We have to thank Michael Portillo and his railway journeys program for inspiring many of our excursions into the Spanish interior; we may otherwise never have realized Cordoba was within our scope. As it is, we set off on the fast train from Malaga to Madrid and ours was the first stop after less than an hour. The train was amazingly smooth and quiet, with a movie showing on drop down screens for those going all the way. We hardly seemed to have settled down before we were arriving.
The old part of Cordoba nestles beside the Guadalquivir River amongst the newer high rise, but with sufficient leafy greenery to screen it. The river is wide and dirty green. The lower reaches are heavily silted, as the water has at one time been drawn off to power a mill on one side and a now derelict waterwheel on the other. Long islands have formed between the old culverts, lush with long grass, bushes and a feathery medley of trees. The warm sandstones of the cathedral and fortified walls rise from the verdure. Apparently the name Cordoba means river or hill in Old Iberian, which seem contradictory terms until you have seen the city. From the foot of the cathedral the many arched Roman bridge, strong as a dam, stretches majestically across into the modern highway, where coaches are beginning to disgorge. In the early morning light, the scene has aspects of a Manet painting.
Our taxi from the station took us right to the foot of the cathedral wall, where the usual horse and carriages queued in the shade. In pulling in the taxi cut up a very smart open top wedding car, to the obvious annoyance of a pretty blonde bride. It was a Saturday and later on the riverbanks were dotted with brides posing for photographs. We did not see our particular blonde, but her chauffeur was happily letting other groups of young women climb in and out of the car to have their pictures taken. That was after we had been to the cathedral, our first port of call. Entrance was first into a large courtyard planted with orange trees and heady with the smell of their blossom. At one time the courtyard was planted with palms, echoing the structure of the candy striped forest of stone arches within. At this time the cathedral was a mosque and I think the orange trees have been planted where fountains once flowed, using the rills between them as irrigation channels. There are still a few palms and several spires of narrow junipers and a large rectangular fountain by which was a relatively short queue for tickets. Armed with these we set off to the opposite corner and entered the remains of the mosque.
It is spectacular, a fractal celebration of the strength and beauty of the round arch. Single, double and scalloped arches with stonework in elegant pink and cream riding on impossibly slender columns form a mesmerising lattice. It seems to go on and on, tempting one to take photo after photo, with its changing aspects and repeated motif. Sadly this is not the case. In the middle of all this style sits a shiny white thirteenth century Roman Catholic cathedral. It is a crying shame; even the person responsible apparently came to have doubts. There had been a cathedral predating the mosque, but in reinstating it by removing the dome of the mosque and installing alter, choir and all the paraphernalia of Catholic practice a thing of charm and grace has been muddied. Images of the cathedral interior make a concerted effort to not show the Christian architecture; in much the way I avoid having Hope Valley Cement Works intrude into my pictures of Derbyshire. Unfortunately in both instances the deed has been done. Had it still been a mosque I would not have been allowed inside to see.
After the cathedral we wandered over the bridge and back and toured another palace, the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristiano along the riverbank. The Christian Rulers lived in more Spartan elegance than their place of worship, with white walls and arched ceilings of exposed stonework. The gardens were extensive, starting with Moorish water gardens and extending to a mini Versailles, with some Lord of the Rings statuary.
After that we wandered through the Jewish quarter, where narrow streets draped in geraniums offer views into intimate flower filled courtyards often with a splashing fountain. We ate lunch in one. The waiters seemed strangely aloof and rather clumsy, banging plates down as though the table had jumped towards them. Dinner in a tapas bar in the Jewish quarter was the same, but the manner was not intended to be at all unfriendly. At the end of our meal, our waiter asked where we came from and presented us with a plate piped with jam, and broke into a smile.