In the middle of the 10th century, Medina Azahara – ‘The Shining City’ – was the administrative capital of Al-Andalus, as Moorish-ruled Spain was then known. Construction started in 936 on the order of the Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, Abd-ar-Rahman III al-Nasir. Additions and alterations continued for decades, but in 1010 Azahara was looted and thereafter stood deserted for centuries. Its remains were not discovered until the beginning of the 20th century and, although they only account for about 10% of the original city, they nevertheless give you a good idea of just how magnificent Medina Azahara must have been.
Carretera Palma del Río, km 5.5, Córdoba, Spain, +34 957 10 36 37
It was not until the 1950s, when Cordoba’s town hall was being expanded, that the remains of what was probably the city’s most important Roman temple were discovered. It was built during the reign of Emperor Claudius, in the middle of the 1st century AD and was renovated in the 2nd century AD. Archaeologists have theorised from the quality of marble and workmanship used in the construction of the temple that it must have been a particularly impressive structure, perhaps even one of the most beautiful in the Roman Empire.
Calle Capitulares, s/n, Córdoba, Spain, +34 957 20 17 74
San Andres-San Pablo is in the centre of Cordoba’s old town and is one of the best neighbourhoods in which to take the pulse of the city’s daily life. Despite its popularity with tourists, this is also a working barrio where Córdobeses pile into the many tapas bars at lunchtime for a beer and a quick bite. Blend in amongst them, order a chilled sherry and some prawns – a great light summer snack in the searing heat of Córdoba – and try to understand the machine-gun-like conversations unfolding at deafening volume around you.
Dating from the late 1100s, the Cahalorra tower was constructed by the rulers of Moorish Córdoba to protect the Puente Romano – one of the city’s principal entrances – from invaders. It originally consisted of two towers separated by an iron gate but in the late 1300s a third, cylindrical tower was added by Henry II of Castile to better guard the bridge from an attack by his own brother. Nowadays it houses a small but interesting museum on the history of Al-Andalus, as Moorish-ruled Spain used to be called.
On the other side of the Roman bridge from the Torre de la Calahorra is the Puerta del Puente, construction of which began in 1572 in order that Córdoba might have one of the grandest entrances in southern Spain. It was rebuilt and added to several times over the centuries – most notably in 1912 on the orders of King Alfonso XIII of Spain – and today provides a suitably dramatic welcome to Córdoba for visitors approaching from the Roman bridge.
Given that Córdoba is the warmest city in Europe, sightseeing here in spring and summer can be seriously thirsty work. Luckily, the old part of the city is absolutely stuffed with bars that might not look like much from the outside, but which serve some of the best tapas in town. These old-school places are usually full of locals – always a good sign – and are worth it for their wonderfully chaotic atmosphere as well as for the unbelievably cheap home-cooked food. A must-order in such places is salmorejo – a more substantial version of gazpacho that originated in Córdoba. Particularly good is Taberna La Sacristia near the Palacio de Viana, where you can gaze upon walls plastered with antique bullfighting paraphernalia as you refuel.
3 Calle Alarcón López, 3, Córdoba, Spain, +34 606 40 69 89
Córdoba’s prettiest and most unique attractions arose from architectural necessity. In summer months temperatures here frequently exceed an insufferable 40°C (104°F), so it has always been essential for its inhabitants to have a cool retreat for the middle of the day. As far back as the Roman occupation of Córdoba, houses were built with an internal, open-aired atrium, which was protected from the sun on all sides by thick stone walls. Over the centuries, these havens of cool and shade were decorated with flowers, plants and fountains – a practice that was refined during the Moorish occupation of Córdoba. Since 1918 the Feria de los Patios, as it’s called, has been sponsored by Córdoba’s town hall, which offers a prize for the prettiest patio.
The annual patios feria and the Palacio de Viana aren’t the only opportunities for seeing the famous flowers of Córdoba. A stroll down most streets in the old quarter will take you past several gorgeously decorated building facades, but on the Calleja de las Flores every single house looks like something out of a fairytale. Situated just north of the Mosque-Cathedral in the heart of the old town, this sweet-scented, colourful little street is the prettiest in Córdoba – and in a city where every other house is worthy of being on a postcard, that is quite a compliment.
As its name suggests, the construction of this royal palace was ordered by the Catholic King Alfonso XI of Castile in 1328 but – as is so often the case in Andalusia – it was built among the ruins of a vast Moorish fort. In the late 10th century, when the Islamic Kingdom was at the height of its powers, Córdoba was the kingdom’s – and indeed one of the world’s – great intellectual cities, and the Alcazar housed the largest library in the west. Alfonso used only a fraction of the remains of the original Moorish structure in building the Alcazar, but he chose a Mudejar style, so the Moorish feel of the site has been preserved.
Plaza Campo Santo de los Mártires, s/n, Córdoba, Spain, +34 957 42 01 51
The beautiful old neighbourhood of San Basilio – also called Alcazar Viejo – is one of the most charming quarters in all of Andalusia. This area of scrunched together, whitewashed houses is home to many of the beautiful patios that open every May for the Feria de los Patios as well as the Alcazar – but it is well worth wandering around in its own right. Along with Granada’s Albaicin and Seville’s Santa Cruz, this is one of the most romantic and intriguing neighbourhoods in southern Spain.
The neighbourhood of Santa Marina is well worth setting aside a morning for, as it home to some of the most beautiful old houses in the city. It is also known as Córdoba’s bullfighting barrio and one of its key monuments, in Plaza del Conde de Priego, is a bronze statue of the city’s most famous bullfighter, Manolete (1917–1947). Manolete, said to be one of the finest matadors of all time, was fatally gored during a bullfight when he was only 30; the grandeur of his statue reminds you that, controversial as bullfighting may be, great bullfighters are still an important part of the history and culture of many southern Spanish towns.
Occupying a 10 hectare site that stretches along the lush northern banks of the Guadalquivir are Córdoba’s botanical gardens. Opened in 1987, they showcase thousands of species of plants, flowers and trees over several separate areas: these include a hothouse with 130 species of plants from the Canary Islands, an arboretum and two fascinating museums. The Museum of Paleobotany explores the development of plants over the millennia, whilst the Museum of Ethnobotany focuses on how humans have used plants throughout the ages. The gardens are also full of shade and make a perfect escape from the ferocious heat of a Córdoba summer.