Monday, December 16, 2013

¡Viva España! Cordoba and its Mezquita

Having finally boarded the bus, I was on my way to Cordoba.

The bus ride took a little less than three hours, and passed through some pretty country side, with an occasional random castle on a hill.  I was fairly tired, however, so I mostly napped.  When I awoke, I struck up a conversation with a Spanish college student who wanted to practice English.  Cordoba was his home town, and he suggested several places to eat and drink.  I couldn’t really follow him very well so I mostly just smiled and nodded.  Our conversation about soccer was more comprehensible (and more animated) when I told him I was a Barca fan, a team he dismissed as a bunch of prima donnas.

I arrived in Cordoba around 2:30 pm.  I spent one night in Cordoba, a town with a celebrated Moorish past.  It was once an Islamic cultural hub, standing as a city of light and tolerance during Europe's dark ages.  The must-see highlight is the Mezquita, a medieval Islamic mosque that was built atop a former Christian church.  When the Christians expelled the Moors from Spain, they converted the Mezquita back into a church, building a grand cathedral smack inside the middle of the mosque.  The Mezquita offers a rare and well preserved view of medieval Islamic design.  In addition, the building holds so much history and, maybe even more than Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, gives visitors a rare juxtaposition of the two major world religions. 

Upon arriving in Cordoba, I decided to walk to my hotel from the bus station.  Surely my Spanish navigation was better by now.  Just to be safe, I had consulted Google maps and also wrote down the directions from the hotel website.  Within one block from the bus station, however, I was already sadly disoriented.  Luckily, I found myself in front of a different hotel, and I went inside and spoke to the concierge, who gave me better directions and a tourist map.  It appeared that the hotel was a bit farther than I thought.  However, the day was bright and warm, making it a pleasant 15 minute walk (although the occasional cobblestone walkway played havoc with the wheels on my rolling luggage).

The first thing that struck me about Cordoba were the orange trees.  They were everywhere!  I later learned that the fruit really doesn’t taste that good, but the trees were pretty nonetheless.  I took my time walking to the hotel, snapping photos along the way.

I booked myself into the Hotel Don Paula, which is a very basic hotel but also centrally located and within walking distance to everything.  I couldn’t complain for only 45 euros, other than the fact that I found neither the staff's breakfast nor dinner recommendations very good.

I was a bit hungry given the late hour.  I had started the morning with a large breakfast, but I had only a small snack on the bus.  Craving some Spanish tapas, I asked the hotel staff for nearby recommendations.  I stumbled around looking for the restaurant, and quickly (and perhaps predictably) got lost.  Cordoba has modern buildings and squares that run into older small side streets which still retain its Moorish past, so I blame the winding streets and the poor map.  The Mezquita closes at 6pm, and the afternoon sunlight seemed great for photos.  So after some futility, I opted to ignore my grumbling and rumbling stomach and headed straight to the former mosque.  

I saw the Mezquita's Christian bell tower from several blocks away, but it didn’t register to me that the tower was actually part of the Mezquita until I got closer.  Of course, I had read about the Mezquita ahead of time, but the only photos I had seen were the famous interior Islamic arches.  I had not anticipated that the exterior would be equally fabulous.  Apparently, the beautiful courtyard with its trees was the first designed to provide shade in any mosque.  

It was a beautiful afternoon just to sit peacefully in the courtyard.  Eventually, I bought my ticket and went inside.  I spent a long time wandering around the Islamic part of the building, admiring the arches and thankful of the paucity of visitors.  The arches appeared to go on forever, seeming to reflect God's eternity.  I could see how the mosque provided an intimate and peaceful place to worship.

The Christian cathedral in the middle of the Mezquita was a jarring contrast.  If the mosque represented simplicity, the cathedral represented grandeur.  The word "worship" can have different nuances, and the Mezquita eloquently captures the dissimilarity between the two religious views.

As I compared and contrasted the two religious themes, I found myself drawn more to the mosque than to the church side.  This was not a religious reaction, but an artistic one.  At least in that moment, I preferred open simplicity to elaborate grandeur, and intimacy to formality.

The sun was still out when I finished, so I decided to walk around the nearby medieval and Jewish quarters.  The neighborhoods seemed a bit too touristy for my taste, and I didn't bother with too many photos.  The walkway around the river with its Roman bridges was also pretty, and I managed to find the famous “flower pot” alley that all the post cards show to highlight Mezquita’s bell tower.

By now, my eyes and head were happy, but my stomach was not.  Its grumbling increased, but I kept it waiting with each different photo op in the soft afternoon light.

I eventually stopped for some beer.  The free tapas weren't exactly filling, but they managed to keep the hunger at bay.  For whatever reason, I always enjoy beer more when sitting outside in a foreign city on a nice day.

By this time, the sun was beginning to set and the temperature was getting noticeably cooler.  I had already decided that the river side might provide some great sunset shots, and I got lucky as some para-gliders decided to accent my photo just as the sun was setting.  I headed to the square for some final afternoon shots before I surrendered to my stomach’s increasingly strident demands to be fed a real meal.

The hotel staff had strongly recommended Taberna Del Rio, which was by the river.  I got there a little early and sat outdoors sipping my beer until the kitchen opened.  By now, however, the weather had gotten particularly chilly, and I had to move closer to the outdoor heater so I wouldn’t shiver while waiting.

I asked the waiter for recommendations, and he pointed out two Cordoban specialities: a cold creamy soup and some fried ham thingy.  I disliked them both.  The dishes reminded me more of cafeteria food than anything.  The meal was affordable, at about 20 euros including a couple beers.  The food quieted my hunger but I cannot recommend this place at all.

No longer famished, and a bit rested, I decided to roam around for some night shots.  I retraced my steps along the river and medieval areas.  I made my way to the more modern squares as well, and spent sometime people watching until it got too cold for me.  Eventually, I wandered back to my hotel and fell asleep.

I woke up the next day hungry.  The hotel doesn't offer breakfast, but they recommended a nearby cafe.  I had unmemorable coffee and toast for less than 3 euros, and then went off to explore.  I was headed to the fort, which offered free admission this morning, but took my time peeking here and there along the way, including at the many flowery private home patios of which Cordobans are so proud.

Eventually I reached the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos.  I wasn't that impressed, but it was free and relatively empty.  To my surprise, I liked the gardens more than the fort, even on this cloudy day.  That made me wonder if I had made a mistake in skipping the gardens at the Alhambra in Granada.  Yet another reason to return to Spain?

Afterwards, I went back to my hotel and checked out.  I walked to the train station (which is adjacent to the bus station) to head on to my next Spanish destination, Seville.  I arrived a bit early, and noticed that I could catch an earlier train.  I tried speaking to customer service to exchange my ticket, but my language skills utterly failed me this time.  It wasn't a big deal, so I just sat in the waiting area for another 30 minutes checking email.

I was glad that I came to Cordoba and saw the Mezquita.  Other than that, however, I found the town unremarkable.  Certainly, there were some very nice photo ops, particularly along the river and the old Roman bridge.  But in contrast to my wanderings in Granada's Albayzin or Barcelona's Barri Gothic, for example, I found much of the medieval quarter way too touristy and a bit boring.  Still, the Mezquita made Cordoba a worthwhile destination. 

I was now about half way through my exploration of Spain, with Seville and Madrid still to come.  I liked what I had seen of the country so far.  It was so different from my fly in-fly out exposure to the country in years past.

I was also struck by the following.  Wow, trains in Spain area really nice.  The seats are so much better than on Amtrak back home, and the fares much more affordable.  Maybe the Spaniards can teach us a thing or two about infrastructure.

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