Guide to the Royal Alcázar of Seville: A Dornish Garden of Eden
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
The Real Alcázar de Sevilla, or Royal Alcázar, is undoubtedly my very favorite sight in Seville. In fact, it's my favorite sight in all of Andalusia, exceeding even the mighty Alhambra in Granada. At first glance, my face lit up like a Dornish sunshine.
The Alcázar is one of the world's greatest cultural treasures, a centuries old complex of palaces and fortifications, lovely courtyards and extensive gardens bursting with orange, purple, and green colors. In truth, it seems to almost entirely consist of courtyards, a potent source of its attraction. You can't help but feel catapulted back in time.
History of the Alcázar in Seville
What is an “alcazar” exactly? It means fortress palace. The term comes from the Arab words "el qasr."
The origins of the Alcázar can be traced back to the 8th century when the Moors conquered Seville. They built a fortress on the remains of a Visigoth basilica. After this, Islam was the dominant force in Seville.
In the 12th century, the Moroccan Almohad caliphate began construction in earnest and the Alcázar became more established as a palace. It had the elaborate ornamentation of Islamic art with arabesques, calligraphy, and geometric patterns in plaster and tile.
By the 13th century, the Spanish Reconquista was in full swing and King Ferdinand III and Queen Isabella vanquished the poor Moors in Seville in 1248. They reclaimed and overhauled the Alcazar. From this time, Seville became a royal city and the Alcazar a royal household.
In the 14th century, King Don Pedro the Cruel built a palace in the Mudejar style that is the heart of the Alcázar. There, he lived and ruled with his mistress Maria de Padilla and various wives.
Some referred to him as Pedro the Just because he protected the Jews and Muslims. Whether he was cruel or just, he loved Islamic arts, loved the city of Seville, and built one of the most enchanting palaces in all of Europe.
The Alcázar is the oldest royal palace still in use today. The Spanish royal family uses the upper floors. And dignitaries and officials are regularly hosted. In 1987, it was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mudéjar Style of Architecture
The Alcázar is widely considered the finest example of Mudéjar architecture in the world.
“Mudéjar” is an architectural style built under Christian rule that commingles both Moorish and Spanish Christian elements.
Basically, the Christian conquerors embraced the Moorish art and used it to decorate and depict Christian themes. The Mudéjar style is characterized by horseshoe arches, crenelated (notched) arches, delicate plaster latticework, and bright geometric tiled designs. It is unique to the Iberian peninsula.
Because it has been continually renovated and tinkered with, the Alcázar covers many epochs — Moorish (12th century), Gothic (13-14th century), Renaissance (15-16th century), and Baroque (17th-18th century). It is unique in its conglomeration of styles.
Entering the Alcázar
You enter the Alcázar from Plaza del Triunfo via the Lion’s Gate, where a lion wears a cross and yields another in one of its paws. It likely served as a reminder that despite the Mudéjar influence, the Christians owned the place.
After entering, you pass down a corridor where there's an ancient wall. Then, you enter the first main courtyard, the Patio de la Monteria (the Hunting Courtyard). This open area connects three major buildings in the Alcázar: the Hall of Justice, the House of Trade, and Pedro's Palace.
To the left is the Hall of Justice and Patio del Yeso with beautiful stucco work and 10th century arches resembling the Mezquita in Cordoba. This is the oldest part of the Alcázar, dating from the 12th century, the only surviving remnant of the Almohad dynasty.
House of Trade
To your right is the 16th century Renaissance Palace known as Casa de la Contratacion, or House of Trade. It was the business-like part of the palace.
The House of Trade served as the main headquarters for bringing goods from the new world. It was here that officials approved voyages, collected taxes, and stored "top secret" information. And it was also here that Columbus signed his famous 1492 contract with Queen Isabella to sail to the Indies.
There are a few rooms worth investigating before you plunge into the depths of the Alcázar.
You should visit the Admiral's Room, which was inaugurated in 1503 after the discovery of America. It was the place where Amerigo Vespucci, Magellan, and Elcano plotted their first trip around the world and Juan de la Cosa made the first world map.
