“Good writers borrow,” said Oscar Wilde. “Great writers steal.” I don’t claim to be a great writer (that’s for future historians to decide, and I probably don’t want to know which way they’ll vote). But the instant I read about an expat writer who occasionally hopped on a train simply to visit another town for lunch, I said to Rich, “Brilliant! I’m stealing that idea!”
I decided to start with a small but mighty metropolis an hour from Seville: Osuna, named for the osos (bears) that once roamed the surrounding forests. Sadly, the trees were all felled long ago to build Spain’s legendary armada, and the bears, to which the Spanish nobility had exclusive hunting rights for centuries, have been teetering on the brink of extinction. Happily, osos now have protected status and show signs of making a comeback.
These days Osuna is pretty much bear-free, but it still has a lot to offer, thanks in large part to the lavish spending of one Juan Téllez-Girón. His grandfather had been given the town a century earlier (it’s how they said “thank you for your service” back in those days). When he inherited the title and the town in 1531, Juan decided to put Osuna on the map by attempting to create the largest and most dazzling display of Baroque excess ever seen. Did he succeed? Many believe he did.
Baroque’s breathtaking flamboyance, theoretically a reflection of the glory of God, was actually invented to lure Catholics back to the True Faith by eclipsing the sober message of the Protestant Reformation. You have to wonder what Jesus would have thought about all the lavish, gold-encrusted curlicues and plaster swags of the Baroque era. Or the grim severity of the Puritans, for that matter.
Today, Osuna remains a small town of 17,622 souls with an abundance of gorgeous old buildings. When I first Googled it, I learned UNESCO had named San Pedro street, home of Osuna’s ducal palace, the second most beautiful street in Europe. Then more recent articles revealed that — hold on to your hat! — a year ago UNESCO bumped Osuna’s San Pedro street up to the number one slot. Way to go, Osuna!
Naturally, I was agog to learn who had been displaced. Somewhere there was weeping, gnashing of teeth, and town officials berating one another. What had happened to tarnish the ousted street’s luster? Did a Starbucks sneak in when no one was looking? Had the mayor’s brother-in-law replaced the cobblestones with asphalt? Alas, I have been unable to discover any details; Wikipedia, Google, ChatGPT, and BARD all shrugged their metaphorical shoulders at my questions.
But enough of the past; I suspect what you really want to know is what today's most beautiful street in Europe looks like.
But Osuna is so much more than just a pretty street. In 2014, as a local newspaper headline put it, “Osuna Is on the Map of the Seven Kingdoms.” The wildly popular TV show Game of Thrones arrived to film a scene in the town’s oversized bullring, and everyone got caught up in the excitement.
The news they needed 550 extras was thrilling in a town with 37.5% unemployment, the worst in a nation ravaged by the 2008 recession. Who'd pass up a few extra euros — to say nothing of the bragging rights? “Word got out that the producers wanted ladies with dark hair,” recalled Osuna mayor Rosario Andújar Torrejón. “So some of the girls bought dye to color their hair while they waited in line.”
During the twenty days it took to film the seventeen-minute gladiatorial fight in Daznak’s Pit (Season 5, Episode 9), Osuna was thronged with actors, crew, media, and fans. An American called Lyssie wrote about sneaking into a cast party with a friend. “The guard was Spanish and was keeping out anyone who didn’t look like they belonged, but no identification was necessary to enter. A plan was starting to form in our minds. What happens when two English-speakers walk confidently into a Game Of Thrones party like they belong there? The guard steps aside, no questions asked, and lets you into the private, open-bar birthday party of Emilia Clarke, aka Daenarys Stormborn.”
The party was held at Casa Curro, a traditional tapas bar that became a hangout for the cast and crew. Owner Teresa Jiménez, who knew nothing about the show, was encouraged by a friend to come up with dishes named for the characters; together they invented tapas such as the Khaleesi, a spinach and avocado salad with berries and honey. When Clarke arrived for her birthday celebration, Jiménez recalled, “We give her a Khaleesi tapa. She says, ‘Me? I'm a tapa?’ She liked it!” In the restaurant's guest book, Clarke scrawled, “Thank you so much for such glorious food! Fit for a queen!”
So that’s where Rich and I ate lunch, sitting on the very barstools that had supported the hindquarters of the show's stars. And Clarke was right; Casa Curro serves wonderful food. We tried three dishes: a tender grilled alcachofa (artichoke) topped with ham bits and a sliver of paté; delicate rosada, or pink fish, a more appetizing name than its original one, cusk-eel; and secreto iberico, the “secret” Iberian ham cut taken from between the shoulder blade and loin. (These days it’s no more secret than Victoria’s Secret, but in olden times the cut was prized as rare).
Of course, our rapture over the food may have stemmed from the fact we’d worked up an appetite hiking all over town. Arriving on the early train, we’d walked to Calle San Pedro and toured the ducal palace, now the Hotel Palacio Marqués de La Gomera where the Game of Thrones cast stayed. We grabbed a second breakfast at the Café Tetuan, then headed uphill to the sixteenth-century university and the vast complex next door, Colegiata de Osuna, a convoluted network of 16th century chapels, churches, sacristies, and burial chambers.
Throughout the Colegiata, the official pamphlet explained cheerily, “the concept of death is omnipresent.” This is especially true in the crypt, where every day feels like Halloween, with skeletons dancing on doors, skulls watching you pass, and tombs lurking in the shadows. “All the Dukes laid to rest in Osuna are to be found in the sepulcher,” observed the pamphlet, “with the exception of the 12th Duke of Osuna, Mariano Tellez-Giréon, who inherited the title from his brother Pedro after he died from heatstroke chasing his lover’s carriage.” Pedro was 34 at the time of death, and it’s to be hoped that his short life was a merry one.
