Architecture

Cordoba – Adventures in Spain’s Historic Heartland

Cordoba

Cordoba

Cordoba is one of Spain’s most beautiful Andalucian cities but it can be overlooked by tourists travelling to its ‘noisy neighbours’, Seville and Granada.

It’s a great shame because Cordoba makes for a fantastic city break.  This vibrant city is stuffed with history, culture and intriguing places to chill out – plus you’ll discover some of the best flamenco in Spain.

Here are my top reasons to visit this magnificent city for a short break or as part of a longer road trip around Andalucia’s historic cities.

1. World class heritage

Mezquita Cordoba

Stunning light – The Mezquita Cordoba

If you need just one good reason to visit Cordoba, it’s the breathtakingly beautiful Mezquita cathedral and mosque which is a fusion of western and Islamic architectural styles.

It’s no understatement to say that this is one of the world’s greatest buildings. Enter the Mezquita and you’ll know instantly that you’re somewhere quite special.

This magnificent building isn’t just stunning to look at, it has a spirituality which I’ve experienced in very few places around the world. You can hear a pin drop as you walk around its inner sanctum, admiring the architecture.

Mezquita Cordoba

Mezquita – spiritual journey

The Great Mosque was built by the Moors and dates back to 785 AD. That’s a lot of history so it’s no surprise that the building has evolved dramatically over the last 12 centuries.

Its most visually striking features are the eye-catching 850 pillars and arches in red and white stripes made from granite, jasper and marble.

Delve deeper and you’ll discover the building’s Christian roots which date from much later. The Capella de Villaviciosa was the first Christian chapel to be created within the mosque in 1371 – its multi-faceted arches are simply stunning.

Cordoba

Golden treasure in the cathedral

In the early 16th Century, the middle section of the original Mosque was destroyed to make way for a Christian cathedral – in my mind, an act of mindless vandalism!

But if you like over-ornate decoration and Italianate domes, you’ve come to the right place. The Christian style couldn’t be more different with its authoritarian feel compared with the more intimate and spiritual design of the earlier Mosque.

There are treasures galore – mostly golden relics and statues which can be explored in the Cathedral museum, each gleaming as brightly as when they were first crafted.

Cordoba

Mezquita – restored facade

One of the great pleasures of the Mezquita is being able to chill out and enjoy the quiet, contemplative atmosphere of this special place.

After the trip inside the building,  I was exhausted, having overdone the walking around the huge number of smaller chapels. Those feeling lively can pay extra and take the trip up to the top of the tower’s belvedere from where I’m told there are great views across the city.

Outside, you can enjoy the Moorish gardens which were added during the 15th Century. They provide shaded corners and niches from which visitors can admire the exterior design of the buildings, sheltered from the sunshine.

Cordoba

Towering views

2. La Juderia – the Jewish Quarter

For the next stop on your walking itinerary, I’d recommend a stroll around Cordoba’s historic Jewish Quarter, one of the prettiest districts of the city with its white houses and labyrinthine maze of tiny streets.

The Synagogue at the heart of the district is small but worth a look, not least because it was only one of three in Spain which survived the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

Cordoba

The Jewish Quarter

Not far away is La Casa Andalusi, a restored 12th Century mansion which captures the spirit of an earlier age with its Moorish furnishings and exterior patio with a small water garden.

Also in the vicinity is a superb Gothic style Moorish chapel called the Capilla de San Bartolome dating from the 15th Century with gorgeous crafted tiles and decoration.

I skipped past the Museo Taurino on the grounds that I hate bullfighting but anyone interested in the history of this blood sport may be intrigued by its motley relics. They include the blood-stained vest of a famous matador called Manolete who was gored by an angry bull.

Cordoba

Load of bull – Museo Taurino

One of the prettiest streets in the Jewish Quarter is the Callejon de las Flores with its whitewashed alleys and a profusion of bright red geranium pots.

Carry on walking towards the city’s walls (the Murallas y Puertas de Almodovar) and you’ll find yourself at the attractive gateway to the Quarter. The Almodavar Gate dates from the 14th Century and is the only surviving gateway into the city of the nine built by Abd al-Rahman I.

Just inside the walls, there are some of the best eating places in Cordoba where you’ll want to stop for refreshments. The El Choto is my favourite with its atmospheric dining room and delicious local fare – and it won’t break the bank.

Cordoba

The Almodavar Gate and statue of Seneca

3. River walks

One of the most chilled things to do in Cordoba is to stroll along the River Guadalquivir and walk over the Puente Romano, an impressive Roman bridge.

It’s thought that the bridge was constructed in the 1st or 2nd centuries with additions being made during the Moorish period. Look out for the original Roman stonework, although there was a controversial modern revamp in 2007.

Cordoba

Cordoba’s historic bridge

At the far end of the bridge you can take a trip inside the small museum in the medieval tower – Torre de la Calahorra – which houses tableaux and historic models.

By far the best thing about the tower are the panoramic views down the river – take your binoculars and you may even see some interesting bird life.

Why not go for a night time walk when the riverfront takes on an atmospheric look with its flood-lit historic buildings being shown off to brilliant effect.

4. Palaces and gardens

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Cordoba’s palace fort – the Alcazar

One of my favourite places in Cordoba is the Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos (Alcazar of the Christian Kings), an impressive fortress built largely in the 14th Century on the site of an earlier palace.

Although not as immense in size as the Real Alcazar in Seville, it’s well worth a trip inside, mainly for the Roman baths and the Moorish style gardens.

