When I learned the town’s name meant “a place frequented by vultures,” I have to admit my enthusiasm dimmed a little. Vultureville? Really? However, my current project, “Out to Lunch,” involves visiting offbeat towns in the city and province of Seville, seeking cultural curiosities and great food. As I soon discovered, Utrera offers these in abundance.
The town is a pleasant half hour’s train ride from the city of Seville, and the moment I arrived, I was impressed by the vibrancy of the street life. On this crisp, sunny morning everyone was out: shoppers with bulging bags slung over their arms, dog and babies enjoying their morning promenade, old men on park benches swapping tall tales about youthful exploits. Cafés stood on just about every block, the smell of coffee and toast wafting enticingly from the doorways.
“I can resist everything but temptation,” I said, steering Rich into one appropriately called Primera Parada (First Stop).
Over coffee, I pulled out my phone to review my notes on Utrera’s ancient buildings, newest archeological discovery, local cult, promising restaurants, and main culinary claim to fame: the sweet mostachone.
“What do you want to see first?” Rich asked.
“Let’s just wander,” I said.
We spent hours strolling about, admiring elaborate Baroque doorways, medieval churches, spacious parks, well-groomed apartment buildings, and the complete lack of litter or graffiti. Whenever we found ourselves near one of the places on my list, or saw an interesting public building with an open doorway, we popped in for a look.
The sign below made me stop in my tracks. “The people of Utrera, in memory of the mortal victims of Covid-19, especially those who died alone. Utrera, 31 March, 2023. In this building was the vaccination center, where dozens of thousands of Utreranos received the vaccination that made the end of the pandemic possible.” If this was an American town, that sign wouldn’t have lasted a single day without being covered with graffiti and controversy. The Utreranos, on the other hand, know how to count their blessings.
Meanwhile, Rich was on the lookout for mostachones and spotted a pastelería that had been making them since 1880. The baker offered me a free sample, asking, “Brown sugar or white?” I went for the gusto with brown sugar. I sank my teeth into my first soft, delicately sweet mostachone and bought half a dozen more so I could continue my selfless research.
All in all, Utrera was a comfortable, friendly town with nary a vulture in sight. Unless you count the nefarious leaders of the disgraced cult.
I was astonished that I’d lived in Seville nearly two decades and had never heard the lurid story until I began researching this outing. You might want to put the kettle on; it’s quite a tale.
Back in 1968 some Utrera schoolgirls (allegedly) saw the Blessed Virgin in a tree. And 23-year-old accountant Clemente Domínguez Gómez saw his opportunity. At the time, hardline faithful were disgruntled over Vatican modernizing, such as prayers in the local language and women attending mass (gasp!) bare-headed. Heresy, declared Clemente. After getting a renegade Thai bishop to ordain him, he was struck blind but went on to proclaim himself the true pope, excommunicating his Roman Catholic counterpart, canonizing the dictator Franco, and claiming frequent religious visions.
Followers with deep pockets financed a spectacular church in the nearby village El Palmar de Troya. Soon thousands lived in the Palmarian Catholic Church compound, attending mass in Latin and swearing off alcohol and TV. Women wore head coverings and ankle-length skirts and were encouraged to have as many babies as they could, ten or more if they could manage it.
Soon word leaked out that the whole enterprise was (surprise!) a hotbed of illicit sex, brain washing, and money laundering. Scandal followed scandal.
A particularly juicy one occurred in 2016, when the third Palmarian pope, Ginés Jesús Hernández, denounced the sect as a hoax and took off with his girlfriend, former Palmarian nun Nieves Triviño. Next they posed nude for a magazine cover. Later they were convicted of breaking into the cult’s compound carrying weapons and lockpicks, and of assault for brawling with two Palmarian bishops who caught them.
I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Rich and I discussed trying to visit the cult compound. But it required being “decently dressed” and acting like I wasn’t aghast at the whole set-up, and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. In the end, we decided to skip it.
“The group is not what it was,” a man in Utrera told me. “It is losing power, money, and members.” Well, thank heaven for that.
In more cheerful religious news, archeologists are beside themselves with joy now they’ve proved a ramshackle building in downtown Utrera is a rare 14th century synagogue. It’s on Calle de los Niños Perdidos, the Street of Lost Children, so called because the building later served as an orphanage, and babies were often left on the doorstep. You can’t go inside, but you can stand on a barstool and peer through a crack in the door to glimpse the interior. If these walls could talk…
Of course, there are lots of walls with secrets in this 5000-year-old town, as Rich and I discovered in the medieval crypt of Santiago Mayor. A guide took us underground among old tombs and dusty heaps of architectural elements removed during nineteenth-century renovations. “At that time workmen uncovered three mummies inside this wall. You can’t photograph them, but you might like to see?” He flung back the curtain with a flourish. I didn’t even try to sneak a shot because A) I’m a good citizen, B) it was really creepy, and C) I figured, rightly, I could find a photo online.
As we were leaving, the man in the ticket booth asked, “Going to lunch? Because I know just the place for you. It’s right around the corner. My wife makes the tapas there.”
Mentally tossing aside my own list of restaurants, I said, “Perfecto.”
And it was. El Ambigú was the kind of modest place you could easily overlook, but it had great food and a nice view of a little plaza. The waitress, pleased to discover we lived in her home town of Seville, nodded approvingly as I ordered merluza (hake) in roasted pepper sauce, and bacalao dorado, salt cod with scrambled eggs and onion garnished with matchstick potatoes. — one of my favorite comfort foods.
A little girl got up from a nearby table, carefully carrying a napkin full of meat scraps and placing it on the ground for a skinny gray cat. Many European cafés treat stray felines as vermin, but our waitress smiled at the cat, telling me, “We’ve adopted him.”
I don’t know why vultures are said to frequent this locale, but I can tell you why it appeals to me. A few years ago Rich took an eight-week university course on happiness and said it all comes down to this: gratitude and helping others. I like the way Utreranos count their blessings and take time to show kindness to stray cats and random visitors. And that makes Utrera my kind of town.
I WON'T BE POSTING NEXT WEEK
For the next few days I'll be busy buying turkey, organizing games, rearranging furniture, and visiting my wine merchant. After that, I'll be recovering on the couch. I'll be back posting the first week of December.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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