The Admiral's Room also houses the Carranza Collection, a dimly-lit mini museum on the evolution of ceramic tile from Triana. It's been on display at the Alcázar since 2010, and is one of the most important ceramic collections in the world.
There's also a Chapel of the Navigators with an elaborately coffered ceiling with star shaped designs.
Isabella commissioned the chapel to mark the voyages of Columbus. It houses a famous painting of the Virgin with Columbus and King Carlos V. The painting is a rare contemporaneous depiction of Columbus. A scrap of the adventurer and monument to his burial is found in the nearby cathedral of Seville.
The Sumptuous Pedro’s Palace
Straight ahead is the sumptuous Mudéjar Palace of King Pedro, the crown jewel of the Alcázar. The entrance to the palace is an elaborate carved facade with delicate columned windows, a stalactite frieze, and an overhanging wooden roof.
Pedro's Palace was built in 1360-64. In the Moorish tradition, the palace was arranged around patios and gardens. He built it in “perishable” ceramics, plaster and wood, following the Quran’s prohibition against “eternal” structures, which are reserved for the creator.
Walk straight through the fancy entrance and you arrive at the Maiden’s Courtyard, the center of Pedro's beautiful Mudejar palace. There, you can access all the palace’s important rooms on the ground floor.
The upper story of the courtyard is a 16th century Renaissance addition by King Carlos V. (He did quite a bit of Renaissance renovating.) It is accessed at extra cost during limited time periods with a guided, security escorted tour.
The Maiden’s Courtyard received its somewhat degrading name, likely progated by Reconquistas, from the myth that the Moors demanded a tribute of 100 virgins annually from the Christians.
Within the courtyard, there are lovely sunken gardens and a long reflecting pool. The pool was not always there. It was paved with marble and buried in the 16th century because it seemed "dirty." It was uncovered in 2004 in the course of archeological research.
The Ambassador’s Hall, or Throne Room, is the big showstopper in the palace. It’s nicknamed the "Half Orange" Room, in honor of its gilded cedar domed ceiling, which represents the heavens.
Everything flows with fluidity and complexity, and it is meant to express domination. There are images of birds among the calligraphic designs, which flies in the face of Islam’s prohibition of representing sentient beings and confirms it as truly Mudéjar art.
The king would stand on the center stone below the dome to greet visitors, signifying that god had appointed him to rule.
It’s the finest apartment in the palace. It features rich and elaborate gold ornamentation, carved wood, and gothic and renaissance elements.
Not an inch of space has been neglected. The lower sections of the walls are decorated with tiles from Seville’s Triana neighborhood. In this space, more is actually more.
A narrow corridor takes you to the tri-level Courtyard of the Dolls. It’s much smaller than the Maiden’s Courtyard, but is exquisite and reminiscent of the delicate decorations at Granada's Alhambra.
The columns date from the Caliph times. This small courtyard was a private area of the palace and is reputed to be the site of Pedro's harem.
It owes its name to the tiny faces of dolls that decorate the inner side of a small arch. Blink and you'll miss them. If you look carefully, you'll spot them in the picture above.
The Gothic Palace
Heading north to the left of the Maiden's Courtyard, you'll find the Gothic Palace, built by Alfonso X, the Ferdinand's son. It's quite distinctive from the rest of the Alcázar. I found it a bit soulless by contrast, after all the exuberant Mudéjar artwork.
The palace consists of two rectangular rooms lying parallel to each other and two smaller rooms at each end.
There are endless tapestries hanging in the Celebration Room. And it was the site for the wedding Carlos V to Queen Isabel of Portugal. In reality, their wedding was a dynastic project, further uniting Spain and Portugal.
At last, you arrive at the rambling, fragrant Alcázar Gardens. They're a serene oasis, even in mid-winter. There are seemingly endless paths, and you will be happily lost.
