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Seville's Many Splendored Hotel Alfonso XIII

 

We’d arrived on a glorious morning, having streaked down the center of Spain on the silvery high-speed Ave that hurtled past the plains of La Mancha as the sun rose, passing through the undulating, olive-tree-filled landscape of Andalusia, and pulling into Seville some two hours after we’d left the Atocha Station in Madrid. Not much later, we were checking into the Hotel Alfonso XIII, mesmerized by the three-story, cream-colored palace with the square tower, tall arched windows that opened like doors onto wrought iron balconies, surrounding gardens and towering palms. At the reception desk, we chanced to look up to a ceiling frescoed with angels. It was as if we’d entered the portals of heaven.
Actually it was the Puerta de Jerez we’d come through, now a plaza but once the actual gate to the old walled city of Seville and the point of departure to Cadiz from the Guadalquivir River just beyond. The Alfonso XIII was built in 1929 just across the way from the city’s original entry to coincide with the Ibero-American Exhibition (it was remodeled in 1992 in time for the Universal Exhibition), and the many layers of Seville’s history are reflected in its Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, even Art Deco elements of design. Its spirit, however, is overwhelmingly Moorish.

The hotel is built around a courtyard enclosed by arched arcades, with a splashing fountain at its center. Within, a succession of arches defines galleries that look into the courtyard through glass walls on one side and open to the restaurant and bars, lounges and ballrooms on the other. In the Mudejar details that abound in ornate plasterwork, ceramic tiles, arches, and mosaics are the suggestions of a myriad of stories.         

“People always ask for my name. It is José Torezano. José is nice, thank you very much, but everyone knows me as Pepe,” says the Alfonso’s head concierge, a small animated man who has volunteered to tell us the stories and act as our informal guide. “The architect of the hotel was José Espiau,” Pepe begins. “He was the brother-in-law of Anibal González who was the architect of the Plaza de España (this the huge semicircular expanse built for the 1929 exhibition that showcases the provinces of Spain in recessed ceramic friezes). Most people think Gonzáles built this hotel. But that is not so.

Pepe, the Alfonso’s Head Concierge - click to enlarge
Pepe, the Alfonso’s Head Concierge

“When they built the Alfonso  XIII, they also built the Reina Christina – a luxurious hotel like this one. One for the king, one for the queen.  But it closed down a long time ago.”

He calls our attention to the cocalos, stretches of azelujos maybe four feet high that cover the lower portion of walls. Each depicts a different image typical of Seville. Some are merely decorative: orange blossoms, flower-filled urns, a little boy at the bullfight; but others are specific to the city’s history, says Pepe: the king surrounded by a pair of prelates is Fernando III, the 13th century monarch of Castille and Leon who re-conquered Seville and turned its magnificent mosque into the church that a century later became the world-famous cathedral; the two women are Saints Justa and Rufina, a pair of sister potters from Seville who were martyred under the Roman Emperor Diocletian for refusing to allow their earthenware pots to be used in pagan sacrifices; the emblems represent different cities of Spain; the tile bearing the rebus No8Do is the motto of Seville: ‘They never forgot me.’

“This hotel is like a museum; it has so much history,” Pepe says. In his own story lies nearly fifty years of the hotel’s history, as long as he has been working there.  

“When I was a child, we lived on the other side of the Guadalquivir River, and my father often took me across the bridge to play in the Maria Luisa Gardens,” he told us. “One day when I was close to 14, I was sitting in the gardens with my father. Suddenly a group of soldiers marched by. We followed them a few blocks along the riverfront until they turned and came up the San Fernando stopping at the hotel.

“‘What is it this, Papa?’ I asked my father.

“‘I think the soldiers are here in honor of the King of Morocco. He is in Seville for a visit and is staying at this hotel,’ he said. ‘When famous people come to Seville from other countries, this is where they sleep.’

“Then he said to me, ‘Would you like to work in such a hotel?’

“‘Oh yes, Papa, I would.’

“He had a friend in the hotel business who knew the Alfonso’s manager, a man from Austria. He told my father, ‘Come tomorrow with the boy.’

“And that was how I began. Back then, there were still trams running out front along the San Fernando. The University of Seville, directly behind us, was still the Royal Tobacco Factory of Carmen. They gave me a nice uniform. With ten or so other little boys I’d sit on a bench beside the door. When people came, we would open the door and greet them; we would buy newspapers and cigarettes for the guests.

“We would go out in our uniforms, and soldiers who had come in from the villages would salute us. Since we came from the hotel, they thought we were officers from the navy.”

He went on, “After a while, I began to stay at the concierge desk whenever I could, helping out, giving a little map, giving the key.  I had decided that I wanted to be a concierge.

“One day when I was 18 years old, the director told me, ‘I will give you a job at the elevator so you can improve your English and French. The elevator will be a good place to meet people, to talk to them. Then in the future, maybe someday you will come to the concierge job.’”

