Travel Report: Cordoba, Spain.
March 2017. Looking back, it’s crazy to think how I did the magnificent city of Córdoba as a day trip from Malaga. The place deserved so much more of my time, but alas I had too much on my plate. In fact, I was in the middle of packing up my apartment, shipping stuff back to Scotland and sorting out a visa to China. With everything that was going on, a visit to Córdoba could have slipped through my fingers altogether.
However, I was desperate to see The Mezquita, Córdoba’s world famous mosque-cathedral. Thus one day I literally put all my projects on hold and jumped on the sixty minute bullet train. If I only had a day, I figured, it was worth paying more to avoid the plodding two hour, forty five minute bus.
Upon arrival at Córdoba Railway Station, I decided to walk to the historical centre. Mapping out a fifteen minute route on my phone, I passed through the lovely Duque de Rivas Gardens. In connection with Victoria Gardens, this long green belt sits between the western part of the city and the old town.
Featuring sculptures, fountains and ponds, the gardens were named after The Duke of Rivas, a Spanish playwright, poet, historian, painter and eventual statesman.
Before long, I arrived at Kairouan, a gorgeous stone street running adjacent to the city walls. With its cobbled paths, iron street lamps and fish inhabited ponds, I was already falling for Córdoba’s charms.
I entered the old town through this dramatic gate, originally built by The Moors in the 10th century. There were about nine such gates at one point, but this is the only survivor.
Flanked by nearby towers and containing a parapet walkway, today’s structure was rebuilt by The Christians in the 14th century.
Making my way through the old quarter’s winding, cobbled lanes, I wasted no time in heading for The Mezquita. I knew that I was about to see one of the world’s most impressive examples of Islamic architecture. Hence I literally had to catch my breath as I turned a corner and the outer walls came into view.
This massive architectural wonder started life as a Christian church in around 600. Some years later the building was divided into two sections, one for Muslim prayer, one for Christian worship.
But as the region’s Muslim population grew, so did the building, with the addition of more Islamic prayer halls. Eventually, in 785, the great Arab ruler Abd al-Rahman I bought the Christian part and subsequently demolished it!
The mosque thrived over the following centuries, until The Christians reconquered Córdoba in 1236. In 1253 King Alfonso X of Castile converted it into a Catholic cathedral, building a number of large chapels. As the centuries passed, king after king added further expansions and lavish details.
The Gate of Forgiveness.
I entered The Mezquita by passing under the horseshoe shaped arches of Puerta del Perdón, the so-called Gateway of Forgiveness. Its construction came in 1377 during the time of King Henry II.
On the other side, I emerged into a vast square called Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees).
During The Islamic period it served as a court of justice and, some historians suggest, a site of execution. Its beauty as a garden began in the 13th century with the planting of palms. Then orange trees in the 15th century, followed by olive and cypress trees in the mid 1700s.
In addition to the remaining orange trees, today the courtyard houses fountains, pools, immaculate flower beds and ticket booths. At one of these booths I paid the 10 Euro fee, received my ticket and strode over to the main entrance doors, full of anticipation. With a separate ticket, you can climb The Bell Tower, originally a Muslim minaret. It now stands as the highest building in the city at 54 metres.
I certainly got my wow moment as I arrived into Hypostle Hall, a dimly lit forest of ancient stone columns. This is the oldest part of The Mezquita, with many of the columns sourced from ancient Roman sites across the Iberian Peninsula.
There are 856 in total, topped with red and white striped horseshoe arches. In the day of Abd al Rahman, it was a prayer hall and lecture space, and also hosted high profile cases of Sharia Law.
The Mezquita Arches.
Curiously, the columns stem from all kinds of materials, including marble, granite and onyx. Moreover, there are varying shades of orange and white among the arches. Apparently, the inspiration for this colour scheme came from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Set in a low almost sinister lighting, and with tourists flurrying around in all directions, I found it incredibly challenging to get decent photographs. These were pre iPhone Max days, folks.
Just as I was starting to get a feel for the place, the arches melted away into The Mezquita’s Christian section. In what is quite possibly the most dramatic change of architectural tone I have ever seen, I felt quite unprepared for what came next.
Suddenly, I was in the main chapel (La Capilla Mayor) of Córdoba Cathedral, a dizzying mash of Gothic, Renaissance and Mannerism.
It was Bishop Alonso de Manrique who decided to build a Christian cathedral right in the middle of the Islamic column forest. He hired the noted architect Hernán Ruiz I to oversee the project, which began in 1523.
La Capilla Mayor.
