The picture-perfect city in southern Spain is a living legacy of the different cultures that flourished here throughout its history, says Prachi Joshi
Madrid has the sights and Barcelona has the vibe. But it’s in Andalusia, located in the southern part of the country, where you will find the true soul of Spain. While Seville, the largest city in Andalusia, and the popular town of Granada steeped in Medieval heritage, steal the show in the south, it’s the charming city of Córdoba that will draw you in with its history, stunning architecture and a picturesque city centre. As of 2018, Córdoba holds the distinction of being the only city in the world with four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, surpassing the likes of Rome and Paris.
I start my exploration of this enchanting city from its most popular site, Cordoba’s crowning glory, the mesmerising Mezquita. A grand multiarched mosque-cathedral built in 785 AD, this stunning building symbolises the rich culture of one of the most flourishing European cities. The most striking feature of the Mezquita is its
arcaded prayer hall with 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble and granite, and topped with double arches of alternating red and white stones. Even though the centre of the structure is said to have been remodelled, it largely retains the original architecture. Walking through the maze of arched pillars in the hall, I lose myself; its symmetry hypnotic and its openness liberating my soul. It is said that the Mezquita took nearly 250 years to be built and thus, is an amalgamation of a range of architectural influences.
From plateresque and late Renaissance to extravagant Spanish baroque, it is a unique blend of various cultural influences. Among the later features are the 17th-century jasper and red-marble altar screen and the mahogany stalls in the choir, carved in the 18th century by Pedro Duque Cornejo, a renowned Spanish Baroque sculptor. At Córdoba’s historic city centre, also designated as a heritage site, the cobbled alleyways lead me to the former Jewish quarter or Judería. With stark white-washed houses dotted with colourful plants lining the lanes, the sleepy neighbourhood reflects Cordoba’s laid-back vibe. A must-visit is the 14th-century Sinagoga (synagogue) with its extravagant stucco work. My next stop is the 14th-century Alcázar fortress. With neat terraced gardens, ponds, orange trees and flowers, this fort-palace is perfect for a leisurely stroll. It is said this is where the then monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, met Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in 1486 and decided to support his ambitious plan to sail to Asia and discover new lands.
As night falls, I head to the almost 2,000-year-old Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir river, which has the Mezquita on one end and the Torre de Calahorra, an ancient fortress gate, at the other. Beautifully lit, the bridge is a soothing play of warm yellow light pools and dark shadows. And not to mention the grand views it offers.
Córdoba’s white houses are a photographer’s paradise, specially because of the brilliant blue planters decorating them. These are filled with gorgeous seasonal flowers, ferns, and small plants, giving the entire area a rather festive appearance all year round. The most popular place to see this is the narrow street Calleja de las Flores or the Alley of Flowers, located near the Mezquita. The practice of decorating houses with flowers dates back to the Moorish times – the Moors transformed courtyards with overflowing baskets of flowers, ornamental trees, fountains and lavish furniture. While the houses are decorated through the year, every May the city celebrates the Patios festival. This century-old festival has been given the world heritage tag (UNESCO declares particularly notable festivals as intangible world heritage). The festival is a celebration of spring and takes place during the first two weeks of May. This is the time when the city’s centre is awash with multi-coloured blooms. More than 50 of the historical houses open their patios to the public. Each patio is uniquely decorated with a profusion of flowers like carnations, geraniums, and roses. Entry is free and you can walk in and out of these houses, admire the displays, and interact with the locals. If you miss the festival, the 15th-century El Palacio de Viana surrounded by 12 courtyards stays open through the year.
The author is an avid traveller and the views expressed here are her own