Córdoba is about a 4-hour drive from our house, if we went in a straight line. There are enough exciting things to do in Cordoba. However, the last time we visited, it took us a week to get there because we first visited several other places.
Including the village of María which has a beautiful botanical garden situated on the slope of a mountain. We also stayed on a campground in the middle of the Cazorla National Park. And visited the beautiful excavations of Cástulo in Linares. I’ll write more about that in another article.
We enjoy this way of traveling so much, getting from one place to another at our leisure and seeing both known and unknown places. I can highly recommend the alternation of camping cabin and hotel stay that we have done.
Table of contents
- 1 Imperfection of my Art History study
- 2 Exciting things to do in Córdoba
- 3 Unusual things to do in Córdoba
- 4 Some final tips
Imperfection of my Art History study
It wasn’t until we visited Andalucía in 2003 that I discovered a big shortage in my Art History lessons at the Arts Academy. The curriculum covered a period from the Classics through the Early Christian era to Renaissance, Baroque and Modern times.
Absolutely nothing about Islamic culture, nor that the Moors had conquered a part of Europe and left their mark there. Only in Córdoba and Granada we noticed what beautiful traces they left.
Between the 8th and 15th centuries, the Christians did their utmost to reclaim their lost territory in Spain during the Reconquista. Something by the way that is still celebrated annually in many cities and villages throughout the country: the festivals of Moros y Cristianos.
Near Ground Zero in New York City is an Islamic community center and mosque planned, which originally was going to be called the Cordoba House. The developers hoped to promote an interfaith dialogue within the greater community.
Córdoba applies as an example of religious liberty and tolerance due to the relative freedom that Christians and Jews enjoyed during the city’s Islamic Caliphate in the 9th and 10th century. The name Cordoba House is changed to Park51 because of all the objections to a mosque this close to Ground Zero. As far as I know the project is still in the planning phase.
During two centuries Christians and Jews could indeed practice their faith under the Caliphate of Córdoba. Although this right had to be bought. All “unbelieving” men paid an amount of tax by which they essentially acknowledged their submission to the state.
Apparently, the coexistence of faith was never self-evident, neither today nor in the Middle Ages. In 1011, the Jewish minority in Córdoba was struck by an Islamic pogrom.
Exciting things to do in Córdoba
It’s easy to spend several days in Córdoba. The city is interesting and fizzing with energy. It is also the warmest city in Europe, so if you can’t stand temperatures above 35 degrees C and even 40C you’d better plan well.
May is a great time to visit because of the Fiesta de Los Patios. Several courtyards are then open for 2 weeks for the public to admire their beautiful plants. This annual festival is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is the historic center of the city.
In present time Córdoba is the 3rd largest city of Andalucia, but once it was one of the most important cities in the world, even the second largest in the 10th century, with about 500.000 people living there.
During this golden age, the economy, science and culture flourished. The city was teeming with libraries, the largest containing about 600.000 books.
The city is also the birthplace of philosophers such as Seneca, Averroes and Maimonides.
Mezquita is the Spanish word for mosque. The first time we were visiting Córdoba we were in a hotel right across the entrance of the Mezquita. Nowadays almost every city of importance is complaining about the horde of tourists, back then there were less and the city center was accessible by car.
Entering the Mezquita the first impression is overwhelming. Especially when you realize that the oldest parts are more than 1.000 years old. I remember our horror when we heard a Catholic Mass recited loudly through the speakers. It was so out of place with the dark, dimly lit Islamic columns.
Very ungrateful of us, because the mass was also the reason that we could visit the building for free. And now that we know more about the history of Córdoba, we understand the development of sacred buildings.
Originally there was a Roman temple on this site, over which a Christian church was built. Then the Moors built their mosque on the remains of that church, after which the Christians erected their cathedral in the middle of the mosque.
Nowadays I find the latter addition ugly from an aesthetic point of view. There is quite a contrast between the old Islamic parts and the later Christian ones. The building shows traces of Moorish, Roman, Byzantine, Syrian, Persian, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements, making it a must-see.
The old Synagogue
In the former Jewish quarter, called the Judería you can find the old synagogue, one of the few remaining Spanish synagogues. In 1492 the New World started in the history books with the discovery of America by Columbus, but for the Jews this signaled the turn of a black page in their history, characterized by persecution and exile.
The Alcázar de Los Reyes Católicos
Close by the Mezquita is an Alcázar, a Moorish castle which was turned into a Christian one after the Reconquista. This Castle of the Catholic Kings is a medieval one with beautiful gardens and attractive fishponds. In the cellars are old Arabic baths to be seen.
Los Reyes Católicos of Spain are Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the kings who sent Columbus on his journey. The Alcázar was one of their palaces.
Baños del Alcázar Califal
These baths or hammam are wonderful to visit. A series of stone-walled rooms with red and black marble columns, crowned by beige capitals. The characteristic star skylights are very special.
The washings and body cleansing were an essential part of the Muslim life. They were required for prayer, in addition to forming a social rite.
Other places of interest
- The Puente Romano, a bridge over the Guadalquivir
- Calleja de las Flores, one of the atmospheric streets
- Torre de la Calahorra, a watchtower at the end of the Roman bridge
Unusual things to do in Córdoba
While it is great to visit the usual sightseeings, which are the usual places of interest for a reason, we always like to search for the less visited places.
A huge terrain not that far from the old city center. As most botanical gardens it has several departments with plants from all over the world. And a couple of buildings with exhibitions about Spanish and worldwide botanical subjects.
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo C3A
A true surprise was the Modern Art Center C3A. The full name is Centro de Creación Contemporánea de Andalucía. It’s situated at the other side of the river. What I loved most were the workplaces for the artists in residence. Not because we could visit them, unfortunately, but because of the fact that they were there.
The rest of the building is free to visit. The exhibitions are partly permanent, like the blue staircase of Yoko Ono, and partly temporary. We spent a pleasant afternoon there.
About 10 km from the city are the ruins of Medina Azahara, built as a palace city in the 10th century. The ruins stretch on the naturally terraced slope of an offshoot of the Sierra Morena. It seems the palace city did not last long. Just a few years after its termination, rebel Berber forces destroyed this symbol of the Caliphate of Córdoba.
Much of it has still not been excavated, so this must have been a huge complex. The first time we visited we could park nearby and visit Madinat al-Zahra as an EU resident for free.
Because the nuisance of the cars became too great, there is now a visitor center from which a bus runs to the entrance of the excavation site. From there you can wander around the beautiful ruins by yourself or with a guide. An explanatory 3D reconstruction is shown in a cinema in the visitor center.
Some final tips
Assuming you have no difficulty walking, look for a hotel on the other side of the river. Here you will also find several cafes and restaurants that offer tasty Spanish food for a reasonable price and with a view on the river and the old city.
If you can be in the city center early, go to the Mezquita between 8:30am and 9:30am. From Monday to Saturday it is accessible for free, provided you are very quiet.
Spanish monuments often have a discounted entrance fee for people over 65 if you can identify with a passport or driver’s license.
Would you like to see the floral patios, but you cannot be in Cordoba in May, ask the tourist office if there are guided tours.
Plan your indoor activities in the afternoons, especially in the warm months. In Spanish summers, the hottest time of the day is between 3 pm and 6 pm.
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