The pair of elevators with the carved wooden doors have  been automatic conveyances for some 25 years now. But when Pepe moved on to his new position, they were still being operated by hand.

“The elevator was not so fast like now. It had a beautiful iron gate that I would slide open. ‘Right this way,’ I would say. There was a little bench with a velvet cushion; guests would walk in and sit down. ‘First, second, third floor,’ I would say, making sure to stop the elevator so it met the floor exactly.

“For me it was a big pleasure to meet these people at the elevator. I had the chance to talk to them. ‘Do you speak English?’ ‘How is the weather?’ I learned to speak English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese—even a little in Japanese.

“Now in Spain we have the autonomous areas. But before the power was all in Madrid and so whenever something happened here, all the ministers would come to Seville. Before Juan Carlos was king, he was a guest here with his family. ‘Talk to my children like normal people,’ he would say. The little boys wanted to try to operate the elevator. Of course I let them, but they could not make the door meet the floor. ‘Next time,’ I would tell them.

“‘How are you Mr. Kissinger?’ Sophia Loren, Bridgett Bardot — she was so beautiful, David Niven, Gina Lollabridgida, Jacqueline Kennedy – they were all here, James Michener when he was working on his book Iberia, Grace Kelly — she was the president of the Red Cross in Europe, the Shah of Persia with his beautiful wife, the King of Morrocco, King Hussein of Jordan, Orson Welles — he came here often. He was friends with the most famous bullfighter of the day. After he died, his daughter — whom he used to bring along when she was a little girl — brought a portion of his ashes to be buried beside the bullfighter’s grave. ‘Don’t you remember me?’ I said to her.

“When some of the scenes for the movie Lawrence of Arabia were being filmed in Seville, the actors stayed here for as long as three or four months. I remember Peter O’Toole, Omar Shariff, Anthony Quinn, David Lean, Anthony Quayle, Claude Raines, Alec Guiness. ‘Hello, how are you?’ I would say to them every day, talking a little bit Spanish, a little bit English. I remember it like now. Why did they pick this hotel? Because it was so beautiful, so nice.”

After four years as an elevator operator, Pepe was called into the director’s office. “Pepe, one of the concierges died. We will give you his job but without a uniform. We will wait a few months and see how it works out.” The few months passed, and he was told “Go to the tailor and have him make the uniform.”

It was in his current role as head concierge that Pepe took us around the arched galleries surrounding the courtyard. We passed little conversation areas, each furnished with a settee, pair of armchairs, and coffee table; we stopped at small desks – “People would sit here and write letters — I would bring them the pens and ink.” We looked into the public rooms off the arcades: a wood-paneled lounge with a magnificent carved fireplace that used to be lit on the occasional cold night, the grand ballrooms with glittering chandeliers and French doors that open onto the gardens. “Now these are used for conferences and private parties.

“My whole working life was here, and all my heart is here,” said Pepe wistfully. “After I retire I plan to come back with my friends. We will have a drink at the bar. We will have dinner in San Fernando, the restaurant. I will tell them ‘I worked here for fifty years.’”

We had dinner in the candle-lit San Fernando, a spacious room of serene ambience which looks through glass walls to a gallery and the arcaded courtyard beyond. Beside us was an English-speaking trio, a British couple who had recently relocated to Spain and their cousin from Seattle. At the far end were two Italian couples, the women outfitted in flamboyant Flamenco costumes. After dinner, they would be off to Flamenco clubs, they said.

“There used to be a whole orchestra serenading guests during dinner,” Pepe had told us. “Now it is just a pianist but he is excellent.” Appropriately the pianist was playing a medley from Carmen as we came in, but soon we were hearing “To Russia With Love,” not a Spanish song. Yet somehow its poignant melody suited the Alfonso/Seville experience so well.

The dinner was an entirely Andalusian affair with olives from Carmona, little pickles and al caparas, the large and flavorful but mild capers typical of Seville set out on the table along with cruets of local olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a bread basket filled with flaky rolls fragrant with rosemary and country breads. While the varied menu provided ample choices from starters to desserts, one could order off the menu as well. Paella, Pepe said, is not listed but always available, adding “It will be as good as in Valencia, maybe even better.” There is also a carte of Andalusian specialties including a spicy, creamy gazpacho with pieces of ham and hard boiled eggs and  a milder cold tomato consommé that blended chopped tomatoes, red pepper, cucumber, bread and oil. Both were excellent. The tiniest and most delicate of clams were on the listing of specialties as well and proved a rare treat, sautéed with onions in Marsala wine and olive oil.

From the regular menu, we selected hake sautéed in white wine and olive oil, flavored with fresh herbs, surrounded by tomatoes and mushrooms; and aromatic roast partridge in a sherry-based sauce with chestnuts, figs, and grapes but also tiny tomatoes and olives — these, a surprising to us but typically Andalusian counterpoint to the sweetness.

