"Seville," wrote Byron, "is a pleasant city, famous for oranges and women." And for its heat, he might perhaps have added, since SEVILLA 's summers are intense and start early, in May. But the spirit, for all its nineteenth-century chauvinism, is about right. Sevilla has three important monuments and an illustrious history, but what it's essentially famous for is its own living self

- the greatest city of the Spanish south, of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro, and the archetype of Andalucian promise. This reputation for gaiety and brilliance, for theatricality and intensity of life, does seem deserved. It's expressed on a phenomenally grand scale at the city's two great festivals - Semana Santa (in the week before Easter) and the Feria de Abril (which starts two weeks after Easter Sunday and lasts a week). Either is worth considerable effort to get to. Sevilla is also Spain's second most important centre for bullfighting , after Madrid.

Despite its elegance and charm, and its wealth, based on food processing, shipbuilding, construction and a thriving tourist industry, Sevilla lies at the centre of a depressed agricultural area and has an unemployment rate of nearly forty percent - one of the highest in Spain. The total refurbishment of the infrastructure boosted by the 1992 Expo - including impressive new roads, seven bridges, a high-speed rail link and a revamped airport - was intended to regenerate the city's (and the region's) economic fortunes but has hardly turned out to be the catalyst for growth and prosperity promised at the time. Indeed, some of the colossal debts are still unpaid a decade later.

Bisected by the Río Guadalquivir, Sevilla is fairly easy to find your way about (though hell if you're driving). The old city - where you'll want to spend most of your time - takes up the east bank. At its heart, side by side, stand the three great monuments: the Giralda tower , the Cathedral and the Alcázar , with the cramped alleyways of the Barrio Santa Cruz , the medieval Jewish quarter and now the heart of tourist life, extending east of them. North of here is the main shopping and commercial district, its most obvious landmarks the Plaza Nueva and La Campana , and the smart pedestrianized c/Sierpes which runs between them. From La Campana, c/Alfonso XII runs down towards the river by way of the Museo de Bellas Artes , second in importance in Spain only to the Prado in Madrid. Across the river is the earthier, traditionally working-class district of Triana , flanked to the south by the Los Remedios barrio , the city's wealthier residential zone where the great April feria takes place.

Sevilla was one of the earliest Moorish conquests (in 712) and, as part of the caliphate of Córdoba, became the second city of al-Andalus . When the caliphate broke up in the early eleventh century it was by far the most powerful of the independent states (or taifas ) to emerge, extending its power over the Algarve and eventually over Jaén, Murcia and Córdoba itself. This period, under a series of three Arabic rulers from the Abbadid dynasty (1023-91), was something of a golden age. The city's court was unrivalled in wealth and luxury and was sophisticated too, developing a strong chivalric element and a flair for poetry - one of the most skilled exponents being the last ruler, al-Mu'tamid, the "poet-king". But with sophistication came decadence and in 1091 Abbadid rule was usurped by a new force, the Almoravids , a tribe of fanatical Berber Muslims from North Africa, to whom the Andalucians had appealed for help against the rising threat from the northern Christian kingdoms.

Sevilla is packed with lively and enjoyable bars and restaurants, and you'll find somewhere to eat and drink at just about any hour. With few exceptions, anywhere around the sights and the Barrio Santa Cruz will be expensive. The two most promising central areas are down towards the bullring and north of here towards the Plaza de Armas bus station. The Plaza de Armas area is slightly seedier but has the cheapest comidas this side of the river. Wander down c/Marqués de Paradas, and up c/Canalejas and c/San Eloy, and find out what's available. Across the river in Triana , c/Betis and c/Pureza are also good hunting grounds.

For straight drinking and occasional tapas you can be much less selective. There are bars all over town - a high concentration of them with barrelled sherries from nearby Jerez and Sanlúcar (the locals drink the cold, dry fino with their tapas, especially shrimp); a tinto de verano is the local version of sangría - wine with lemonade, a great summer drink. Outside the centre, you'll find lively bars in the Plaza Alfafa area, and across the river in Triana - particularly in c/Castilla, c/Betis, and in and around c/Salado. A new zone that has emerged as a focus for artistic, student and gay barhoppers is the Alameda (de Hércules).

In summer much of the action emigrates to the bars along the river's east bank to the north of the Triana bridge as far as the spectacular Puente de la Barqueta, built for Expo '92. Many of these open for a season only, springing up the following year under a new name and ownership.

The gay scene has a cluster of bars on the city side of the Puente de Triana, where Isbiliyya, Tocame and other bars get lively around midnight.

Sevilla boasts two of the largest festival celebrations in Spain. The first, Semana Santa (Holy Week), always spectacular in Andalucía, is here at its peak with extraordinary processions of masked penitents and carnival-style floats. The second, the Fería de Abril , is unique to the city: a one-time market festival, long converted to a week-long party of drink, food and flamenco. The fería follows close on the heels of Semana Santa . If you have the energy and time, experience both.

Semana Santa may be a religious festival, but for most of the week solemnity isn't the keynote - there's lots of carousing and frivolity, and bars are full day and night. In essence, it involves the marching in procession of fifty-odd brotherhoods (many now including women) of the church ( cofradías ) and penitents, followed by pasos , elaborate platforms or floats on which sit seventeenth-century images of the Virgin or Christ in tableaux from the Passion. For weeks beforehand the cofradías painstakingly adorn the hundred or so pasos , spending vast amounts on costumes and precious stones. The bearers ( costaleros ) walk in time to stirring, traditional dirges and drumbeats from the bands, which are often punctuated by impromptu and moving street-corner saetas from the citizenry - short, fervent, flamenco hymns about the Passion and the Virgin's sorrows.

