We never saw the ancient Moorish city of Carmona under a clear blue sky, alas. Freakishly cool weather in the late teens celsius persisted during our weekend stay in June, the wind chill reducing the temperature further.
The hotel pool lay uncleaned, loungers unused. And the epic view (above) from this fortress town over the vast Campina – a thinly-populated patchwork quilt of fields peppered with sheep – looked almost English under cloudy skies. At least the clink of the goat bells gave it a Mediterranean edge.
Yet Carmona is a beauty of a town, its history palpable: founded by the Carthaginians in the 3rd Century BC, it was both major Roman settlement as well as taifa – or independent state – in Moorish times. Around 45 mins on the bus from sweltering Seville, it’s also surprisingly accessible, while still feeling like something of a discovery.
The city makes a pleasant and undemanding weekend break, yet it’s still packed with tapas bars and culture in equal measures. Aside from a wander through the weave of narrow streets, with its dozen attractive churches, the main objective is really to linger in pavement cafes on Plaza San Fernando, where swallows duck and dive, and the Manzanilla, Estrella and Iberican ham are all abundant.
Stop to consider the old town’s history, however: circled by 4km of city walls, the Puerta de Sevilla, which you’ll enter on arrival, makes an impressive double gateway of Roman origin. A walk up to the Alcazar, an Almohad fortress ruined by earthquake in 1504, is an atmospheric corner of what can feel like an island, so high is the rock above the plain.
But even more memorable the City of the Dead, a Roman necropolis excavated between 1881 and 1915, about a 15 minute stroll from the old town along a dusty road.
Here, amid the heady scents of pine, lavender, and thyme, surrounded by olive trees and flowering cacti, the Roman burial chambers are hewn from rock and frescoed with images of birds and fruit. The site is deeply peaceful: mules neigh in surrounding meadows as you wander the 900 family subterranean tombs dating from 2nd century BC to 4th century AD. Its highlight? The Tomba de Servilia, a colonnaded temple with vaulted side chambers and separate columbaria for the servants, cremation pits starkly visible too.
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Eating & Drinking
After all that talk of death there’s only one thing to do, right? Yup, eat. From the many tiny tapas spots to grab a caña (third of a pint) and some bacalao (salt cod) – just off the main square, try La Noria and Mingalrio, L’antiqua by the Puerta de Sevilla, and in the new town, Bar Casa Juan Antonio (off San Pedro park). But best of all? Casa Curro Montoya, near our hotel (see below), which boasts superior options and flavours: we loved anchovy and tomato paste toast, roasted peppers with tomato, choco frito (tender cuttlefish), boquerones (fried anchovy) and – best of all – morcilla (black pudding) with goats cheese and jam. To drink? A light Verdejo, or Albarino.
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The hot restaurant
The terrace view over La Campiña makes it worth grabbing a drink at the self-service Molino de la Romera which, on a Sunday lunchtime, buzzed with huge groups of mostly local familes, but we didn’t rate the food, and the wait was tiresome.
Much better was La Yedra, where, within a small Andalucian courtyard, we feasted on a more contemporary take on the traditional delicacies: veal carpaccio, turbot with courgette and Iberican ham, and a flavoursome pork solomillo (tenderloin) with padron peppers and squash. Decent prices on wine too. Calle del General Freire, 6, phone +34 954 14 45 25
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There are dozens of expensive hotels, of course, but our accommodation was provided by Casa de Carmona, an Arab-built palace dating back to 1591. Think hidden patios overflowing with bougainvillea within outer courtyards; orange trees heaving with fruit, an ancient palm towering over the pool. And deep within its terracotta walls lie urns, busts, pots, statues and water fountains. Your soundtrack? The chirrup of birdsong. A succession of high ceilinged reception rooms through which guests can wander too, and library stacked with books, velvet corduroy drapes, oil paintings, backgammon.
For a five star hotel, service was a little more laid back than might be expected, not necessarily a bad thing, and French-born Laura, who seemed to hold the fort single-handed throughout our stay, managed admirably. But the overall experience was like staying in a very wealthy friend’s retreat (no I don’t know any, either). It’s not without its flaws (and perhaps the bedrooms could use a spruce-up) but the Casa de Carmona has real soul. Prices start at €80 per night. Head here for more info.
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This trip was part of our week long stay in Andalucia, so we took the train from Malaga to Seville, a two hour journey which costs around £18 each way, then a bus (around £2.50 each way). British Airways (0844 493 0787) flies four times a week from London City and daily from London Gatwick to Malaga. Return fares start from £149.41 including taxes.
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