The Real Alcázar and Gardens – History and Architecture
The Real Alcázar and Gardens together are one of the most beautiful palace complexes in the world. What I love about it is the combination of Renaissance and Islamic design, and the focus on its gardens and courtyards. The palace, like most of Seville, is in the Mudéjar style, and features simple structures with decorations that are intricate yet tasteful.
Booking your visit to the Real Alcázar
You’ll definitely want to book your tickets to the Real Alcázar in advance of your visit. Queues for tickets can be several hours long with no guarantee you’ll get to enter since the palace limits the number of visitors to 750 at any one time. If you want to visit the Royal Chambers, you must book online, as the numbers of people allowed into the Cuarto Real Alto are even more strictly limited. If you book a discounted ticket (students or senior citizens), make sure you bring your ID.
It is the primary attraction of Seville, and you won’t be disappointed. It is the most beautiful building in a city of beautiful buildings, and has many enchanting gardens. The gardens in themselves are an attraction, and the land given to them is almost three times that given to the buildings of the Real Alcázar.
The Architecture of Real Alcázar
The architecture of Real Alcázar and its buildings features a very strong Oriental influence. In fact, I would say the design seems to be more Islamic than Christian. Instead of pointed roofs, we have graceful domes. In place of long, dark hallways, we have open, bright courtyards.
Nowhere is this most apparent than in the Courtyard of the Maidens, or El Patio de las Doncellas. Interestingly, the patio bears inscriptions referring to the reigning king of the time, Peter of Castile, as a sultan.
The Courtyard of the Maidens – Architecture Symbolising Myths and Legends
Around the 13th Century, there was a legend that the Muslim emirate of Cordoba demanded 100 virgins annually as tribute from the Christian kings of Andalusia. This courtyard symbolises that legend, which obviously had a profound impact on the psyche of the people living during the time this patio was build.
The Patio de las Doncellas was built in the 13th Century. By this time, Seville was back under Christian rule. This patio is an architectural monument built in the memory of those fictional virgins. Walking through this courtyard feels like entering a poem written by those lamenting their lost daughters.
Jardin del Principe – Architecture Symbolising Spirituality
As you walk around the Real Alcázar, you will notice it is populated with many low fountains. This is very different from the monumental and decorated fountains found in most of Europe. The fountains in the residences of Andalusia are often low in the ground and simply decorated (if they are even decorated at all).
These fountains are of Islamic origin. In Islamic architecture, fountains are not sculptural works of art and a show off of wealth. Instead, they have a spiritual purpose. The Jardin del Principe (the Garden of the Prince) is modelled after the “Paradise Garden”. A Paradise Garden is an earthly representation of the Garden of Eden. Standing in the centre of all Paradise Gardens is a fountain with four canals flowing from it. These canals symbolise the four rivers of the Garden of Eden.
The water is there to remind people of its life-giving and purifying aspects. It also provides the right atmosphere for contemplation and meditation. As we walked through the grounds of the Real Alcazar, we found that this was indeed true. The soft tinkling of water amidst the lush green had a calming effect on everyone who was there.
The central fountain of the Garden of the Prince does not have these four canals, but its location in the garden undoubtedly suggests the garden takes its inspiration directly from the Islamic Paradise Garden.
The Ceilings of the Real Alcázar
The Real Alcázar has some truly impressive ceilings – and by extension – roofs. Two particularly stand out – the glass ceiling of the Courtyard of Dolls (Patio de las Munecas), and the ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors (Salón de los Embajadores). Both ceilings are special for both their design and for the way they light the room.
The Courtyard of the Dolls
The Courtyard of the Dolls is so called because of the four small heads that decorate the main arch of the patio. The show stopper of this courtyard however is the ceiling. The glass ceiling of the Patio de las Munecas makes me think of the facets on a rectangular gem stone. Although the rest of the courtyard is mostly Islamic in design, the ceiling is Neo-Renaissance, adding a beautiful contrast to the design of the room. The glass is completely transparent, letting the sunlight shine right through, illuminating this intimate and elegant space.
