WEEKEND: TRAVEL: Seduced by the sound of Seville; MUSIC FESTIVAL PLANNED WITH OPERA AT ITS HEART.
CASTLES and palaces, tapas bars and treasures, plazas and streets lined with orange trees and sunshine to boot - could any city ask for more?
Well believe it or not, yes.
The atmospheric Spanish city of Seville has dreamed up yet another attraction to lure the tourists: a music festival with opera at its heart.
And just to make the festival super special, the opera will be staged in the open air, against some of the city's stunning backdrops.
There could be only one choice to kick off Seville's first international music festival: Carmen - Bizet's tragic tale of a soldier and a girl from the Seville tobacco factory.
As the producers, designers and directors involved with the ambitious project outlined their vision when I visited the city, it was hard not to share their sense of excitement.
We were in the expansive Plaza de Espana - and invited to imagine a balmy evening in September - when the festival will be held - with the sun going down, and the first act of Carmen about to unfold.
The plaza will be transformed to create the tobacco factory scene for the first act and a tavern setting for act two, and then the audience will move 50 metres, to face the opposite direction towards the leafy Parque de Maria Luisa, a huge garden in the heart of the city, which will transformed by a "light architect" into a mountainous forest region for act three.
So far so good.
And here comes the exciting part (although the logistics are fairly mind- boggling): the audience, some 8,000 of them, will take a two-hour break during which they will stroll 850 metres to the city's famous bull-fighting arena, the Plaza de Toros de Maestranza, for Act Four.
And not just any 850 metres, but along an illuminated, picturesque route by the Guadalquivir River, past a host of stalls and bars selling drinks, snacks and tapas, with street entertainers adding to the fun.
There will also be horse-drawn carriages or cars laid on.
Whatever we think of bullfighting, Seville's bullfight arena is an awesome structure of beautiful proportions. And the prospect of being able to join a huge crowd there, but not have to witness a bull fight - has definite appeal.
To get the atmosphere of a packed crowd, 5,000 extra Carmen tickets will be sold at a reduced price for the bull ring only.
The arena audience will be able to watch the earlier acts on a big screen, with everyone seeing the finale live.
The executive producer of Carmen is Michael Ecker, who was also behind the presentation of Puccini's Turandot in the Forbidden City in Beijing, in September 1998.
This year will be Seville's first international music festival and the aim is to place it alongside other international music festivals, such as Salzburg and Verona.
The organisers are thinking big: the projected budget is 22 million euros and about 130,000 visitors are expected - about half of them from outside Spain - over the 10 days from September 2.
Apart from Carmen, there will be a busy programme of concerts and recitals, with a star line-up led by the New York Philharmonic and Russian National orchestras, the great cellist Rostropovich, violinist Maxim Vengerov and young pianist Lang Lang.
And, of course, there will more than a dash of flamenco.
Carmen is mentioned in more than 100 operas so the scope for future festivals is endless.
For 2005, the plan is to stage Beethoven's Fidelio in the ruined roman amphitheatre at Italica, just outside Seville. And in 2006, Mozart's Don Giovanni is planned.
Then, of course, there's the Barber of Seville, the Marriage of Figaro, La Forza del Destino... the Seville opera connection seems as endless as the city's sightseeing gems.
Which brings us back to those castles and palaces, orange trees and tapas bars.....
FACTFILE FESTIVAL tickets and packages are available through the festival's website: www.carmeninsevilla.com/ english
Spanish Tourist Office
Tel.020 7486 8077
24-hour brochure line: 09063 640 630
(Calls cost 60p per minute at all times)
DASH OF FLAMENCO: Some of the performers taking part in Seville's first international music festival