CORDOBA, SPAIN: Cordoba, the unique Andalusian monumental city, has been part of UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. It offers one of the more extensive and well-conserved historical quarters of Europe to its visitors. Cordoba’s environment is full of charm that coexists peacefully with its attractive monuments, cultures, landscapes, and legacy, as Roman capital, court of Caliphs, and cradle of three cultures: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish. It contains a mind-blowing mixture of diverse cultures. Situated in the center of Andalusia, this is a matchless city for its monuments, history, natural environment, variety of leisure activities, and gastronomy.
Cordoba was the capital of Al-Andalus during Muslim rulers, a territory that extended as far as the Duero River. A portion of Guadalquivir River runs thru the city and can be enjoyed within walking distance from the old town.
This is the city I loved the most in this great country of Spain. It has the appeal that I look for when visiting European cities which big cities like Barcelona or Madrid lack. Cordoba’s old town is beyond beautiful with Moorish influence and welcoming environment all over. If you can spare time, try visiting Granada or Seville for more Andalusian treats…each town is unique in its own way. Cordoba is a busy town with lots of tourists and locals, especially many school-going kids who come here in groups for field-trips. But this part of the city gets really quiet right after dark, if you are looking for some awesome night-life, may be you have to get out of this area and go to the newer neighborhoods.
TIME of TRAVEL: We went back to Spain in February 2014 for the second time to check out Andalusia region of this country. We visited Malaga and Granada before coming to Cordoba. The drive was about 2 hours from Granada to Cordoba. By the way that drive was very scenic, you can see the mountains, lush green fields, and countless olive trees for miles after miles. Weather was excellent, not too cold not too hot. But my little daughter somehow caught ear infection in this journey and had to take her to the hospital nearby where we got free treatment and free medication…yes, Spain is a great country when it comes to health care too.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Las Casas de la Juderia in the Jewish quarter of old town. As usual, my husband’s choice was excellent for this place. This was the best hotel among all the places we stayed in Andalusia. It looked more like a “Riad” in Morocco with cute little courtyards and fountains in the front. Cordoba Mezquita and Roman Bridge were only 10 minutes of walk from the hotel. Breakfast wasn’t included here but had Wi-Fi in the room. We were also very surprised on our first evening here when they brought us some snacks (fruit kebabs on sticks and cakes) to our room…all free of charge, something we never experienced before. This was an excellent hotel and one of the best from all the hotels we ever stayed in so far.
EATING and SHOPPING: Our first lunch in Cordoba was in our hotel, Las Casas de la Juderia. It was by far one of the best places here to eat. Although not typical Spanish dish, we loved every single dish we ordered from fish soup to creamy rice with Cuttlefish, to can’t remember all the other dishes. Next lunch was at a Subway near the Mezquita and dinner was a quick Indian/Middle-Eastern restaurant in the old town. As I mentioned, the town gets really quiet around 8 or 9pm. Some of the restaurants close early but we were lucky to find that Indian restaurant at 10pm when most of the places were closed.
Cordoba’s old town is packed with many shops and boutiques. You will find generic souvenirs to elegant designer stores here. Some souvenirs to buy from here can be Spanish potteries, t-shirts with calligraphy, and Islamic arts. We bought two Flamenco dresses for our girls for about 10 euros each…they loved it for its vibrant colors and unique design.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had a day and half in Cordoba. Walking is the best way to get around. Old district of Cordoba is a beautiful place to roam around and get lost in small alleys. Most of the interesting places are located here and can be covered on foot. The Mosque Cathedral is the center point of this quarter and the old city surrounds this prominent establishment. We couldn’t visit the synagogue, it was very close to our hotel in the old town but when we walked there, it was already closed by then. The synagogue is from the early 14th century and one of only three remaining in Spain. May be another interesting place we could have visited was Museum of Al-Andalus Life. All of the following places we visited in Cordoba were in the old town. Best part of being here was that on the 2nd day, we walked some small alleys and different neighborhoods in the old district without a map. It was fantastic passing by beautiful shops, restaurants, and old buildings. You don’t see too many tourists here, may be some…but saw mostly locals. Here are all the places we could cover in a day and half.
1) SAN RAFAEL’S TRIUMPH: After checking-in at our hotel and having a fantastic lunch, it was late afternoon by then. We started walking towards Mezquita, the center point of Cordoba. Passed Mezquita and walked a bit further to reach the Roman Bridge. San Rafael’s Triumph is a pretty nice and tall sculpture in a small square at one end of Roman Bridge (on the Mezquita side) in Plaza del Triumfo. Some old buildings and the cathedral surround the square. We eventually came back here again and sat down for an hour on the next day just enjoying the bridge, river, and people…loved it.