The Hall of the Ambassadors
The Hall of the Ambassadors (Salon de Embajadores) is one of the most important rooms of the Real Alcázar. In the past, it was the main room used for public events and affairs of the state. Like the marriage between the King of Spain, Charles V, and Isabel of Portugal in the 16th Century.
The great domed ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors is something to truly marvel at. Light shines through the delicate tracery patterns, casting the hall in a golden light. It is as if we are looking at the night sky, blazing with stars. I found out later that this was not a mere coincidence. The dome was built to resemble the night sky. The architect had taken inspiration from the Hall of the Pleiades, which was built by the poet-king al-Mutamid, who ruled Seville in the 11th Century.
It is probable that either the king or the architect knew of the Greek myth surrounding the Pleiades constellation. Like all Greek myths, it is tragic and romantic, and I feel this dome encompasses the je ne sais quoi of the tale.
The Gardens of the Real Alcázar
Although some of the interiors of the Real Alcázar were used in the Dorne scenes of Game of Thrones, most of us would only recognise the Gardens. I remember how I felt when I first saw the Gardens on screen. I was breath-taken by how beautiful it all was. I thought it wasn’t real. It must have been CGI – how can such a beautiful location be real? The flowers and trees, the architecture, it just seemed to fit the fantasy world so well.
In real life, the Gardens are as beautiful as they were on screen, if not more so. Walking around the Gardens transported us into another world and another time. Perhaps it is not so surprising as this garden is a piece of living history. It is a place maintained throughout the centuries by the many gardeners that have cared for it.
We went there after our audio guide tour of the Royal Quarters though, so by then, there was already a number of tourists in it. We recommend trying to get in at opening time to get most of the place to yourself. I certainly wish we had! But even with a number of other people, there are still parts in the Gardens where you will only encounter one or two others.
The Ladies’ Garden and the Galeria del Grutesco
One of the things I really enjoyed in the Gardens was to walk around the Galeria del Grutesco – the raised corridor bordering the Ladies’ Garden. It was a real pleasure to enjoy the view of the garden under the shade of the corridor. Occasionally, a cool breeze would blow through, providing everyone extra relief from the heat. Here, I could stop to enjoy the garden. I found the arrangement of plants in this particular garden interesting because of the eclectic mix of low myrtle trees and tall palms.
Within the Ladies’ Garden also stands the Fuente de la Neptuno. This is one of the ornamental fountains to be found in the Gardens. Although it is ornamental, it is simple when compared to other fountains to be found in palaces elsewhere in Europe. This fountain is also placed at the meeting point of four streets, a tribute to the design of the Paradise Garden. What I find interesting is that this fountain has three styles rolled up in one. Islamic, Roman and Gothic (note the fish shape gargoyles that support Neptune).
Game of Thrones – Dorne in the Real Alcázar
The Gardens form most of the backdrop for the political intriguing between Dorne and King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. It’s where Myrcella and Trystane have their romantic encounters and where Jamie Lannister confronts the Sand Snakes when he tries to take Myrcella back to Queen Cersei.
The most iconic part of the Real Alcázar related to Game of Thrones, however, is the balcony pictured here. The balcony was used in one of the very first opening scenes of Dorne, when we are first introduced to Doran Martell, the lame king of the Dornish kingdom. Sadly, the balcony is off limits to visitors, it’s the only reason why you can see it here, pictured with not a soul in sight on it.
Our visit to the Real Alcázar took us a good few hours. Around four hours in total. It was just the right amount of time to enjoy the incredible architecture and feel the history embedded in it. The palace has mixed many cultural influences into its architecture over time and the designs in it are wonderful to contemplate.
In the end, we decided not to visit the far end of the Gardens. The day had gotten blazing hot, and we decided to skip the Jardin del Laberinto. Instead, we headed back towards the exit, walking through the massive stone corridor leading to the enormous exit door. As we stepped back out onto the streets of Seville, it did feel a little like we had left paradise. That said, I was quite ready for a cool glass of vino blanco at one of Sevilles many lovely tapas bars.