Córdoba sits on the River Guadalquivir in the north of the Spanish province of Andalucía and is filled with the remnants of its rich history, a good portion of which can be found in La Judería - the Jewish Quarter.
The site to which most tourists flock to when first arriving in Córdoba is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Mosque/Cathedral and its surrounding streets. We made our way from our cheap and cheerful hotel on the far side of the river, across the much renovated Roman Bridge, past the statue of San Rafael in its centre, towards the the Jewish Quarter. To our left-hand side was the Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs, the Martos Water Mill and the Royal Stables, but swimming with the tourist tide we made our way to the Cathedral.
We jumped stream and dipped into the sixteenth century Palace of Congress. Currently a congress and exhibition centre, for two hundred years it had been the city's only health centre, the hospital of San Sebastian. Arriving two days after Christmas we were treated to a living Belén (nativity). Mary and Joseph had upped sticks and left Baby Jesus swaddled in his manger (not a real child I hasten to add) but the centre of the courtyard was alive with donkeys, sheep and lambs and ducks and turkeys. Having swept a few children to one side Stefano was soon waving a piece of hay in the direction of the lambs and was rewarded with the chance to tickle one under the chin. We then re-joined the flow around the side of the cathedral to enter the only 'mosque to cathedral' conversion in Spain and what had been the third largest mosque in the world.
We avoided the queues by purchasing our tickets from the machines (8€ each) then into the barely lit cathedral. It is indeed a huge building built on the site of the basilica of San Vicente and a previous, more primitive mosque with work starting in 785 under Ab'd al-Rahman I. Work continued over the coming two centuries with extensions by Ab'd al-Rahman II and III, Al-Hakam II and Almanzor. The striped arches of the mosque stretched away before our eyes, optical illusions created at every turn of the head and I found the initial view quite inspiring. But this is a very large building and after a while one can tire of the same look. Around the edges of the building are the Catholic shrines and chapels, many of them poorly lit, making viewing the details within very difficult. Our first lap of the site took us criss-crossing across the building so that we missed the cathedral built within the mosque. In the 16th century, Bishop Manrique convinced Carlos V to give him permission to build inside the mosque with the agreement that Alhaken II's extension should not be touched. The cathedral building spans nearly two centuries of changing architectural styles. The design of the cathedral is in the shape of a Latin cross and includes Gothic vaulting together with other Proto-Baroque vaults and a Renaissance cupola. The main altarpiece was sculpted in marble and finished in the 17th century, and the magnificent 18th century pulpits on either side of the main arch are in marble and mahogany, by the sculptor Miguel Verdiguer. From the same period come the impressive choir stalls, by Sevillan master sculptor Pedro Duque Cornejo, where almost every square inch of mahogany is carved with a wide range of images. As work took place on both aspects of the building over centuries the change in architectural styles, both Muslim and Western can be seen.
Back under the blue Andalucían sky we took to wandering around the streets of the La Judería peeking into some of Córdoba's renowned patios, which I have no doubt will look incredible when the flowers are in bloom, and eyeing up the prices of the menu del día advertised outside various restaurants. At prices between €8 and €10 for three courses and a drink we were pleasantly spoiled for choice.
On our wanders we stopped at the Mudejar House whose gateway dominates the facade at the end of the street in which it stands. Emerging from the winding streets we passed the Caliphal baths and headed towards the Alcázar. Once a Roman fortress, the castle became the residence of the Christian kings from whence the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom and the journey which led to the discovery of America were planned. Climbing the towers affords wonderful views across the Jewish Quarter, along the river, of the Royal Stables next door and the Moorish designed gardens with their water features. Inside the Mosaics Room are wonderful Roman mosaics from the second and third centuries AD mounted on the walls. A peek from the window of the Mosaics Room showed the excavated Roman Baths. Closer examination showed broken wooden walkways so I doubt that anyone will be able to walk above them in the near future and get a closer glimpse of how the baths were laid out. Mid-afternoon and the sun was at its zenith in a clear blue sky - a perfect day for enjoying the gardens of the Alcázar.
The water sparkled, the trees were laden with ripening oranges and the carp chased each other around the ponds rising up to pluck insects from the water's surface. Moorish gardens were modelled on the effects of irrigation in an otherwise dead, dry world. The vast green blanket of cropland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers served as an example of what was possible when water was added. Early Islamic gardens were an idealization of this agricultural land; these small oases were crossed with water channels and filled with shade trees, uncommon features in a desert region. The Alcázar was no exception and sitting on a bench between tall evergreens watching the water spouts catch the sunlight was a relaxing experience. If you can ever find a quiet moment in the public Moorish gardens take advantage of it - the soothing sound of water and shade from the sun takes you far from the madding crowd and everyday pressures.
With the afternoon creeping on we re-entered the winding streets and headed past the synagogue (sadly closed) and the Sepharad House nearly missing the entrance to the Casa Andalusí - and that would have been a travesty. A 12th century house it has been renovated to showcase the Hispano-Islamic houses of Andalucía and does so very well. The intimate courtyards and rooms exhibit coins, books and a model of the first paper-making machines to arrive in the the West, with a description of how the process worked. Muslim art, decorative tiles and arches combined with the scent of lemons and incense-sticks and soothing Islamic music make this a serene experience. The cellar is not to be missed either. Past the utensils and wooden buckets is a Visigoth mosaic. This is a small but perfectly formed museum and was my personal highlight of the trip.
With a few miles under our belts (we had also walked from the train station to our hotel which the man at the Tourist office had told us was 'muy lejos' but we ignored him and carried on regardless) a fortifying drink was required. Just up from the Casa Andalusí was Bodega Guzman, a bar frequented by locals - my kind of watering hole. With a small glass of wine for a solitary €, served in what looked like a sherry schooner (the wine was local though it was not a sherry) we sat in a room decorated with bull-fighting memorabilia and soaked up the atmosphere as well as the wine. The men sat around the tables with their schooners and tapas of jamon and queso talking about the daily affairs of home and state.
The beauty of this part of Córdoba is that you can happily wile away the hours just wandering the twisting alleyways enjoying the architecture, the patios glimpsed through doorways, dipping into teterias to sip on mint tea or a bodega for a stronger tipple. And that is what we did until weariness took its toll and we headed back to the hotel. We re-emerged when the moon was climbing through the skies and the bridge and city was lit up.