Once a primitive slum populated by the city’s dropouts and Gypsies, Triana has become one of the most popular night-out spots in Seville. It still has the mystery and romance of the eras gone by but with improved safety and accessibility to the city folk on the “right side” of the river. Beneath the gaze of the belltower of the Real Parroquia de Señora Santa Ana run narrow streets criss-crossing but still somehow eventually converging on just one – Calle Betis.
This is hot real estate today. Residents of Calle Betis get their pick of all the hottest local drinking and eating spots as well as a dazzling view of the city skyline in all its glory. This kilometre of cobblestones is graced with waterfront open air terraces, elegant restaurants serving sumptuous Andalusian cuisine and one or two tawdry bars blaring out reggaeton beats every time their doors swing open – completed by dramatic sunsets glinting in the rippling water. Though much has changed, the river has always remained a central artery of Seville for millennia.
The Roman colonisation of the Iberian peninsula coincided with the second Punic War in which General Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with his elephants. This rugged terrain north-west of the Mediterranean did not boast much mineral wealth, but its location between North Africa and Continental Europe made it of paramount strategic importance to the Romans. The world’s greatest historic civilisation would eventually crush the Carthaginians and occupy the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula towards the end of the 3rd century BC, establishing several key settlements that became bastions of defence and magnets for trade in the process. Tarragona became a key defensive outpost against the rebelious Visigoths. Cádiz had been an important commercial hub since Phoenician times. And in the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula (named for the Roman name for the Ebro River), a gentle bend in the land’s longest river grew to become a thriving inland port.
Hispalsis was founded on this riverbank some 2,200 years ago. Traces of Roman settlement survive to this day all around the city. Beneath the giant “Setas” observation deck that you recognise from Instagram lie some well preserved architectural ruins of this era. A few clicks north is Italica – one of the best remaining Roman amphitheatres in Spain that makes for a fantastic day out. And of course, Spain’s Latin blood is felt most notably in its culture, language and choice of religion (though not really a choice for much of the country’s history). The Spanish Crown proudly carried the torch of the Catholic Church, spreading light – or fire – wherever it went for centuries. And contemporary Spanish place names and denonyms are often Roman in origin. Modern Sevillian citizens are described as “hispalense”, and the historic name for the River Guadalquivir has also entered common parlance in Spanish.
The hills and mountains surrounding the river’s wide water basin formed the province that the Romans called “Hispania Baetica”. Rainwater from these mountains eventually trickled down into the main river that flowed through Hispalis – inevitably passing the a site of much intrigue and ritual today. The Spanish may now refer to this river as the Guadalquivir, its Latin name “Baetis” is easy to pronounce for Football fans.
Real Betis Balompie is an easy club to like. Considered the 4th best supported club in Spain in terms of season ticket holders, its perennial underdog status and outlandishly beautiful art-deco stadium are like morphene to a international groundhopper. In the realm of Football, Spain does 2 things very well. One is original club names. Just like Levante, Numancia and Osasuna, “Real Betis” takes inspiration from the country’s colourful past and unusual geography, using the former Roman name for the Guadalquivir for its own branding purposes as well as appropriating the colours of the Andalusian flag (green and white). Though Betis’ colours apparently connect to the Irish origins of a founder, it is fitting that the Real Betis home kit vaguely resembles the contemporary flag of the “Hispania Baetica” region. The second thing Spanish Football excels at is its stadia, and the Estadio Benito Villamarín is a fine example. It truly is a classic and one that should be on your bucket list (even though the home side will probably lose). Somewhat appropriately, Betis’ ground overlooks the river from whence it takes its name.
But Spain’s history is so much richer. Its geographical (and cultural) closeness to Africa has always meant both opportunity and threat for the people of this land. After the decline of Roman rule in Hispania and the resurgence of the Visigoths, in the early 8th century a new force surged north from across the Strait of Gibraltar that would change the course of history in Spain – and in Seville.
The only province of Spain and Portugal that was never occupied by the Moors was Asturias in the far north – a place where a strong Celtic culture survives to this day (where a good night out includes cider and bagpipes). From the early 700’s to 1492 (quite an important year in Spanish history), the Islamic Moors ruled here. Catholic resistance, and then reconquest, was patchy and came in stages as the Castillians retook what they considered to be Christian land one town at a time. The long-term consequence was that the south of what we now call Spain was exposed to Moorish culture for far longer than other parts of the country. This becomes increasingly noticeable the more you spend time there.
The town planning. The dominant architectural style. The favoured art. The ornate gardens with running water (something of much importance in pre-modern Islamic lifestyles). The hypnotic Flamenco music and even the place names of Andalusia are all recognisably “un-European”. The name “Andalusia” has migrated from the Arabic name for Hispania Baetica: “Al-Andalus”. And over several decades, people stopped referring to this magical city by its Latin name and began referring to it as Ishbīliya.
Various Islamic polities ruled this city for approximately 534 years. The aggressive Catholic reconquest in 1247 and centuries of political persecution that followed could not purge Seville of its acquired Moorish characteristics. The fact that we call it “Seville” (the latinisation of the name Ishbīliya) is testament to that fact. It is therefore very fitting that the city’s other Football giant restores balance with a name that winks at Seville’s Moorish history. Sevilla FC play further away from the river than Real Betis do. The Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán is commonly referred to as “Nervión” – an upmarket, trendy and commercial part of town well away from the riverside docks and of course from the Benito Villamarín. Though often stated, it is a little contrived to say that Sevilla is supported predominantly by the members of the local educated middle class while Betis is favoured by the workers and labourers of Seville. However, there is definitely some poetry in the fact that the names of the two leading clubs of one of Spain’s iconic cities honour the two great civilisations that built it.