Image courtesy Mary Forrest Photography

The great Spanish cathedral rings its bells at 9 a.m. There is very little noise before then; people speak softly, there is no shouting in the streets, only the chirping of birds interrupts the near silence. When the bells begin, the city of Seville awakens. Shutters are raised, voices are heard more clearly, courtyard doors open.

The bells sound for almost 5 minutes, and then fall silent. A few moments later, they sound again, the best snooze alarm in the world. They sound a third, then a fourth and final time.

Our rented apartment is beautiful, with a magical view of a courtyard, and the cathedral with its campanile beyond. I am leaving in the morning after a week in this beautiful city, and I know that my morning cell phone alarm will be a poor substitute for those ethereal bells.

My sister-in-law Mary and I spend our last day wandering. We marvel at the beautiful stores selling Flamenco dresses, the palm trees that frame every stately Spanish building. We pass by a store that sells magnificent priestly vestments, and a tapas bar that is displaying a matador costume within its dark smoky depths. As we enjoy our own tapas and sangria, a group of tennis-shoe-clad young men struggle by, their feet inching forward in unison, harnessed together under a massive structure, practicing for when they will carry the religious floats of Easter.

We spend our last evening under clear starlit skies, lamenting our departure from this marvelous place and a return to our normal lives. After a last meal of baked goat cheese with walnuts, croquetas de jamon, and sangria, we take our leave of twisted ancient streets, saddened to leave this remarkable region.

The next morning we enjoy a final café con leche in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral. There is a strong smell of incense, perhaps from the church. “Do you smell that incense?” asks Mary. As she is speaking, a woman runs by. A few seconds later, a man runs by in the opposite direction, carrying a fire extinguisher. “There’s smoke coming out of that apartment!” says Mary. I turn in time to see smoke billowing out of a window and exploding from the roof above.

The man with the extinguisher opens the street-level door, and smoke pours out. He does not enter. It takes a few seconds to register this new reality. One moment we are fully in our “We-Live-Here” fantasy, enjoying our coffee at a wonderful sidewalk cafe, and in the next instant someone’s home is on fire. We stand and stare, watching helplessly as the woman paces. People pour out of businesses and homes onto the street, gaping and pointing. At last we hear the faint sounds of sirens in the distance. The house is now fully engulfed, smoke pouring out all three levels and rising from the roof. I cannot imagine how quickly the fortunes of the woman and her fellow residents have changed. This building will be a total loss.

The fire department arrives, parking a block away as the street is far too narrow for the trucks to enter. The firemen push the crowd back as a small pumper truck crawls down the street. We realize that this building is connected to our own building, albeit through one other structure, and we return at a quick walk to find our courtyard and apartment full of smoke. We close the windows, grab our bags, exit quickly, and head to the taxi stand. Mary calls the landlord to let him know that the apartment is full of smoke, and why. Our last view of the unhappy scene is of three firemen on a ladder, directing a hose into a now-destroyed upper floor.

And so we take our leave of Seville. From the train I watch sun-parched olive orchards glide by, underpinned by fields of yellow, while in my mind’s eye I see that fire, and that woman, so fortunate to live in such a beautiful place while so terribly unfortunate to find herself suddenly homeless. I try to focus, memorizing the remnants of castles perched on hilltops, towering over whitewashed houses with terra cotta rooftops. The small villages are always dominated by minaret-shaped church spires, and I long to get off the train to explore each one, to spend just a few more days in Spain.

Seville, Seville. That magical place of bell towers, sudden fires, palm trees, and destroyed ancient houses. I think about hidden verdant Moorish courtyards so fragrant they bring tears of joy to my eyes, and black smoke so thick that my throat burns. Seville, forever etched in my memory, forever seared upon my soul.

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