Having lunch in Osuna was an idea well worth stealing. And I expect it’s the first of many days Rich and I will spend exploring outlying towns within easy reach of Seville. It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have to jump on an airplane or travel long distances to find grand culinary and cultural adventures. There are countless cities, towns, and villages that are, like Osuna, an hour’s easy train or bus ride from home. Who knows? The best meal of your life may be right around the corner, just waiting for you to discover it.
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“Hey, this is the Dragonpit!” exclaimed my sister Kate. “The actual Dragonpit from Game of Thrones.”
“Yep,” I said. “Although sadly, it doesn’t have any actual dragons in it at this time.”
We were in the ancient Roman city of Italica, just six miles northwest of Seville, visiting the remains of the massive amphitheater built to enable 25,000 bloodthirsty spectators to watch gladiators fight to the death. In much the same spirit, 10 million Game of Thrones fans found themselves riveted to other epic clashes filmed on this spot, including this meeting between the psychopathic queen Cersei Lannister and Daenerys “Mother of Dragons” Targaryen, a woman who really knew how to make an entrance.
Italica was a great place to visit even before it was discovered by Hollywood location scouts; I’ve been taking visitors there for 15 years and they always love it. The city, founded in 206 BC to house veterans returning victorious from the battlefield, was home to two emperors and thrived under their patronage; at one point it was the second largest city in the Roman Empire. Today the most important artifacts have been safely removed to the Archeological Museum of Seville, but the 128-acre site is still impressive, with paved streets, gorgeous mosaic floors, and of course, the amphitheater. Or as we know it today, the Dragonpit.
“There’s not a single sign or flyer about it being the Dragonpit,” Kate marveled, looking around at the ancient stone walls. “No mention anywhere of Game of Thrones.” Having grown up in California, in a family with several Hollywood actors, we both found it astonishing that nobody had thought to capitalize on the fame of the site.
But that’s Seville for you; it likes to act cool and nonchalant whenever Hollywood comes to town. During the filming, a friend was walking through my neighborhood when a long, black car pulled up at the curb and she saw Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister) and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) emerge and go into Bar Alfalfa, one of my favorite places to grab a coffee. Did anyone take a picture and post it on the wall? Get them to sign menus or napkins? Apparently not. I have been in this café dozens of times since then, including yesterday with my sister and brother-in-law, and there’s nothing to show the actors were ever there.
To round out my sister’s impromptu Game of Thrones tour, we went to Seville’s Royal Alcázar. This spectacular palace was built in the fourteenth century by Pedro the Cruel on the ruins of an old Moorish fort where, it’s said, they used the skulls of their enemies for flower pots. Somebody persuaded Pedro to get rid of the skulls, and I think we can all agree that was a good call. Today, the palace is home to the Spanish royal family when they’re in town and a favorite with visitors from around the world. It includes a breathtaking mix of every architectural style in vogue for the past 700 years. My favorite part? The elaborate pleasure garden, which Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the Water Gardens of Dorn.
Of course, GoT location scouts weren’t the first to discover that Seville is always ready for a close-up. Generations of filmmakers have fallen in love the grand sweeping arc of the Plaza de España, a 1928 architectural fantasy with turrets, colonnades, and a moat crossed by a series of lovely arching bridges. In 1968 it stood in for the Cairo British officers’ club in the scene from Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole scandalizes everyone by storming in dressed as a Bedouin and demanding a lemonade.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Plaza de España took on the role of a city on Planet Naboo for the underwhelming 2002 prequel Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The backdrop is gorgeous; the actors are young and handsome; the dialog is excruciatingly wooden. Don’t feel obliged to watch all of this short clip; fast forward to the end where the setting morphs into the real Plaza de España, which is genuinely worth a look.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones was far from the worst film ever made in Seville; I personally award that distinction to Knight and Day, shot here in 2009. When word got out that Tom Cruise and Cameron Diez were coming to town to film a romantic action movie, and that they were calling for people to sign up as extras, half the city went down to the casting office to see if they could get in on the fun. Sadly, Rich and I were turned away because at that time our residency visas didn’t allow us to take paying jobs in Spain. Many of our friends did get hired, and Rich and I suffered through one hour and forty-nine minutes of idiotic dialog and hammy acting to see spectacular shots of Seville with nanosecond-long glimpses of our amigos in the background. I happened to walk by while stuntmen were filming this scene, so it’s one of my — well, not favorites, that would be going too far, but I guess I can say it’s the part of the movie I dislike the least.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, I didn’t realize Seville has the running of the bulls!” We don’t. That takes place elsewhere, most notably in Pamplona, as immortalized by Ernest Hemmingway in The Sun Also Rises. Evidently the filmmakers figured nobody would know — or care — about the inaccuracy, and perhaps American audiences didn't, but here in Seville everyone roared with derisive laughter.
As luck would have it, Rich and I did have one brush with stardom while Knight and Day was being filmed. One evening, as we were having tapas in the (now defunct) Aguador de Sevilla, Cameron Diaz came in with some friends and asked for a table. The manager glanced around, shrugged, and informed her they were full. She walked out looking stunned; I don’t imagine that has happened to her since she got her big break in The Mask in 1994.
Did the manager recognize her? Probably. The film was the talk of the town that spring, and quite likely some of his friends, family, and/or customers were working as extras. But as I said, Seville likes to play it cool. The city was founded by Hercules, sent two emperors to Rome, gave Christopher Columbus his send-off to the Americas and his final resting place in the cathedral. It takes a lot to impress a Sevillano. Now, if someone showed up on an actual dragon, then the city just might sit up and take notice.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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