Gemma Harrison recommends,
When I was growing up in the 1980s, Spain’s tourist board used to regularly air a TV commercial with the slogan, “If you think you know Spain, think again”, which came along with shots of imposing old castles, scenic sierras and architecture as impressive as any in the world.
The country’s tourism chiefs obviously wanted to sell their nation beyond the tired old stereotypes of paella, flamenco and bullfighting as well as the unflattering images of badly-behaved tourists in coastal resorts such as Benidorm, Torremolinos and Salou.
And Cordoba is the perfect place to sample what Spain is really all about. It’s much less well-known than Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Seville and that’s another reason to go.
The Andalusian city was actually one of the grandest and most prosperous in the Europe of the Middle Ages, and boasted Europe’s first university. Strolling along some of its winding, cobblestoned streets is one thing but Cordoba can offer a stylish modern centre bursting with shops and some wonderful places to eat and drink. There are also plenty of parks and open spaces to visit when the kids start getting a bit fractious .
Cordoba also offers some gastronomic gems all of its own. Make sure you have time to sample local dishes such as salmorejo (tomato gazpacho), oxtail stew, aubergines and honey, and cod with olive oil and oranges. The tapas is also excellent, as you would expect.
My favourite place- La Mezquita. This awe-inspiring Unesco-listed masterpiece is Moorish architecture at its best, and is one of the finest mosques in Europe. In the 10th century, it represented the centre of Western Islam, and was a cultural magnet that rivalled Constantinople. Imposing gates (the Puerta del Pardon) lead you into a courtyard (Patio de los Naranjos) lined with fountains and orange trees. From here, you will enter the venerable prayer hall, and the imposing array of lofty arches (in white and rose-coloured stone) and columns pack a considerable aesthetic and spiritual punch. The Mihrab Nuevo, which displays the Koran, is a quite magnificent piece of work, having been built with a single slab of marble that was then engraved with ornate patterns and verses from the Koran. The mosque was converted into a cathedral in the 16th century, which accounts for its idiosyncratic appearance. Still, it reflects Cordoba’s multi-faceted cultural and religious heritage.
Highlights- They like their flowers in Cordoba. Every year, there is a flower festival that awards prizes to the resident with the most beautiful patio. As a result, the owners of these don’t waste any time getting ready for it, and so many wonderful whitewashed homes are festooned with vibrant blossoms, blooms and bougainvillea all year round, with their doorways peppered with potted geraniums. The Gardens of the Royal Fortress are among the most picturesque in the city and offer a quite wonderful display of horticultural treasures. Another escape, in the centre of the city, is the Botanical Garden of Cordoba, which is full of resplendent squares lush with vegetation. You can stroll around the garden where you will find an array of verdant plants, shrubs, patches of aromatic herbs and fruit trees; all while enjoying the spray of the fountains.
Lowlights- None, but everything seems to be closed on Mondays.
Souvenirs- You will find plenty of shops near La Mezquita hoping to catch your eye with their wares: Moorish jewellery, precious stones and objets d’art. However, you are likely to find many similar items (at much more reasonable prices) if you venture farther afield, including the inevitable flamenco hats, dolls, pashminas etc. I’d avoid the guitars though; most look as if they have been made from plywood. For a more conventional shopping trip (clothes, shoes, handbags etc), head to the Plaza de las Tendillas in the Old Town.
Getting there- The nearest airport to Cordoba is Seville, which is a 40-minute train ride away. Emirates and Etihad both offer flights to Madrid (Spain’s capital), from which you can catch a connecting flight to Seville.
Where to stay- For hotel options, check out Trivago, Expedia, Kayak, Hotels.com, Booking.com and the others. However, for a real treat, check out the Hospes Palacio del Bailio, a 16th-century palace that is now a hotel. There are plenty of reasonably priced boutique options, many of which offer balconies and delightful courtyards.
1. Be impressed by the magnificence of La Mezquita
2. Take a stroll along the Caesar-built Roman Bridge
3. Wander around the Church of the Christian Monarchs
4. Enjoy the gardens of the Aristocratic Palace and Museum
5. Gaze at the Spanish paintings in the Museum of Fine Art