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Seville, Spain - Looming above my head were Las Setas de las Encarnacíon. Designed by futurist German architect Jürgen Mayer-Hermann, these giant mushrooms stand 26m tall. So far, so Salvador Dalí.
Yet things were about to get even more surreal. Five minutes later, in Plaza San Francisco, the year was suddenly 1597 and I was being accosted by a young man pleading on behalf of Miguel de Cervantes. Spain's celebrated writer (1547-1616) was apparently being carted off to jail accused of embezzling money in his position as a tax collector.
This is no ordinary walking tour. Instead, it's an audio-visual adventure drawing on the latest video technology.
Those mushrooms turned out to be a four-storey building, known as Metropol Parasol, which opened to the public in 2011. Inside is an archaeological museum, bars, eateries and a mirador balcony - providing a breathtaking view of the city centre. It's also where a company called Past View has its headquarters. And it was here that Past View's staff co-ordinator, Paco Monago, had greeted me and handed me an iPhone, state-of-the-art video glasses and earphones.
The iPhone is a key component of the Past View experience. Along the walking route are various Past View plaques. When you come across one of them, you are instructed to turn your iPhone on and press the compass key. The GPS works out which particular landmark you're at. Then you listen to an introduction, watch a re-creation from bygone times, and experience “augmented reality”. This involves lining the iPhone up with a particular building to reveal how it used to look. (Paco was conveniently placed nearby to assist when, what should have been a routine task got too fiddly for my unskilled fingers.)
After returning from 1597, I was introduced to Teresa Suárez, Past View's amiable communication manager. Teresa was keen to know if the glasses were comfortable, which they were. In fact, my only irritation came in the form of the translation. Having lived in Spain for the past nine years, I can vouch for the authentic pronunciation of any Spanish words. It's just when the voiceover artist used English ones, his accent was noticeably more Irish than Iberian.
Teresa explained that the tours have proved popular with local schoolchildren. I could imagine. Were I a child, Past View would represent the best history lesson in the world. Teresa revealed that her company will shortly roll out the product to other destinations including Barcelona, Gibraltar, Luxor and Panama City.
The next re-creation took place by the Alcázar (Royal Palace) side of the cathedral. Here, I was propelled even further back in time. To 1198, in fact, when the past genuinely was another country. For I was now in Al-Andalus, the medieval state ruled by the Moroccan Berber-Muslim Almohad dynasty.
I was in the company of architect Alí de Gomara who'd just completed the Giralda, the bell tower which now takes pride of place in Seville cathedral. Then it was a minaret of the mosque itself. It was the time of the inauguration and De Gomara was keen to share his project with the world. Everything about this video was different from the first. The epoch, the architecture, the clothes. Well, not quite everything. There was still that Irish brogue.
What makes Seville ideal for a walking tour of this kind is that the centre is pedestrianised. There's very little traffic noise. And you can always pump up the volume on your earphones to drown out any distraction. With so many interesting buildings to choose from, Past View plans to add more re-creations and take in other historical periods.
Currently, Past View offers two tours. The 45-minute Past View Metropol, costing €6.40, is a 360-degree interpretative video guide of one of the most avant-garde buildings in the city. It's also a window to Seville's Roman past that transports the user to the Hispalis of the second century BC. Then there's Past View Sevilla, which takes in the city's major sights over a walk that lasts between 90 and 120 minutes and costs €15.
My final blast into the past took place on the banks of the river Guadalquivir. It was a return to Spain's golden age and, appropriately enough, the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) provided the backdrop to the drama. My virtual companion this time was an apprentice of the great Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The year was 1658, just after Murillo returned from Madrid where he'd fallen under the influence of Velázquez, and I learnt about the Puerto de Sevilla, Spain's only river port.
When the video finished, I reluctantly returned my time-travelling equipment to Paco. Time to head back to the future. - The Independent
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted; easyJet (easyjet.com) from Gatwick. The writer travelled from Gran Canaria with Vueling (vueling.com).
The writer was a guest of Hotel Abril (hotelabril.com)
Past View Sevilla: pastview.es