It was early afternoon when our train from Madrid rolled into Córdoba, and it was baking hot outside. We caught the bendy bus from the station in the modern commercial town down to the old town. With a bit of GPS loving we got off at the right street, which had jasmine spilling over walls and was lined with the most fragrant orange trees I'd ever smelt – and we quickly found our hotel.
Even though it was getting towards late afternoon by the time we were checked in and sorted, the Spanish sun was still glowing warmly so we decided to head straight out and see what we could make of it. I'd chosen our hotel largely as the best cheapish place with reasonable reviews that was in the right location – the old town – and it was perfect, only a few blocks walk to get to the Mezquita, the star attraction in Córdoba.
But we couldn't even get half a block before finding tree-lined streets leading to little churches and courtyards with apartment balconies overlooking – the place was really beautiful.
The Mezquita's easy to spot; it's the size of a block but is edged by streets on all sides, so as you approach it you can see its bounding walls, which have gold-colored reflective doorways with carved white and dusty red arches over them, inlaid into the exterior walls.
You can walk freely into the courtyard of the Mezquita. When it was a mosque – more on that in a moment – it was planted in date palms, but the Christians replaced almost all of them with more Western plants – more fragrant orange trees providing some welcome shade, plus a few more northern trees. Around the corner from the public entrance, you can see the belfry, a relatively late addition, rising up from the middle of one of the walls.
But facing the other way, you can see the Christian Cathedral. You can't walk up to its apparent walls though; it looks like it's actually sitting in the middle of another, lower building.
In fact, that's exactly what it is. The Mezquita is fascinating because it's gone through many stages of life. The first evidence of a place of worship on this site seems to be a Visigothic church – Christian.
Some sources say that for a later period, Christians and Muslims worshipped side-by-side in two halves of the site.
Whether or not that's true, it is known that Emir Abd ar-Rahman I, founder of the epic emirate that held much of the Iberian peninsula (that's the Southern Europe that Spain and Portugal make up) for several centuries, bought the remaining half or entire site off the local Christians, and starting in around AD 784-786 built it up into a mosque.
It is from this era that we get these original red-and-white double arches surmounting the forest of columns supporting the low roof of the mosque:
The red is bricks, the white is stone; the columns that they're sitting on are apparently a mixture of stones, some salvaged from earlier buildings on the site and nearby, some brought in later. They say that the unusual double arches were to support the weight of the roof, but that's a bit rubbish – the higher arches do support the weight of the roof and were certainly necessary, but the lower ones just sit there looking interesting, there's nothing on top of them to support!
The red/white arches may be famous and very unusual to look at, but you've got to watch it – some of them are fakes.
The whole area of the mosque is square now, but it was rectangular to start with – about a third of the size. The remainder was built by a later dude (Abd al-Rahman II), by a later still dude (Al-Hakam II) who built a nice domey bit, and by a very late dude (Almanzor), and especially the last presumably wasn't quite as loaded as the original dude (Abd ar-Rahman I), so did it on the cheap; the newest red bits are just painted on. If you look very closely at the newer, crisper looking arches, you can see that where the edges of the supposedly red brick have been chipped, it's dusty white underneath.
So maybe it was a pagan site at one point (seems likely), then it was definitely a Christian church, then it was a mosque, then a bigger mosque, then an even bigger mosque. But they're just getting started.
The Iberian peninsula hosted a pretty mighty Islamic Caliphate as Al-Andalus, but of course it didn't stay Islamic for ever; the Christians took it back bit by bit over a series of big wars. Anyway, getting to the point, after the Christians took over Córdoba, they closed in the mosque and built a cathedral right in the middle of the it, sticking up out of the top. Progressively, other Christian chapels and devotionals were added around the sides too. Thankfully however, the original mosque features such as the mihrab were retained – remarkable as most sites that change religion get heavily censored to remove traces of the “opposing” “heathen” religion.
So you're wandering around inside looking at the mosque, and then you suddenly see a bit of chapel around the side, and then a minute later you're back looking at incredibly ornate Moorish decoration with Arabic inscriptions it it again. When you head into the middle of the column forest, you emerge into a clearing which has a much higher ceiling over it and you're in the middle of a typical cross shaped cathedral with a honking big choir area. Back on one of the sides of the buildings, there's a couple of honking big Christian chapels, not far from the Muslim mihrab… It's all a bit of an overload!
There's a small crypt underneath one of the chapels. It was unclear to me if “oil of the catacombs” and “oil of the sick” were oil taken from catacombs and sick people, or oil for use in catacombs and sick people. I'm not sure which I prefer.
