Posts Tagged With: history

Córdoba

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.

Mezquita twilight

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.

Alcazar

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.

IMG_1499

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.

TRAVEL TIPS

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

Advertisements
Categories: Córdoba, Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A week in Morocco

There aren’t many countries that can truly say that they offer everything to the tourist. Morocco though, most definitely can. From the soaring peaks of the high Atlas mountains, to windswept sandy beaches, and rolling sand dunes in the Sahara, the landscapes are stunning and varied. Throw in ancient cities, a distinct and delectable cuisine, and the fact that it’s a shopper’s paradise, you can see why it holds such an appeal for so many travellers. Morocco had captured my imagination for a long time before I went there. I sensed my chance to finally go when I got a job in southern Spain in 2011. As soon as I arrived in Andalusia, I was dreaming of what lay across the straits of Gibraltar. The opportunity arose when we had a week off work for Semana Santa, Spain’s Easter week holidays.

Our journey started in our home city of Cordoba. From there we took the train to Algeciras, and then a local bus to Tarifa, where we boarded our ferry to Tangier. There was something gloriously exciting and old-fashioned about travelling between continents by ship. Upon arrival, we checked in at the Hotel Continental, which overlooked the port. The hotel had an air of faded grandeur, which added to the feeling of old-fashioned travel. It was probably THE place to stay in Tangier in a bygone era. After a while, we braved the labyrinthine streets of Tangier’s medina and our senses were assaulted in every way. This was our first taste of North Africa, and the Arab world, and it probably showed. An old man who was dressed like Yoda approached us. Upon hearing that we were from Manchester, he proceeded to tell us that he was a personal friend of Bobby Charlton and had guided him round Tangier in the 1960s. It was almost certainly nonsense but it was highly amusing. After he had finished regaling us with his tales, and quibbling about the tip we gave him, he took us to a local restaurant, which in fairness to Yoda was absolutely outstanding. The subtly spiced Moroccan cuisine would continue to work its magic on us for the entire week.

The next day we left Tangier and headed to Chefchaouen, the blue city in the Rif Mountains. There we stayed at a hostel called Rif for anyone, or Dar Scotlandee to the locals, in reference to the Scottish couple that owned the place. Terry and Suzanne, and their son Liam, were superbly hospitable and had what could be best described as a relaxed and libertarian approach to life. Other than exploring the blue painted medina, the thing to do in Chefchaouen is hike. There are a number of superb trails in the Rif Mountains. Unfortunately for us, bad weather (which was to follow us round for our entire trip) scuppered these plans so three days in Chefchaouen was probably one too many.

Our next destination was Fez. I’ve done a lot of travelling and consequently taken a lot of bus journeys. This was up there with the very worst of them. Admittedly, I’ve never driven a bus. However, for my money, the best way to approach tight winding mountain roads that are covered in potholes, is to take it slowly and carefully. Our bus driver clearly didn’t agree. His approach was to drive like an absolute madman, tearing round each corner at terrifying speeds. All round the bus people were being sick. It was one of the longest five hours of my life!

Fez, when we finally arrived there, was worth all the tortures inflicted on the journey. Going into the medina was like stepping back in time several hundred years. While we were exploring, we were approached by a young man named Hassan, who offered his cousin’s services for a trip to Volubilis. Against every traveller’s instinct we said yes. It turned out to be the best decision we made in our time there. The day trip was the undoubted highlight of our holiday. Volubilis is a remarkably well preserved set of Roman ruins, located about 100 kilometres from Fez. Due to Janey’s archaeological background this was one of the things that she was most looking forward to in Morocco. It certainly didn’t disappoint. The weather conspired against us again though. When we arrived at the ruins, the skies were blue. Within a few minutes, they had turned to black and a thunderous downpour ensued. At times it felt more like we were in North Wales than North Africa! The other two destinations that we visited on our day trip provided an interesting contrast. The small town of Moulay Idriss is auspicious for Muslims. However, it didn’t feel very welcoming to tourists and we were glad to be back in the car after a few minutes. Meknes on the other hand was a delight. The buildings were charming and we ate some spectacular street food for an obscenely low price. Said, Hassan’s cousin, also proved to be an excellent driver and guide.

After the tour, we were left with one more day in Fez. Janey, who had been holding back until now, went in search of souvenirs. I normally hate shopping with a passion but in Fez it was awesome! In Morocco haggling is obligatory and I loved it. Every transaction gave me the chance to test my skills against a true expert of the art. Overall, I think I did quite well. My haggling skills probably saved us a total of about fifty euros which is not a bad result when battling with the best!

Before we arrived back in Spain, there was time for one more challenge. We needed to get an overnight train from Fez to Tangier, so as to get the morning ferry back to Tarifa. This was made particularly tricky by our Riad’s refusal to organise a taxi for us. Therefore, we had to venture out into the Fez night to find one for ourselves. Thankfully after a few minutes we were successful, and all I had to do was stay awake until we had to change trains at Sidi Kacem. Eighteen hours after leaving the Riad we arrived back at our flat in Cordoda. This journey seemed to encapsulate our entire trip to Morocco. It was hard work, absolutely exhausting but utterly exhilarating.