While the wine list included a sampling from Chile, California and France, it was dominated by an extensive Spanish collection organized according to wine-producing regions. The kindly looking sommelier and Alfonso veteran of 25 years who goes by the single name Valentin brought us a fruity yet not sweet, deep and aromatic Beronia Gran Reserv from 1994 which, he said, was an excellent year for Riojas. He also provided us with a list of quality Riojas to look for back home.

“Only the Riojas are from far away, but they are Spanish too,” the youthful headwaiter Juan Ramõn told us. “We strive to use Andalusian products; the produce is mostly from here.” Ramõn is a relative newcomer to the Alfonso, having come from the Palace Hotel in Madrid seven years ago in a homecoming of sorts. He lives in Otrera, the small city south of Seville where he was born and raised, famed for mostachones, a particular kind of cake sadly not available the time of our visit.

Headwaiter Juan Ramõn (left) and sommelier Valentin - click to enlarge
Headwaiter Juan Ramõn (left) and sommelier Valentin

We had coffee with sales and marketing director Marc Pendaries, another youthful member of the Alfonso team, who told us the San Fernando is attempting to attract a local as well as tourist crowd. “People have the impression the hotel is for movie stars and millionaires and don’t get the opportunity to enjoy it. Yet the prices here are comparable to any good restaurant in Seville. We are trying to overcome the intimidating factor and get the local community to become accustomed to the hotel. The Bar Alfonso which opens onto the terrace should be a draw as people can enter it directly from the garden.

“A while ago we held an exhibition of very well-done reproductions of famous paintings,” he said. “A copy of a Van Gogh, for example, cost $1,000. It was very successful. During the horse festival, we will have showings of paintings of horses. We plan a Picasso month. After all, this is not a mausoleum. We have to find that delicate balance between elegant and welcoming.”

Maybe it was because he studied at Boston University but the Brussels-born executive both in speech and practicality seemed American. We learned from him the challenges of maintaining a legendary property while bringing it up to 21st century standards of technology and comfort. Work is underway for a fitness center which will lead to the swimming pool in the garden. At the same time, a large staff of furniture restorers and ceramic artisans are always on hand. “When a ceramic tile breaks, the maintenance department will make another one if they have the design. If not, it must be taken to one of the places in Seville that specializes in this kind of work. We are always busy keeping such things in repair and in keeping the rooms in optimum condition.”

Later Marc showed us the palatial Royal Suite where the Countess of Barcelona, mother of King Juan Carlos, would stay when she was in Seville. “She was a big bullfight fan and always came during the season,” he said. Among the suite’s grand furnishings was a lovely miniature chest of drawers inlaid with mother-of-pearl. It belonged to the Aga Khan, Marc told us. There was a time when the Ciga chain, owned by the Aga Kahn, operated the hotel, and the chest is among the pieces he left behind.            

“When the hotel was built, there were no elevators,” he added. “The top floors were for the servants who traveled along with their employers. American guests always ask for the penthouse suite; they are so surprised to learn the best room is on the first floor.”

He continued, “The rooms are all up to date yet they retain the distinctive styles of Seville: Moorish, Castillian and what we call Baroque. The bathrooms were redone with copper tiles which was traditionally used to reflect light into a house. The walls are covered in damask; the floors are all marble. They used to be covered with carpeting until a while ago when the carpeting was scheduled to be replaced and someone discovered the original marble flooring beneath.”

Luxurious satin drapes line the window walls; beneath them are heavy wooden blinds that are lowered at night and to block out the strong Seville sun. We kept ours up all the time. Something drew us to stand before the little wrought iron balcony and look down to the gardens below or out through the palms to the bright orange trees along the boulevard where the horse-drawn carriages competed for space amidst the traffic, and the patter of prancing hooves against the pavement was a constant echo.

“The idea was to have a building very representative of the history of Seville,” general manager Héctor Salanova told us. “You won’t find this place anywhere else. It would be impossible to build something like this again.”

General Manager: Héctor Salanova - click to enlarge
General Manager: Héctor Salanova
Director of Sales & Marketing Marc Pendaries - click to enlarge
Director of Sales & Marketing Marc Pendaries

We were about to leave and turned to say goodbye to Pepe, smiling behind the concierge’s desk. “I love this job as head concierge,” he had told us.  “I like to help people. When I see a guest does not look happy, I say ‘How are you?’ When a guest says ‘I lost my key,’ ‘My husband is sick; I need a doctor,’ ‘I am going to miss my plane,’ I help them. Then they come to me and shake my hand and say ‘Thanks very much,’ — that is the most important thing.”

Yes, but we saw him as the elevator boy of maybe forty years ago, stopping the elevator so it met the floor perfectly, sliding open the iron gate and saying “Buenos naches, hasta mañana.”

Good night to the beautiful Alfonso XIII. See you in the morning.

Hotel Alfonso XIII, A Westin Hotel
San Fernando, 2
41004 Sevilla, Spain

Phone: 34 95 491 70000
Web: http://www.westin.com/alfonsoxiii  
 

Photos by Harvey Frommer

 

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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