The “Real Story”

photo: José María Moreno / ANTONIO PÉREZ

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The gardens of the Reales Alcázares date back to the tenth century, installed by the Muslim Caliph of Córdoba, Abd Al Ramn III. After the Christian conquest of Seville in 1248, they were further developed by Pedro I and his successors. Today, these gardens are maintained by a crew of 28 dedicated men and women.

There are the stories – the history, the legends and the anecdotes.

There is the oldest tree in the garden, an orange tree, planted by King Pedro I in the fourteenth century. It is a jagged sliver, a speckled log skewing to the left, with a small sign that denotes its importance and looks sturdier than the trunk of the tree itself.   

There is the column carved with the name of Almutamid Ibn Abbad, a poet king from the eleventh century who ordered a series of peach trees to be planted for his wife. When they blossomed, petals spiraling into the wind, they looked like the snow that the homesick queen had left behind in Granada.    

There is the sweet crunch of the pecans that have fallen into the black soil, so beloved by the grandmother of reigning king Felipe VI that she requested a box of them every Christmas.

It is a Wednesday morning and spring rests lightly in the air, memories of winter fading into the bright sunshine. Breezes run intermittently through the trees, an assortment of cypress, palms and fruit-bearing, teasing the nose with the scents of freshly-cut greenery and overturned earth. Entering from the Patio de Banderas and continuing in a direct route towards the gardens, the Estanque de Mercurio sits at the left. Based on Roman ingenuity and mythology, the rectangular pond used to act as an irrigation system for the gardens with a figure of the messenger god, Mercury, perched in the center. Now it serves as the home for a swarm of greedy fish, golden eyes rolling and round mouths gaping as tourists sprinkle bread crumbs into the thrashing mass of grey scales. These are the first two sights you encounter: the pond and the tourists. And just beyond them, the gardens of Europe’s oldest royal palace still in use, Seville’s Reales Alcázares, lay open for exploration.

Follow the painted ceramic path into the terraced Muslim Gardens, where you meet citrus trees face-to-face while purple flowers hang from above on white trellises. Follow the yellow, packed-earth path into La Huerta, or orchards, where benches provide a relaxing reading spot in the shade of the bougainvillea and its paper-thin blossoms. Follow the gravel path into the English Gardens where hedges stretch overhead, twisting into a labyrinth full of children yelling and playing. Or, rather than starting on any one, take the stairs that climb up to the Gallery of the Grotesque, where soldiers once used to patrol and defend the fortress but now reveals a spectacular vista of the entire property. There are the sounds of the gardens, the spray of the fountains, the chirruping of birds, the susurration of leaves, the steady stream of multilingual chatter. There are the sights, the leaves larger than a human head and riddled with caterpillar bites, the magnolias from South America and the bamboo from China, and above it all, the tower of the Cathedral, the Giralda, poking over the horizon, slender as a palm tree. And there are the names: Rib of Adam, Door of Privilege, Elephant’s Ear, Path of the Poets.

• • •

Immersed in all of this and you might be inclined to believe that the Alcázar is a Magical place, with a capital M.

But that would be an erroneous interpretation.


photo: A pillar commemorates the exile of Almutamid Ibn Abbad, the poet king who lived in the Reales Alcázares during the eleventh century / ANTONIO PÉREZ

Called over by José María Moreno, 50, your personal tour guide for the day, Antonio García Burgos steps out from under the miniature tree he’s pruning and takes off one of his gloves in order to shake your hand. He is an average-sized man with thick, more-salt-than-pepper hair and the beginnings of a beard adorn his smile. “No, it’s not magical,” he says, his brown eyes now serious as they peer over his spectacles, “just very old.”

José María and Antonio are two members of the gardening crew in the Reales Alcázares. The group is comprised of 28 workers, including: one supervisor, four first-in-commands, eight second-in-commands, nine peons, two construction workers, two maintenance workers and one plumber.

“I didn’t always want to work here,” admits José María. His face is impassive as he speaks, fine lines tracing the wear of years and sunshine across his skin. Faded black curls cover his head, and the greying stubble on his chin and cheeks is similar to that of his friend, Antonio. “I studied to be an electrician, but this was what was available. So I took a test and entered here as a peon.” Shifting weight from one scuffed boot to the other, he explains, “There’s no one job for a peon. It’s the lowest job here—mostly cleaning up or assisting others.” Now, however, instead of just a pair of corduroys and a green sweater, José María wears a vest with the R.A. crown insignia on it. “Today, I’m a first-in-command so I have more responsibility. I trim trees and hedges, but I also instruct others and hand out assignments.

“There’s a set of regulations we have to follow when maintaining the garden,” he continues, running his hand over the hedges, the minute leaves quivering beneath his palm, a thin line of dirt under each of his nails. “What shapes should be where, how tall they should be, et cetera. The director can introduce some changes, but the rules stay the same for the most part.

“There are a lot of exams involved. I took one when I started as a peon, and then I took another when I moved up to first-in-command,” says José Maria. He pinches a leaf off an orange tree and, crossing to the other side of the garden, compares it to the leaf of another. They are different, the first leaf a droplet that gently tapers towards its stem, while the second looks pinched at the very tip. The first leaf is from a tree that has sweet oranges, good for eating; the second from a tree that has bitter oranges, good for marmalade. “When I tested to become a first-in-command, they would give me branches and leaves from the garden and I had to identify each one by name.”

Jose María stoops beneath the needles of an evergreen and pulls out a cone-shaped trap for bugs. He cuts the plastic ties in order to open it and pinches out the crinkled husk of a beetle, holding it up for inspection. “One of our other duties is checking the health of all the trees.Right now we’re having trouble with ‘picudos rojos,’ a type of scarab from Africa,” he says. “They only eat one species of palm, but when they do, they eat the insides and do a lot of damage before flying to the next. If we can’t do surgery, we have to cut the tree down.” Clapping his hands together to shake off the dirt, Jose María continues towards the next part of La Huerta, flakes of pollen, bark and leaves sticking to his sweater. He begins to sift through the branches that cling to the walls, pointing out the bad leaves, yellow and spotted, saying, “These are sick, also. Sometimes they’re not getting enough water or shade, or sometimes the soil isn’t right. We have to make it nutritious and add phosphates, potassium, nitrogen, things like that.”

He picks his way through the dark earth of the rose garden. “Tree-trimming is the most dangerous job of all because we need scaffolding and supports to climb up there. It’s complicated and we have to watch for falling branches, make sure no one gets hit. But working with the soil can be difficult, too,” he adds, walking around a machine with spiral blades. “We use this to break up the sod and allow air to enter the dirt. It’s difficult to maneuver through the rows and must avoid hurting the plants as they grow.”

José María is a quiet and kind man, and he has much to share about his job. He is dedicated to his work, enjoys his work, and most importantly, people enjoy working with him. He smiles at the woman scrubbing the doorway as she shakes her mop at him, chiding him good-naturedly for stepping on her clean marble. He laughs along when Antonio points out that José María, “may be younger in terms of experience, but he’s just as old as I am.” He claps Loli Cárdenas on the back when she pauses to chat, leaning on her shovel. He shakes his head as he is photographed amongst the trees, a passing gardener having cried out his congratulations on José María’s “First Communion,” a joke because many young girls have their photos taken here just before they take the sacrament with the Catholic Church.

“Come on,” José María says, taking your arm. “What else do you want to know?”