Situated on the banks of the Guadalquivir river, Córdoba today is a modestly sized city of some 300.000, but surprisingly from the 8th to 10th centuries it was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe.
As capital of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), it dazzled with its civilised air, paved streets, libraries, public baths, perfumes, spices, silks. Its doctors were second to none, its mathematicians and philosophers the intellectual lifelines between the Middle East and Europe. Christians and Jews prospered, and religious tolerance, if not total, was the norm.
An astonishingly rapid, bloody collapse in the early years of the 11th century demolished Córdoba as a political force, although it was to remain in Islamic hands until 1236, when it fell to expanding Christian forces from the north.
After its fall, Córdoba became a cultural backwater rescued from oblivion only by its architectural riches. Most nineteenth-century travellers from beyond the Pyrenees condemned its dilapidated, decayed state. The ruling elite of Córdoba were notorious for their disinterest in the outside world and for intellectual laziness. In truth, the same might be said of most nineteenth-century Spanish cities, but for Córdoba the perception of poverty and decay was more pronounced in view of its past glory.
Today Córdoba is a bustling agricultural centre drawing its wealth from the rolling cornfields, olive groves and vineyards of the fertile Guadalquivir valley to its south and, since the 1960s, from a booming tourist trade.
Most visitors head for “old” Córdoba, i.e. the Mosque-Cathedral and the maze of streets that lead off from it to the west, north and east. If you have time, head first for the Roman Bridge that spans the Guadalquivir River, behind the Mosque. Just before getting to the bridge, you’ll see an ornate, 18th-century monument topped by a statue of St Raphael, and nearby, at the head of the bridge, a triumphal Renaissance arch (known as the Puerta del Puente or Bridge Gate). The monument, known as the Triumph of St Raphael, is dedicated to the saint as the town’s patron and protector; the Renaissance arch was built to celebrate the visit of King Philip II in 1571.
The bridge itself has undergone so many renovations that only the foundations are actually Roman. To your right, as you cross, and a little downriver are the evocative ruins of Moorish watermills (norias). At the end of the bridge is the Torre (Tower) de la Calahorra, which contains a small museum recreating life in 10th-century Córdoba through audiovisual displays.
The museum is funded by a foundation formed by Roger Garaudy, a controversial ex-French senator, and in turn Catholic, Protestant and Communist before converting to Islam. Look back from the Tower for a good view of the Mosque. To its left is the much renovated Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, a palace-fortress built in the 14th century and containing Roman mosaics, Moorish baths and beautiful gardens.
In its chequered history, the Alcázar witnessed a meeting in 1486 of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, with Christopher Columbus; from 1490 to 1821 it housed the Inquisition, then it was a prison before finally becoming a tourist attraction.
Now return to the Great Mosque, one of the jewels of Islamic civilisation. It is to Córdoba what the Alhambra is to Granada and the Giralda tower is to Seville, a focal point of identification, something unique. The mosque was begun by the Abd ar-Rahman I in 785, some 74 years after the conquest of the previous Visigothic kingdom by the Moors. In 833, Abd ar-Rahman II added to the mosque, and it was finally completed by al-Hakem II and Al-Mansur in the second half of the 10th century.
However, this was not the end of construction. It’s impossible to miss, embedded in the middle of the hundreds of delicate columns, the soaring presence of a Christian church, built in the 1520s. Like a typical Spanish cathedral coro (choir) with high altar, it is regularly condemned as a desecration. And yet the result is a unique building that encapsulates dramatically the different mentalities of the two dominant cultures of early Spain: Islam and Christianity.
Both mosque and church are places of worship built to the greater glory of the same God, and both rise from the same soil and hearken back to the same biblical source. But the mosque hugs the ground and conveys, architecturally, the humility before God that the very term “Muslim” means: one who submits to the will of Allah. The church, late Gothic in style, with flying buttresses perched on the roof of the mosque, is by contrast a “heaven-storming” building, proudly reaching to God.
Forming a semi-circle north of the Mosque is old Córdoba, a labyrinthine maze of alleys leading to intimate, irregularly-shaped squares (plazas). The Judería, is diagonally to the left of Mosque’s belfry, past Hotel Maimonides and the endless souvenir shops parading leather and filigree goods for which Córdoba has been famous since Moorish times.
On summer afternoons, it is best to avoid these narrow streets when the intense heat and the sunlight rebound off whitewashed walls. The best time to meander here is late evening when the heat has dissipated. Black lanterns, set high on the white walls, cast diffused, intimate shadows along the cobbled alleys, and in the quiet you catch the elusive perfumes of flowers or the murmur of a hidden fountain.
