The arbour of Seville

A Spanish resort of beguiling beauty awaits, though it isn't highlighted on any map, writes Aviva Lowy.

As seasoned travellers, we know the arrival drill: out of the train, proceed to the information office, collect a free city map and get directions to the hotel.

Smugly, I announce the name "Al-Andalus Palace", expecting the woman behind the counter to give me an admiring look for choosing such a fab hotel. She is unfazed and simply unfolds the map, pointing to a spot off the printed page.

"Your hotel is just off this map, over here," the woman says. Off the map? What crummy map is this? Can we walk to the hotel? "I would take a taxi," she says coolly.

When we arrive at our hotel to check in and ask for another map, expecting that a new one will be a better, more inclusive version, the concierge pulls out a sheet of paper and, pointing off-frame, says: "We are here, just off the map."

And that, as we soon find, is the point. The regal-sounding Al-Andalus Palace Seville, one of a chain of hip Spanish hotels under the Hotel Silken banner, is not at the centre of the city's action.

It is comfortable rather than hip. Recently renovated, it's a large (623 rooms) four-star hotel, ideally suited to functions.

When we arrive, a wedding is in full swing, with guests wandering through the airy lobby and children in their formal best chasing one another around furniture.

The hotel makes a virtue of being three kilometres from Seville's old city centre, branding itself as an urban oasis. With a huge pool set in 15,000 square metres of gardens, a wet bar and a chest of luxurious towels, you could be a million miles away.

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We have arrived in spring; temperatures are reaching 32 degrees. After threading our way through Seville's old alleys, walking from shade to shade under the orange trees that line the streets, it's a pleasant reprieve to head back to our oasis for a swim and siesta before returning to the city buzz for tapas and flamenco.

Just one conscientious lap swimmer, a couple of children and I are in the pool's cool, clear water. An attendant bends over the side to speak with me. The management requires long hair to be lifted up, so he hands me a complimentary band. I obligingly sweep my hair into a ponytail.

Back in our room, I bathe in the marbled wilderness of our bathroom and laze on the bed. My husband measures luxury accommodation by lying across a bed. This one comes up trumps.

Returning to the city centre for night-time revelry is an otherworldly experience. Once you leave the imposing hotel entrance, you're walking down suburban streets, passing modest neighbourhood houses. The local bus is at the end of our street and the service is regular and cheap, so we opt for it instead of a taxi. It's a circuitous route but we get a taste of the real Seville, we tell ourselves.

And Seville is wonderful. Full of colourful, Moorish architecture, palm trees and oranges, ripe and falling on the street. One could live off the bounty of the city's civic planners. My husband picks a fruit and spits it out as quickly as he has taken a bite. It's sour.

The historic walled heart of Seville - remember those famous ramparts of Seville in Bizet's opera, Carmen? - is a tangle of alleyways brimming with life, every now and again opening to a small square surrounded by cafes. The centre is bisected by a plaza where a tram crosses back and forth, shuttling passengers across its modest length.

We are in Seville during a religious festival. A procession, including a group of men walking hidden beneath a draped platform of icons, slowly crosses the tramlines; pedestrians and a tram come to a halt and have to bide their time. Further along the plaza, flamenco buskers erupt into song and dance.

Seville is home to the magnificent Alcazar palace and gardens. It is impossible to imagine a more beautiful arrangement of courtyards, elaborately tiled rooms and halls and gardens with fountains. It is a temple to the senses.

The Al-Andalus Palace hotel attempts to echo some of these Moorish features. Walled watercourses, similar to those that trickle through the Alcazar, edge our hotel's dining room and outdoor seating area. The function room off the main foyer has arches striped in the distinctive white and rust-red that are the hallmark of nearby Cordoba's Mesquita. So our hotel is not just any international hotel. These touches mark it as proudly Andalusian.

Anyway, who needs to be in the city centre? Hotels here, unless you are staying at the sumptuous and pricey Alfonso XIII, are small pensione affairs. No open greenery, plush bedrooms or swimming pool. In short, no oasis.

Given the fact that we have landed in Seville during a national public holiday, we are, in truth, lucky to find anywhere to stay. We run into fellow Australians we had met days earlier at Madrid's central train station. They have just arrived in Seville and have their bags alongside as one of their number scouts for a room. They have just come from Cordoba, where there wasn't a hotel room to be had, and they ended up staying at a camp ground an hour from town - way, way off the map.

Ultimately, in Seville, it doesn't really matter where you stay: you have to go.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Thai Airways flies thrice-daily from Sydney to Bangkok, with non-stop connections three times a week to Madrid. The fast train from Madrid to Seville takes two hours and 40 minutes and costs about EUR150 ($298). You can stop off at Cordoba on the way there or back.

Staying there

Al-Andalus Palace, Avenida de la Palmera, Seville, 41012. Phone: +34 954 230 600. See hoteles-silken.com and follow the Hoteles link. Rooms start at about EUR140 a night for two people.

Further information

See andalucia.com; spain.info.

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