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A novel way of seeing Expo 29

August 1, 2013 – 8:09 am
Expo 29, Ibero-American Expo, Maria Luisa Park

Eye-catching mementoes from Seville's Expo 29 (delayed from '28) make an intriguing introduction to this night-time tour.

Postcards capture the mood of the time.

Postcards capture the mood of the time; this one shows the mini-railway taking visitors around the site.

This year, or rather this summer, many tour companies in Seville are expanding their offerings, with more options for night-time tours available. This is in addition to the extensive programme of cultural events I mentioned in a recent post, nearly all of which are outdoors, and in wonderful locations to boot. After dark is the best time to enjoy the city’s most historic spots, after the day’s extreme heat has dissipated. As I’ve been testing out (and conducting myself) all sorts of different tours over the last few months – all in the name of research, of course – I can now view them with an experienced eye.

Expo 29, Maria Luisa Park

Guide Rafael explains to our group about some statues at the Expo's entrance.

Parque Maria Luisa is hosting not one but two types of tours – both dramatized. The one I tried, which takes place on Thursdays, was “A Night at the Ibero-American Expo 1929″, by Espiral Patrimonio. The meeting point was just outside the park gates, still in daylight, where a sprightly chap called Rafael, dapperly dressed in slacks, sleeveless pullover and boater, played 1920s music and invited us to look at literature and postcards from the event. We were given an excellent map marking all the original pavilions: Seville’s Expo 29 was several decades in the planning and took place just months before the Wall Street Crash.

The aim of the exhibition was to re-establish contact – both political and commercial – with Spain’s former colonies, some of whom had achieved independence from La Patria only a few years earlier. Rafael regaled us with anecdotes about the opening day of the Expo, when the tour is “set” – imagine the excitement and anticipation after years and years of building, more building, waiting, more waiting… The big day is brought to vivid life, with details for the event’s first visitors, such as what the hotspots were (the US pavilion’s movie theatre), the best restaurant (Argentinian pavilion), where visitors could collect information, and even which days the entry fee was half-price, and when cars could visit – still very much a novelty in those days.

Plaza de España, Expo 29, Maria Luisa Park

Rafael takes us back in time to 9 May 1929, the Expo's opening day, as dusk falls on Plaza de España the exhibition's centrepiece.

Rafael explained that the longer the exhibition was delayed, the better for local industry – more bricks, more tiles, more metal was needed, and produced, and billed for. As we know, Plaza de España turned into one of Spain’s most magnificent structures. What I wasn’t aware of, however, was that its original purpose was a setting for shows and spectacles, with the people sitting in front of the provincial alcoves (there’s one for each in Spain, alphabetically ordered, with its own map and picture), and the show being staged in the centre, over the other side of the canal. The ground slopes downwards slightly, so that everyone would get a good view.

But the architect, Anibal Gonzalez, fell out with the organisers, and his replacement put a large fountain in the centre of the Plaza. This new addition ruined Gonzalez’s vision for the Expo’s centrepiece – boy, that must have rankled. The idea for Plaza de España was as a place with open arms (the extended semi-circular wings) to the New World, facing the river. Now a stone object broke that flow. So Rafael told us as we stood in the Plaza, and he told us that the little shelves by the regional alcoves were for brochures about each province, which visitors could read as they sat and contemplated the area, its representative picture and plan.

One of the most magical aspects of this time-travelling tour was being there at night: no heat, no sun, no people. The intense southern Spanish light is punishing in this wide open space during the day, and you have to escape to the shade after a few minutes. But in the warm night air, you can wander around to your heart’s content, without the sun beating down on you, thinking yourself back to that big day nearly 100 years ago, when this gargantuan structure was finally unveiled.

Expo 29, Parque Maria Luisa

One of our group takes the part of an emancipated 1920s woman with (gasp!) short hair.

The tour was brought to life by enthusiastic audience participation – volunteers read out letters from (and in some cases dressed up as) participating musicians, designers and diplomats, adding a delightfully personal touch. Rafael’s explanation of the park extended to its origins, as the hunting estate of the Dukes of Montpensier, Franco-Spanish Bourbons who set up their court-in-exile in the Palacio San Telmo in the mid-19th century. They wanted the park to have a romantic, escapist feel with exotic elements, hence the gazebo on the island, and the waterfall mountain. When she died, the Duchess, Infanta Maria Luisa Fernanda, donated her garden to the city. A French designer, Forestier, then transformed it into the Expo gardens, with many tiled areas – walkways, benches, fountains, pergolas, and themed glorietas – little plazas, with literary messages. The park in its current form was finished in 1914, and celebrates its centenary next year.

The Mudejar Pavilion, whose style was highly fashionable in the early 20th century. This was where we toasted the Expo's opening day.

The Mudejar Pavilion, whose architectural style (embellished horseshoe arches) was highly fashionable in the early 20th century. This was where we toasted the Expo's opening day at the end of our tour.

The tour finished up, by this time in darkness, outside the Pabellon Mudejar, now the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares. Rafael pointed out architectural influences which I’d missed despite having seen it many times – the facade is partly modelled on the palace of Pedro el Cruel in the Alcazar.

We drank a toast of local orange wine (not bad at all, actually) to the Expo, as Rafael read out the (glowing) newspaper reviews of the Expo’s triumphant opening day. Spain’s dictator, Primo de Rivera, who hailed from Jerez, had ensured that journalists and photographers from publications all the over the world were in attendance to report on this major international event.

I can highly recommend this tour – I, as everyone else, was grabbed by the period detail, the stories, the experiences, and the mood which Rafael created – no mean feat working alone with an audience of 40-odd people, including young (though admirably well-behaved) children. Everyone joined in and the atmosphere was inclusive and uplifting. Great fun.

Una Noche en La Exposicion 29 tour takes place in Maria Luisa Park, every Thursday night in August.

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