The Patios and other Pleasures of Córdoba

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

You can drive to Córdoba - it would probably make a good stop on the way to Cádiz or Jerez...Best of all, don’t drive, take the AVE!  A roundtrip RENFE package for two, for two nights in a four-star hotel, with breakfast, is extremely modestly priced; or you can arrange your own lodging, choosing something like the Albucasis in the old quarter. A 9 am departure puts you in Córdoba at quarter to eleven; check-in the hotel, and head for the sights.  (If you drive, look for a hotel with parking - the Amistad is one - as garages are hard to come by here  If you are undecided, driving in the twisting lanes of the inner-city is not easy, and parking is very hard, with very vigilant traffic police.)  Another choice with the AVE is Los Alfaros, a little out of the center but near the wonderful Viana Palace, with a small swimming pool in its central patio.  Both the Maimónides and the El Conquistador face the Mezquita, and have garages.  NB - many of these hotels have marble floors and the acoustics can be unfriendly when you are trying to sleep; here and anywhere, bring ear-plugs.

Much ink has already been used over many decades about the Mezquita, the enormous mosque whose construction and expansion occupied several centuries when Córdoba was one of the main cities in the world.  It has undergone extensive conservation works which are largely finished now, making seeing it even more attractive  Walking through the Mezquita was overwhelming; I left full of regrets: regrets for the weird intrusion of the mostly Plateresque cathedral in the forest of beautiful arches and columns; for the post-Reconquista closure of the walls that shut the mosque, previously a living part of the city, away from it; for the lugubrious chapels that line those outer walls; for the chains that make it impossible to get close enough to the great mihrab, or prayer niche, to see its gorgeous ceiling.  I also thought about women in those times, and how they of course would not have even been allowed to approach the mihrab...(similarly, in the small synagogue women only attended in the balcony above the main room).  Having seen it and thought about it, I’d like to go back and look again, just be there quietly, early in the morning, and soak up the centuries.

Do visit the nearby Alcázar, mostly ruins but with lovely gardens and some interesting exhibits.  On our first trip we were frustrated in our efforts to see the Alcázar - and we came away wiser, understanding that wherever you go:  You must verify for yourself what the visiting hours are; Always assume that what you want to see is closed on Monday until you have managed to visit on Monday - And everything, but everything, is closed on Sunday afternoon!  We saw the Viana Palace on Sunday morning, and it was open on Monday (closed on Wednesday) so it would have been better to head for the Alcázar, which closed on Sunday at 1 p.m. and did not reopen in the evening, or on Monday, although most of the books say “open daily.”  The Viana Palace is seen only by guided tour, which takes longer than you might like, but is worth the time; the palace is full of interesting objects, and the 12 patios in its 6500 square meters are remarkable, each a different kind of garden or courtyard and all lovely.  (The flowered patio along with the Mezquita is arguably now the true hallmark of Córdoba;  the patios are living mosaics of flowers, fountains, and birdsong - there are scores of canaries in cages dotting the alleyways of the old quarter).  While you are in the Viana area, take a look at nearby San Lorenzo church, built just a few years after the Reconquista, in the dying years of the Romanesque style: here the intertwined circles common in Moorish design were used to create a kind of wheel window, and a minaret became a lovely bell-tower.  The offices of the provincial government are also nearby, housed in a 17th century convent (La Merced) painted in soft pastel esgrafiado, with a lovely courtyard -just walk in.  If you time it right, you can visit the convent church next door.

Other attractions are the small fine arts museum, and the sister museum dedicated to Julio Romero Torres across the patio (opinions about this local painter’s soulful art vary widely, and probably you will have to visit to decide for yourself; take a look at the postcards in the souvenir shops across the plaza first).  Both are located on the Plaza del Potro where there is a remarkable sixteenth century inn once host to Cervantes.  Nearby is the Archaeology Museum, a wonderful collection of the remnants, mostly Roman, of the city’s past. .  You can drive or take a tour out to Medina Azahara, the ruined Moorish palace-city - destroyed by fundamentalist Muslims, not by the Reconquista - that lies some 8 kilometers out of the city.  Excavation and restoration work on these ruins continues apace, and every year they are probably more attractive to visit.  Or just wander about in the old neighborhoods instead, marvel at the beautiful patios behind so many open doors (wonderful in May when the patios compete for prizes) that. And other finds keep being added; for example, there is a 1st century AD Roman mausoleum being readied for public access - but visible now - which was not on the circuit 18 months ago.  Whatever you want to visit, do it early; I was out at 8:30 in the morning, and few people, virtually no apparent tourists among them, were stirring; the shopkeepers had not set out their wares and the streets were nearly silent.  By noon the crowds were thick and you could hardly make your way around the Mezquita.  That’s the time to head for the Alcázar and sit in its lovely gardens., and then head for food. 