2) ROMAN BRIDGE (Puente Romano): This is one of the best spots of Cordoba to enjoy some nature. It is truly beautiful having shallow River Guadalquivir running underneath and looking at historic Mezquita. It is a pedestrian bridge from the Roman time in Cordoba, think from 1st or 2nd century. This has to be perfect place to take some sunrise/sunset photos.
At one end, on the cathedral side, is the triumphal arch Bridge Gateway, located few steps away from San Rafael Triumph. From the bridge you can see the old Albolafia’s Waterwheel, looked like an old water pump or something. On the other side of the bridge is Calahora Tower which houses a museum. The snapshot is gorgeous from this side of the bridge. You can lay your eyes over the whole old town, can see the bridge and its arches, and the flowing river. It is a picturesque sight that shouldn’t be missed. We walked along the river (keeping it on the right side) and came back to city center via the next bridge, called San Rafael Bridge. It was a long walk, but was worth every step. We leisurely went back to our hotel stopping at some points to take in the beautiful atmosphere…enjoyed it much.
3) FORTRESS of the KINGS (ALCAZAR de los REYES CRISTIANOS): Next morning, we started our day with a visit to Fortress of the Kings, which we could see from our hotel windows.
Originally the fortress was built in the 8th century as a caliphate residence. Later it was used as residence and fortress of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. It was expanded by the order of King Alfonso XI in 1328 and was the residence of the Christian Kings when they stayed in Cordoba. The main façade of it is original along with couple towers. Some important undertakings have been planned inside this building such as the discovery of America or the reconquest of Granada. Interesting Gothic tower vaults, patios, and baths were built under the reign of King Alfonso XI. During the Modern Ages, it was the seat of the Inquisition. The Baroque chapel was built in the 17th century which was used as a prison building in the 19th century. In the 20th century when the chapel was bought by the Town Council, it then provided with gardens and decorated with Roman mosaics and other historical items.
The main attraction of the Alcazar is the prettiest fountains and lush gardens with many orange trees all around. We spent more than an hour just in the garden walking and enjoying every corner of it. You can see the Moorish influence here too, especially with the fountains and little courtyards. The weather helped too, otherwise it wouldn’t have been fun walking outside.
Make sure to climb the towers for a great views and walk along the old walls. There are some small museums and displays here and there where you can see Roman mosaics, sculptures, and some old findings from this place.
It is 4:50 euros per adult to enter the fortress. You need at least 2 hours to see it fully…don’t rush, otherwise you’ll regret later.
4) THE ROYAL STABLE and EQUASTRIAN/FLAMENCO SHOW: Royal Stable is the next building beside the Alcazar and that’s where we headed for our next stop. It is free to enter. You can see some pure breed of Spanish horses in the current stable. In the old stable many elegant and decorative carriages are in display that the royals once used many centuries ago.
The Royal Stable also hosts daily Equestrian show with Flamenco performance. We were thinking of attending a Flamenco show but this sounded even better. We bought the ticket right away and came back at night for the show. Various types of tricks and plays by different horses are shown here. Two ladies performed Flamenco with the horses. Our daughters loved the show and were very excited about it. They had beautiful arrangements with lights and Flamenco music, a great experience for all of us.
It was 15 euros per adult and 10 euros for kids 3-12 years old. The show started at 8pm and was for an hour. It’s better to buy the tickets ahead of time, may be that morning…because it was quite packed in the auditorium.
5) BATHS of CALIPHATE in ALCAZAR (Banos del Alcazar Califal): As we were walking towards the old town leaving Royal Stable behind, we saw the sign for Baths of Caliphate on our right…sounded interesting and off we went to explore.
Located opposite of Alcazar and the Royal Stable, these Arabic baths most likely belonged to the now disappeared Umayyad dynasty. The oldest elements and decorative designs are from the times of Caliphate of Cordoba in 10th century. It is inside Umayyad Alcazar, the residence of Amirs and Caliphs and the seat of governors until the conquest of Cordoba by the Catholic monarchs. These baths were discovered in 1903 and finally in 2002, after a long restoration period, the modern building was designed where they are now housed. These consist of several rooms with stone walls. Four of them have vaults with star-shaped skylights supported by horseshoe arches on marble columns.
The baths of the Caliphate Alcazar are a good illustration of the immense archeological heritage dating back to the Umayyad period. It’s a fine example of palace architecture in the service of the Amirs and Caliphs and a model that was to be followed in Spanish-Muslim art for centuries to come. The Andalusian baths, the descendants of the thermal baths of classical times, were for the purification of the body as well as for hygiene and cosmetic treatment. They were also a place for enjoyment and social relations. There were royal, public, and private baths. Royal baths received more attention on the decoration which could be architectural or using luxurious materials. And public baths were designed to cater for more users. These royal baths were to serve the Caliph, who could use them for himself, his family or as a political meeting place. In the baths, there took place a whole ritual for the cosmetic, physical, and therapeutic care of the Caliphs.
