Spring was in the air. Madrid was ablaze with pink and purple, yellow and orange flowers; the streets were buzzing with sounds and sights of performance art; the museums were practically empty. Leaving all this behind after just a couple of days was tough, but my husband and I were determined to head down south to warmer climes and cultures.
We were on a road trip in the south of Spain last year, hoping to visit regions that still carried strong remnants of its Moorish past. We had narrowed the list to three main cities—Córdoba, Granada and Seville, that beckoned from the map like some kind of golden trail of heritage. These were the superstars of the times when the Moors, a nomadic tribe of Berber descent from North Africa, ruled over the area.
On what unfolded as a memorable trip, our first stop—Córdoba—also turned out to be the most compelling. This is a city situated less than 400 kilometeres from the Spanish capital. At the height of its glory, around the 8th century, Córdoba had over 300 splendid mosques and palaces—enough to rival other glorious cities like Constantinople and Damascus. Not surprising, given that this city, perched on a sharp bend of the Guadalquivir river, served as the capital of the region during both Roman and Moorish eras. In a nod to its rich past, Córdoba has enjoyed UNESCO World Heritage status since 1984.
Not too many of the 300 structures survive in present day Córdoba, but then, I was only interested in one—the Mezquita. The undisputed highlight of Córdoba, the Mezquita is a magnificent building, originally built as a mosque in the 8th century, at the site of a 6th-century basilica. For years after, it served as a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims. Several architectural extensions account for the present-day structure, which has a 16th-century cathedral in its premises. In today’s times, when communal forces readily raise their ugly heads, the Mezquita came as a pleasant reminder of an age when Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures intermingled in this city, giving it an air of sophistication.
The mosque-cathedral, or Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, sits bang in the heart of the old city. Its tall tower was visible from a distance, as we threaded our way through narrow lanes lined with souvenir shops on both sides. By a happy coincidence, this monument is located in the town’s judería, or Jewish quarter. Despite the steady swell of tourists, the interiors of this monument wore a solemn silence, the building itself reflecting the weight of its history, urging us to respect it. Even trigger-happy photographers put away their selfie sticks, just as chattering groups shushed down on their own.
It is impossible to be unmoved by the grandeur of the scene: arches and pillars in Moorish architectural style, with a spacious cathedral in the middle of what used to be a mosque, and frescos of cherubs on the ceiling. At the same time, there is simplicity and fluidity in the space that invites expression of faith and joy, as much as serious introspection.
Back in the sunshine, it took us some time to shake off the feeling of awe that had enveloped us inside. Although the town is primarily known for its classical buildings and piazzas, it has an unmistakable youthful vibe. Like other small Western European towns, there are cobblestone lanes, al fresco cafés and a riverside promenade. Add to this the call of fiery flamenco every evening, and the allure of Moorish-age baths. It was easy to see why Córdoba became an immediate favourite with both of us.
Fighting an urge to just walk around the city, I made time for a soak in the hot and cool pools at the restored Hammam Al Andalus. With its colourful mosaics, massive pillars and lilting Arabic music wafting out from hidden speakers, the bath seemed more like an extension of my cultural quest, rather than time off from playing tourist. Hammams in the Andalusian region were originally built around the 13th century, only to be closed towards the end of the 15th century during the Catholic era and finally restored to part of their former glory in the last few decades.
The next day, we continued our aimless exploration of the lanes around the Mezquita, with its tightly-packed buildings coloured blue, yellow and red in no obvious pattern, coming together to create a cheery vibe. The rest of the evening was spent walking through town. We gazed up at lattice iron balconies covered with blue flowerpots, and sampled caramelised nuts in old-fashioned chocolateries. We found ourselves in spacious courtyards—a classic element of south Spanish residences of the age—often stumbling upon boutiques that have now sprung up in these repurposed buildings.
From time to time we stopped to rest our feet at one of the open piazzas, which are cooled by stone fountains and small pools. When all the walking left us hungry, we sat down for a round of tapas starting with salmorejo (a thicker and more flavourful cousin of gazpacho) and tinto de verano (a lighter, summery version of sangria) at the first bar we stumbled upon. Later at night, we found ourselves back at the Mezquita. Right opposite was Córdoba’s popular bar Casa Santos that we had missed earlier. Somehow, we found the space in our stomachs for just one slice of their famous tortilla de patata (potato omelette).
Getting lost in an urban labyrinth had never been more fun.
There are no direct flights from India to Córdoba. Most flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Córdoba require one or more layovers in Spanish gateway cities such as Madrid and Málaga. Córdoba is only a four-hour drive away from capital Madrid. There are also several high-speed train services, such as AVE, that take less than three hours.
Charukesi Ramadurai follows the travel mantra "anywhere but here". Her travel experiences range from playing pied piper to curious street children in India to playing the alphorn in the Swiss Alps. She tweets and Instagrams at @charukesi.