Córdoba at Easter

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Córdoba is a magical place! The ancient mediæval streets wind through a city planted everywhere with orange trees. At Easter, they're all in bloom, so everywhere you go you get the heady scent of orange blossom. We were visiting my stepmother the week before Easter, 2006, dragging along our neighbours and very good friends, Lorna and Richard, the same pair we went to Granada with a couple of years previously, and had booked ourselves into a hotel in Córdoba for a couple of nights.

Aerial view of central Córdoba

This aerial view of old Córdoba is just photographed from a tourist guide we bought. Just click the thumbnail picture to expand it to its full size. This shows our main reason for visiting Córdoba - the vast 8th Century mosque, called the Mezquita, into the centre of which 16th century Christians planted an ornate cathedral.

The drive up from Malaga was less arduous than we'd imagined, as most of the route has been dualled, and in a year or two the project will have been completed. Thinking we'd need to stop for lunch along the way, we'd brought some leftovers to make a picnic lunch, but in fact we missed the only obvious spot where we could pull off the road. As a result of the improved road, however, we arrived in Córdoba around 2, in plenty of time for lunch.

We knew our hotel was close to the Mezquita, which, with Jenny navigating, we found really easily, but there was nowhere to park, of course, and we couldn't see our hotel as it was buried in the narrow mediaeval streets nearby. With some sense of déjà-vu, we drove on by, with the river on our right and nowhere to turn left in sight.

After a short while, however, I saw a large blue sign with a white P on it, so followed its arrow, only to realise, once committed, that this was private parking for a restaurant. Fortunately we were able to escape at the far end of the car park, and then found ourselves continuing to drive away from our destination, this time down a narrow cobbled street barely wider than the car. Why I didn't make the connection between 'restaurant' and 'lunch' I don't know to this day!

Narrow street

This is not the lane in question, but you get the idea. After perhaps a kilometre I spotted a parking space not obviously protected by any kind of restriction, so dumped the car there. Walking forward a further 50m we found ourselves in a small plaza labelled Puerto Nueva (New Gate) where we were able to buy a decent streetmap from a kiosk. We were pretty keen to find a loo, too, so went into a rather dubious looking bar right there. The welcome was warm, even if entirely in Spanish, and the loos spotless. We'd expected far fewer people to speak English once we got away from the coast, so it was no surprise, if more challenging.

We ordered beer, then decided their menu was much preferable to our lunch of leftovers. We had to guess somewhat, and the omelettes turned out to be scrambled egg, but that was fine. 3 of us got more or less what we'd expected. Jenny's omelette Puerto Nueva turned out to be oxtail stew with chips. We have no idea why they thought that was what she ordered. All completely delicious and well worth the 60 euros, and the unexpected is why you travel, after all.

Abandoning the car with our luggage, we walked back to the hotel and checked in. Then, while the rest had a rest, I returned to collect the car. The concierge drew directions on our map and it was really easy. I took the precaution of walking down to the point on the main drag by the river where I'd need to turn up to the hotel so I'd recognise it, but otherwise figured I knew where I was going. Asking for trouble, of course.

Having collected the car, in no time at all I'd missed a turning and found myself with the river on my right instead of left. How did that happen? Seeing a bridge up ahead, I crossed it, but still didn't recognise any of the streets at all. Finally I did that most unmanly thing; I stopped and looked at the map.

Turns out the river bends sharply right back on itself just around that part of the city, and when I'd missed my turn I'd simply driven right past that bend. I was now on the wrong bank, but at least with the map it was a breeze to work out where to go, and I was soon back at the hotel. If you click the Google map link and zoom in until you can see the streetplan, you'll see what I mean about the river and understand how easy it was for me to go wrong.

Lorna and Richard had been to Córdoba on a coach trip a few years previously, and thought they could find a really nice tea shop they'd been to on that occasion, so once properly installed in the hotel, we set out to find it. However, I think they had only the vaguest idea of where it actually was, and then we came up against several Holy Week parades, which both distracted and diverted us, so we never did find their tea shop.

Clergy and penitents in purple

Holy Week (Semana Santa) parades were the reason we'd chosen that particular week to visit Spain. Most churches seem to have huge floats with life-size statues of various significant people - Jesus, Mary, various saints, etc - which are carried through the streets during this week each year. It takes about 30 men to carry one on their shoulders, and they are accompanied by processions of clergy and penitents dressed in bizarre pointy hoods with eye-slits. These are in various colours. We've seen white with purple hoods, as here, entirely white, entirely black and white with black hoods. The float is often preceded by someone swinging an incense-burner and followed by a marching band, all walking very, very slowly, through the streets.

Eventually we gave up the search for the tea shop and settled on a nice place in the Puerto Seville, where we had minute cups of reasonable English tea. Most continentals (and Americans, come to that!) simply don't understand about English tea! They often make it with water nowhere near boiling and sometimes provide warm milk. Yuk! This place thought an expresso cup was about the right quantity, while we were after about 200ml. At least it was hot and came with cold milk!

Refreshed, we headed back towards the hotel, spotting as we went, 8 or 10 birds of prey circling above the city. They looked a bit like sparrow hawks, but sparrow hawks don't soar, nor do they fly in groups, so we knew that wasn't it. Back in the UK we concluded they might have been eagles, possibly Booted or Bonnelli's, but without binoculars and the book there's no knowing.

