I hopped on a bus for the next city in my tour… Cordoba, and once again the bus ride was a delight. Highways lined with hedges of oleander in bloom, fields forming a sea of sunflower blooms as far as the eye could see and the hills covered with groves of olive trees combined to make a visual treat. White hill towns with church spires jutting up silhouetted against the intense Andalusian sun, little changed since the 15th century, dotted the peaks along the way as well.
Picture a town of 500,000 people with universities, libraries, observatories, aqueducts,, highly skilled artisans in leather, metal, glazed tiles and textiles, centers filled with wise philosophers and you have Cordoba in AD 975. A place more advanced and civilized than the world had ever known. The city flourished as the Islamic capital of the Iberian Peninsula until 1236 when it was captured by Fernando III of Castile. Under the Christians is began a long slide down into a provincial town of shrinking importance…no surprises there.
Today people come to Cordoba to visit the “Mezquita” … gigantic mosque and Renaissance cathedral combined. Having captured the city the Christians were in awe of the magnificent structure and instead of tearing it down decided to build a Cathedral in the middle. Charles V having commissioned the Renaissance nave to be built lamented upon seeing the finished work ” I have destroyed something unique in the world” Of course from my perspective 500 years later it is still unique and stunningly beautiful.
I entered through the garden…a plaza filled with orange trees and fountains…a 93 meter Baroque bell tower (Torre del Alminar) rises on one side of the garden and the entrance to the hall of terra-cotta and white striped arches on the other. The magnificent arches are supported by 856 pillars salvaged by the builders from Roman and Visigoth ruins and presents a vision of architectural harmony such as I have never seen before.
The interior juxtaposes the delicate Moorish architecture with its prayer niches facing Mecca…a gold mosaic cube created by Byzantium sculptors and the heavy soaring style of western renaissance church. If you go early in the morning @ 8:30 admission is free and you avoid the crowds. They do throw you out at 9:30 unless you go in and attend mass which I did. What a show…on a tuesday morning they had twelve priest on the altar, 3 aged acolytes and a bishop in the wings…as you can imagine there was much incense and ringing of bells.
The Mezquita sits in the center of the old town and is surrounded by narrow passageways filled with whitewashed buildings draped in bougainvillea blooms and window boxes filled with geraniums. Ancient doorways leading into sun drenched courtyards with their gurgling fountains and orange trees heavy with fruit drew me in. I spent hours exploring these narrow lanes and sitting in shady plazas. The Archeological Museum sits in a particularly nice square with its 15th century church and connected contemporary building that comprises the museum at one end and a tree filled square with a little cafe at the other…a good place to sit out of the unrelenting sun and get a cool drink.
Close-buy the Guadalquivir river which divides the town has a restored roman pedestrian bridge …Puente Romano which at night is a great place to go and watch the sunset behind the Cathedral. At one end of the bridge a 14th century tower stands and at the other a ancient Roman arch…all lit at night. Also along the river the Alcazar de los Reyes Christianos a palace where Fernando and Isabella first met Columbus in 1486. The gardens are quite lovely and it is worth a visit.
In the evenings the narrow streets are alive with tourist and residents moving from tapas bars to restaurants, or stopping in the legions of souvenir shops that line the area around the Mezquita. Flamenco music drifts out from some of the bars adding to the festive atmosphere that makes for good times here in Cordoba.