24 Hours in Cordoba


NOW I’M REALLY solo. For the first few days of my monthlong European trip, I had the company of good friends and I was a known quantity: me. Yesterday, wandering around Cordoba on my own, was an adjustment. I felt like just another nameless tourist with a smartphone, stopping every two seconds to take a picture of an arched doorway or a chunk of Roman wall.


Not that it was a bad day by any means — entirely pleasant, in fact. I arrived in Cordoba by train Monday afternoon from Malaga and took a taxi (7 euro) to my hotel in the historic center, Casa de los Azulejos, (59 euro), above, which couldn’t be lovelier, friendlier or more Spanish in feeling. (With the poor euro falling steadily against the dollar — it’s worth only $1.07 at the moment — everything seems very inexpensive, by the way.)


Cordoba’s heyday was the 10th century, when it was a university and library center under tolerant Muslim rule, with a thriving Jewish community. There are spectacular monuments from every era. With a couple hours of daylight remaining, I headed to the Plaza Corredera, below, an unspoiled 17th century plaza the size of several football fields, and walked around taking photos of Cordoba’s evening storefronts, above. Stores were still open as night fell, and I picked up some grapes as large as plums and sweet oranges for my evening meal, an antidote to several days of feasting in Andalucia.


Tuesday morning, after breakfast in the hotel, I headed to the Mezquita and the Jewish quarter, both of which I’d seen hurriedly before (I refer to you to this post from January 2010 for more photos and information on both, should you want them). Below, a characteristic view into a flower-filled patio courtyard, taken in the Jewish quarter.


This time, I succeeded in actually gaining entry to the Mezquita, below, with its forest of 856 candy-striped arches and marble columns, within which is a Catholic cathedral built between the 14th and 18th centuries. I meandered around the cool dark interior, easily finding quiet corners away from school groups and tourist hordes, marveling at how the light from stained glass windows plays on the marble columns. Somehow, the over-the-top Christian iconography doesn’t detract, or even clash, as much as I thought it would from the monumental Moorish architecture.


Wandering again through the Jewish quarter, which contains a modest synagogue that’s the oldest in Andalucia, I stopped in the Casa Andalusi, below, an intimate 12th century townhouse with high beamed wood ceilings and planted courtyards. On every surface, there’s something for sale: books, tiles, paper products. But the commercialism is not too offensive, and the house has enormous charm.IMG_5806



Back I went toward the Guadalquivir River to check out the Alcazar des Reyes Christianos (Palace of the Kings), below, a massive stone fortress of the Middle Ages with expansive formal gardens and reflecting pools. Unmotivated to get an audio guide, unwilling to carry a guidebook, and with no WiFi connection for my phone, I searched vainly for signs in English to tell me which kings these were, exactly, and when they lived (Ferdinand and Isabella were among them, it turns out).


Lunch worked out serendipitously at the wonderful Taberna Salinas, below, just around the corner from my hotel. I ordered scrambled eggs with asparagus and was surprised when it arrived with big chunks of jamon — ham. Menu didn’t say anything about ham! I sent it back, they took it graciously, and returned with the same dish, this time with shrimp substituted for the ham. Fortunately, I do eat shrimp and didn’t mind it; it was delicious. But vegetarians need to be ever-vigilant here. With a glass of local beer, the bill came to under 10 euro.


Another recommended taverna that’s been around since the early 19th century: Casa el Pisto, below.


In the late afternoon, I taxied back to the train station for the under-three-hour trip to Zaragoza. My global Eurail pass is first class, supposedly (the only way they come), but I have yet to travel first class. Why? Because although the railpass is essentially a hop-on, hop-off ticket, all but the slowest trains still require compulsory advance reservations, and it costs a significant amount to make them. I made a reservation in second class (perfectly comfortable) for 10 euro; a first-class reservation would have cost 24, and that was annoying. The railpass was definitely going to be a savings over point-to-point tickets in first class. In second, I’m not so sure.


Above: Roman wall and columns on calle San Fernando.

I chose Zaragoza for an overnight because it breaks up the journey nicely between the south of Spain and the South of France. Three to four hours on the train is enough time to relax and recharge without eating up an entire day. Zaragoza was completely unknown to me (and to most Americans, I would guess). You’ll be hearing about it next…

SPAIN – Day 7: Glimpse of Cordoba


CORDOBA LOOKS LIKE A VERY INTRIGUING PLACE – at least it did in the few hours we had to explore it on Friday. That was the biggest planning error of our trip, IMO — not leaving enough time for Cordoba. By the time we arrived from Granada, three hours away by train, waited for our hotel rooms to be ready, and had some lunch, the day was nearly gone.

