Patios and Courtyards
Start your walking tour in the historical centre of Cordoba, where every May the city’s oldest houses open their stunning courtyards and patios to the public. Aesthetically striking as they may be, these charming spaces were created from necessity. Cordoba is the hottest city in Europe during the summer months, when temperatures frequently reach 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 Cordoba, 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 Cordoba. Since 1918 the Feria de los Patios, as it’s called, has been sponsored by Cordoba’s town hall, which offers a prize for the prettiest patio.
Palacio de Viana
The star of Cordoba’s patios feria is the elegant 15th-century Palacio de Viana, a vast building that has been used over the centuries as a residence for Spanish royalty. For an admission price of €5 (£4.37), you can visit Viana’s 13 patios and gardens. Intricately designed and aromatically populated with colourful plants, flowers and trees, these are some of Cordoba’s most gorgeous public spaces. Their cultivation has taken centuries: the Patio of the Oranges, for example, served as the palace’s entrance in the 15th century (now it is the third courtyard you come to), while the Alhambra-like Patio of the Columns was added only in the 1980s as a space for events and celebrations. Allow a good hour to slowly wander around these scented, romantic spaces, peering in through the palace’s old windows as you go; another age of louche affluence and amorous intrigue, once played out amongst Viana’s orange trees and jasmines, comes instantly back to life.
Palacio de Viana, 2 Plaza de Don Gome, Cordoba, Spain, +34 957496741
Not until the 1950s, when Cordoba’s town hall was being expanded, were the remains of what was probably the city’s most important Roman temple 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. Of its giant columns, 10 remain, reaching up into the sky amidst modern apartment blocks and offices (indeed, the town hall is just in front of them). 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.
After admiring the Roman temple, head south through the Old Town towards the river and walk alongside it, on the restaurant-lined Calle Ronda de Isasa, until Cordoba’s greatest monument appears on your left. Most cities in southern Spain have relics from their periods under Moorish and – subsequently – Christian rule, but nowhere are they combined in the same structure as they are in Cordoba. The city’s Mosque-Cathedral, also known as the Mezquita, is the greatest dual-identity monument in Spain and a powerful symbol of the two cultures that have shaped Andalusia. After the Moors captured Cordoba in 711, what had previously been a Visigoth Christian church was split in two and used by both Christians and Muslims as a place of worship. But in 784, on the orders of the Emir Abd al-Rahman, the church was destroyed and work began on a great mosque. Construction lasted for over two centuries and the building was eventually completed in 987, by which point Cordoba was the most important city in the Islamic Kingdom.
When the city was reclaimed by Christians in 1236, the mosque was converted into a church, and in the 16th century Charles V added a Renaissance nave on top of the Moorish structure. The mosque’s most famous feature is its vast main hall, supported by over 850 double-arched columns. Sunlight and shadows create unusual effects as you wander among them, contemplating the multifaceted history of this great building.
After taking in the Mezquita, cross the busy Calle Ronda de Isasa, walk under the medieval Puerta del Puente and onto Cordoba’s famous Roman Bridge, or Puente Romano. Originally dating from the 1st century BC, it was extensively rebuilt in the 10th century during the Moorish occupation of the city. Sitting low over the opaque waters of the Guadalquivir, which flows down all the way through Andalusia and out into the Atlantic, it is supported by 17 stone arches, of which just two once belonged to the original structure. The middle of the bridge, next to a 17th-century statue of Saint Raphael, is the perfect spot from which to survey Cordoba and the green, hilly countryside that surrounds it.
Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos
To conclude your walking your of Cordoba, head back to the bridge’s northern end and turn left, walking along the banks of the Guadalquivir until you come to the city’s next great architectural landmark: the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos (Castle of the Catholic Kings). 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 amongst the ruins of a vast Moorish fort. In the late 10th century, when the Islamic Kingdom was at the height of its powers, Cordoba 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.