The Fería de Abril is staged a fortnight after Semana Santa ends and lasts nonstop for a week. For its duration a vast area on the far bank of the river in the barrio of Los Remedios, the Real de la Feria , is totally covered in rows of casetas , canvas pavilions or tents of varying sizes. Some of these belong to eminent sevillano families, some to groups of friends, others to clubs, trade associations or political parties. In each one - from around nine at night until perhaps six or seven the following morning - there is flamenco singing and dancing. Many of the men and virtually all the women wear traditional costume, the latter in an astonishing array of brilliantly coloured, flounced gypsy dresses.

"Seville," wrote Byron, "is a pleasant city, famous for oranges and women." And for its heat, he might perhaps have added, since SEVILLA 's summers are intense and start early, in May. But the spirit, for all its nineteenth-century chauvinism, is about right. Sevilla has three important monuments and an illustrious history, but what it's essentially famous for is its own living self

- the greatest city of the Spanish south, of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro, and the archetype of Andalucian promise. This reputation for gaiety and brilliance, for theatricality and intensity of life, does seem deserved. It's expressed on a phenomenally grand scale at the city's two great festivals - Semana Santa (in the week before Easter) and the Feria de Abril (which starts two weeks after Easter Sunday and lasts a week). Either is worth considerable effort to get to. Sevilla is also Spain's second most important centre for bullfighting , after Madrid.

Despite its elegance and charm, and its wealth, based on food processing, shipbuilding, construction and a thriving tourist industry, Sevilla lies at the centre of a depressed agricultural area and has an unemployment rate of nearly forty percent - one of the highest in Spain. The total refurbishment of the infrastructure boosted by the 1992 Expo - including impressive new roads, seven bridges, a high-speed rail link and a revamped airport - was intended to regenerate the city's (and the region's) economic fortunes but has hardly turned out to be the catalyst for growth and prosperity promised at the time. Indeed, some of the colossal debts are still unpaid a decade later.

Bisected by the Río Guadalquivir, Sevilla is fairly easy to find your way about (though hell if you're driving). The old city - where you'll want to spend most of your time - takes up the east bank. At its heart, side by side, stand the three great monuments: the Giralda tower , the Cathedral and the Alcázar , with the cramped alleyways of the Barrio Santa Cruz , the medieval Jewish quarter and now the heart of tourist life, extending east of them. North of here is the main shopping and commercial district, its most obvious landmarks the Plaza Nueva and La Campana , and the smart pedestrianized c/Sierpes which runs between them. From La Campana, c/Alfonso XII runs down towards the river by way of the Museo de Bellas Artes , second in importance in Spain only to the Prado in Madrid. Across the river is the earthier, traditionally working-class district of Triana , flanked to the south by the Los Remedios barrio , the city's wealthier residential zone where the great April feria takes place.

Sevilla was one of the earliest Moorish conquests (in 712) and, as part of the caliphate of Córdoba, became the second city of al-Andalus . When the caliphate broke up in the early eleventh century it was by far the most powerful of the independent states (or taifas ) to emerge, extending its power over the Algarve and eventually over Jaén, Murcia and Córdoba itself. This period, under a series of three Arabic rulers from the Abbadid dynasty (1023-91), was something of a golden age. The city's court was unrivalled in wealth and luxury and was sophisticated too, developing a strong chivalric element and a flair for poetry - one of the most skilled exponents being the last ruler, al-Mu'tamid, the "poet-king". But with sophistication came decadence and in 1091 Abbadid rule was usurped by a new force, the Almoravids , a tribe of fanatical Berber Muslims from North Africa, to whom the Andalucians had appealed for help against the rising threat from the northern Christian kingdoms.

Sevilla is packed with lively and enjoyable bars and restaurants, and you'll find somewhere to eat and drink at just about any hour. With few exceptions, anywhere around the sights and the Barrio Santa Cruz will be expensive. The two most promising central areas are down towards the bullring and north of here towards the Plaza de Armas bus station. The Plaza de Armas area is slightly seedier but has the cheapest comidas this side of the river. Wander down c/Marqués de Paradas, and up c/Canalejas and c/San Eloy, and find out what's available. Across the river in Triana , c/Betis and c/Pureza are also good hunting grounds.

For straight drinking and occasional tapas you can be much less selective. There are bars all over town - a high concentration of them with barrelled sherries from nearby Jerez and Sanlúcar (the locals drink the cold, dry fino with their tapas, especially shrimp); a tinto de verano is the local version of sangría - wine with lemonade, a great summer drink. Outside the centre, you'll find lively bars in the Plaza Alfafa area, and across the river in Triana - particularly in c/Castilla, c/Betis, and in and around c/Salado. A new zone that has emerged as a focus for artistic, student and gay barhoppers is the Alameda (de Hércules).

In summer much of the action emigrates to the bars along the river's east bank to the north of the Triana bridge as far as the spectacular Puente de la Barqueta, built for Expo '92. Many of these open for a season only, springing up the following year under a new name and ownership.

The gay scene has a cluster of bars on the city side of the Puente de Triana, where Isbiliyya, Tocame and other bars get lively around midnight.