In these moments, these narrow streets evoke the past: Jewish figures –like Hasdai ibn Shaprut, famous as doctor, scholar and diplomat throughout the Mediterranean in the 10th century– or imposing Muslim rulers like Abd ar-Rahman III, whom Hasdai served as personal physician and advisor. (Note: Be cautious wandering these streets alone at night!)
The statue to Maimonides can be found n the southern end of the Calle (Street) de los Judíos (Jews), near the old western wall. A few steps along the street are the remains of a small Synagogue.The entrance can be easily missed because you have to first pass through a small patio whose door to the street can easily be overlooked.
The synagogue is the only one in Andalusia to have survived the purges of later years and only one of three throughout Spain (the other two being in Toledo). Built in 1315, it later became –after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492– a hospital and then the church of San Crispin, patron of shoemakers whose guild used it regularly for its meetings. Rich arabesque stucco work covers much of the walls; a small gallery above the entrance was reserved for women. On the east wall is the niche where the scrolls of the Torah (the Jewish scriptures) were kept.
There are still not many Jews in Córdoba today, but Muslim presence is more apparent. There is a tiny mosque surrounded by trees in the modern Plaza de Colón, and an Islamic university (Universidad islamica internacional Averroes de al-Andalus) opened in 1995 in the Calleja de la Hoguera, a tiny street near the Mosque.
If the narrow streets are the arteries of old Córdoba, the patios are surely the heart. Life is centred on this inner space where the profusion of potted flowers and plants and the murmur of a fountain in the cool shade of an orange or lemon tree provide both intimacy and pleasure. Although the Romans knew the advantages of the inner patio, it was the Moors who cultivated its use as a floral paradise and family retreat, a place where wives could gather without being observed by intrusive eyes. It is still very much a private space, but if you are seen peeking at a patio from the street, you may well be invited by the proud owner to have a closer look. If you happen to be in Córdoba in May, you can visit many of the patios when the Association of Friends of Cordoban Patios organises an annual festival to award prizes for the most beautiful.
Córdoba is an intimate city, more tantalising, more mysterious than Granada or Seville. Unlike its Andalusian cousins, it does not trumpet its beauty. Sevillians proudly proclaim “Quien no ha visto Sevilla, no ha visto maravilla” (“Who hasn’t seen Seville hasn’t seen a marvel”), to which Granadinos reply, “Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada” (“Who hasn’t seen Granada, has seen “nada” – nothing”).
There is no such pithy riposte from Córdoba. Without the cosmopolitan air of Seville, or the dramatic setting of Granada, Córdoba is a quieter, more sober city. “Córdoba callada” (“silent Córdoba”) the poet Manuel Machado calls it. For another poet, Federico García Lorca, Córdoba was the most melancholic city of Andalusia, “distant and alone.”
Unlike Seville and Granada, Córdoba does not wear its passion on its sleeve, but it is there, never far beneath the surface, no further than the patios are from the streets. It was evident in the bullfighting of Spain’s greatest matador (in the opinion of many aficionados), and one of Córdoba’s favourite sons, Manolete. Serene, restrained, Manolete died in the ring, in the classical dance of death, where artistic control and violent passion come face to face. (Manolete’s statue stands impassively opposite the 13th-century church of Santa Marina.) For many, this combination of outward serenity and inner passion is the essential characteristic of Córdoba.
There are two places that capture this dichotomy. The first is the small, intimate Plaza de los Dolores (or de los Capuchinos), unlike any other in Córdoba. Surrounded on all sides by whitewashed walls, its stark simplicity and austerity have all the qualities of classical tragedy. In the middle, surrounded by a low, wrought-iron grill and dramatically outlined from whichever angle it is viewed, stands the stone crucifix of Cristo de los Faroles (Christ of the Lanterns), so called from the wrought iron lights that decorate it.
Here there are no fountains, and only a flower pot or two add a sprinkling of colour. What is remarkable is the palpable silence, especially at night; it evokes a compelling sensation that throws the passion of Christ into relief against the simplicity of the walls.
It’s best to take a taxi to get to the Plaza de los Dolores, and while you are there visit the Palacio de Viana, a ten minute walk to the north east. This large, aristocratic mansion has scattered within and around it a garden and twelve stunning patios, each fragrant with aromatic plants and flowers. The numerous rooms and halls of the two-storeyed building are full of artifacts that give a good idea of the life-style of the nobility of Córdoba: Flemish tapestries, mosaics, murals, collections of harquebuses, candelabras, Persian rugs, dinner services, swords, horse carriages, ancestral portraits, ceramics, French and English furniture, Córdoban leather chairs, paintings, a large library etc.
