Driving to Córdoba from the Sierra Subettica, the rows of olive groves gave way to rolling fields, usually full of cereal crops, harvested by November. The road soared up a hill and then Córdoba was visible before us, spread out along the Río Guadalquivir, with high, forested hills and dark black clouds behind.
We drove straight into the city and parked in the first car park we came to, before walking into the old town through a Roman gate in the city walls.
Córdoba, like much of Andalucia, has an incredibly long and rich history, much of which is still visible today. It was first an important town in the Roman ages as the capital of ‘Hispania Ulterior’.
It was then conquered by the Visigoths during the disintegration of the Roman Empire, and then became the capital of the Umayyad Islamic Emirate in the 8th century. It was an Islamic city until the Reconquista in 1236. It was a very important city throughout the world in these days, perhaps the biggest in the world in the 10th century and one of the most advanced, known for religious toleration.
The old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site and history is visible wherever you turn. The streets are narrow and cobbled, the houses white with iron balustrades dressed in colourful flowers. Here and there a wooden door is open, allowing a peak into a blue tiled foyer and through into a bright and colourful courtyard. We wandered along to the river bank, an area recently restored, and crossed the old Roman bridge, gazing down at the rushing water beneath us and back to the immediate skyline of Córdoba – a Roman gate and the Mezquita. It had been raining and everything was sparkling, blue sky beginning to show through the dark clouds.
We spent most of the day just wandering through the streets of old Córdoba, with a trip to the archaeological museum to see the remains of the Roman theatre and learn about the city’s history, and then out to the food market – a bright, airy building filled with different food stalls, selling meat, wine, bocadillos (sandwiches) filled with cheese, ham, tuna. All wonderfully fresh and displayed really attractively. However, we decided we wanted a more relaxed, longer lunch and walked back through the city to Bodegos Campos. The restaurant here is apparently very posh and expensive – the type of place the celebrities go when they come to Córdoba. But the bar is dark and cosy – and completely empty at 1pm as they didn’t start serving lunch until 1.30pm. We sat in a little corner, had a glass of house red each (delicious and only €2.50) and read our books until lunch time. Lunch was a plate of jamón bellota, fried aubergines with honey (these were so light and non-greasy we could barely believe they were the fried aubergines – crunchy and incredibly tasty), a huge plate of soft potatoes mixed with ground chorizo and topped with a fried egg, and wonderful ham croquettes – when cut open the inside oozed onto the plate. Needless to say we were very happy – especially with a bill of less than €45 including tip, 3 glasses of wine and 1 diet coke!
It had been raining again whilst we’d had lunch but the sun was now out in earnest and it was really warm. Time for the Mezquita – an incredible building, once one of the most important centres of worship in the Islamic Spanish empire, later a Cathedral.
Here is the architectural evidence of the mingling and intersections of the religions that has had such an important influence on Spanish history, here, in one (pretty large) building are the Romans, the Moors, the Reconquistas. And the building is also a manifestation of Spain’s difficulties in coming to terms with such a varied, and non-Catholic history (Muslims are still not allowed to worship here despite many formal requests and campaigns).
We entered through old walls and incredibly ornate arches into a wide courtyard filled with orange trees, we bought our tickets and then entered the cool exterior, into the oldest part of the building.
Immediately we caught our breath – beautiful red and white pillars almost as far as the eye can see, part of the floor covered over with glass at one point to reveal a Roman mosaic, ornate arches, Islamic azulejos (blue ceramic tiles) and Quranic inscriptions, and then the ornate gold decorations of a Catholic cathedral right in the middle.
The mosque was converted into a Catholic cathedral after the Reconquista, for example turning the minaret of the mosque into the bell tower of the Cathedral. Some say it has ruined the unique beauty of the mosque, the Cathedral being similar to one that can be found anywhere in the world (even the Emperor Charles V said this!) Others point out that perhaps the Cathedral prevented the building from being destroyed during the Inquisition.
Either way, the contradiction between the two makes for a spectactular building and a beautiful and peaceful place to spend some time, no matter your religion. We stepped out, blinking into the light, marvelling over the beauty and ostentatiousness of religious buildings…. and returned back to Casa Olea for a nap. Sightseeing is tiring.