Anyway, after a couple of hours in the gloom of the cathedral and converted mosque, it was nice to get back out to the courtyard and catch the last of the sun. The ceremonial doors on the exterior walls look particularly cool glowing in the last rays.
We had time to wander a few blocks further, where we discovered the “Jewish quarter” of the city, surrounded on two sides by high, thick city walls of yellow stone with pigeons nesting in the holes.
It's a lot like old town parts in many places, with narrow streets and the usual tourist shops, but there's an interesting old synagogue that survived pogroms, and a ‘historic house’ where the owners have got together various interesting bits and pieces to add to the remains of an ancient roman mosiac in the basement. Nice to visit just for the way they'd made the house up – wells, ponds, interesting design on the lightshades etc.
It was dark by the time we got back to the hotel, but Melissa asked the staff for a restaurant recommendation and after a fair bit of wandering around trying to match up street names with what the hotel person had told us – my Spanish proved too poor to disambiguate her directions with a polite and patient local who didn't seem any clearer than us on what she where have meant.
We're pretty sure we found the right one (Salinas de Casuela) though, because it was really, really good. I was feeling a bit crap by this point unfortunately, so didn't really get into it – but it was very good food and we went back the next night so I could really enjoy it. The staff were good too – very genuine.
They stopped us when we'd ordered enough dishes (all local specialties, not tourist rubbish; that's an orange and codfish salad there in the photo – the casserole of wild asparagus was also particularly good, as was the cheese), and at the end when they bought us a glass of muscatel each and we thought there must have been a miscommunication (sorry, we didn't order this!) they had a great manner showing no, no, it's their treat, this is how we roll in these parts – proud without being at all rude. The muscatel (Pedro Simeney) was raisiney and very nice!
We raced off to get Melissa to the flamenco performance, but I was still feeling crap so retired for the night.
The next day was a little more relaxed, we went down to the old Alcázar (fortress), which aside from being a historic building itself also now hosts exhibitions – when we visited, of photos from a wildlife expedition to photograph the increasingly rare Iberian lynx – apparently now the most endangered cat species in the world. The date-palm garden out the front was my first real taste of what the southern climate brings.
The Córdoba museum was also interesting, but I would not recommend it if you are not able to work out Spanish translations with your dictionary; in fact even then the information provided was patchy, with some parts hardly explained or labelled at all. Still, it did have some interesting pieces mostly dating from the Romans on up.
One of the more unusual sections was on ancient coffins – I found the state of preservation of the lead sarcophagus from Roman times surprising. Their coffins were not rectangular – they taper in linearly a little towards the foot end. The coffins were decorated with embossed motifs that are still visible today, thousands of years later.
I find the idea of burying people in something that would I presume poison the soil around it interesting. I had an interesting conversation with my family about what we want to happen to our bodies over my Christmas visit, and was surprised to hear one say they that their reason for wishing to be cremated was that they didn't like the idea of worms eating their body.
Personally, I think there's something kind of appropriate and nice about the idea that my body should be returned to use in the ecosystem afterwards, because that's how ecosystems are supposed to work, and I certainly won't need the bloody thing any more.
We did a fair bit of generally wandering around the second day, and I ate heartily back at our restaurant, which I have to say I think is one of my favorites in the world. My sister Melissa is pictured there with some deep-fried anchovies (we can't get them fresh in our part of the world!), the spinach and chickpea casserole was great and very welcome in a heavily meat-dominated country, and the custardy cream dessert was unpretentiously plonked on a plate and absolutely delicious.
Córdoba was my favourite place in Andalucía (this region, southern Spain) – the people were nice; even the bus driver back to the station – noticing our packs and my appalling spanish, he deduced that we wanted to go to the train station… which it turned out would have taken a full hour to get to from where we hopped on the bus! he took us on a few stops for free, then told us to hop off and catch another bus which went more directly. Him making an effort to help out a couple of foreigners who were unknowingly about to get themselves in a late-for-train pickle did not go unappreciated!
You do need some amount of Spanish to travel there. The majority of people, even those you might expect to deal with tourists most days, do not speak English. They were however generally patient and tolerant of my poor command of their language, which was nice – and after a couple of days I was improving a bit!
You will however need one hell of an extensive menu reader if you aren't happy to do what Melissa and I do – if we don't know what something is, order it and find out :).
I definitely recommend a visit to Córdoba. Stay towards the old part of town, towards the river – the newer part where the train & bus stations etc. are is just like anywhere, whereas it's great to be able to casually wander to the places you want to see.
Our next stop was Granada, home of the Alhambra.