Arriving in Cordoba, it’s difficult not to be impressed as the Mezquita looms large on the horizon. This magnificent former Mosque is now the city’s cathedral and undoubtedly, its most famous attraction and landmark. This was probably the main reason we were visiting the city, and we had booked accommodation at the Hotel Maimonides, literally feet from the Mezquita.
CORDOBA has a long and illustrious history. It was founded by the Romans (not sure who losted it) in 169BC and because of its strategic position – the furthest navigable point of the Guadalquivir River, it developed into an important port. It was the Romans who constructed the massive bridge over the Guadalaquiver River, El Puente Romano. It consists of 16 arches (although none of the arches are Roman – but the bases are) and once formed part of the Via Augusta. It’s still open today, although only for pedestrian traffic. Guarding the bridge at the south side is the Moorish Calahorra Fort and inside, the MUSEO VIVO de AL-ANDALUS. This is as good a place as any to begin your visit to the city. It has a decent explanation of the history of the region and some excellent models of the original Mezquita. It’s also possible to access the tower for some really good views over the river and the old city.
Cordoba’s greatest days of glory came after the Moorish invasion of 711 AD. It was around 780 that work began on the Mezquita which, after many years of continual enlargements, became one of the largest Mosques in all Islam. The city eventually became the capital of the independent Moorish kingdom of El-Andalus in 929.
In the 11th century it was one of the most important cities in Europe (in fact it was more than twice as large then as now), with people of many different cultures – Jews, Muslims and Christians – all living together harmoniously together and giving birth to many important philosophers, artists and men of learning – one of these was Ben Maimonides (112-1185), the Jewish theologian and namesake of our hotel.
When the city was reconquered by the Christians in 1236, the new rulers were so taken with the absolute beauty of the Mezquita, that instead of tearing it down, they built their Cathedral slap bang in the middle of the rows of arches and columns. Thus they created the amazing, and unique church-mosque that stands there today.
To say that the MEZQUITA is impressive is like saying Spain produces the occasional bottle of wine. It’s quite stupendous. It’s the third-biggest in the world with and has been called the most beautiful and original building in all Spain. It’s built in the Califal style, which combines Roman, Gothic, Byzantine, Syrian and Persian elements, and all the Arabian-Hispanic architecture that followed was influenced by this building.
You enter through the courtyard adorned with orange trees and resplendent with fountains and water channels – a peaceful oasis you might think, but not when it’s invaded by thousands of chattering school kids. This courtyard is a bit of a sun-trap, but on approaching the entrance to the Mosque, we were met with a blast of ice-cool air from the building’s interior – those Moors knew a thing or two about air conditioning.
We were a little apprehensive of visiting the Mezquita as from our hotel we could see the convoys of day-trippers descending on the city, and we thought it might just be a little crowded. True, it was busy, and there were large numbers visiting, but the place is so incredibly huge that it really didn’t matter. Also, because of the large number of pillars and arches – it’s almost like a petrified forest – everyone seems to have their own space.
I thought the Mezquita might be interesting, but nothing can prepare you for the splendour and the sheer, awe-inspiring grandeur of it all.
To give you some idea, right in the middle of this forest of columns and arches lies a Cathedral which would be mightily impressive in its own right were it situated in its own space, but it somehow seems insignificant within the massiveness of the Mosque. It’s not insignificant though, far from it.
After the reconquest, the Christians consecrated the Mosque to be a Cathedral and the Royal Chapel was added. In 1523 the Church and the Crown decided to build the Cathedral inside the original Mosque. This took 234 years, so the style transforms from Gothic to Baroque and Renaissance. One of the criticisms of the construction is the fact that most of the open doorways of the Mosque were blocked up making it a far gloomier place now than when in its original state. However, the Cathedral IS an imposing building – it’s just dwarfed in scale, not in height) by the Mezquita.
Unusually for Spain, the Mezquita remains open all day (10.00-19.00), foregoing the traditional siesta. The entrance fee is 6.50 euros.
Of course, there is far more to Cordoba than just the Mezquita.
There’s the fortress on the river, the ALCZAR DE LOS REYES CRISTIANOS which was built in 1328 and from where Ferdinand and Isabella governed Castille during their preparation to reconquer Granada. This is where Columbus told Isabella of his plans of exploration – there’s a statue depicting this momentous occasion. It’s worth a visit if only for the beautiful gardens, but there are the remains of a Roman temple and some excellent examples of mosaics on show.
The opening hours are far too convoluted to list here, suffice to say, it’s closed from 14.000-18.00 for the siesta and admission is 2 euros.
Speaking of the river, there are some lovely walks alongside where you can see the remains of several old, Moorish mills, one of which used to pump water up to the gardens of the Alcazar.
There are plenty of museums and galleries in the city to whet the appetite of the most eager-beaver culture-vulture, but Crdoba’s very streets are a living museum, and nowhere more so than the area surrounding the Mezquita, LA JUDERA.
Crdoba’s medieval district was once home to the large Jewish community. It’s a veritable labyrinth of winding, twisting, narrow streets, shaded geranium-filled patios and pretty little plazas. It’s said that the best way to explore La Judera is simply to get lost amongst the maze of narrow alleyways – it’s not difficult. Within 5 minutes and 100m of leaving our hotel, I’d say we were well and truly lost. The good thing about this is that you discover hidden little treasures around each corner – the downside is that you tend to walk the same streets over and over and possibly miss out on other little gems.
When exploring this labyrinth, you’ll notice that many people seem rather nosy by staring through the gates into the resident’s patio. The Crdobans don’t mind though – in fact many actively encourage it by leaving the doors open so passers-by can gaze at the beautiful ceramics, trickling fountains and flower bedecked gardens within. There’s actually a fiesta in early May with competitions for the best patios.
Also in the Jewish Quarter, you can find one of the few synagogues which still exist in Spain. This one dates from 1315 although I have to say, it’s not very impressive. Close by, is the Zoco -a collection of buildings and courtyards where you can find traditional crafts and, if you are lucky, catch a Flamenco performance.
The whole area is a bustling, lively place, and this is where you’ll find a great number of tourist-orientated businesses – souvenir shops, local crafts, bars and restaurants etc. Many of the shops stock Moorish type artifacts and, although quite a lot of businesses descend towards the tacky, there’s still plenty of quality to be found.
There are any number of opportunities for eating and drinking in this area, from sandwich bars to elegant restaurants and from international cuisine to junk food – there’s even a BK and Pizza Hut (in tasteful buildings) directly opposite the Mezquita, classy. With such a variety of choice, it’s hard to decide, so we settled for grazing. We just wandered around, stopping at various bars for a drink and some tapas.
In conclusion, Cordoba is a fascinating city. It has retained its medieval heart and has character by the sack load. There’s culture, history and architecture; excellent eating and drinking, great shopping, and a myriad little hidden treasures to discover.
As for the Mezquita? – Wow!