This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, winter 2019, issue 111
History-laden and food-loving, Córdoba in southern Spain nourishes body and soul in equal measure.
People say if you’re going to Córdoba, you have to see the Mezquita. Much as I like to step away from the beaten track, when many people give you the same advice, it’s usually best to pay attention. So here I am with my family, in the centre of this ancient city, trying to find my bearings within one of the strangest and most beautiful buildings I have ever encountered.
The Mezquita or mosque at Córdoba is an architectural marvel that is regularly cited as one of the world’s greatest Islamic buildings. Founded in 784 and hugely extended over the next two centuries, it’s admired today for its awe-inspiring dimensions and lavish decoration. But the magic isn’t so much in what you see at the Mezquita, as in how it makes you feel. Sure, the glittering mosaics and intricate stone carvings are magnificent, but what makes this building really extraordinary is the way it encourages you to meditate on the infinite.
That’s thanks to the Mezquita’s most distinctive feature, the multiple rows of red-and-white stone arches that spread out in every direction. Walking around inside the building is like wandering through a maze of avenues framed by overarching trees. The more turns you take, the more the Mezquita seems to have no centre and, after a while, no edges.
This interior is often compared to a grove of date palms, the archetypal place of rest and renewal in the imagination of the Arabs who built it. Maybe that’s why it feels so peaceful. There’s also something wonderfully un-hierarchical in the way the open spaces flow freely, without the barriers that separate priests from parishioners in Christian churches. It’s not often that a single piece of architecture can change your view of a whole culture and religion. The Mezquita at Córdoba has done that for me. To spend time there is to gain a deeply moving insight into Islamic spirituality.
Although Córdoba’s greatest landmark is usually referred to simply as the Mezquita, in fact, its official name is the Mezquita-Catedral or mosque-cathedral. That’s because, like so many sacred buildings in southern Europe, it has a multilayered history. A pagan Roman temple on this site was turned into an early Christian church before it was remodelled and expanded by Arab conquerors as a place of Islamic worship. After the Christian reconquest of Córdoba in 1236, the site was used for Christian services again, and in the 16th century a Roman Catholic cathedral was constructed within.
The Muslim era in Southern Spain has left behind some incredible architecture. Granada has the world-famous Alhambra palace and Seville the ravishing Alcázar, which doubles as the kingdom of Dorne in Game of Thrones. In my opinion, the Mezquita at Córdoba is just as glorious as either of these, and has something else besides physical beauty – a spiritual energy that transcends any single religion.
But a visit to Córdoba isn’t only about feeding your soul. There’s plenty to keep the flesh happy too, especially the tastebuds. The social and culinary tradition of tapas is alive and well here, in bars and restaurants that nestle in quaint laneways or perch on rooftop terraces with sublime views of the old town. Right opposite the Mezquita is Bar Santos, a Córdoba institution. Since 1966 this tiny tapas bar has been producing its trademark oversized tortillas de patatas, which weigh in at a whopping four kilograms. Patrons sit outside on the old wall surrounding the Mezquita to enjoy their slice of tortilla and glass of wine. As a Córdoba eating experience, it’s cheap, fun and totally authentic.
For a more substantial meal, I decide to follow a friend’s recommendation to enjoy dinner at Taberna Salinas, a restaurant in the old town, which has been serving traditional Córdoban cuisine since 1879. My rabo de toro (bull’s tail stew) is the best main course I eat in Spain, the meat tender and full of flavour. The setting is charming, too, with a series of rooms and patios all decorated in an old-fashioned regional style.
Walking away from the restaurant, we happen on one of those casual pieces of history that make European travel so compelling. Eleven white Corinthian columns rise, floodlit, from a partly excavated city block. This is all that remains of Córdoba’s once magnificent Roman Temple. There’s not much to see, and yet the impression is striking.
A longer-lasting monument to Rome’s imperial confidence is the beautiful Puente Romano (Roman Bridge), which spans the Guadalquivir River on the southern side of the city. Long, wide and car-free, it’s a great place for a walk, with beautiful views of the Mezquita, the old town, and the bridge’s own reflection in the water.
We follow the river, past the new Puente de Miraflores, which carries motor traffic to the other bank, and turn left into Calle Enrique Romero Torres. Lined with flourishing orange trees, the street is jammed with bars and restaurants. It leads us just a block from the river to the Plaza del Potro, the ‘square of the colt’, which was once the city’s horsemarket.
The well-preserved square is a window onto Córdoba in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Renaissance art and architecture were yielding to the influence of the Baroque. Two Spanish art museums are located here, as well as the Flamenco Centre, which offers intriguing insights into the quintessential Spanish dance form.
The flamenco museum occupies a historic building that was once the Posada del Potro, an inn whose fame – or notoriety – spread when Miguel de Cervantes featured it in his novel Don Quixote, calling it a ‘den of thieves’. With its cobbled stones and wagon wheels, the Posada calls up the days of horse-drawn coaches, when travel was a dangerous adventure and writers would celebrate the romance of the road.
We’re discovering that Córdoba has many faces, beyond the mighty visage of its star attraction, the Mezquita. Some of the prettiest can only be glimpsed behind barred gates in high walls, where the city’s iconic patio-gardens provide oases of shady serenity. Romans and Arabs contributed equally to the development of this gardening tradition, where tiled courtyards, often adorned with fountains and sculptures, house colourful flowers, vines and citrus trees. Most of these secret gardens are privately owned and off-limits to visitors, but the Viana Palace displays five centuries of garden-making across its twelve patios and is a pleasure to wander through.
Córdoba has one last surprise for us as we make our way between tall houses through the narrow streets of the Judería, the city’s ancient Jewish quarter. Among the usual ceramics studios and some surprisingly good clothing shops we stumble upon an Aladdin’s Cave filled with the treasures that once drove the trade of continents – spices. Heaped in great golden, red and orange piles, there’s more turmeric, cinnamon and paprika here than I’ve ever seen in my life. Inhaling one pungent scent after another, I salute Córdoba’s capacity to delight the senses as much as it uplifts the spirit.
From Madrid, Spain, a train journey to Córdoba takes 1 hour 50 minutes, departing once or twice per hour. – railplus.com.au
Back-Roads Touring includes Córdoba in its Iberian Inspiration tour. – backroadstouring.com
Where to stay:
Approximately 350 metres from the Mezquita, the boutique Hotel Madinat in its historic building ticks all the boxes for charm, comfort and location. – hotelmadinat.com
Where to eat:
Bar Santos – tabernabarsantos.com
Taberna Salinas – tabernasalinas.com