One of the disadvantages of planning as you go when it comes to travel is that the logistics don’t always end up being quite as convenient as they might have been. When I booked our cute little house near Granada, the only thing we had planned to do for sure was to visit the Alhambra. From which point of view, renting a house a half hour away made all kinds of sense. However, when you zoom out on Andalucía, you notice that Granada isn’t exactly centrally located. Córdoba, for instance, is three hours away by car. Fortunately, we like road-tripping as much as other forms of travel. The rest of the family humoured me by getting out the door pretty early for a vacation. We arrived in Córdoba around eleven, at least once we had made a few wrong turns and parked our car.
Córdoba’s historic centre is my favourite in Spain. It is beautifully preserved, and the picturesque part covers quite a large area; in fact, it’s the largest urban UNESCO World Heritage site in the world.
Our first destination was the spectacular Mesquita–Córdoba’s main mosque-turned cathedral. Think the Hagia Sophia, but in reverse. Visiting the Mesquita is a surreal experience. When you first enter, you’re in a dimly lit mosque with double arches built on Roman pillars. This part was built by the exiled Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman, who escaped the Abbasid massacre of his entire family in Damascus, fled across north Africa gathering followers, and finally landed in Spain and founded a dynasty that ruled Iberia for centuries.
The rest of the perimeter of the building follows his style, although the remainder was built by various of his successors, and lacks the somber ambiance and artistry of the original.
The qibla (the heart of the mosque, which points toward Mecca; or in this case, doesn’t quite) is still intact, and it’s quite breathtaking.
They’ve also done a significant amount of excavation to uncover a previous Christian basilica. There’s a place where you can see the original tiled mosaic floor, several feet below the current floor, and artifacts from the basilica are on display inside the Mesquita. But the most arresting feature of the building is the soaring Christian cathedral, which rises incongruously in the centre. It is impossible to describe the disorienting feeling of walking suddenly through an archway from the peaceful stillness of the mosque into the brilliantly lit cathedral.
As a lapsed Mormon, I don’t belong to either of the two faith traditions represented here. Yet both spaces feel somehow holy to me, in entirely different ways. On the one hand, it seems appalling to disturb the warm stillness of the mosque, and terribly sad to me that Muslims aren’t allowed to pray there. And yet, I can’t wish away the intricate, bright loveliness of the cathedral either. It’s like being caught at the centre of a strange hiccup in time and space, the ultimate feeling of being in two places at once. And a fitting metaphor for our conflicted world, where Muslims and Christians find themselves historically entwined, and desperate to find a way to reconcile culture, faith, and humanity.
After the Mesquita, we walked across Córdoba’s Roman bridge, which (excuse the geekiness) you may recognise from Game of Thrones.
There was also a lovely old wooden waterwheel, which reminded me of the ones I’d seen in happier times in Hama, Syria.
Our next stop was the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, erstwhile residence of Ferdinand and Isabella, which also has the dubious distinction of being chosen by them as headquarters of the Inquisition. Regardless of its unfortunate history, it’s a dramatic fortress.
Like most every historic building in Andalucía, the Alcazar has its own beautiful gardens.
The Alcazar also happens to be the very place where Christopher Columbus met with Isabella and Ferdinand before his voyage to America, an event commemorated by statues in the garden.
Our final stop was the Royal Stables, which date back to the 16th century and were the breeding centre for the beautiful Andalusian horse. Several nights a week what looks like an absolutely amazing show involving dressage, flamenco, and plenty of pageantry takes place. Unfortunately, it didn’t start until 20:00, and wiser heads (in the form of Tony, who was also our designated driver) prevailed, and we didn’t stay, since we wanted to get home before one in the morning.
Instead, we visited Jaén, the city whence comes the Spanish ballad that gave Axa her name: Tres morillas de Jaén, Axa, Fatima, y Marien. (Three little Moorish girls, Axa, Fatima, and Marien). Here’s a version of the song. Vocals start around the 2:10 mark.
We had dinner in Jaén in the shadow of its magnificent cathedral, and ordered all traditional dishes from Jaén. I couldn’t stop drinking in the exquisite view.
Unfortunately all those traditional dishes from Jaén later that evening disagreed with our little Moorish princess’s stomach, causing her to vomit literally all over her bedroom in the middle of the night. Lest the day be just too perfect.