The roof top view from the belvedere tower is among the best in the city and provides a great starting point on your trip to Cordoba.

Cordoba Real Alcazar

Moorish gardens at the Alcazar

Don’t miss the Moorish baths which are in the basement on your way out. They are thought to have been built by Alfonso XI and comprise a changing room, cold room, warm bathroom and hot rooms.

Inside the main building, you’ll discover the Mosaic Hall which once housed the chapel of the Inquisition. Look out for the classy collection of Roman mosaic art from the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

If you love gardens, there’s much to enjoy with exotic plants, palm trees, cypresses and orange trees overlooking the walkways. A spectacular water feature, pools and fountains complete the relaxed Moorish feel.

Cordoba Real Alcazar

Columbus meets the monarchs

The palace became the residence of Spain’s Catholic monarchs for eight years including two of the most famous rulers, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. They were visited at the palace by the explorer, Christopher Columbus, and there’s a splendid statue marking their meeting in the gardens.

Isabella and Ferdinand used the Alcázar for one of the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, converting parts of it into torture and interrogation chambers. I can only imagine what horrors went on in these spaces!

5. Flamenco spirit

Cordoba flamenco

Cordoba’s flamenco dance scene

Cordoba is a great place if you love flamenco, like me – both the dance and the music are characteristic of this part of Spain.

A trip down the back streets will reveal plenty of flamenco bars, but not all of them are good and many are tacky and touristy.

For the authentic flamenco experience, try La Buleria with a talented family of performers who get to the heart of what flamenco is about. Look out for outdoor performances in the patio at Tablao Cardenal during the summer.

6. City life and shopping

Cordoba

Cordoba’s main square

Away from the historic alley ways of the old town, Cordoba also has a vibrant city centre and shopping area which is worth exploring on foot.

A good starting point is the city’s main square at Plaza Tendillas dating mainly from the 1920s with features including a large fountain and equestrian statue of the Gran Capitán.

It’s a popular meeting place for Cordobans, and it’s the HQ of the city’s main tourist information office, if you need to grab a guided tour or map.

Cordoba

Plaza Tendillas – Cordoba

Radiating from the square are the city’s shopping streets with a good selection of cafes, bars and gift shops.

I wasn’t as impressed by Cordoba’s city centre as much as Seville’s or Granada’s. Some areas are a little run-down and grubby with graffiti, but at least they feel authentic and local.

There are some good speciality shops, especially those selling silver jewellery and leather goods… and, best of all, a remarkable old hat shop called Somberia Rusi where you can buy traditional Cordoban flat caps

A quick detour to the Zoco market is recommended – it’s housed in a restored Mudejar building with a patio and artisan stalls. It oozes Andalucian atmosphere.

7. Discover ancient civilisations

Cordoba

The Archaeology Museum – Cordoba

Cordoba’s rich vein of history is everywhere you look but it’s the city’s ancient past that is perhaps the most surprising.

From Neolithic times and the Romans to the Visigoths, Vandals and the Moors, the city has always been an important trading and strategic centre.

The city’s name is thought to be of Phoenician origin – a possible derivation of the word ‘coteba’, the Syrian for ‘oil press’. Cordoba was once a centre for merchants and the olive oil industry.

Cordoba

Roman ruins – the theatre

The Archaeology Museum is a good place to discover these cross-currents of history – it has a fine collection of ancient artefacts, some of the best in Spain.

I’m attracted to Roman and Moorish history but confess to having a soft spot for the Iberian culture having discovered the museum’s collection of lovely sculptures from this time.

A 1st Century Roman theatre is perhaps the most striking exhibit in the museum which can be seen as you walk along a viewing platform in the basement.

8. Street life 

Cordoba

Street life in Cordoba

It’s no surprise that Cordobans – in common with fellow Andalucians – love to eat, drink and enjoy a night out on the town.

Spain is lucky to have that perfect combination of sunshine, street culture and fine food, with more tapas restaurants than you could get around in a year of staying in the city.

With cheap restaurant prices, you’re lost for choice, but my favourite areas for eating out are the Jewish Quarter and the streets on the edge of the Mezquita.

There’s nothing better than finding a fine dining room and then heading for late night drinks at a taberna, followed by a fiery flamenco performance at a local club.

Cordoba

Cordoba – street scene

Tammy’s Travel Guide – Cordoba

The Visit Cordoba Tourism website should be your first port of call if you’re planning a short break or longer stay.

Watch out for erratic opening times by checking this tourism schedule of museums, monuments and places of interest across the city.

During the summer months of June, July, August, September and October, there are a large number of fairs and festivals held across the city districts when flamenco, tapas and wine flow freely.

Cordoba Palace Real Alcazar

Cordoba’s historic fort

Cordoba has a good selection of hotels and places to stay but I found it more expensive than comparable cities in Andalucia, even though I travelled off-season in April.

I’d recommend the Melia Tryp Hotel as a budget hotel with decent rooms in a central and quiet location within walking distance of the main tourist sites.

Cordoba can be combined easily with Seville, Malaga and Granada as part of a driving tour of Andalucia, if you hire a car.

Getting around town

Cordoba

Walking Cordoba’s alleyways

Walking is my preferred way of exploring Cordoba’s alleyways and streets but, if you’re feeling lazy, you could leap on a horse and carriage ride.

They might be touristy and cheesy but you’ll experience the city from a different perspective… especially if you take a trot around the city’s historic quarter.

Cordoba horse ride

Cordoba horse ride

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