Eat, sleep, love; Cordoba
Intriguing, beguiling, seductive; the Andalusian provincial capital of Cordoba offers a fascinating and indulgent short break
High walls, with crumbling plaster stood either side of the narrow alleyway, just wide enough to allow two people to pass; the warm light cast by the street lamps illuminated what at first appeared to be a sign, but it was in fact some cryptic graffiti, pasted in black letters on the decrepit wall. It spelt out ‘Siguiendote’ in perfectly aligned letters; ‘I’m following you’ it said. Mysterious, slightly baffling; yet with the sound of lively music spilling out from a nearby bar and filling the night air, it didn’t feel threatening. However it didn’t help either; the steep walls and narrow streets conspired against the accuracy of the smartphone navigation app; in short we were lost.
Córdoba, capital of its province of the same name, is certainly one of Andalucía’s more mysterious provincial capitals. Not served by an international airport and away from the touristy coastline means that it has retained its strong identity. Admittedly Spain’s high speed AVE train network now provides swift, luxurious services from Madrid and Malaga, yet the city still seems uncompromisingly Andalusian, not over run with visitors or English language signs.
Heading through the city’s old quarter, passing along and turning back through some of the many narrow lanes, we were searching for a restaurant. Described as a ‘Sephardic Jewish & Andalusi Kitchen’, the ‘Casa Mazal’ Restaurant promised a menu inspired by Córdoba’s multi-cultural history that combines Arab and Jewish cuisine with Andalusian, Mediterranean styles. Food is probably one of the great ways to understand Córdoba, and its complex mix of Roman, Arab, Jewish and Christian elements. This World Heritage Site was once a Roman capital, and later an Arab capital, as well as becoming a hub for Christian and Jewish culture.
Much of the historic district is residential; old buildings with flower filled courtyards remain as ‘patios de vecinos’. These are communal garden patios, around which are apartments and garden flats. Pass through these neighbourhoods during the annual Córdoba ‘Festival del Patios’ on a sunny day in May, and not only will you be delighted by the beautiful flower displays lovingly tended in the patios, but you’ll soon be captivated by the distinctive aromas of Cordobés home-cooking wafting out of kitchen windows and filling the streets. Recipes handed down through the generations offer a daily reminder that Córdoba was once the prominent international, cosmopolitan Iberian centre of culture and religion.
Córdoba recently has built a fine reputation for cuisine, both traditional and contemporary, offered by a myriad of independent eateries that also deliver great service. The secret is to stay away from the tourist traps found within a stone’s throw of the great mosque, and instead head into the labyrinthine streets.
Some bar restaurants, like the trendy, modern Galician kitchen of the ‘Blanco Enea’ seek inspiration from outside Andalucía, and bring a fresh twist to classic dishes; whilst others, like the famous ‘Bodegas Campos’ are Cordobés through-and-through. The long menu offers everything from the summertime favourite of ‘Salmorejo’, the local thick, cold tomato soup; to cured hams; and the Córdoba tapa, the ‘Flamenquín’, a pork and ham fritter.
But of course, in addition to the food, there are the world famous monuments too to remind you of Córdoba’s colourful identity. The Roman Bridge is one of the most iconic sights, and has recently undergone a major renovation, together with the riverside area. The washed sandstone of the bridge now warmly glows in the sunlight and the surrounding area is a great place to relax and people watch.
Within a few minutes’ walk of Córdoba’s Roman Bridge is the city’s eighth century Mosque, an immense structure that is remarkably intact. This mosque draws visitors from across the world, and is truly unique. Its striking jasper red and onyx white interior arches and exquisite detailing are breathtaking. The Christians built a Cathedral directly in the heart of the mosque; creating a somewhat surreal experience as you pass, within moments, from Arab architecture from the Middle Ages, directly into an extravagant Renaissance cathedral.
Since Córdoba is no longer Andalucía’s best kept secret, there are now more boutique hotels. Hospes has opened its 5 star property in a former palace, the ‘Palacio de Bailio’, which has a gourmet tapas restaurant with superb salmorejo.
But for value for money and easy access to all the treasures of old town choose a boutique hotel in one of the renovated patio houses. A favourite is the simply elegant ‘Hotel Viento10’. This calm and light filled hotel is disguised behind a simple facade on a typical, peaceful, narrow pedestrian street, ‘calle Viento’. Once the main door swings open you are not only greeted by a sparkling interior but the seductive aroma of a subtle and calming incense.
Ancient stone pillars and arches give clues to the property’s past but it has now been lovingly converted into a contemporary hotel with a Zen-like peace and tranquillity.
Glass doors, hard wood floors, white walls, fresh flowers, and occasional art combine to create a fresh, tranquil, uncluttered ambiance. The rooms are arranged around the central patio, from where one can catch a glimpse of the Andalusian sky. If you fancy a little more sun, then there is a roof terrace with loungers. It’s also a pretty cool place to star gaze and sip cocktails come nightfall. There is also an intimate salon where in the evening an ‘honour bar’ is set out, with cocktails and spirits like exotic saffron gin.
As we continued walking on, in search of a stronger phone signal, graffiti is again spotted, ‘Donde vas?’ is spelt out across an ancient wall, ‘Where are you going?’. Then another, ‘esta a dos pasos’, meaning ‘it’s very close’. These cryptic and sometimes poetic messages have been appearing on Córdoba’s falling-down walls over the past few years. No one knows who places them, but the locals refer to the culprit as the Street Pirate of Córdoba (callejero pirata de Córdoba). It just adds to the City’s feeling of intrigue.
Fall in love?
At last the entrance to the restaurant is visible, marked by North African lanterns lit by candle light. It’s moments away from the fourteenth century Córdoba Synagogue, in the picturesque Jewish quarter. The narrow alley opens out into a geranium filled patio, with a restaurant salon on one side and first floor open air restaurant terrace on the other. The Andalusi menu is presented as a small book; pages of fascinating and tantalising dishes that pull together the flavours of Córdoba and its rich past. North African dishes including hummus and falafel; Middle Eastern salads, like a Syrian flavourful plate of rice and lentils; as well as Sephardic Jewish couscous; and lamb wrapped in filo. The multicultural influences are clear. The Jewish tradition of minced lamb and dried fruits, together with the Moorish Arab influence of figs and raisins, and of course the local Cordobés olive oil.
A cellist and guitarist together play music in the background, as the rich, tasty food arrives at our table. It’s a seductive atmosphere, and enough to make you fall in love; well with Cordoba at least.
A ‘must see’ when in Cordoba – Medina Azahara
Just a few kilometres west of Córdoba is Medina Azahara. Built on three huge terraces, following the topology of the hillside site, this ‘brilliant city’ as it was known in Arabic (Madīnat az-Zahrā) has only recently been excavated. It really is a ‘must see’ when in the Cordoba area. It was for a short time, the hub of the Al-Andalus Empire, a seat of power; a place of beauty and refined aesthetics; and ultimately a place of conflict, destroyed just decades after its creation in an imperial civil war.
Due to ongoing renovation, sadly the impressive Hall of Abd al-Rahman III is closed to visitors, but there is a still much to enjoy including the neighbouring museum.
COPYRIGHT ANDREW FORBES