When I was 21, I worked as a cocktail waitress in a motel bar on the outskirts of Boston. The owner paid me in cash and told me never, ever to ask anybody any questions. The guys who hung out at the bar, many of whom sported prison tattoos, occasionally showed up selling watches or pantyhose that “fell off a truck.” Sometimes they played poker in a smoky back room with a high roller who was “in from Vegas.” They treated me like a kid sister, and at the end of each shift, when I was entitled to a free cocktail, they furthered my education by introducing me to Grasshoppers, Manhattans, and Pink Cadillacs.
It was my first dive bar, and I loved it.
For those who aren’t familiar with this American term, “dive bar” refers to a no-frills, slightly seedy neighborhood drinking establishment, the kind that used to be housed underground in cellars so patrons could “dive” in without being observed. Some old-school thinkers insist a real dive bar is dirty, dangerous, and likely to be raided by the cops. Yikes! That’s a bit extreme for me; I’m not a fan of nights that end in brawls and/or incarceration. But I do like bars with plenty of atmosphere and colorful characters. And I agree that a cookie-cutter microbrewery in a Florida shopping mall that calls itself a dive bar is an insult to disreputable gin joints everywhere.
Rich and I are now on a quest to find dive bars wherever we go. This can get complicated in countries that don't go in for such time-honored hallmarks as juke boxes, pool tables, and blinking neon Budweiser signs. After more than a decade of tireless research in Seville, we’ve come up with our own unscientific, totally subjective set of criteria for defining what a dive bar means in that city.
Cheap drinks. Beer is inexpensive in Seville, typically €1.20 ($1.30) for an 8-ounce glass, and we give points to any bar — such as the Abaceria Caña y Romero in Triana — that manages to shave another ten centimos off the price. Draft or bottled beer is fine, but top-shelf liquor, trendy cocktails, or wines you’ve read about in gourmet magazines would be disqualifiers. More points are awarded if the bartender drinks along with the patrons, as happens in Caña y Romero.
Basic food. When we first moved to Seville, virtually all bars served the same dozen items, including jamon (ham), Manchego cheese, and tortilla (dense potato omelet). Now the city is going through a foodie revolution, and much as I like international cuisine, it’s comforting to find the old standbys in unpretentious places like Cheers. This back-alley hole-in-the-wall serves delicious tortilla in a tapa portion so generous I can’t finish it without Rich’s help.
Underwhelming exterior. The welter of signs may give the impression they're staging a going-out-of-business sale, but don't be fooled; Bar Ambigú is a perennial favorite. On weekend nights it’s standing room only — and worth the effort to elbow your way in through the crowd.
Locals. One of the things I love about Seville is that Spaniards, expats, and tourists mingle comfortably at many hot spots. But to qualify as a dive bar, there has to be a solid clientele of locals who frequent the place on a regular basis — as you'll find in the convivial Casa Vizcaíno, an old stand-up, beer-and-olives neighborhood favorite.
Casual, unfussy atmosphere. Taberna of Aguilas qualifies due to its old-style wooden stools, aging tables, and relaxed but attentive service. Tapas and drinks are handed through the window for those who prefer fresh air. The menu offers a few exotics, such as curry and enchiladas, but otherwise it’s strictly old school. Rich and I stop in often.
Fast service. Seville bartenders understand thirst and set land-speed records serving cold beer on hot days. One of the quickest and cheapest options is an abacería, a grocery store that offers frosty bottled beer, bocadillos (small sandwiches), and simple tapas that you can consume standing at a tiny outdoor table or large barrel. Store prices vs. bar prices; you can see why the Abacería la Clementina (above left) is more popular than the conventional restaurant next door.
No rush. In Seville, the purchase of a drink means you own the barstool, and no one will even hint you need to keep ordering if you want to linger. The frail older gentleman to Rich’s right, whom we dubbed "Henry," is escorted to the Bodega Virgen de los Reyes every morning by his attendant and left there for hours, happily sipping a single dry fino (sherry) in the sunny doorway.
A hint of danger. This sign advises Esclavina customers to avoid bothering the neighbors. Locals in some barrios have become so fed up with late-night revelry that they have taken to dumping buckets of ice water out the window onto merrymakers. The threat adds an edge of excitement that some feel is essential to the dive bar ambiance.
