What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the South of Spain? The Costa Del Sol? Resorts like Marbella and Torremolinos? Not for me. In my opinion, the best three things about the Costa Del Sol are Malaga Airport, Malaga Train station, and the Autovía Del Sur, as long as it’s heading in a northbound direction. If you really want to experience southern Spain then you have to head inland. It’s there that you’ll find flamenco culture, an Arabic legacy, spectacular cities and gastronomic excellence. All of these things are present in abundance in Córdoba, the city that I called home for eighteen months. It’s not as big and stylish as Sevilla. Nor is it as enviably located as Granada. What it is though is one of the most beautiful cities in all of Spain, if not Europe.
Where to go
Córdoba has been a significant city since Roman times. It’s therefore no surprise that most of its principal attractions are historical ones. First and foremost on most tourists list is the magnificent Mezquita-catedral. This stunning structure was built as a Mosque in the 8th century in the heyday of the Arabic kingdom of Al-Andalus. When Córdoba was re-conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, the building was adopted as a Catholic cathedral, which it is still used as today. Muslim style archways dominate the majority of the interior, whereas the Cathedral sits in the very centre, complete with an extremely elaborate altar. It’s an amazing juxtaposition and one that must be fairly unique in the world. As stunning as the interior of La Mezquita is, the building is at its best when viewed from outside. The views from the other side of the very dubiously named “Puente Romano” (Roman Bridge) are particularly spectacular.
The narrow winding streets around La Mezquita are known as La Juderia; a reference to a time when there was also a significant Jewish community in Cordoba. The streets of La Judería are home to plenty of tourist shops and some excellent restaurants. On the edge of these streets, about two hundred metres from La Mezquita, you’ll find Córdoba’s other main tourist attraction, El Alcazar. An Alcazar is a type of fortress and you will find one in most Spanish cities. Indeed, Sevilla’s Alcazar is currently being used as the Dornish Water Gardens on “Game of Thrones.” At Córdoba’s Alcazar the building itself isn’t that spectacular. What does take the breath away though is the gardens. If there’s a more spectacular set of gardens in Europe, then I’m yet to find them. I may be biased but I think that they even beat The Water Gardens! At the centre of the gardens, another hint of Córdoba’s auspicious past can be found; a statue of Christopher Columbus petitioning Los Reyes Cristianos (The Christian Monarchs) Ferdinand and Isabelle. It was from this building that he planned his voyage to Asia, when he accidentally “discovered” America and claimed it for the glory of Spain.
Other than these two main attractions, the best thing to do in Córdoba is just to wander the streets for a while. It’s such a photogenic city that glorious photo opportunities pop up around most corners. One rainy day option worthy of mention though is the Archaeological Museum. This provides an interesting insight to Córdoba’s many historical places of interest.
Where to eat
Córdoba is packed full of fabulous little tavernas that serve the local favourites of salmorejo (a chilled tomato soup) and rabo de toro (stewed oxtail). There’s so many of these that to recommend just one or two would be futile. However, there is one place that every tourist in Cordoba should go to eat or drink. That place is the fabulous Plaza de la Corredera, which was recently voted as Spain’s favourite plaza. It’s easy to see why. On spring and autumn afternoons, and summer evenings it feels like the whole city is out on the Plaza. Many of my fondest memories of my time in Córdoba involve La Corredera, an ice cold beer and a few tapas. Simple yet wonderful. There’s a reason why people rave about the quality of life in Spain.
When to go
If I said that Córdoba is a good year round destination, I’d be lying. Based on summer time temperatures alone, Córdoba is Europe’s hottest city. The mercury has been known to tip over fifty degrees on occasion. For this reason, many of the local population decamp to the beaches in July and August. This is not the time to visit! The best time of year to visit Córdoba, by a considerable distance is the month of May. It’s hot but not too hot. It’s also the time of the year when the city is in party mood. May starts with Las Cruces Mayo, a truly bizarre event when ornately decorated crosses spring up all over the city for three days. It’s officially a religious event, but for most people it just seems like an excuse to get pissed in the street. Next to all the crosses are bars selling beers and rebujitos, a cocktail made of sherry style fortified wine and sprite. Naturally.
As May continues, the Patios competition commences. Many houses take part in this competition to see who can have the most ornately decorated courtyard. Again, it sounds bizarre but it’s a beautiful spectacle, and tourists flock from all over Spain to see it.
Both of these events though are just the undercard. The main event of May is La Feria. This is when the Cordobés really let their hair down and party HARD for ten solid days. On a large patch of wasteland near the football stadium a fairground is erected. Alongside this, there are dozens of casetas, marquee style tents which serve food and booze and play flamenco or sevillanas. It can be a bit mind boggling at first and some casetas are more receptive to foreigners than others. However, unlike Sevilla’s feria, you don’t need an invitation to enter the casetas. Once you suss out which are the best ones, it’s impossible not to have a great time. One of the best things about Feria is people watching. The majority of the women, of all ages, wear ostentatious flamenco dresses. Some of the guys even dress up gaucho style and arrive on horseback. Truly this is Andalucía.
Córdoba is a pretty compact city. If you aren’t visiting at Feria time, you only really need a couple of days to see the main sights. This is a city that rewards a more leisurely pace though, so why not stay a little longer? Wander the streets. Find a little hidden plaza. Eat some tapas. Drink some red wine. You might just fall in love with the place. I know I did. Cordoba te echo de menos.
For many more ideas of things to do and places to visit in Cordoba, including the sierra that surrounds the city go to http://english.turismodecordoba.org/que-visitar.cfm