What can be more Spanish than flamenco dancing?
Outside of paella, warm sunny beaches and Manuel from Fawlty Towers, it is this national dance that symbolises for many, the passionate, all-embracing and romantic side of the Spanish people.
I’m pretty sure we weren’t the only Irish home in the 1970s that had one of those plastic dolls of the flamenco dancer swirling her skirts on the mantelpiece over the fire, a cheap reminder of a rare family trip abroad.
And on a recent trip to Seville, the grand old capital of Andalucía, where flamenco first flared in the late 18th century, I unexpectedly found myself lining up alongside some of Spain’s most famous dancers for an impromptu lesson in the finer arts of this exquisite dance.
Every night the Museo del Baile Flamenco (Museum of Flamenco Dance) in the Santa Cruz quarter hosts a live demonstration performed by the husband and wife team of José Vidal ‘El Lebri’ and Cristina Gallego Durán.
José Vidal ‘El Lebri’ and Cristina Gallego Durán in action
Before I knew what was going on, I, along with my other flat-footed Irish companions, were brought backstage where we manically tapped our toes and waved our hands above our heads as José gave us a crash course in flamenco.
And while it was all just a bit of a laugh, it gradually dawned on me that perhaps we were about to take part in an audience participation event after I caught a glimpse from behind the curtains of an expectant row of faces waiting for the show to commence.
For while we were engaged in what resembled a demented version of line-dancing the room outside had filled up and for a few brief, terrifying moments, I thought we were going to be wheeled out as the entertainment.
Thankfully we were spared what surely would have been an unfortunate and humiliating exercise for us and a somewhat disappointing evening for the audience as instead, we were led to our front row seats just in time for the start of the show.
Jose and Cristina then took to the stage for a series of thrilling dances featuring a solemn Seguiriya, a tragic Taranto, and an emotional Tangosor that were all performed to a frantic guitar playing and guttural singing. It culminated in what can only be described as a heart-thumping flamenco dance off as they flashed past our faces in series of colourful fast-spinning moves.
It was an eye-opener for me. To be honest I had never really been that interested in flamenco and when I saw that a visit to the museum was on the itinerary I was happy to let it pass as perhaps a vaguely interesting experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone out of my way to take part in.
But as the performance reached its crescendo I was entranced.
After a hectic hour of dancing we were given a quick tour of the museum itself where the history of this national passion is expertly told in the well-appointed exhibits. And even if the story doesn’t grab you the iconic dresses and flamboyant costumes are well worth a look. It is said that flamenco runs in the blood of Seville and I’d recommend that anybody who finds themselves in this jewel of a city in Spain’s crown to check it out.
The performers take the applause
For Seville really is a sparkling jewel of a city, but just make sure you get up early to avoid the coachloads of weary tourists who stumble off their buses after a gruelling two and a half hour haul up from the coast.
For as we finished a walking tour the following morning we were greeted by bedraggled hordes dragged away from their sun loungers in the resorts along the Costa for an afternoon of sightseeing.
It seemed a shame for they were surely missing out on the exquisite beauty of this city, Spain’s fourth largest, and its Old Town, the third largest in Europe, with its three UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Some of the scenes in the Star Wars movie ‘Episode II – Attack of the Clones’ were shot in Plaza de España in the Parque de María Luisa
Here, you can marvel at the old Jewish quarter and walk through parks resplendent with the monuments to its colonial past. You can climb to the top of the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede for vertigo-inducing views over the city, gaze at the extravagance of the tomb within which lie the remains of the great navigator Christopher Columbus and even see where some scenes in the Star Wars movie ‘Episode II – Attack of the Clones’, where shot, in Plaza de España in the Parque de María Luisa.
The gardens of the extraordinary Alcázar of Seville, a royal palace originally developed by Moorish Muslim kings, offer a delightful break from the sun-scorched streets and here you can entertain yourself with the antics of the open-mouthed carp begging for food.
To round off the evening you could dine in the Bistro Del Alabardero, set in a 19th-century property and just an eight-minute walk from the Catedral de Sevilla where some of the most promising cooks in the country learn their trade before they are snapped up by the best eateries across Europe.
The rooftop terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra
For moonlit views check out the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra.