TRAVEL TIPS

In Fez we stayed at a Riad called Riad Lalla Fatima. Upon first glance it looked beautiful. However, it turned out to be a dreadful place to stay. Firstly, at no other hotel or hostel in the world have the staff told me that they can’t organise a taxi, no matter what time I was leaving. Furthermore, on our final night we ordered a home cooked meal. Janey has been vegetarian for nearly twenty years. She was therefore highly distressed, and violently sick, when she discovered that her vegetarian couscous had chicken in it. Instead of apologising for the mistake, the staff had the gall to deny the visibly obvious. If I gave this place a 1 out of 10 rating it would be generous. Don’t stay there.

Categories: A week in Morocco, Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Exploring Angkor

It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing this blog. It’s over two months since I visited Angkor. Part of that is down to the fact that I’ve been doing A LOT of travelling. More importantly though, when somewhere is as stunning and world-renowned as Angkor Wat, how can one person encapsulate in words what makes it so special? It is such an awe-inspiring place though that I feel obliged to try. Firstly, let’s dispel a common misnomer. Angkor Wat is the name for only one of the temples. There are actually more than fifty ancient ruins scattered outside the town of Siem Reap. The area is so large, and the temples so multitudinous that to see them properly really requires three days. Fortunately though, a three day pass is excellent value at just $40 US. Our hostel was able to organise a tuk-tuk driver to drive us to and from the temples.  This was a good decision as it was really cheap and many of the sites are quite far apart, which makes going there independently challenging, except by bicycle, which we weren’t feeling energetic enough for unfortunately.

On our first day we visited the Roluos group of temples. These are the furthest away from Siem Reap and are notable for predating most of the more well-known temples. They are also much less crowded, making it a gentle introduction to the ruins. Later that day we took a boat trip, to see a floating village, on the Tonle Sap lake. This took 2 hours and was interesting for about 2 minutes. It was also extremely overpriced at $20. If you find yourself in the area don’t waste your time or money!

Our second day was the classic sunrise to sunset day that most visitors to Angkor will enjoy during their visit. We left our hostel at 5am. The purpose of this was to be able to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise. As the main facade of the temple faces west, the sun rises from behind, making for some truly spectacular photo opportunities.  Every other tourist in Siem Reap has the same idea though so if you want a good view be prepared to get there very early. Once the sun had risen, we ventured inside the temple which is truly humungous. It’s a strange thing to admit but my first thought was that it reminded me of the old temple where King Louis lives in the Jungle Book. An encounter with some particularly aggressive simians did little to dispel that opinion! In all seriousness though, Angkor Wat is as stunning on the inside as it is on the outside.  It is well worth its exalted reputation.

Our next stops after Angkor Wat, were the temples of Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm. When Angkor was rediscovered by French explorers in the 19th century they made the decision to leave Ta Prohm in exactly the condition that they found it, rather than try to clear the vegetation and the huge trees that have stretched their twisted, gnarled roots over the temple walls. This makes it extremely atmospheric. Ta Prohm also owes its fame to being used for the Tomb Raider film. However, not being a fan of rubbish movies that are based on computer games (have you seen Streetfighter?!) this didn’t really make much difference to me.

The final temple we visited before lunch was Ta Keo. This is a massive 50m high pyramid shaped structure, which towers over the rest of the temples. It is also surprisingly reminiscent of Mayan and Aztec ruins. After a tough scramble up the vertiginous steps we were rewarded with some breathtaking views when we reached the top. I was also imagining, probably erroneously the brutal sacrifices which may or may not have taken place up there. Which is perfectly normal of course.

After a delicious lunch of Amok (similar to a Thai green curry but less spicy) and rice we continued our visit to Angkor Thom. This was actually a vast city in its own right, and is in my opinion, even more spectacular than it’s more well-known sibling. It is home to some evocatively named places such as the terrace of the leper King and the elephant parade. The centrepiece though is a temple called the Bayon, the veneer of which is adorned with 37 giant head statues, which even now manage to retain an air of intimidation.  Going to Angkor Thom in the afternoon was also a very good idea as there were much fewer people, and some areas were also almost deserted. This made it the highlight of the day for me.

Our epic day culminated with a hike through the jungle to Phnom Bakheng temple to watch the sunset from an elevated position. Upon reflection, it wasn’t worth expending the energy. Overly officious security guards, and the predictable scrum for photos, made it an anti-climactic end to an otherwise fantastic day. The  best thing about Phnom Bakheng was that as soon as the sun descended below the clouds, a gust of wind whistled through the temple, there was a loud crack of thunder and a spectacular rainstorm ensued, which made the tuk-tuk ride back to town a rather memorable experience, although somewhat traumatic for our poor driver Kaka!

282

The sunrise to sunset day is pretty gruelling. Walking around for twelve hours in very hot heat means it’s not for everyone. Those that want to visit but don’t feel like they have the requisite energy could either miss out sunset or just space it out more over the three days.  Whilst drinking an extremely well earned beer in Siem Reap that night, I reflected on the exhausting but exhilarating day. I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot and visit some awe-inspiring places. Angkor was up there with the very best of them, such as Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. I would encourage anybody to go there and experience it for themselves.

TRAVEL TIPS

We stayed in the excellent Tropical Breeze guest house. This is just a short walk to the town centre, and had extremely helpful staff.

Categories: Angkor, Asia, Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.