Captivated by Córdoba

It’s 10.30pm and the tables in Córdoba’s Plaza de la Corredera are filling up with locals siting down to their evening meal of tapas, beer and cigarettes. The hum of conversation and laughter bounces amongst the hundreds of arches that line the square. Waiters zoom in and out of the kitchens delivering dishes of croquetas and papas bravas, then zigzag from table to table replenishing their patrons’ calls for “mas cervezas, por favour”.  The scene is typically Andalucían: relaxed, unpretentious, friendly, and inviting. The mild summer night an irresistible excuse to linger longer.


Today Córdoba is greatly overshadowed by Andalucía’s other great Moorish cities, Seville and Granada. But in its heyday this unassuming, beautiful town was one of the greatest cities on Earth. Already a prominent city during Roman Rule, in 716 Córdoba became the capital of the Moorish Kingdom of El-Andalus and eventually a Caliphate in its own right. Over the next 400 years Córdoba grew to be an important centre for culture, politics, finance and economics and one of the largest and most advanced cities in the world. It also became home to some of Iberian Islam’s greatest monuments, including the Grand Mezquita and the Alcazar.


The beauty of visiting Córdoba is that while the city has shrunk considerably in size and temperament since its zenith, the vestiges of its past glory remain intact and unharmed for all to behold. Córdoba has the second largest historic city centre in Europe, and boasts the largest UNESCO World Heritage urban area in the world. And with just a fraction of the tourists that plague Seville and Granada, Córdoba’s history and charm is far easier to appreciate.

In the heart of the historic city is the undisputed jewel of Córdoba; the Great Mosque, or Grand Mezquita. Google it and you will read a plethora of superlatives extolling its immense scale, majesty and splendour. They are all entirely deserved; it is hard to exaggerate the beauty of this mosque. Step inside its heavily fortified walls and you enter into a cool, dark labyrinth of columns and horseshoe arches, and shimmering gold mosaics.


In the dim ochre light, the hundreds of scalloped red-and-white-striped, granite and marble archways disappear into infinity like reflections in a hall of mirrors. It’s an awe-inspiring sight.



In fact, it’s so awe-inspiring that when the Christians conquered the city in 1236 they couldn’t bring themselves to tear it down. Instead they decided to build their Renaissance cathedral at its very center, nestled amongst the arches and columns, creating the strange church-mosque hybrid that remains today.


The Christians also saw it in their hearts to retain the Calahorra Fort, originally built by the Moors, which guards the Roman Bridge, on the far side of the river from the Mezquita.


And despite expelling all the Jews from Spain in 1492, they somehow, miraculously, decided to leave the ancient 14th century Jewish Synagogue largely intact.


“La Judería”, the medieval quarter of Cordoba once the home to the Jewish community is by far the prettiest part of the old city centre. A maze of winding, narrow streets, shady flower-filled courtyards and picturesque squares.


The Christian conquerors weren’t, however, so precious about laying waste to the Alcazar, the ancient Visigoth fortress which the former rulers of the Caliphate had used as their palace. The spoils of the palace were given away to various noblemen, and barely 10% of the original Moorish fortress survived King Alfonso’s drastic renovations. The reason for such wanton destruction is perplexing since the palace he created in its place was built in the Mudéjar style and appears just as Islamic as the original.


This present incarnation of the Alcazar fortress was used as HQ for the tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition, which converted much of it, including the Arab baths, into torture and interrogation chambers. A quick side visit to Córdoba’s Museum of the Inquisition will instantly and profoundly illuminate you to the depths of depravity that humanity can descend to in the name of religion.


To restore your faith in humankind and the human spirit, you can’t do much better than finding your way to a flamenco show. Unlike the exorbitantly priced flamenco extravaganzas flogged to tourists in Seville, a number of Córdoba’s small tabernas offer an authentic local flamenco experience that won’t break the bank.

For some reason, nothing demonstrates the character of the Spanish people quite as evocatively as a woman stomping dramatically on a hardwood floor to the desperate wails and percussive beats of heart wrenching guitar.

Well nothing that is except the languid Spanish siesta: an ingeniously conceived three-hour time out from the stress and blazing heat of the day to rest and relax. In Córdoba, as in most of Spain, the daily siesta turns the bustling city into a temporary ghost town, where only baffled tourists and stray dogs wander the streets. But not before the locals catch up with friends for a quick drink in the taberna and make plans for the evening frivolities.


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