Off the one side of the Plaza is the highly photogenic Posada del Potro mentioned in Don Quixote (Part I, chapters 3 and 17). Cervantes is said to have stayed at the posada. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Plaza was a notorious meeting place for rogues as well as an exchange centre for business men. Towards one end, there is a 16th-century fountain topped by a colt (potro).
When the hospital was converted to an art museum in the 19th century, Romero’s father was appointed its director. Nowadays a part of the museum –where the Romero family lived– is given over entirely to the paintings of Julio.
At a time when the art world was characterised by experimentation (e.g. Romero’s Spanish contemporaries Picasso and Miró), Romero remained firmly anchored to his home town, and especially to its women. He was obsessed by women whose serene composure barely veils the passion beneath. That delicate balance between serenity and sensuality is captured in two famous paintings: Naranjas y limones (Oranges and Lemons, 1928) and La chiquita piconera (The Young Woman Stirring Embers, 1930).
In the former, a young brunette cradles four oranges –gathered from the orange bush in the background– beneath her exposed breasts. She looks directly at the viewer. The frank gaze and the calm countenance scarcely conceal the sensuality conveyed by the firm breasts and the silky shift that clings to her thighs and legs. But there is too a mystery… where are the lemons? Are they in fact her breasts? Do they suggest a relationship gone wrong? An experience that has left a bitter memory? An invitation that will leave a sour taste?
La piconera is perhaps the most remarkable of Romero’s paintings and coincidentally his last. Against the faint background of the Guadalquivir River and the Roman bridge, another brunette sits idly stirring embers in a brazier between her feet, her gaze looking through you. The face as a whole is pensive, the eyes frank but not coquettish, the mouth full and serious.
Is she reigniting a lost passion? Is she reliving a past experience? What is suggested by the bare shoulder, the high-heeled shoes, the skirt drawn up over the knees, the prominent legs, and the red garter and silk stockings (the texture of which is astonishingly captured)? What do we make of her wistful look and the sensuality of her clothes? A young woman forced by circumstances to peddle her beauty? Again a mystery. Neither Naranjas y limones nor La piconera give you an answer, but challenge you to understand the play between serenity and passion, like Córdoba.
on the Spanish 100 peseta bills in the post-Civil War
period, as well as on 5 peseta stamps. Several
articles in Spanish have appeared on the model,
María Teresa López, who died in 2003 at the age
of 89. Google: La chiquita piconera María Teresa López.
What to eat: Much of what you find to eat in Córdoba forms part of the larger Andalusian context: tapas, gazpacho, Serrano ham, olives. Situated in the fertile Guadalquivir valley, Córdoba is surrounded by thousands of olive trees, rolling wheat land, and almond groves. Not far away to the south, in Montilla and Moriles, there are large vineyards producing sherry-like wines.
The Sierra Morena, bordering Córdoba to the north, is a hunter’s paradise: venison, wild boar, partridge, and rabbit. Like much of Andalusian gastronomy, the foods of Córdoba are heavily influenced by Arab culture with its exotic combination of spices: try cordero a la miel (honeyed lamb), or pastel cordobés (puff pastry with sweetened squash, or rape mozárabe (monkfish with raisins).
Don’t miss out on a particular Cordoban speciality, rabo de toro (oxtail stew), or salmorejo (a kind of gazpacho thickened with tomatoes frequently supplemented with ham, eggs). And why not finish with the deceptively named tocino del cielo(bacon from heaven), an Andalusian variation of creme caramel: egg yolks and sugar, but no milk! Add milk and you get natillas, popular all over Spain.
For an excellent guide to food in Córdoba, see https://spanishsabores.com/2019/03/31/12-must-try-foods-in-cordoba-eat-like-a-local-in-cordoba/ The author, Lindsey Zimmerman, has another fine guide in https://viaticcouture.com/2018/05/03/eating-in-cordoba-foodie-guide-spanish-mealtimes-101/
Good map of old Córdoba: http://www.planetware.com/map/cordoba-map-e-cord.htm
Images of the Tower of Calahorra and the Gardens of the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos from:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%C3%B3rdoba,_Andalusia
Images from Julio Romero de Torres from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Paintings_by_Julio_Romero_de_Torres
See some fine pictures of Cordoban patios in http://www.piccavey.com/cordoba-patios-palacio-viana/
Image of the Posada del Potro: De Amoluc – Cordobapedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4560012