There was just enough time to meet our guide, Isabel Martinez Richter, and dash over to the whitewashed Jewish quarter, where the streets are even narrower and zig-zaggier than Seville’s, and peek into the sweet small chapel, that is the only synagogue remaining in Andalusia from the time before the Jews were expelled in 1492. It dates from the 1350s, and was rediscovered and restored in the late 19th century – a high-ceilinged room with clerestory windows, and clear Hebrew Bible inscriptions below later Moorish arches and decoration.


A bronze statue of Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philospher/physician and author of the wonderfully-titled Guide for the Perplexed, stands in the center of the quarter. Cordoba’s golden age was two centuries earlier, when the city thrived under a tolerant Muslim caliph and had a cosmopolitan population of one million (today it’s 1/3 that).


We raced, literally, from there to the mighty Mezquita, the oldest part of which dates to 785. Isabel begged the guards to let us in for the final 15 minutes, but we weren’t allowed to stray past the entrance and had to view the forest of 856 marble columns, topped by candy-striped arches, from a stationary spot near the door.


We contented ourselves taking pictures of the mosque’s magnificent Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges), which may be the oldest continuously gardened site in Europe.


Whereupon we ducked into a crafts market called Zoco (Spanish for ‘souk’) and several artists’ workshops, where we watched Jesus Rey sculpt modernistic human and animal figures of clay, and his cousin, in another old storefront nearby, work embossed leather in the technique that gave “cordovan” leather its name. Cordoba turned out to be a boon for purposes of my upcoming Budget Travel story on inexpensive but worthy souvenirs.


We stopped briefly in a cobblestone plaza for a peek at Cordoba’s archaeological museum, chock full of Roman statues, fine mosaics, and other artifacts dug up locally. There’s a substantial site in the center of the town where a whole temple’s worth of columns still stands from the 1st century A.D.

When Irvina, my travel partner, and I went out again at 9:30PM (having acclimated ourselves by this point to the late Spanish dinner hour), our walk to dinner took us through an incredible, intact 17th century square, Plaza de la Corredera, which happened to be thronged with families attending Cordoba’s annual three-day medieval fair. Under colorful flag-draped tents and wearing turbans, scarves, harem pants, and caftans, folks were purveying food products, soaps, jewelry and leather craft, and other obviously vetted material in what looked like a high-quality and very popular, even raucous, event. There was also an exhibit of rusted iron torture instruments I walked quickly past.

The medieval fair is not the only famous fair in Cordoba. There’s also the Festival de los Patios for 10 days each May, when 70 or so private courtyards typical of the city (dating from Muslim times, when women used them to get sunshine and fresh air without being seen) are decked out in flowers and open to the public. Homeowners compete for cash prizes that Isabel told us engender heated rivalry. We also passed by old-fashioned shops selling hats for bullfighting and business, fabrics and trims, copperware and antiques, but all were sadly closed.


Dinner at Bodegos Campos, an atmospheric, legendary restaurant that is all you would expect of Spanish restaurant decor (thick stucco walls painted rose red, arched windows, heavy wooden doors, wrought iron lighting, beamed ceilings, framed photos and posters), was not very successful. We shared a rice and vegetable dish that was healthy-tasting, but not in a particularly good way.

We left Cordoba early Saturday morning to catch an 8:03 high-speed AVE train back to Madrid (less than two hours; about 70 euros), in order to make the flight back to New York. I tore myself away from Cordoba regretful and unfulfilled. My list for a return visit: more gardens, including the Medina Alzahara, a 10th century caliph’s palace on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, and the Palacio de Viana, which has a dozen planted courtyards.

No, a day in Cordoba, or a week in Andalusia for that matter, is just not enough.


Andalusia, Here I Come

Alhambra - Granda - España by Nino H.

LATER THIS MONTH, I’m heading to Spain for a week with a friend and a camera. This trip is a radically abbreviated version of a dream I’ve had for years: spending the entire winter in southern Europe. But ya gotta start somewhere.

I’m going first to Madrid, then taking the train south to Seville, Granada, and Cordoba. It’s mainly a vacation and not a press trip, and I’m thrilled about that (though I have to pay for it). Still, I’ll be researching historic gardens and taking lots of notes and pictures, because I just can’t help myself.

We’ll go to the Alhambra, of course, but it’s the intimate courtyard and patio gardens I hope will inspire me for my own backyard. No doubt I’ll be bummed I can’t grow orange trees and oleander here on Long Island, but I’m sure there’s much to learn from the structural elements of Spanish gardens, even in winter.

So far, even though the trip is only two weeks away, I’ve done little advance planning, and I’ve never been to that part of Spain before. So if anyone has suggestions for places to stay, eat, go, or see, please let ‘em rip in the comments, and gracias!

Photo: View of the Alhambra, from Nino H’s Flickr photostream