One thing I’ve learned about Seville’s dive bars is that they rarely have websites. I really had to scrounge around for links, and the English translations can get seriously goofy at times. But don’t worry, if you can’t find these bars, just ramble through the city; before long you’re bound to stumble across someplace that’s offbeat and intriguing. No matter how you choose to define a dive bar — seriously degenerate, a bit funky, or somewhere in between — you can be sure that in this city of 3000 bars, there’s one nearby, just waiting to welcome you.
Do you know of any great dive bars? I'd love to hear about them!
I hope I don't need to tell you that no dive bars offered me any incentives to include them in this post. As always, my blog and website are free of sponsorships of any kind.
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WHERE ARE WE NOW? ON THE ROAD AGAIN!
By the time you read this, Rich and I will be back in California, once again due to family issues. And we were so hoping to avoid the US during the final days of the election madness! With any luck at all, I will continue posting regularly (although not about the election) in the weeks to come.
“We saw the oddest woman on the train,” my cousin said, when he and his wife arrived in Seville some years ago. “She was tiny with frizzy white hair. Everyone pointed and whispered when she walked by.”
“Did she look like this?” I said, picking up a nearby magazine and showing him the cover.
“Good God, that’s her! Who is she?”
“The Duquesa de Alba. She’s Spain’s richest noble and the most titled aristocrat in the world. Technically if she meets the King of Spain or Queen of England they should bow to her. She has the hereditary right to ride a horse into Seville’s cathedral. And they say she owns so much land that you could walk the length of Spain without ever leaving her property.”
Of all her vast holdings, the Duchess of Alba’s favorite was said to be Las Dueñas, a palace occupying an entire city block in downtown Seville. Once the most closely guarded of private residences, this year it opened its doors as the Palacio de las Dueñas museum. And even in this city of spectacular monuments, it’s a breathtaking standout. I fell in love with it the moment my husband and I stepped through the gates.
“I could be happy here,” I told Rich.
“Don’t get used to it,” he said.
The palace is named for the ancient convent that once stood there: Santa Maria de las Dueñas (meaning "Owners" or “Overlords”), an aristocratic order of nuns serving the royal family. Built in the fourteenth century, the palace came to the Albas through marriage in 1612. Each generation has added to its magnificent furnishings, art collection, and pleasure gardens. In accordance with Andalucían tradition, the huge wooden outer portals have always been left open during the day so passersby could look through the inner, iron gate and admire the garden. For years Rich and I often paused in passing and peered in through the bars, wondering what the rest of it looked like.
Occasionally we’d see photos of the house in the national press; the Duquesa loved being in the spotlight.
“If they forget you, you’re nobody,” she told a gossip magazine.
Doña María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva, 18th Duchess of Alba de Tormes, Grandee of Spain, devoted her life to making herself unforgettable. Born in 1926, she flaunted the strict Spanish conventions of the day, hobnobbing with bullfighters, flamenco dancers, and such celebrities as Sophia Loren, Jackie Kennedy, and Wallis Simpson. A famous beauty, she was photographed by Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton. Picasso wanted to paint her, clothed and nude, but she turned him down.
In 1947 she married a duke’s son in a ceremony the New York Times called “the most expensive wedding in the world.” His death in 1971 left her a widow with six children, and seven years later she scandalized society by marrying a defrocked Jesuit priest of illegitimate birth. She had multiple plastic surgeries, some of which went badly wrong, resulting in a flat, crooked nose and a distinctly odd appearance. The Duquesa was a familiar and popular sight around Seville; everyone delighted in discussing her unconventional ways. I kept wondering when she'd exercise her right to ride a horse into the cathedral, but astonishingly, she never did.
She was widowed again in 2001, and ten years later, in the teeth of family and royal opposition, she married for the third time at the age of 85. He was 24 years her junior, a commoner, a civil servant, owner of a public relations business, and — according to some — her “toy boy.” (Can that term properly be applied to men in their mid-sixties? You be the judge.) The wedding took place in the chapel of Las Dueñas, and afterwards she walked to the front gate, she kicked off her shoes, and danced barefoot for the cheering crowd. A museum guard delightedly showed me the precise spot.
The Duquesa died of pneumonia in 2014, at the age of 88. Her like will not be seen again.
She may be gone, but I don’t think she has to worry about being forgotten any time soon. Her legacy lives on in the hearts of many and in the museum that reflects her family heritage and her lavish personality. From now on, Las Dueñas will be the very first place I take visitors, so I can have the fun of regaling them with my favorite stories about the Duquesa of Alba and her wild ride through life.
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About Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've just complete a 161-day Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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