Whether or not one agrees with the appropriateness of building a cathedral within a mosque, there is no denying its beauty and scale.
Take the cathedral organ for example, a humongous creation built by the famed Valencian brothers Miguel and Barnabas Llop. Made of tin, lead and walnut, it features over three thousand pipes and is among the largest organs in Spain.
A solemn organist sat in the choir that afternoon playing an absolute dirge of a tune. It was real fire and brimstone stuff, his diminutive frame almost shrinking into a backdrop of giant mahogany chairs.
Over sixty vaulted chambers line the interior walls all the way round the building. While you can’t enter most of them, it is possible to peek behind the bars and see each vault’s collection of historical art.
Vault 40, for example, is Chapel of the Holy Men, home to gold plated candlesticks and a grisly carving of Christ being carried away from the cross.
All in all, I thought The Mezquita was a fascinating and highly unique sight. No wonder it became a national monument in 1882, while UNESCO later added it to their list of World Heritage sites.
I’d spent a solid couple of hours inside The Mezquita. Now, back out in the sunshine, I was keen to explore a bit more of the historical centre. Firstly though, lunch was on the agenda! Not wanting to waste too much on restaurant searching, I took a chance on Cafe Magerit, a popular eatery on Calle Eduardo Lucena.
I was similarly quick on deciding on what to order. All it took was one look at the waitress serving a mushroom and mutton paella and I thought, yep, that’ll do me. I later found out Cafe Magerit has one of the best reputations in town for traditional, homemade Spanish dishes.
Like most Andalusian cities, Córdoba offers square after stunning, café-lined square. Plaza De Las Tendillas is the main plaza. Right in its centre stands a large fountain and statue of Gran Capitán by the sculptor Mateo Inurria.
The great captain’s real name was Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, a Spanish army general who fought in the Conquest of Granada and the Italian Wars.
Plaza de Las Tendillas.
There were a number of sweet stores on the square that caught my eye. As I passed through, a magnetic force pulled me inside one of them. Before I knew what had happened, I’d bought a stick of nougat for later.
I’d had no idea that nougat was a thing in Córdoba. They had shelves of them in just about every flavour imaginable. Sadly, I can’t recall the name of the store I was in, but there are loads of nougat shops around. One of the most recommended is Sabor a Espana (Taste of Spain).
From Plaza de Las Tendillas I made a determined path towards the city’s Roman Bridge. I approached through the dramatic Renaissance gate, Puerta del Puente.
Córdoba mayor Alonso Gonzalez de Arteaga announced its construction in 1572 in order to mark an upcoming visit by King Philip II.
Today you can usually find an artist or two showing off their talents inside the gate. As I walked through, a local girl was keeping onlookers entertained with a stirring rendition of The Beatles’ Yesterday on the cello.
The Roman Bridge.
Although reconstructed a zillion times over, The Roman Bridge dates all the way back to the 1st century BC. Straddling The Guadalquivir River, it has sixteen arches, two of which are said to be originals!
If you’re coming from Puerta del Puente, they are arches fourteen and fifteen. The bridge is 247 metres long and ends directly in front of Calahorra Tower.
The tower was built by The Moors and extensively restored in 1369 especially to protect the bridge. It later served as both a prison and an all-girls school.
Today, it houses The Museum of Andalusian Life, which has exhibits on the region’s clothing, philosophers, musical instruments and scientific progress.
Furthermore, there are sweeping rooftop views across the city. It’s a simply wonderful panoramic, particularly the birds eye view of The Roman Bridge and the green waters of The Guadalquivir.
With about an hour left until my return train to Malaga, I had just about enough time for a quick drink on my way back to the station. I opted for the highly atmospheric Bar La Luna, where tables and chairs spill out onto a pretty square with a stone pool.
Ordering a fruit cocktail, it was the perfect spot from which to reflect on a triumphant, albeit way too short day. As the waiter scurried away, I spontaneously whipped out my nougat bar for a cheeky bite.
Late afternoon was starting to melt into early evening. The air was cool and the cocktail already going to my head. Nearby, children played by the pool while their well-dressed, sunglass-wearing mothers gossiped in quick fire Spanish. Across the square, in a small park, an elderly man began playing his violin.
It was a sad tune and he had a weathered, sorrowful face to match it. I couldn’t help but get the camera out and zoom in on him for a shot. Despite my attempts at discretion, he spotted me straight away. Nevertheless, he didn’t miss a beat and indeed fixed his gaze right at me as he played. I’m guessing he’s seen it all before.
Like this? Why not check out my other pieces from around Andalusia.
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