Jewish Spain explorations: Seville & Madrid

Photo by Marc Friedman

Europe’s third most populous city, Madrid, trailing London and Berlin, has a population of 3.2 million within the city limits and nearly seven million in the metro area. Located in the heart of Spain, Madrid is a perfect starting or endpoint for a visit to the Iberian Peninsula. Upon arrival at our hotel, my wife and I could immediately feel the city’s energy. From the historical squares to the old-city alleys and pedestrian shopping areas, Madrid has a charm that is unique.

Our hotel, Mola! Suites couldn’t have been better located. Everything that a new visitor to Madrid could want to explore was within a 20-minute walk, including three world-renowned museums. Unfortunately, time constraints only allowed us to visit Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (known locally as the Queen Sofia Museum), home to the world’s largest Picasso collection, including perhaps his most famous piece, Guernica. The museum is an absolute treasure.

Within a short distance of the Queen Sofia are two other equally spectacular museums, Museo del Prado and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. We instead chose more outdoor activities including a visit to the beautiful Real Jardin Botanico, an expansive garden which is adjacent to the Prado, as the weather in late September was absolutely perfect.

Madrid Sights and Eats

Photo by Marc Friedman

Nearby our hotel was at least a dozen restaurants and gelato shops, and no more than two blocks in any direction were probably 50 more. Tapas, tapas, tapas (small plates) are everywhere, featuring almost any kind of food you can imagine. The national rice (arroz) dish, “paella”, is an option for lunch or dinner with seemingly endless varieties. Vegetarian, seafood, chicken, and yes, even bull meat are options for this delicious dish. All in all, you can’t possibly go hungry in Madrid.

Our hotel and many others in the “Centro” neighborhood tourist zone sponsor a “free” 90-minute walking tour each morning. While we figured there must be a catch, it was really a very well-coordinated and fascinating small group walk. Our guide was an Irish national who was assigned to our English-speaking group, and the tour was great and indeed free. We went through Centro and the adjacent La Latina area which included a great photo-op of the Palacio Real, the official residence of the King of Spain.

Photo by Marc Friedman

Madrid’s Jewish Neighborhood

The old Juderia neighborhood of Madrid is believed to have been established in 1053 in the general vicinity of the Teatro Real opera house, just across from the Royal Palace. The first Jews arrived in Madrid in the mid-ninth century, though there is no historical proof of a Jewish presence until 1053. A statute established in 1202 required Jews to live in a common area, known here and in other Spanish cities as the Juderia.

Today, there are about 13,000 Jews practicing in the country, with another 50,000 residing in the country, primarily in Madrid, Barcelona and on the Mediterranean coast in Malaga. In 2007, both the History Museum of the Jewish Community of Madrid and a Holocaust Memorial located in the Garden of the Three Cultures in Juan Carlos I Park were dedicated.

On to Seville

Photo by Marc Friedman

Located in the Andalucia region of southwest Spain, Seville (Sevilla) is a fascinating city that is easily explored on foot, though a modern tram system provides service to most areas of the city. With a metro area population of 1.3 million, Seville is the fourth most populous Spanish city behind Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. My wife and I arrived via high-speed Renfe train from Madrid in just 2.5 hours. With most of our time to be spent in the Barrio de Santa Cruz neighborhood, we stayed at the Dreams Apartments Placentines right in the heart of the action.

Photo by Marc Friedman

Our visit took place in late September, when the extreme heat of the summer had subsided, making outdoor dining a true delight. There are scores of restaurants, most with the option of sidewalk seating or air-conditioned comfort. Plus, they’re all within walking distance of the Alcazar of Seville palace (used during the filming of several Games of Thrones episodes), and the magnificent Seville Cathedral, the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world.

Tapas and paella are abundant in Seville, as is more seafood than we found in Madrid. Octopus, mussels, and many ocean fish are also popular here, as the city is less from 50 miles from the Mediterranean coast.

Seville’s Jewish Quarter and History

Santa Cruz is considered the old Jewish quarter, full of narrow alleys with shops, B&B’s, and dining options throughout. While there isn’t much left of the once sizable Jewish population in the late 1400s and early 1500s, visitors can sense how the neighborhood must have flourished prior to the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1478 and continued until 1734.

At that time, Jews, Muslims, Protestants and other non-Catholics were given three options by the Spanish Monarchy. They could convert to Catholicism, leave Spain, or remain and be at risk of torture and death. This led to a diaspora of thousands of Jews. Descendants became known as Sephardic Jews. “Converts” who remained became known as Carranos and were deeply distrusted and treated with prejudice. Many were turned in by neighbors and supposed friends for following non-Catholic traditions. This often led to imprisonment, and even death. Surprisingly, Jews who chose not to convert, but stayed in Spain and continued to practice Judaism, were not vilified.

Photo by Marc Friedman

What to do in Seville

This energetic and historical city is now very welcoming to all. In addition to the Alcazar of Seville, a visit to the incredible Seville Cathedral and La Giralda, its bell tower, is highly recommended. The Cathedral was originally a mosque built late in the 12th century. When the Romans occupied the area, the Moorish structure became a Christian cathedral that was expanded beginning in 1401. There is also an impressive memorial that contains the remains of Christopher Columbus inside the cathedral.

Photo by Marc Friedman

As for finding any remnants of Judaism, we were fortunate to come across a ceramics shop one block from Juderia Street in Santa Cruz that sells a wide array of beautiful pieces, some with 14-carat gold, that are produced utilizing an old-world Arab process that is nearly non-existent today. Several plates and tiles include the Star of David in the design, which thrilled us to no end. Ceramics Sevilla is located at Gloria 5, in Santa Cruz.

Seville is also the birthplace of Flamenco dancing which we learned was developed during the days of the Moors from North Africa. We opted for a performance at the Museo del Baile Flamenco which was incredible. Several one-hour performances are offered daily and attending one is sure to be a highlight of a visit to Seville.

There’s really so much more to Spain than just Madrid and Barcelona, and we were so glad that we included Seville as part of this trip.

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