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.