Anyone who is into cathedrals will not be disappointed by Seville’s offering: this mightily impressive structure is the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Construction lasted for over 100 years, between 1401 and 1507, on the site of what used to be the city’s mosque, yet all that remains of the cathedral’s Moorish predecessor is the Giralda bell tower, which was formerly the minaret. If you’re feeling fit, you can climb to the top of the Giralda via a series of ramps – designed so that the tower could be reached on horseback – and enjoy magnificent views over the Andalusian capital.
Av de la Constitución, s/n, Seville, Spain, +34 902099692
Cordoba, though, can do better. The city’s Mosque-Cathedral is the greatest dual-identity monument in Spain, and a powerful symbol of the two cultures that have shaped Andalusia. Work on what was to be one of the most impressive mosques in the Islamic Kingdom started in 784, on the orders of the Emir Abd al-Rahman, and continued until 987. 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, creating the controversial hybrid we see today. There is nothing like this extraordinary building anywhere else in Andalusia.
1 Calle del Cardenal Herrero, Cordoba, Spain, +34 957470512
Santa Cruz is Seville’s oldest quarter and it is undeniably beautiful. It was into Santa Cruz that Ferdinand III banished the city’s Jewish population when he took Seville from the Moors in 1248; and brutal though the King undoubtedly was, one can’t help feeling, wandering around this maze of colourful houses and winding, cobbled streets, that there could have been worse places in which to be confined. One of the most romantic squares in the barrio is Plaza Alfalfa, home to a building (it’ll be obvious which one) that is said to have inspired the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Not to be outdone by the Andalusian capital, Cordoba’s old town, the Alcazar Viejo, has a charm all of its own, which is partly owed to the local custom of decorating building facades with brightly coloured pots of plants. On the famous Calleja de las Flores (a must-see street) 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 flower-lined little alleyway is the prettiest in Cordoba – and in a city where every other house is worthy of being on a postcard, that’s saying something.
Every May, courtyards and patios in Cordoba’s oldest neighbourhoods are opened to the public for the city’s Feria de los Patios, in which locals compete for the honour of having the prettiest space; a prize is awarded at the end of the month. This is Cordoba’s unique cultural offering and something you won’t see in Seville, or anywhere else in Andalusia, for that matter. Designed, grown and arranged throughout the year, the patios are romantic oases of cool and colour, where the placement of every brightly coloured pot of flowers has been carefully thought out. Owners are often on hand and delighted to talk to you about the species of flowers and plants adorning their courtyards’ walls, and in some of the larger spaces live flamenco guitar will be performed as you wander around.
Both of these cities are home to monuments from Andalusia’s Moorish and Christian periods, but in Cordoba you can also view Roman remains, giving it an historical edge over Seville. The city’s most important Roman temple, which was discovered only in the 1950s, 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 the artistry used in the temple’s construction that it must have been a particularly impressive structure, perhaps one of the most beautiful in the Roman Empire.
The other of Cordoba’s key attractions from this period is its Puente Romano, or ‘Roman Bridge’. 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 River, 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 the city.
The Roman remains of Italica – as the city was called – that lie about 9 kilometres (7 miles) outside Seville are impressive, but Cordoba’s Medina Azahara was once one of the Islamic Kingdom’s most important cities. Construction of the ‘Shining City’ started in 936 on the order of the Umayyad Caliph of Cordoba, Abd-ar-Rahman III al-Nasir, who subsequently governed Al Andaluz (Moorish-ruled Spain) from its elevated Royal Palace. In 1010 Azahara was looted and thereafter stood deserted for centuries, its crumbling remains lying undiscovered until the beginning of the 20th century. Although they account for only about 10% of the original city, they nevertheless give you a good idea of just how magnificent Medina Azahara must have been in its glory days, when nearby Cordoba was the west’s greatest city.
Carretera Palma del Río, km 5.5, Cordoba, Spain, +34 957103637
Apart from its historical attractions and the exquisite flowers and plants that decorate its city centre, the most compelling reason for visiting Cordoba over Seville is its atmosphere. Seville and sevillanos have a reputation throughout the rest of Andalusia for being pijo – posh or snobbish – and, though perhaps difficult for the first-time visitor to pick up on, this results in a somewhat monotone scene: everyone’s very well dressed, most of the bars are very smart and everything’s very refined, at least on the surface. It’s like being in an infinitely more charming version of London’s Kensington. Cordoba offers this kind of experience if you want it, but it combines Andalusian pijo with a bohemian, arty ambience and doesn’t take itself so seriously. Cordoba, you feel, is quietly aware of its charm, whereas vain Seville needs constantly reminding that it, too, is beautiful.