Cordoba, an Earthly Paradise

I knew it wouldn’t be easy to map out my destinations in El Andaluz for this trip, I simply don’t have enough time to do justice the region unless I maintain a highly disciplined approach. Rhonda has had to be crossed off the list due to railway disruption, Antiquerra and Jerez were never my personal favourites, Seville is just too big and Grenada? Well, Granada would be a bit of a problem because I made three or four visits while I had family living in the region and retain some absolutely magical memories of the fountains and flower gardens of the Alhambra palace, set against the glorious backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Although it was always busy with visitors, I can remember when it was possible to stroll back up the hill and take in the evening view after the tourists had left, in fact I have a set of watercolours of just such views on my bedroom wall at home. Do I really want to taint these recollections with the today’s world of timed tickets, audio-guides and mile upon mile of souvenir shops? Perhaps not.

I chose to re-visit Cordoba instead and booked the only available budget single room in the whole city, pleading with the staff to keep the doors open until 2215h as my train didn’t get in until 2145h. The train was only ten minutes late and all would have been well if the taxi driver hadn’t taken me to the Hotel Azahar instead of the Hostel Azahar, where I looked up at the four expensive stars above the doorway and visualised myself having to find somewhere to sleep out on the streets. Some loud complaining and a few phone calls established that there would still be a place for me with my original booking and we set off again through the narrow medieval streets in search of the correct destination. The taxi driver had the good grace to look surprised when I thrust a few Euros at him before he drove off.

My pretty little single room at this pretty little hotel was more than comfortable enough but it wasn’t until I got up the following morning in search of breakfast that all was revealed. I was actually situated dead centre of the old town on a street that was closed to traffic and ran right alongside the Great Mosque, the pinacle of Moorish architecture in Europe. Furthermore, from 0830h to 0930h admittance was free so I grabbed a quick coffee at the corner bakery and set out to re-visit one of the most iconic destinations on this, or any, European itinerary. Inside, a seemingly endless forest of arches and columns defines the impression that this magnificent building leaves upon the visitor. A creation of the 10th century Umayyad caliphate it will always remain despite the brutal insertion of the 16th century Renaissance Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption slap bang in the middle.

However many fussily gilded chapels and gloomy oil paintings of their saints and martyrs the Christians added over the centuries (and, being Spanish, they certainly did their best), the essential ambiance remains that of the dignified splendour of an unknowable god. Controversy still reigns over the designation of this peerless monument, the Vatican only authorising a change of name to the “Mosque – Cathedral” as late as 2010 and still refusing to permit it to be used for Muslim worship to this day. Apparently the Visigoths may have had a small church on the site sometime in the 7th century and to some people that “we were here fist” argument justifies any sort of religious intolerance. Fortunately, nowadays most of us can recognise a Mosque when we see it.

Staff back at the tiny hotel could not offer me breakfast or another night’s rest as the city was well and truly booked up for a festival on the following day but they kindly offered to keep my luggage and invited me to pop back for tea and cakes later that afternoon. I sat under the stairs in the cramped foyer and used their free wifi to plan out my day. As well as walking the old walls of the city and looking out over the Roman Bridge across the Guadalquivir river, I would be able to visit the Alcazar de los Reyes Christianos (palace), the Banos Caliphales (Muslim baths), the 14th century synagogue and the Casa de Saphared (Jewish museum) and all before heading up to the station for the 2148h fast train to Madrid.

While struggling with a very complicated history (the peaceful reign of the Umayyads was replaced by an altogether less tolerant caliphate in the 11th Century; the Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews took place in the 15th Century, three hundred years after the Christian Reconquista) I gave myself up to the delightful golden stone of all the beautifully restored buildings and the exquisite fountains and pools of those matchless Andalusian gardens. I may have failed to grasp which of the “Christian Kings” had commissioned his palace in such an unashamedly Islamic style but one of the gardeners managed to explain to me why he was irrigating the patchwork of small flower beds in which a series of new rose bushes had just been planted. So! that is where the whole idea of subdividing gardens into small patterned beds came from. All those fancy Tudor knot gardens and classical Louise Quatorze are actually “Arabesque” after all. It seems it is a tradition which sprang from a need to cover the roots with water in the early spring in preparation for the rigours of a hot dry Summer to come. “Blanco o Tinto?” I asked, pointing at the stubby little bushes. He smiled at my use of wine descriptions for the possible rose colours and exclaimed “Naranja!” as if orange could be the only permissible choice.

The story of Maimonides, great rabbi, physician and philosopher of the 12th Century deserves to be far more widely told. In fact, I wonder if I would even have heard of him had I not been a frequent visitor to this part of Spain in my youth. Alas, he lived after the all-too-brief period of religious tolerance for which this region is so often lauded and a series of pogroms meant he had to escape Cordoba and flee to Egypt. There he wrote his seminal work, the appropriately named “Guide for the Perplexed” and, while he was not the first to practise cataract surgery (primitive techniques were around in ancient Greece) he must have been very successful as there is an ophthalmology clinic named after him in New York to this day. I was pleased to see that the Sephardic Museum had also mounted an excellent exhibition telling the story of several important Jewish women scholars and poets, a series of fascinating characters whose rediscovery is long overdue.

The persecution that forced Maimonides to flee was instigated by the Muslims and not by the Christians (this is before the reconquest, remember) and Islamic history here takes an altogether less peaceful turn. A series of betrayals and clandestine liaisons set the brothers of the Almohad dynasty against each other and one of the caliph’s sons was slaughtered in the baths (presumably one of the guards was paid off). Graphic descriptions remain to tell visitors how he fled from room to room to meet his end in a suitably bloodthirsty manner in the steam room. The various ruling families of each province of El Andaluz seem to have been involved in the conspiracy one way or the other and I’m really looking forward to tracking down a decent novelization. Perfect for Summer reading, it will probably be the thickness of a house-brick.

This short but almost perfect visit to Cordoba was a wonderful opportunity to re-connect with a part of Europe that I came to love as a child and have held close to my heart ever since. Even though, in truth, it was probably never the multi-cultural and religiously tolerant “Spanish Camelot” of my imagination. A distasteful memory has just surfaced of my French Catholic grandmother pointing out some curly haired urchins and saying “Arab blood, of course” but we have none of us have much to be proud of when our history comes under the microscope. Spain is just….well, Spain. Take it or leave it.

Categories: Europe

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