The tourist office can provide you with a map showing the tabernas of the city, for tapas and a glass of the local dry white wine, Montilla, served in the place of sherry - which you should NOT ask for! - or you can dine in the several restaurants established around the patios of the old houses.  Caballo Rojo, right in front of the Mezquita, especially stood out; it’s presentation of traditional Moorish dishes was wonderful (do not fail to try the baby artichokes, alcauciles), and their brocheta of rape and langustinos outstanding.  The Almudaina, just outside the walls on Campo Santo, has a beautiful setting and its food also is splendid.  Casa Pepe was fun, not least for its signature desserts, literally putting your name on the plate.  You can also do well in restaurants not on every tourist list.  If the place you are looking at is too crowded, try something else.  For example, Los Califas, on Deanes behind the Mezquita, offers instant tranquility in its upstairs restaurant (at the top of the building you have a grand view of the tower) and very nice food.  If you want to try the real comida casera here, eat at Pic-Nic on the Ronda de los Tejares - after shopping?

And as for shopping.  In the area around the Mezquita, one star attraction is the silver filigree jewelry made in Córdoba, and you will see lots of it (look carefully and ask about what you buy, some of what’s on display is not local work).  Not being a wearer of silver, I thought we could manage to visit Córdoba without buying anything but postcards; but then we walked into the Meryan shop between Encarnación and Calleja de las Flores, where you can buy beautifully crafted (in their own workshops) leather goods ranging from slippers at around seven dollars to desk-pads for several hundred, and screens, tapestries, and so forth, soaring beyond that.  Our principal find was a small box covered with leather in the design of an antique map for less than fifty, a stunning price for the workmanship.  Even if you are immune to acquiring what a friend calls “stuff,” step in just for the smell.  Another pleasant stop is the Baraka shop in Calle Manríquez, which offers very lovely small leather items along with ceramics and handmade paper goods

The shop in the Maimónides hotel complex, on the west side of the Mezquita, has some lovely things at very good prices.  The adjacent cafe is a good place to have breakfast or a snack when you need to sit down (and you will, the streets and sidewalks are both composed of extremely hard stone and even young legs will feel it).  I particularly liked their silver photograph frames.  Around on the north side of the Mezquita is the oddly named Future Home S.L., which has, among other things, some exceptionally handsome modern ceramics, along with more traditional platters that are beautifully painted and signed by the artist, Benlloch.  Only my inability to carry any more stuff to the train kept me from buying a lot of this, particularly a strange pitcher, obliquely shaped in bold blue and yellow, which was then itself the subject of a handsome platter.  Back around on the west side, the Palacio de Congresos houses a very good ceramic store, Cerámica de Córdoba, which displays virtually all the styles of Andalusia, some of which I did not know existed.  When meetings are being hosted here the display is available only to the participants, but at other times anyone can go in and browse - and buy!

Outside the “historic center” there are some good places.  Corte Inglés is here, on Ronda de losTejares, part of the ring of boulevards.  On the same stretch is Sera, a very good shop for leather - hard-finished or suede - garments.  Many little shops are dotted around this area; shoe stores seemed to be especially good value in comparison with Madrid.  The rebajas seem to last longer here too.

West of the Mezquita area, on the intersection of San Fernando and Cardenal González, is a very nice shop for local olive oil (excellent) - and across the street a more traditional small grocery shop has local foodstuffs as well.  The honey from the surrounding sierra is dark and rich.  You might also want to try some of the Cordebesan aperitif wine, Moriles, and the desert wine from the Pedro Ximenes grape is simply divine.

Whatever you might buy, you will be very relaxed when you leave this ancient city.

Practicalities:  Hotels.  NH Amistad, Plaza de Maimónides, 957 42 03 35.  El Conquistador, Magistral González Francés 15, 957 48 11 02;  Maimonídes, Torrijos 4, 957 47 15 00.  Style Alfaros, Alfaros 18, 957 49 19 20.  Albucasis, Buen Pastor 11, 957 47 86 25.  Food.  Caballo Rojo, Cardenal Herrero, 28, 957 47 53 75;  Almudaina, Jardines de los Santos Martires, 957 47 43 42;  Casa Pepe, Romero 1, 957 20 07 44.  Los Califas, Deanes, 3, 957 47 13 20.  Pic-Nic, Ronda de los Tejares 16, 957 48 22 33.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.