Bulls, Boats and Bars - the Arenal Neighbourhood of Seville

El Arenal is the neighbourhood in the south-western corner of the old city of Seville, forming something of a wedge shape between the Avenida de la Constitución and the Cathedral on the one hand, and the River Guadalquivir on the other. It's name derives from "arena", the Spanish word for sand, a reference to the sandy/muddy space between the riverbank and the old city wall. It's also been suggested that it could refer to the sand in the bullring, which is located in this neighbourhood.
El Arenal, Seville
Although it's literally only just across the street from the Cathedral and the Barrio Santa Cruz, which are the most touristy parts of town, the Arenal has a quite different atmosphere, much more residential and workaday, but there are still plenty of surprises, and lots to see and do.
Crucially, this area is where the city's port used to be. Although it may be hard to believe now, the stretch of river between the Triana bridge (at that time there was a "bridge of boats", not the modern bridge) and the San Telmo Bridge (built in 1925) was one of the busiest and most important ports in Europe, and during the 16th and 17th centuries was the only one licensed to conduct the Americas trade that was the source of the city's wealth.
Statue outside the bullring
Even after the river became increasingly silted up, and the Americas trade moved to Cádiz, the port remained in use until the early 20th century, when it was moved downstream to the modern facilities in the new Alfonso XIII Canal, where it remains to this day.
The riverside has now become one of the area's principal attractions, and it's now possible to walk (or jog, or cycle) all the way from the Puerto de las Delicias to the Amarillo Bridge, enjoying the calm ripple of the water, or watching the canoeists and windsurfers. Most of the year the morning is the best time, as the late afternoon sun shines across the river, and there's not much to protect you from the heat.

Torre del Oro

Gold Tower, Seville
By the river at the south end of the El Arenal is one of Seville's most iconic and best known landmarks, the Torre del Oro, or Gold Tower. The distinctive twelve-sided, three stage tower was built around 1220 by the then Moorish rulers (the small top stage was actually added in 1769, when the tower was being repaired after the Great Lisbon Earthquake) as a defence against Christian incursions up the river. Contrary to a popular local belief it did not serve as an anchor for a chain across the river – that was just upstream, near the bridge of boats.
It is sometimes said that it acquired the name because it was used to store gold from the Americas trade, but more likely it was from the golden colour of its reflection on the water. Although never used for storing gold it was used as a prison, and with scant regard for the preservation of heritage, as a gunpowder store.
Since the 1940s the tower has been the home of a naval museum, with some interesting nautical memorabilia, model ships and old prints, as well as a great view along the river from the top.

Atarazanas Shipyard

Atarazanas Shipyard
Another fascinating memento of Seville's sea-going past can be found nearby. The late 13th century Atarazanas, or shipyards, were built along the outside of the city wall between the Postigo del Aceite (oil gate) and Postigo del Carbón (coal gate) for the construction of the galleys that patrolled the Straits of Gibraltar and the western Mediterranean against the Moors. At present it's not possible to go inside, but looking through one of the windows near the oil gate gives a good idea of how impressive they must have been in use. At the right time of year you can also see storks nesting on top of the chimney.

Postigo del Aceite

Postigo del Aceite, Seville
This is one of the few remaining gates of the old city, and was where oil (olive oil) was taxed on entering the city. Beside it is a small chapel, a common feature of city gates, where people leaving or entering could ask for blessings on their enterprises or give thanks for a safe return. Just outside is the early 20th century market building which is now a small craft market, and an excellent place to look for an unusual souvenir or two.

Plaza del Cabildo

Detail, Plaza Cabildo
This charming semi-circular plaza with a small fountain alongside a stretch of the old wall can be reached by a short passage opposite the main entrance of the Cathedral, which was originally the Cathedral chapter house, but was redeveloped in the 1930s. On Sundays it hosts a collectors' market for stamps, coins and the like. Of particular interest is a small shop called El Torno which sells cakes and pastries made in the closed convents in and around Seville. The name derives from the fact that when you bought cakes from the convents you would be served through a little turntable in the wall so that you couldn't see the nuns!

The Bull Ring

Main entrance, bull ring, seville
Seville's Real Maestranza bullring is one of the oldest and most impressive in Spain, with a capacity of some 14,000. Although bullfighting is not as popular as it once was, particularly with the younger generation, it still generates a lot of passion. The season officially lasts from April to early October, but most of the fights are during the week of the April Fair, when the upper crust of Seville society comes here to see and be seen. When there are no fights you can visit the bull ring, and take a guided tour of the museum and part of the arena. Even if you don't want to see a fight it's worth experiencing the atmosphere of the arena.

Eating Out

Because it's away from the most touristy areas around the Cathedral and Santa Cruz, the Arenal is a good place to come for some traditional tapas in local neighbourhood bars (while practising your Spanish). Favourite spots include Casa Morales, Casa Moreno and the Bodeguita Romero, or La Azotea or La Brunilda for something a little more upmarket.