Some gardens date to Moorish times, some more proper English gardens date from the 19th century. Many of the plants are from South America, thanks to explorers bringing back seeds from their adventures.
It's a lush, exotic, labyrinthian paradise, 60,000 square meters and encompassing 80% of the Alcázar grounds. You can find palm trees, cypress, myrtle, mulberry, magnolia, orange and lemon trees and, at the right time of year, cornflower-blue agapanthus or cerise-pink hibiscus.
There are quaint benches and tiny water basins everywhere.
Upon entering the gardens, the first garden you'll find is the Garden of the Pond or Mercury’s Pool, constructed in 1733. Mercury’s Pool is a large pool and fountain decorated by frescos and stonework and filled with fish.
To the left of the pool, is a path behind the Puerta de Marchena that takes you to a lovely open air cafe. There is, for Spain, a rare public restroom and you have the chance to sit, have an espresso, and admire the gardens.
One side of the pool is flanked by a spectacular Italian Grotto Gallery made with sea rock. You can walk on the second floor, which provides vistas of all the gardens and even the Cathedral.
Along the grotto wall you'll find the Fuente de la Fama. Inside the fountain is a hydraulic organ, powered by the fountain’s waterfall pushing air up into the pipes of the organ. It plays beautiful organ music on a set schedule.
The Baths of Dona Maria de Padilla are perhaps the most striking and frequently visited spot in the Alcázar Gardens.
They lie just beneath the Patio del Crucero in the gothic area of the palace. Originally, they were rainwater tanks. In Pedro’s day, the baths served as the place for his mistress Maria to seek solace and, apparently, to take baths.
King Pedro himself has a twisted history, a life mixed with murder, lust, and intrigue.
Legend holds that he fell in love with Maria and had her husband killed. She may or may not have been his secret wife, and they had four children. It was popularly thought that Maria used magic to maintain her hold on Pedro.
But Pedro didn’t live long to enjoy his lavish palace or Maria. He was offed by his half brother Enrique, who stole his crown and became Henry II.
Further out, the Pavilion of Carlos V fits seamlessly into the garden landscape. It was built in 1543 and called La Alcoba. It has a splendid collection of tapestries and is wrapped in intricate ceramic work.
Near the pavilion, you'll find a sour orange tree believed to be planted by King Pedro, which would make it 600 years old. Sour orange trees were introduced to Spain by the Arabs for ornamental purposes. They’re far too sour for consumption.
The color orange dominates the Alcázar landscape and takes center stage against the green background. There are orange trees, orange structures, orange walls, and even orange gateways throughout the gardens.
Finally, if you are lucky, you will encounter an exquisite peacock or two in the gardens.
I enjoyed my meander through the Alcázar and its gardens. I sat on the ceramic benches I coveted, read about the Mudéjar masterpiece and the sordid tales of Pedro the Cruel/Just, and sat at the garden cafe, admiring the garden of eden and relaxing.
I could have spent all day and night here. And I can't wait to return.
Game of Thrones in the Alcázar
Then my mind turned to Dorne, the warm, sultry, southern kingdom of Westeros in HBO's dramatic and bloodthirsty series Game of Thrones.
Often, the real world doesn’t live up to the fictional rendering of a TV location. As you can see from the photos, this isn't the case with the opulent and amazing Alcázar and its verdant gardens.
The Alcázar is the filming location for the Water Gardens of Sunspear, the ancestral home of House Martell in Dorne. It's a suitably exotic place for a family as licentious, tempestuous, and incestuous as the Martells.
Game of Thrones co-writer David Weiss, said: “There’s nowhere on earth that is more like the water gardens we pictured than this place … It’s the weird kind of thing you never build for a set.”
Game of Thrones uses four locations in the Alcázar: the showy Ambassador’s Hall, the Mercury Pools, the Bath of Maria Padilla, and the Charles V Pavilion.
The Alcázar appears in Season 5 in episodes 2, 6, 7, and 9. The plot lines -- replete with murder and betrayal -- may be quasi-despicable, but the filming locations aren’t.