the banks of the Guadalquivir River. The seafood restaurants along Calle Betis are so busy we wait ages at the bar; but that’s no hardship as we pick at fried fish, watching the locals eating inside at big, noisy family tables.
Just in case it seems that all we do is eat and drink, on the way back we visit the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, one of the finest bullrings in the world. You can take a tour of the small museum, the chapel where the matadors prayed before entering the ring and the infirmary they went to if their prayers weren’t entirely answered.
Flamenco is a Seville classic, but if that doesn’t get your heels clicking, try a steamy visit to Aire de Sevilla. Beautifully restored traditional Arabic baths hidden in our hotel's 'hood, Santa Cruz, and the most heavenly place to spend a weekend evening in December. Off-season mini-breakers, pack your swimsuits – you’d be amazed how difficult it is to find a bikini in winter in Seville. I could only find a horror. Thankfully the hammams are very dark inside, with tealights guiding us through the deliquescent floors – saltwater baths, steam chambers, a pool-sized thermal pool of different temperatures, all decorated like a scene from One Thousand and One Nights. Just when you think you couldn’t get more relaxed and still be conscious, you are silently ushered away for a massage. Mr Smith decides henceforth all other pampering sessions will seem as sensuous as a trip to the supermarket – except for maybe the seductive spa in our luxury hotel itself, which I remind him I will not be eaving unroadtested.
Herbal infusions are the conventional way to end a pampering session and Aires de Sevilla does have splendid tearooms, but it’s late, so there's nothing for it but to fall into one of Santa Cruz’s cosy bars. Here, our only company is the ubiquitous bovine head (Seville isn’t known as the Bull City in Spain for nothing) and a photo of cigar-clutching Papa Hemingway. A sherry or two later and we’re wandering those tree-lined cobblestone squares festively festooned in fairylights back to our private enclave of Palacio de Villapanés; it feels as though we’re the only tourists in an impossibly romantic city.