I Want to be the Shady Dame of Seville

Hotel Ateneo

Another confession of my ignorance is when visiting a place for the first time, I often know little about it outside of literary, musical, and occasionally historical references. We were in Seville to meet up with my friend Ibby and her family, who were passing through for a few days, and it was a 55-minute flight direct from Porto. Besides urging my husband to see a barber on our visit (such a dad joke), I looked up a few things I wanted to see. My only previous association with the city besides the Barber of Seville was a few lines from Victor, Victoria. In the song, Shady Dame From Seville, Julie Andrews sashayed around the stage in a frilled traditional dress like those worn by flamenco dancers. She brandished a lace fan, accompanied by matador dancers and the rat-a-tat-tat of castanets.

Shady Dame from Seville

La la la la la la la la la la da da
There was once a shady dame from Seville
Used to wander ’round the town dressed to kill
And men, if they dared, stood and stared
When she passed their way
The lady knocked ’em out
But there’s no doubt
‘Cos they’d shout “Olê!”, all day

Surprisingly, a few shops still sell this dress style today, from low-cost tourist options to high-end, tailored affairs worn by local ladies for festivals. The fancier versions were gorgeous. I coveted one, but I knew I could not pull it off. I have the shady part down and bits of the dame, but not all combined where I would knock anyone out. Instead, I opted for a set of replacement castanets for the ones I had left behind, like a rube, under my table at a flamenco show in Cadiz earlier.

Hotel Ateneo dining room.

After the train up from Cadiz, our driver got us as close as possible to a historic traditional manor in central Seville converted to a boutique hotel. We had to drag our luggage across a small square and through unusual crowds, even without knowing the city. At the glossy entry to the Hotel Ateneo, we were let into a lofty atrium with a plush, velvety interior of deep reds, checkerboard marble floors, high ceilings, and natural lighting. This! This was precisely where a Shady Dame From Seville would live and entertain her gentlemen callers.

Our junior suite was, unfortunately, not one of the ones used in the advertisements. While very spacious, it was not in the main house but in an addition past the dining room where something advertised as a pool gurgled intermittently right outside our door, and guests had tables where they could sit and chat beside it. Rather than a pool, it was about an 18-inch deep wading pool with a few dead bugs drifting on the surface. Not even a toddler would have been amused very long by that pool. I discovered that even very high-end hotels in Seville that advertised pools angled the photographs to make them look vast and the lighting to conceal the lack of depth.

Our room was a junior suite, a splurge to extend my birthday celebration, and it was costly. Aside from it being outside the main house and backed by the housekeeping closet, where they regularly rammed carts into the wall behind our heads, it was very spacious. This helped make up a bit for the cart ramming and the general access patio seating directly outside our door. Still, it was off in how invested it was in the style of the rest of the hotel. It lacked the cohesiveness the atrium, or any photos I had seen of their junior suites, possessed.

“I feel like we are in a Spanish-themed TGI Fridays,” I said. “Or a barbershop quartet porn set.”

I blame the striped wallpaper, but the double-sized tub had a portrait of a woman who gazed appraisingly upon us when we bathed like, “Ok…uhhuh..Yeah, I’d hit that.” And I think I need a copy of her to hang outside my shower today. I always left my bath thinking, “This lady gets what I got going on!”

The Hotel Ateneo staff are accommodating and greet you with a glass of chilled water on arrival. After stowing our things, we walked around the area for a bit. Out through the Plaza de San Andres and then back through the many streets to the central drag toward the Seville Cathedral.

My husband successfully argued we walk further away from the crowds as they were intense, not necessarily with tourists, but with Spanish citizens there to celebrate Holy Week for Easter, a detail we had overlooked in our plans.

A few twists and turns away from our hotel, we found a small place to grab some beer and tapas. The bar was worn and cluttered, with a greasy, unrefrigerated bowl of pork cracklings on the counter. The owner told us that was the good stuff, and Chris wanted to try it. The bartender grabbed a few handfuls in his bare hands and heaped it on a plate, and we sat there and admired the walls crammed solid with historical artifacts while we sipped beer.

You will frequently see bull heads on the wall in this part of Spain. Seville has a famous bullring, the Real Maestranza, and the defeated are often décor. Although I eat beef, my family has raised cattle, and I am very familiar with the threat a bull poses, I cannot attend a bullfight. It seems outrageously cruel and torturous. I know it is a tradition, but it is not one I personally ever want to witness. In our bar, two bulls adorned the wall. One had a confused, sad look on his face like, “Hey, man, I thought we were friends?” The other looked like a demon bull from hell that farted fire and knew where you lived.

We walked through the warm streets and admired the crowds. I say admired because I genuinely enjoyed seeing the Spanish families during Holy Week. They seemed so stylish, relaxed, and happy. Even their dogs were more chilled out than dogs in the US. Whenever you go out in the United States now, no matter what event – a farmer’s market, Walmart, a public park – be prepared for slovenly crowds, the sounds of shrieking, dissatisfied children, and snarling dogs. Their children were unfussy, often out late with them at the bars, and equally stylish.

Dogs and babies are out late in Seville.

A few days later, at a gelato place nearby, after negotiating children’s selections, I turned to see a 10-year-old, Spanish boy dressed in a linen suit with all the physical assurance of a grown man, leaning languidly on the counter beside me.

“American?” he said, lifting one eyebrow.
“Yes,” I said.

He nodded and smiled slightly, like, “Of course you are.” The kid would have ashed his cigarette and taken a sip of scotch if he had either. Any hope for passing as a shady dame was lost, but I have learned to come to grips with my lack of flair. Someday soon, I will return to Seville with a bit more style and loads more shadiness.

General Tips:

  • I liked the Hotel Ateneo (great location, breakfast, beautiful, nice staff) and would recommend it. If you choose a suite, emphasize you don’t want the one by the housekeeping closet and wading pool.
  • Check the holy events calendar before making plans. These are huge and take over entire cities with massive crowds.
  • Avoid Seville in the depths of summer. You will melt.