Nola Lyttle spends a blooming lovely time touring the flower-filled patios of the city’s Jewish quarter
THIS May will be like any other in Córdoba. It will be busy with the first tourists of spring, it will be eventful and it is sure to be a riot of colour. Later in the month, those who go weak at the knees over the sight of a horse will pack the streets for the traditional Nuestra Señora de la Salud feria. Flamenco dresses at the ready, girls!
Before then, however, those who love flowers will arrive in the city. They come to enjoy the famous patio festival (May 3-13). Pretty town houses located in some of the oldest streets come alive with colourful displays of geraniums, carnations and jasmines. Pots by the hundreds adorn window ledges, staircases and doors.
In a very genteel manner, tourists wander from patio to patio to admire the work put in by the owners and to acquire ideas to enliven their own Andalucian patios.
It is a serious competition and not an event put on purely to entice tourists to Cordoba. Homeowners compete for first prize.
I do not know how the judges decide who wins the top accolade. First off, the standard is so high. Secondly, so many of the entrants create patios that – how can I put this delicately? – are not altogether unlike the ones created by their neighbours! Déjà vu is alive and well when touring the patio displays. Or, as one Spanish friend puts it: “Seen one Cordobese patio, you have seen them all.”
Not true, say I. Although I do hope more originality is on show this time around compared to when I visited last year.
The Andalucian patio is one of the most admired aspects of outdoor space throughout Spain. British homebuyers in the region often ask agents to find them a property with a secluded patio where they can grow a variety of plants and flowers.
In Córdoba, it seemed to me geraniums are everywhere. Do not get me wrong, for instant spring colour you cannot beat a geranium but Andalucians seem obsessed with them. When I try to grow trailing jasmine from my pots on the front balconies, the women of my village tell me off. It should, they insist, be geraniums on show to passers by.
Historically, patios were used by Romans to hold meetings – and Córdoba is awash with both history and colour. For example, the Viana Palace has truly delightful gardens and many patios. Guide books fail to agree about exactly how many there are in the grounds of this sumptuous place. Some say 11, others say 14. Frankly, once you are engrossed in the beauty of the interconnected patios, any attempt to keep count will fail. The patios are either named after for what the space was once used or they refer to a no longer existing feature.
Take your time wandering these grounds. Do visit the Patio del Archivo, which is decorated in a Baroque style. A fountain, a tiled pond, square flowerbeds lined with box hedges and several mandarin trees are on show.
In the so called Gardeners’ Patio you can see the bright blue plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) that covers the long wall and smell the basil that surrounds you. At the end of a tour of the Viana Palace, you will find yourself in a courtyard that reproduces the traditional Andalucian patio with many flower filled pots.
Meanwhile in the city
Speaking of which… back in the pretty streets that are the venue for the competition, the crowds are growing much faster than the exhibits! By the very nature of the enclosed spaces, it can be difficult to be able to stand back and admire the hard work employed by the owners. I suggest you be patient. The crowds ebb and flow. Wait a while and there will be a lull between tour parties large and small.
The people who create these glorious corners have striven for months to ensure they can present a patio fit to adorn the cover of a box of chocolates. The wet weather during April will not have helped their cause.
In the words of Manuel Garrido Moreno, President of the Amigos de los Patios Association: “The Patio Festival is to Córdoba what the San Fermines is to Pamplona.” There are bulls in Córdoba but, fear not, none have been seen recently rampaging through the narrow streets of patio land.
Governments of all persuasions have worked with the private sector for more than 50 years to ensure the safety of these beautiful private spaces. They are an integral part of the architectural and social heritage of the city. Many of the private, white washed homes in Córdoba are centuries old. They are among the most photographed properties in Andalucía.
The scent of lemon and orange blossom fills the air and numerous fountains provide a backdrop of running water. I was pleasantly surprised at how peaceful these streets are, especially when one considers that the hustle and bustle of tourist attractions such as the Mezquita cathedral/mosque and the wider city are so close by.
At the beginning of each festival, patio maps should be available to you via local businesses and in the Tourist Office. Do not set off on the trail without one as you may not be able to distinguish whether or not you have already seen a particular patio. In Córdoba, it really is possible to have too much of a good thing!
Hot air and fine food
Touring patios can be exhausting. Be warned. May can be significantly warmer here than in the Granada province. Heat exhaustion last year forced my tour party to take refuge in the best restaurant in Córdoba, Casa Pepe in Calle Romero (www.casapepejuderia.com) The ever hospitable Miguel looked after us and provided essential sustenance.
Entrance to the various courtyards and patios of the homeowners is free. However, there is always someone sat by the entrance with a gratuity box or hat on show. You are under no pressure to pay but I believe it is a small price to pay for enjoying such colourful displays.
Trying to defend their title of Patio Champions will be the 2006 victors, the owners of Calle Marroquies, number 6. I doff my garden hat and salute them and their fellow competitors. Their love of patios will ensure that at least one of the more pleasant on the eye of all Spanish traditions will live on and be enjoyed by generations to come.
Nola Lyttle is a hands on gardener creating distinctive gardens in this region. She can be contacted via www.granadagardens.blogspot.com.