High life

Blood, sand and tragedy in Papa Hemingway and Ava Gardner country

8 October 2015

2:00 PM

8 October 2015

2:00 PM

Let’s take it from the top: Seville is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The capital of Andalusia, it is situated on the banks of the Guadalquivir river, and has a history that predates the Greeks and the Phoenicians. (Almost as old as Milton Keynes, but slightly more exciting at night.) The place reeks of charm and old-world splendour, its palaces, cathedrals, forts and magnificent spaces reflecting a civilisation that worshipped a Christian God and an all-conquering Christian army. Seville Cathedral is the biggest temple in Spain and the third largest of the Christian world, exceeded only by Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St Paul’s in London. And it was built on top of the great mosque while conserving la Giralda, the minaret it replaced once the Moors had been chased out. This was back in 1248, and it illustrates why we’re on a losing streak. When the Muslims negotiated the surrender of Seville to the Christian forces, they asked that the great mosque and its minaret be destroyed in order not to be soiled by people like you and me. But Don Alfonso, the winner, threatened to kill anybody who dared destroy the beautiful edifice. Just like those nice guys of the Islamic State in Palmyra, n’est-ce pas?

Going around the city of 800,000 is a revelation in civilised living. There is virtually no sound of traffic or strewn litter, and most of the tourists flocking to the fortresses and palaces are Spanish. Yes, there are Chinese, but they are outnumbered by the locals. South Saharans are few and I counted only about 15 women wearing the hijab. The city has very wide, imperial boulevards, beautiful parks and gardens, and narrow streets that evoke mystery, romance, bullfighting and flamenco.

This is Papa Hemingway and Ava Gardner country — baroque-style façades and the oldest bullring in the world. Built in 1761, the place reeks of blood and sand and tragedy. Leopold Bismarck, Tim Hoare and I visited it briefly. Tim had trouble walking because of a bad knee and I explained to the patient Spaniards shuffling slowly behind him that he was the greatest English matador, recently injured in the ring. They nodded politely but with slight amazement. Tim is not built like Manolete, nor does he have the late, greatest-ever matador’s sad countenance.

Although I am not an expert in tauromachy, the five greatest bullfighters ever are, in my opinion, Belmonte, Joselito, Manolete, Dominguin and Ordonez, and if anyone disagrees they can meet me at the sports palace in Amsterdam and I’ll settle the score. The greatest opening line of any book is that of Barnaby Conrad in The Death of Manolete: ‘On August 28,1947, in Linares, Spain, a multimillionaire and a bull killed each other, and plunged a nation into mourning.’ It beats Jane Austen’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ and leaves ‘Call me Ishmael’ for dust. And it makes ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ seem second-rate. Bravo, Barnaby, a friend of mine and author of Gates of Fear, the bible of bullfighting.

The previous afternoon I had gone with my friend John Rigas to the Plaza Espana, a 200-metre semicircle with two high towers at each end, and explained to some know-nothing tourists that the butler to the then King Alfonso became one of the world’s greatest marathon runners as he had to sprint 200 metres back and forth at least 40 times a day while serving his master. Some of them believed me.

The reason for my visit was a delight in itself: the Prince Augusto Ruffo Di Calabria’s 60th birthday. Augusto has too many titles to list in these here pages, so I will mention only that he’s also the president of the Corviglia Club in St Moritz, where I first met him. He’s married to an Austrian princess and has three beautiful children. His family has as much in common with the Hiltons and Kardashians as a popinjay does with a male lion. I spent three delightful days and nights with them, culminating with a grand dinner dance at the Casa de Pilatos, probably the grandest private palace in Seville, where 190 of us sat in a square courtyard filled with candles and flowers under white marble mosaics. Something tells me that I’ve been in more beautiful settings, but it also tells me that that was in a previous life. I sat next to Debonnaire Bismarck and watched the birthday boy’s brother-in-law, Heinrich Fürstenberg, do a torrid paso doble, and listened while Nick Scott spoke beautiful Andalusian Spanish to the servers, who understood not a word. It was a wonderful three days in a beautiful city, hosted by an Italian prince of the old school. The only sad note is that parties like that are bound to go with the wind sooner rather than later. The aforementioned scum like the Kardashians are the future, and that’s not good news for the poor little Greek boy.

Soon I’m off to where all that bad stuff comes from, New York, but only to see the first major exhibition devoted to my hero, Papa Hemingway, which opened at the Morgan Library and Museum last week. It might not be Seville but it’s the next best thing.

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