Once the largest city in the world under the Moors, Córdoba is a city with an incomparable legacy of great riches …
San Acisclus, San Rafael
Día de La Cruz, 3rd May
Patio Festival, second and third weeks of May
Feria de Córdoba, 9 days of fiesta in late May
Córdoba was the largest city in the world in the tenth century, the thriving capital of Al-Andalus, the name used to describe Moorish Spain which extended throughout almost all of the Iberian Peninsular. In its heyday it was considered the Mecca of the west.
Today it is an extremely attractive provincial town, albeit Spain's tenth largest city with a population of around 325,000. What makes it so very, very special is its wonderful history, which has given the city a legacy of incomparable riches, dominated, of course, by its magnificent Mezquita, the Great Mosque of Córdoba.
Right in the centre of the city, surrounded by the old Jewish and Moorish quarters, The Mezquita of Córdoba is, along with Granada's Alhambra Palace, the finest example of Islamic Art in the Western world. It was the grandest and most beautiful mosque constructed by the Moors in Spain.
When the Christians reconquered the city they were so overwhelmed by its beauty that they could not bring themselves to destroy it (as was their custom, invariably building a church or cathedral on the site of the old mosques). Here they built their Cathedral inside the existing Mosque. It's one of only a handful of man-made places in the world which literally takes your breath away.
Constructed between AD 786 and 988, and it was the place of worship for the rulers of the great western Islamic empire. When Fernando III conquered Cordoba in the 1236, the Mosque was consecrated as a cathedral. Then, in 1523, the cathedral canons ordered the centre of the mosque to be pulled down to make way for a Gothic cathedral, which was later embellished with Renaissance decorations and Baroque choir stalls and pulpits.
Although the Gothic cathedral occupies the centre of the former mosque, large expanses of the original building still remain much the same as they were in the 11th century.
Ironically, it was the Christian conversion of the building to a cathedral that is responsible for its excellent conservation. Other important monuments in the city were plundered for their marble, cut stone and columns over the centuries, and no other mosque survived intact.
The Islamic features which still remain in the Mezquita include the Minaret, now enclosed and reformed into a Baroque bell tower, the Orange Tree Courtyard, the Mihrab and the extensive forest of columns and double arches.
It is an enormous building, still one of the largest buildings in Spain, some 22,000 square meters in area, with high ceilings perched on top of double arches and the towering structure of the cathedral rising from the centre of the original Mosque. It is a unique example of the inter-play of Christian and Moslem cultures in Spain.
Quite apart from the Mesquita, there's much more to discover in Córdoba. A city to be savoured at leisure, it's very picturesque. A town to stroll around, you are sure to come across a little square trickling with a fountain, peaceful courtyards and balconies overflowing with bougainvilleas.
It's an elegant city, large enough to offer a good range of amenities, yet small enough to walk everywhere. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, it's a city which has not lost its soul to modernity or to mass tourism, a place where you can relax in an authentic Andalusian setting.
Wander the tiny streets of the Judería (the Jewish Quarter) with their flower filled patios and one of the last three synagogues still remaining in Spain (the rest were all destroyed following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492).
You should visit the beautiful gardens of the Catholic Kings, El Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos, where Columbus first sought finance for his voyage of discovery from Fernando and Isabella. And a stroll across the Roman bridge past the Arab waterwheels to the other side of the Guadalquivir river is a great spot for a panoramic view of the historical heart of the city which is particularly beautiful at sunset.
There are, of course, plenty of festivals and fiestas. As elsewhere throughout Spain, Holy Week is full of ritual, display and devotion, the costaleros bearing their elaborately depicted biblical scenes on their shoulders through the narrow streets. Thousands of candles and masked penitents lead the way and trail behind, accompanied by music, adding to the solemnity and symbolism.
The city's most emblematic event of the year takes place in early May. The Patio Festival is a unique opportunity to step into the private homes of the townsfolk, when house owners open their patios to the public. One can only marvel at the variety and beauty of these patios, and the loving care which is put into creating them.
Córdoba's patios perhaps best capture the essence of the city and the civic pride of its people; quiet and tranquil spaces, oasis isolated from the hustle and bustle of modern life. The aroma of lemon blossom, the exuberant colours of the flowers, the cool trickle of a fountain …
Las Cruces de Mayo is another spring festival which celebrates the exuberance of life and its triumph over death. It is a massive, lively street party. Neighbourhoods and associations around the city set up crosses in public squares, covering and surrounding them with flowers.
Music, dancing and drinking accompany the festivities, women wear colourful flamenco dresses, people drink chilled Montilla-Moriles wine and the most danced-to songs are "sevillanas".
And then there is La Feria, nine days of merrymaking in late May. During the Fair most businesses close at lunch time, everyone heads off to the fairground and the streets of the city centre are left deserted.
The main attraction are the casetas. These covered areas, with their own bars, kitchens, music and dance floors are set up by social clubs and associations to provide a place for their members, their families and friends to celebrate the week.
Best of all, unlike the famous Sevilla Fair, most casetas in Córdoba are open to non-members. There is something for everyone, and it is fun to go from place to place in search of the best party. And don't forget to finish off your festivities with an early-morning round of churros y chocolate!
Córdoba is more than just churches, palaces, monuments and museums. It is a very special place and a day or two spent wandering its tiny streets, relaxing in its beautiful little squares, drinking in its traditional old bars and dining in its fine restaurants is time very well spent.