On Friday morning, just over a week ago, my two travelling companions and I hopped onto a Socibus coach from Méndez Alvaro Bus Station, Madrid, to Córdoba. We arrived at 3ish after a 5 hour journey – a relatively painful experience, despite the ample leg room and generally cushty environment. Following the instructions I had dutifully copied out for us, we found our hostel with relative ease (a fact that we appreciated more after some painstakingly longwinded attempts in other cities) and were pleasantly suprised by what we saw. It was more like a small hotel or a Spanish B&B than a hostel, a pocket-sized, whitewashed building on a narrow street, which was centred around a small patio, fitted with dark wooden furnishings and adorned with arabic tiles. The hostel was run by an efficient team of two women, a friendly and very helpful duo, who spoke Spanish to us the entire time we were there, neither judging our grammatical errors nor attempting to get a free English lesson (a suprisingly rare find). We ditched our things on the metal bunk beds in a small but clean room, and headed out to explore the city.
Our first stop was Córdoba’s most famous attraction; the mezquita or mosque, a place of worship dating back to the days when Andalucía was under Muslim rule and to which a cathedral was later added when the city was reclaimed by the Christians. We began by wandering around the wide Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees) at the centre of the mosque, which was scented heavily with orange blossom from the trees arranged in lines across the square. We then strolled around the outside of the mezquita, admiring the gilded arches of the Moorish architecture, down a street which opens up and becomes the Roman Bridge. We walked and admired and photographed to our hearts’ content (Córdoba really is a remarkably photogenic city) before returning to the mezquita for a look inside the cathedral. It is an extraordinary place; the mixture of Muslim and Catholic traditions make for an eclectic architectural and spiritual experience.
First, a bit of history to set the scene. The building was begun around the year 600 and was originally intended to be a Christian Visigoth Church, but when the Umayyad Prince, Abd al-Rahmann, came into power in Andalusía in the late 700’s, he began to refashion it as a mosque. The medieval mudéjar architecture is still very much present in the rows and rows of columns made of jasper, onyx, marble and granite, topped by white and deep red striped arches, which give the mosque such visual impact. When, in 1236, Córdoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castille, the mosque was turned into a Catholic Cathedral and the existing structure was continually added to until the late 18th century. Now it is a highly unusual concoction of painted Arabic arches and gilded Catholic altars. Interestingly, there is an ongoing campaign by Spanish Muslims to allow them to worship in the building, a request which has so far been rejected by both the Vatican and the Spanish authorities. Historically, Spain is characterised by conflicts between Christian and Muslim traditions, but places like the mezquita are a vivid reminder that both are still very much a part of modern Spanish identity, especially in the South.
When we finally dragged ourselves away from the mosque, it was raining. This was to become a common problem – apparently Semana Santa in Andalucía is the only time of year in Spain that rain is absolutely guaranteed Luckily, our plans at this point were centred largely around refreshment, so we embarked on a bar crawl, hunting for that most elusive and precarious of all Spanish traditions – free tapas. Elusive, because you can visit ten bars in an evening and never be offered food with your drink. Precarious, because on the rare occasion you do receive a tapa, the choice of food is often left to the bartender, and as such, is a risky business (I have been served everything from a spiced lamb crepe to deep fried squid tentacles). Sadly for us, we didn’t have much luck with the free part. On the other hand, Andalusía is unbelievably cheap, so, along with many tinto de veranos (red wine and lemonade, much better than it sounds), we were able to sample a rich variety of local cuisine without cutting too deeply into our budget. A particular highlight of Córdoban cooking is salmorejo, a sort of thick, cold, creamy soup, made with tomatoes, olive oil and lots of garlic and often garnished with pieces of chopped jamón. Also noteworthy were the patatas a lo pobre (poor man´s potatoes), potatoes cooked with onion, peppers and the inevitable garlic.
When we had eaten and drank our fill, we walked home through white winding streets of the judería (the jewish quarter) and decided to stop off at a tetería for some shisha before bed. Teterías are arabic tea rooms and are very in Andalusía, due of course to the high Muslim population and Moorish heritage. We admired the tea menu and enjoyed the shisha lounging on a wide stone benge covered in brightly coloured cushions which ran round the edge of the room. Then it was back to the hostel for a much needed sleep.
Sadly, none of us slept well that night. The hostel was absolutely freezing, and, rashly, we hadn’t packed enough warm clothes to stave off the chill. We lay awake most of the night, huddled in thin blankets, cursing the flagstone floors and dreaming of sunshine in the morning,
Miraculously – considering the stormy forecast- sunshine is what we got.
We woke up stiff from the cold, dressed quickly and checked out, before having a delicious breakfast of large slabs of toast, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice (order orange juice in Spain and it will almost certainly arrive freshly squeezed) in the hostel bar. Then we headed out to explore Córdoba´s other main attraction – the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Palace of the Christian Kings). I found that tourist attractions in Córdoba are expensive compared to other cities in Europe, especially for under 25s (in Paris nearly everything was free for students, in Córdoba entry is between 4-8 euros for main attractions), but don’t let this deter you from buying a ticket. We very nearly didn’t go into the Alcázar but were so glad that we did – and that we waited for the sunshine to do it. You enter at the top of a flight of stone steps, leading down to magnificent gardens, where turquoise pools filled with orange and brown fish lead down to an avenue of statues of all the monarchs who have connections with the palace-fortress (Isabella and Ferdinand reigned from the Alcázar for eight years). It is a haven of tranquility – the shady palms and sound of sprinkling fountains make even the tourist crowds seem less bothersome.
As well as the gardens, you can go into the Alcázar itself, a sandy-coloured, seemingly impenetrable building, surrounded by palms and orange trees. We braved the winding narrow staircases to climb to the top tower with its panoramic views of the city (an experience made even more hazardous by the swarming crowds), before crossing the battlements to explore some empty turrets. The building is very impressive, but I personally feel that the gardens have a superior magic. I would advise anyone going to Córdoba to try and visit the alcázar when the weather is good, and set an hour or two aside to sit on a bench and soak up some rays, to the tinkling trickle of the sprinklers.
After expiring all our energy trying not to fall off the top of the Alcázar, we walked around the judería to find a place to eat. Luckily we stumbled across a traditional looking Spanish tavern and took our seats just as the heavens opened.The menu del día was everything Andalusían food should be: rustic, filling, delicious and – most importantly – cheap. I began with a small dish of creamed spinach with chickpeas and garlic, and moved onto a plate of garlicky pork and tomatoes with potatoes. The menu del día is a big thing in Spain and you can find it at most restaurants or bars all over the country. Generally it includes three courses (two main and a dessert), with a drink and a bread basket. To give you an idea of the cheapness of the South, a typical menu del día in Madrid costs between 10-15 euros. Our lunch that day came to 8 euros.
Lunch was followed by a browse of the little boutiques and tourist shops that line the judería, selling postcards, jewellery and delicately painted tiles. Then, all too soon, it was time to pick up our bags from the hostel and make our way (in the pouring rain) to the bus station, where we were to catch a coach to our next destination – Sevilla.