The Plaza de San Francisco is one of Seville’s most regal, lined as it is with the facades of the Audiencia, the Ayuntamiento and the Adriatica’s curved corner, not to mention the terrace of balconied, 18th century town houses that would have accommodated the great and the good – chief benefactors of the city’s waning golden age. It’s one of those spots in Andalucia’s capital where you can stop for a moment, raise your nose in the air – otherwise scented with oranges or their blossoms – and still catch the reek of all the money that came pouring into this town, off the backs of South American slave miners for the most part, I would have thought.
Dark history aside, it’s a beautiful place, and rarely dark in this day and age. On the contrary, the plaza is sunny and colourful, a venue for everything from Christmas markets to Easter processions. At a distance from its southeastern corner, but tall enough to preside over it, is the Giralda – Seville Cathedral’s bell tower, symbol of Spain and former minaret, topped now with a 16th century addition: the belfry. People forget that the Moors built skyscrapers. The Almohads in particular – they erected the Giralda as well as its sister tower in Rabat in their native Morocco, both of them modelled on the Koutoubia minaret in Marrakesh.
It gives a striking perspective to the bricks and cobbles of a city square that was built on the proceeds of Spanish supremacy in the Americas; the looming legacy of an older empire that spread into Spain itself and ran the show in most, then part, then just a pocket of the country for eight centuries. Both types of Hispanic influence, of course, are strongly felt at the centre of today’s great empire, the very design of the Giralda echoed in Chicago’s Wrigley building, the Ferry Building in San Francisco and so on.
The mind tends to turn toward perspective here, therefore, and the passage of time. I first set foot in this northwestern corner of the plaza some years ago in the company of my father’s family who, like me, enjoy nothing more than eating, talking and drinking but who, in a concession to culture and civility, prefer to do it in places like this. We sat outside Bar Laredo on that visit while my uncles strained to make out the elaborate detailing on the Almohad tower through the distorting lens of late morning gin & tonics. Given the size of the drinks served there at the time I couldn’t swear to it any of us was looking at the tower, or even aware of it, but I certainly am now.
I still get to take in the view whenever I’m in town, but I don’t do it from the Laredo tables anymore, which have spread out now into the square, canopied by plush umbrellas and heated. They’ve ripped out the interior too. As in so many cases, what wasn’t broken has been ‘fixed’. It probably cost them a fortune to refurbish and expand and the likely expense is reflected in the ludicrous new prices. A beautiful bar. An institution. Gone.
Marbella, on the southern coast and a sometime haven for the aspirational holiday-maker or property owner, can hardly be described as regal, although it does have a pretty old town, hidden in the centre of what has become, over the last few decades, a rather sizeable city. It’s where we head for a reunion with the Bar Laredo crew – lunch, dinner and a quick overnight. It isn’t the first since the Seville outing, by any means. Marbella has in fact become a fairly regular meeting point for my family.
We get a little peevish, from time to time, that we can’t seem to lure more of them, more often, as far as Tarifa, a mere hour and twenty minutes down the road but, es lo que hay, as they say around here, and we’re always happy to see them. It’s the same as it always is – wine, small talk and tapas. Nobody has any earth shattering news – a good thing – and everyone’s reasonably up to date with me via my weekly dispatches. The circle is not complete though. A cousin is absent and so is an uncle, who is undergoing some surgery after a few days of ill-health. We hear of it the previous day and it’s only when we finally sit down with J that we learn the surgery has gone well.
With that news we can enjoy our day together and, notwithstanding the regrettable absence, it is a good day. We used to do something similar every Sunday when K and I still lived in Ireland. E, J, I and B still do and it’s the first thing I think of whenever a visit to Dublin is on the cards, which isn’t often enough. B’s health scare is a reminder, of course, of the passage of time, the impervious onward march of things, with or without us.
It has a bittersweet effect. A reminder to relish the moment. Love and loss all tied up in the same feeling. The family has had its fair share of the latter, and then some, but the gatherings have proven to be a durable affair. We still get together with encouraging regularity, given the distances, and it is always the same. An institution. No bricks or mortar – we take it with us. Not everybody is present every time but the underlying structure is still there, like the old Giralda sitting beneath its renaissance crown. In the long shadow it casts, they have ruined the Laredo.
But they haven’t ruined us.
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