Clergy and penitents in black and white Narrow street, black clouds looming

Close to the hotel, we met up with another parade. This photo shows clergy following it. What it doesn't show is that in front of us was the main float and the band, fully occupying a narrow street just where we wanted to go. While we were discussing a short diversion around the parade, the heavens opened and everyone scattered into shops. Those responsible for the float arranged a huge sheet of polythene over it, to protect it from the rain. After a few minutes, we decided we were within running distance of the hotel, so braved the downpour and didn't get too wet. We could hear the band from the hotel, but it was frequently drowned out by thunder, and I think they also spent quite a bit of time sheltering from the torrential downpour.

The Mezquita from the courtyard

The next day we decided to visit the Mezquita immediately after breakfast, as we'd heard that most coach parties turn up after about midday and the place just heaves after that, so around 11 we bought our tickets and went in. The courtyard in front of the mosque has several fountains and is planted mostly with orange trees and palms. It's just delightful in the bright sunshine, and once again, we enjoyed the scent of orange blossom. The dark interior is a big contrast and is very atmospheric. I tried to take photos, but they weren't very successful. There are better photos of the Mezquita here, but be aware not all the photos are of this mosque, since it's just a Google images link.

Interior of the mosque Interior of the mosque

At first, I got completely the wrong impression of the building's size, and was rather disappointed at how small it was. As I wandered around, however, I soon realised it was about twice as big in both directions, so four times the size I'd initially thought. Later, we calculated that it covers an area of roughly 5 acres, excluding the courtyard of orange trees.

I didn't like any of the over-ornamented Christian stuff, of which there's a lot, of course, but loved the original mosque. As Richard observed, there was a stark contrast between the calm, meditative style of the mosque and the "scare 'em to death with the Glory of God" from the Christian side. He later pointed out that of course, if the Christians hadn't built the church in the centre of the mosque, the building would probably have simply crumbled away during centuries of non-Moorish occupation.

After about an hour we moved on the Fine Arts Centre in Plaza Potro. Most of the paintings were not to our taste, not helped by all the notices being in Spanish, so more or less unintelligible to us. Eventually we came to a gallery of sculpture which I did like; mostly female nudes. Well there's a surprise!

Then it was lunchtime. Lorna and Richard found us a table in an al fresco restaurant over the road while Jenny and I returned to a jewellery shop where I'd seen a necklace I really liked. I'd not bought it at the time because I couldn't think of anyone I'd want to give it to that would like it, but finally realised that the obvious person to give it to was myself, so I went back and bought it!

After lunch we walked along the river frontage past the Roman Bridge, currently partly shrouded in plastic sheeting while they restore it. I didn't get any decent pictures of it, but there are loads here. There's a terrace below street level between the river and the old town where you can have a really pleasant stroll. To your right are Roman walls also being restored; to your left, the river. Just right for a post-prandial amble!

Then we hired a horse-drawn carriage almost big enough for the 4 of us for a tour of the city. In my best Spanish I asked the driver if he spoke English, to which I got a confident 'Sì!' but the whole of the commentary was entirely in Spanish, without a word of English from start to finish! Maybe all I did was tell him I speak English! So we saw quite a bit of the old town, which was beautiful, but didn't learn all that much!

Gate into courtyard

Many of the houses in the old city seem to be based on the Roman style of a square of rooms surrounding a courtyard open to the sky. Beyond the front door there's usually an ornate wrought iron gate, through which you can see the tiled courtyard, often with a fountain and usually with lots of flowers. Many owners leave their front doors open, presumably so that passers by can see in, or maybe to get a through-draught of air when it's hot.

Having freshened up, we were a little early for dinner, so sat in the hotel courtyard, hoping for a glass of something cold and white, but it was not to be. The bar was unattended and even when I managed to persuade a woman setting tables to bring us a wine list, no-one came to take our order. After 20 minutes we decided the Hotel Conquistador wasn't interested in looking after its residents, so we left and went where we were more welcome.

We found a plaza just north of the Mezquita and sat watching the procession that appeared shortly afterwards. I asked for vino blanco and the guy looked at me slightly oddly, but reappeared with a jug and four glasses. I still don't know what I should have asked for, but what we got was dry sherry. Quite nice, but not what I wanted and a litre between 4 was a bit much on an empty stomach.

The next morning we decided to first walk in the gardens of the Royal Alcázar, then drive to the Medina Alhazar just outside of Córdoba, before finding some lunch and then going home to the coast. On the way into the gardens we were surprised to find a museum of Roman remains. Just shows how thorough our research was before setting out to this historic city, of course!

Roman mosaic Roman mosaic

I show only a couple of photos here, being the ones I managed to take with minimal camera-shake. The rest are even worse. These mosaics are in exceptional condition, and they, along with several others, have been carefully lifted and stuck to the walls behind Perspex sheets to protect them. Very impressive. There are lots of good photo's of the mosaics as well as other aspects of the Alcazar here

. Water garden

Outside we spent a short while ambling through the gardens, but really didn't have enough time to do them justice if we were going to do the Medina Alhazar as well. We liked this tier of ponds full of big fish and it would have been good to spend much more time there.

The Medina Alhazar is a huge 10th century Moorish complex apparently built for the ruler's concubine, though that might just be hearsay. It was destroyed by Berbers in the 11th century and lost until the late 19th century. There's been a slow excavation and restoration project going on for the last 100 years or so and some of it is really impressive. The carved capital on the column below, for instance, is original 1000 year old work. There are better photos here.

View over Medina excavation moorish arches 1000 year old capital

After an excellent lunch at a restaurant in the hills behind the Medina, we returned to the coast, raving about what a fabulous place Córdoba is.

Last updated 11th May, 2007 by Rob Clack