The medieval Spanish city beckons with its boisterous vibe and architectural wonders
The city of Córdoba in southern Spain exudes the heady swirl and energy of a flamenco dancer and the passion and grace of a raven-haired Spanish beauty. From mid-April to mid-June, the city springs to life with the staging of major fiestas. From the Festival of the Patios, when the courtyards and wrought iron balconies of whitewashed homes in the old quarter burst with colourful blossoms, to the feria or fair held in the Arenal neighbourhood, life becomes one long celebration for locals and tourists.
We were there during the feria, when gaiety, tapas and rebujito (a concoction of the region’s dry white wine, 7UP and ice) flowed like a river and the air was infused with the scent of orange blossoms. Córdoba swarmed with olive-skinned beauties togged up in figure-hugging flamenco dresses and men in gypsy costumes posed for photographs, while the bullfight ring in town resounded with the cries of olé, olé, olé as matadors preened and felled mighty bulls night after night.
Nothing can quell the exuberant spirit of the Spaniards, not even the recession from which the country emerged recently. And that bubbling, no-holds-barred joie de vivre reached out to us as we too were caught up in the web of excitement and eddy of colour as we meandered in the old quarter, eating tapas and quaffing a drink or two at the bars. The strumming of flamenco guitars percolated out of flower-draped doorways as we stopped at a bar where a duo thrummed and sang flamenco songs with soulful passion. This town where happy spontaneity reigns has spawned some great flamenco dancers, but Córdoba is not just a fun provincial place; it’s a historic location that wears its rich past lightly. Once one of the great capitals of the world and the largest, richest city in Europe, it is today often bypassed by tourists in search of Granada and Seville’s more flamboyant delights.
Yet, Córdoba is addictive. It sings a siren song, almost plaintive and pleading, about the time when its splendours rivalled that of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) as the only capital of the Muslim caliphate in the West (AD 711-1031). Córdoba was then part of what was lyrically called Al-Andalus, also known as Islamic Iberia or Moorish Spain (AD 711-1492), which occupied most of modern Spain and Portugal at the height of its supremacy. Way before this period, Córdoba seized its place in the sun as the largest city of Roman Spain.
We crossed the recently restored Roman bridge into the charming old town where the ghosts of the past seem to peek out of old doorways and arches of white-washed homes, topped with crescent tile roofs, and in the twists and turns of cobbled streets with weathered stone fountains. The wraiths seemed to strut around in Juderia, the medieval Jewish quarter with its ninth-century synagogue, and in the centrepiece of the town, the Mezquita, considered by some to be the greatest mosque ever built.
As we moved out of the Mediterranean sun and into the interior of the mosque (now a cathedral) via the Patio los Narajos, scented with orange and lemon trees, we were overwhelmed. The Mezquita turned out to be a vast, cool space where 850 marble, jasper and granite columns, bridged by red and white double stone arches, rose with a sort of hypnotic symmetry. The Mezquita seemed to reverberate with the prayers of the faithful going back centuries. In its heyday, scholars studied astronomy, religion, philosophy, geometry and countless other intellectual pursuits here, passing them on to the West. The mosque was vastly augmented in the 10th century, but in 1523, a Baroque cathedral was planted in its midst after the Christian re-conquest of Córdoba in 1236.
Interestingly, the belfry of the cathedral was built around the minaret of the mosque. For us, this highlighted the manifold layers of history and culture that sheathe Córdoba, which one peels away like the layers of an onion. We ambled around the interior as guides spoke their well-rehearsed lines to groups of tourists, while some visitors stared bemusedly around them, finding it difficult to take it all in. Each pillar is different because it was sourced from Roman ruins and old churches; yet there is a tremendous sense of harmony. The most riveting is the bejewelled mihrab, or niche, that indicates the direction of Mecca.
Once outside, we ambled into the Jewish quarter with its meandering alleys and Arabic archways and patios – some have been converted into romantic wisteria-draped outdoor cafés or pizzerias with wood-fired ovens; another has become a Moorish bath. We ducked under one arch and emerged in what resembled a medieval souk. Around a large courtyard, buried in climbing ivy and red geraniums, there were little craft shops selling jewellery, leather and other goods. Farther away, a museum studded with matador costumes and sepia-tinted posters advertised bullfights of yore. Also in the old quarter was the Inquisition Museum, said to have the largest collection of torture instruments in Europe. We walked through its halls, amazed but appalled at the same time, at the ingenuity of man in the torture of
It was in the adjacent fortified palace of Alcazar, with its lush gorgeous gardens overlooking the tranquil Guadalquivir river that Christopher Columbus importuned Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs, to finance his voyage to India. Isabella refused, but as Columbus walked away, Ferdinand persuaded her to open her purse strings, which she did, ushering in the era of colonisation. But it was in the Royal Stables of Alcazar that we experienced some of our most memorable moments. This was where the Spanish or Andalusian thoroughbreds were reared from Arab stock at the behest of King Philip II, who was a lover of all things equestrian. Today, tourists can get a glimpse of purebred Spanish steeds being put through their paces, manes flying, muscles rippling under sleek, shiny coats as they move in superb unison with their handsome, costumed riders.
As dusk mantled the Royal Stables, the statuesque Spanish horses and the ramrod-straight riders pranced out to stirring music, almost as though they were a single entity. As the light played evocatively on the horse, the rider and the dancers in an engaging moving cameo, we were enthralled; not a leaf stirred and one could only hear the collective breathing of a mesmerised audience that watched the arabesques created by the actors in this spectacle filled with sound, light and panache. The show came to its heart-stopping finale with a flamenco dancer, as the horse and rider performed as one, their sinuous movements complementing each other in a superb show of dance and horsemanship. As we left the Royal Stables, the sound of laughter and clinking of wine glasses wafted from the sidewalk cafés. The night was still young in Córdoba, which seemed to swagger and strut, determined to outdo its great rivals Seville and Granada.