In these baths, tourists can see the changing rooms, cold rooms, warm rooms, and hot rooms. The heart of the baths was in the service area, with the furnace and boiler. Here, the heat, water, and steam supply to the inside of the baths were maintained.
Couple tragic historic events took place in one of the baths here in the early 11th century. The Caliph of Moroccan origin, Ali Ibn Hammud, was slayed by three of his slaves in one of the halls here. Another event, took place few year later, was the capture and execution of the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Rahman V by the people of Córdoba, in the same hall.
Although in ruins now, visitors can see the original furnace, hot rooms, cold rooms, original walls from the 10th century, a small museum displaying findings from this site, and few rooms from the 12th and 13th century.
Ticket is 2:50 euros per adult, kids are free. Don’t miss the videos that give brief history on this historical site.
6) OLD CITY WALL and PUERTA de ALMODOVAR: Almodovar Gate was one of the original gates to enter the old town. After our visit to the baths, we started walking along the old city wall and came in front of this old gate of Almodovar. You enter the historic city center upon entering this gate. Cordoba has one of the most beautiful and well-preserved old parts in Spain. We started walking on the cobble-stoned alleys towards the cathedral without any map. Getting lost is half the fun, you get to see old houses, narrow alleys, beautiful stores, and cafes.
7) CORDOBA CATHEDRAL or MEZQUITA: Also known as the Mosque Cathedral, it is the biggest attraction of Cordoba and a massive building that deserves major attention. It is the live witness of Cordoba’s past days. It was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1984. This building has been a hallowed ground throughout the history of the city.
Historically, Basilica of St. Vincent stood in this very spot around early 4th century AD (Visigoth Period). The floor plan with its heavy columns and the Greco-Roman order of the whole monument date from the Hellenistic tradition of the Mediterranean world. When Andalusia came under Muslim rules, Amir Abd Al-Rahman I built the primitive mosque in 786 AD that would come to be considered the most important sanctuary of Islam in the Western world. This impressive creation was the site of not only religious but also social, cultural, and political manifestations. Later the mosque was successively extended and adorned by Muslim governors over the few centuries until 976 AD. When the city was reconquered by Christians in 1236, it was converted to the Cathedral of the Blessed Mary. In 1523, they tried to change the interior design of this place giving an ingenious integration of the Moorish structures with the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque creation. But despite being a cathedral now, most of the original mosque structure remained remarkably well-preserved.
The highlight of this place is its countless columns that cover the whole interior with signature red and white striped arches designed in Islamic style. These columns are standing for centuries rows after rows almost as far as you can see.
The original “Mihrab” of the mosque is intact ‘til today with its beautiful mosaics and the well-preserved vaulted skylights. It was the focus of the mosque which faces the direction of “Ka’ba” in Mecca and at which every Muslim face at the time of prayers.
The main chapel and choir are from the early 17th century. The Royal Chapel hold the remains of King Ferdinand IV and Alfonso XI. The main altar in the middle of this building is an extremely gorgeous focus point.
Minaret in the courtyard that is now embedded in the tower of the cathedral, dates back to the reign of Abd-Ar-Rahman III. Looking over the old town, the top of belfry (from the 16th century) is presently crowned by a sculpture of San Rafael, the archangel guardian of the city. Below the tower is Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness), the main entrance to the precincts. The Muslim courtyard was remodeled with the construction of the cloisters. In the 15th century, palm trees were replaced with orange trees and gave its name as “The Orange Tree Courtyard” or “Patio de los Naranjos”. A grove of orange trees are planted in nicely organized rows in this courtyard. This part of the complex is free to enter and anyone can enjoy it without going inside the cathedral.
The cathedral’s mission was not the destroy the magnificent interior of the previous mosque, rather it ensured that the cathedral, old Western Caliphate Mosque, and World Heritage Site are not in a pile of ruins. The authorities tried to safeguard and inspire culture and art. That’s why you can still see lots of Islamic calligraphy and artworks inside the cathedral. This is one of the most magnificent religious building I’ve seen so far.
Entrance fee is 8 euros per adult and kids are free.
8) FLOWER STREET (Calleja de las Flores): The last thing on our itinerary was this cute little street. The name tells your how beautiful this street can be. It’s a cozy passageway in the old town decorated with fresh flowers in colorful pots hanging from both sides of the wall. At the end there is a tiny square/courtyard from where you can see the bell tower of the cathedral. There were few shops selling souvenirs and local trinkets. We were there in February, think in summer this street looks even prettier with more fresh blooms.