Located in the heart of the city’s historical quarter, in Plaza Nueva, this is where we stayed up far too late talking and watching the city gradually quieten down for the night.
As beautiful as it is, Seville has to share its boasting rights with other parts of Andalucía where the picture postcard perfection has attracted movie makers from across the globe.
The next stop on our whistle stop tour brought us to Osuna, a town I think it’s fair to say, where not a lot happened until an eagle-eyed location scout for the Game of Thrones TV series stepped into its old bullring in the centre of town.
Here, where bullfights are still staged on occasion, the makers of the hit TV series saw an opportunity to stage one of the most dramatic (and expensive) scenes in the HBO show.
In a thrilling 17-minute sequence in season five, episode nine, Osuna’s Plaza de Toros is transformed into Daznak’s Pit where Khaleesi, the Mother of Dragons, watches from her royal box as various combatants fight to the death.
Osuna’s Plaza de Toros was transformed into a set for Game of Thrones
It is fair to say that the arrival of TV glamour transformed the fortunes of this sleepy town as over 5,000 production crew arrived in the town of 18,000 for three weeks of filming and where almost every one of the locals became a minor celebrity after they were hired as extras for the fight scenes.
In appreciation, the town has devoted an entire wing of the Museum of Osuna to a Game of Thrones exhibition where they stock replicas of props from the TV show and where we could swing some swords while putting on our best Jon Snow impressions.
It was great fun, and even if you’re not a fan of the show, it is well worth a detour to have a look around.
Messing around in the Museum of Osuna’s fun Game of Thrones exhibition
We ate lunch at the Casa Curro, which became the unofficial cafeteria for the cast and crew and where actors Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) dined on dishes inspired by their characters. It has become something of fan zone with pictures sprawled across the walls to mark the occasion when the star of the show, Emilia Clarke, celebrated a happy birthday.
The following day we visited a town that could have starred as a set in a movie in its own right, the stunning hill town of Ronda, located in the middle of the Serranía de Ronda mountains, about an hour and half drive from Malaga.
Here, the setting is pure Lord of the Rings with the stunning Puente Nuevo bridge that dramatically spans the El Tajo gorge creating the perfect Instagram moment for the thousands of tourists who flock into the town every day.
The stunning Puente Nuevo bridge in Ronda
On a misty October morning, we were denied the view of the valleys below but as the sun soon burned through the moisture the landscape was slowly revealed in front of us, with the majestic mountains on the horizon dominating the plains below.
There was just enough time to stop for a bite to eat in the Restaurant Pedro Romero, where I had been enjoying the succulent meat dish that I had assumed was pork before I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in fact the delicious slivers that I was enjoying were actually taken from el Toro, as the waiter informed me, indicating the head of one of the great beasts dominating the dining room.
Then we were off again for a quick tour around the much-maligned and overlooked city of Malaga.
For years, this southern city has been overlooked by generations of sun seekers as they set their sights on the resorts along the Costa Del Sol but its fortunes were revived in recent years, beginning with the opening of the Museo Picasso Málaga to celebrate where the artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born.
A trader in the historic Atarazanas food market
Since then the city has been revamped, with its streets torn up to accommodate a new metro system and its rundown commercial port turned into a mini Miami beach with its impressive Centre Pompidou Málaga museum at its heart, cool bars and restaurants.
Before we headed off to the airport on our way home we were taken on an unusual tour of the city’s culinary back streets.
A brilliant way to see a side of the city not depicted in the usual tourist brochures, the Spain Food Sherpas brought us around the historic Atarazanas food market where the local hawkers add their own spice to their ware, from fresh fish and cold meats to farm fresh produce.
With Spain’s Food Sherpas in Malaga
The hawkers weave their own brand of boisterous humour as they sell their seafood and vegetables in barking staccato.
To round it all off we stopped off at a tiny little place, the Recova, a mix between an old grocery store and an antique shop that served up a lovely lunch on tables set among shelves of odds and ends.
It was a little bit off the beaten track, and hard to find for the casual visitor, but as with the rest of Andalucía, it proves that a treasure trove of delights awaits those prepared to take a closer look under the skin of this uniquely Spanish part of Spain.