Pretty (or) kitsch?

I recently read a travel article, in an English newspaper, which stated that "it used to be simple when it came to Spain's big three. For style, you'd choose Barcelona; for culture, Madrid. Seville, meanwhile, was the place for romance...beautiful, but not exactly sexy...the Spanish equivalent of Bath: undeniably lovely but, with its polka dots and bullfighting, erring on the twee." I've heard la corrida called many things, but twee? So what is your concept of southern Spain's main metropolis? Flamenco, tapas, bullfights, the Giralda? The Feria, Semana Santa and barrio Santa Cruz? When places are so well-known for certain aspects, traditions or events, they become so closely associated with these that they lose all independent existence; they can become cliches, stereotypes and distortions. Barrio Santa Cruz, for those not familiar with it, is a picturesque neighbourhood of ancient, narrow cobbled streets, with beautiful, flower-bedecked patios and balconies and countless restaurants, bars and shops. This was the argument of another article, this time in a Spanish newspaper, entitled, "Santa Cruz, o la ruta de la camiseta" (Santa Cruz, or the route of the T-shirts). The writer, who referred to himself as "el cronista", described the descent of the barrio into a hell of tourist knick-nacks, restaurants with folding chairs, and rice with only one prawn and a few peas masquerading as paella. I'd agree with him about the quality of some of the tourist fare (14-euro menus for people too intimidated to go up to a tapas bar's noisy counted packed with locals and shout out their order, then manage to collect it, ie most people over 40), but all tourism, development, exploitation, call it what you will, involves a degree of give and take. As he sees it, the barrio gives and the tourists take. Yes, the T-shirts saying "I'm not a virgin but I perform miracles" are not going to give Oscar Wilde a run for his money in terms of wit, and they may offend the more arch-Catholics among Sevillanos. And being not-from-here, I can probably turn a blind eye to all the tourist palaver more easily than someone who calls Seville their own - in fact, I love going out in Santa Cruz for an evening, where better for some avant-garde tapas and a walk through flower-decked cobbled alleyways - but I sense the typical "Seville is for Sevillanos" attitude - what are these people doing in my city? So - pretty, charming, picturesque, atmospheric, or naff, kitsch, cheesy, theme park? The Spanish writer, "el cronista" refers to the man who restored the area in the 1920, before the first expo, the Marquis de Vega-Inclan, Spain's first tourism minister, who founded the paradors. Did he start off a phenomenon of endless tourist groups and loss of Seville's true identity to a cheap, poor-quality imitation of itself? Or did he open up the city to a new era in tourism and make the most of its already considerable attractions? A few years ago, I went to a seminar, on Seville's culture and heritage, and the future thereof. University professors, esteemed journalists and scientists were on the panel. They all agreed that one of Seville's biggest problems was the huge amount of tourists traipsing through the cathedral, and all the damage they were doing to this magnificent, historic building, and the city in general. Not being one for speaking in public in general, let alone in front of such important bods, and even less so in Spanish, I did not take issue with their point, though I wish I had done, and given the chance again, I certainly would do. My reaction was this: where would their beloved Hispalis be without guiris clogging up the streets of Santa Cruz, buying flamenco aprons and personalised fans? Yes, they are annoying and the tat they buy is not high art, but they bring lots and lots and lots of lovely euros to your hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and taxis. Returning to our "cronista", his point is that the barrio has been overrun with tourist-aimed places, that the City Council has granted too many licences to such establishments, so that now nothing is left of the barrio's original character - no locals' shops (for local people). That is a fair and just point. But I am sure that the locals also enjoy advantages from being part of a major attraction. All the people I know who live there, both Sevillano and non, love the place and accept it for what it is - a very pretty, photogenic, tourist-magnet of a jumble of houses and streets packed with history and atmosphere. They are proud of it, and proud to live there and call it their home. So while Santa Cruz is probably no longer exactly what the Marques envisaged, it is a place which draws people; so maybe their concept of Spain and Spanishness isn't as true and real and authentic as it could be, but let's face it; it's better than certain over-developed, only-English-spoken coastal areas I could mention.
Blog published on 27 September 2010