FOR one week each May, the city opens its private courtyards to the hoi polloi who traipse through the cobbled alleys and duck through doorways to be amazed by the green-fingered skills of those that live here.
There was a time when visiting gardens wouldn’t have been a priority for me unless it was an excursion with flora-obsessed parents. I recall many a trip round the formal gardens of National Trust properties, most often in the rain, endured for the promise of an ice-cream or cream tea in a chintz-filled café.
But now with a patio of my own, one that is home to several yuccas, a few hardy spider plants and one pitiful looking geranium that somehow survived after tumbling in high winds from a balcony above, it was time to seek inspiration.
And with Covid-19 keeping out the foreign tourists, it was easy to find a last minute affordable Airbnb on a narrow alley just a stone’s throw from Plaza de la Corredera, a bustling colonnaded square filled with terrazas that are a favoured haunt of Cordoba’s student population.
This year marks one hundred years of the Feria de los Patios, a scheme backed by City Hall that sees residents open their patios to the public and compete for the prize of the prettiest walled garden space.
Dozens of patios across the old part of the city join the scheme, and are marked out on a map available from the feria’s official website, but unless you are one of those people who likes ticking off a checklist, don’t feel pressured into visiting them all.
Instead I wandered round the city, interspersing the courtyard visits with stops at tapas bars and bodegas and sightseeing around the Mezquita and Juderia, and joining the lines of people that form outside the patios when I came across one.
The queues, I am told, are shorter and faster moving this year than in normal times, limiting the occupancy of each patio to allow social distancing.
This also has the advantage of providing a few brief moments alone to enjoy the space without selfie-takers and couples romantically posing beneath bougainvillea.
Dating as far as back as the Roman occupation of Cordoba, houses were built around inner gardens enclosed within thick walls to provide a haven of shade during the summer months when the mercury often tops 40ºC.
These internal spaces were refined to include fountains and waterways under Moorish rule, when the Umayyad caliphate built the mosque – since converted into a cathedral – that remains a highlight on every visit to Cordoba.
Nowadays these spaces have been elevated to works of art, where each wall in every garden has been designed with this one week in mind, each pot of geraniums carefully placed to maximise contrasts and provide sensational bursts of colour, winning the patios of Cordoba UNESCO-protected status.
Some gardens belong to single properties and others are collections of courtyards with different dwellings looking out on them. One of my favourites was at No. 6, Calle Marroquíes (pictured above) where low bungalows are home to artisan workshops within a labyrinth of interlocking corridors and patios bedecked with tumbling greenery and blooms.
I admit that while some snap photos of leaves to identify plants that might also thrive on their own windowsills, I peek through doors and windows, enjoying the access to private spaces sealed off behind closed doors for all but this one week in May.
My guide was Cordoba local Chapi Pineda, a celebrated flamenco guitarist with a deep love of his home city and insider knowledge that he was proud to share including where to taste the best tortilla in town (Bar Santos) and how to find a table with unrivalled views of the cathedral (upstairs on the terrace of the Pairi Daeza restaurant).
Somewhere in the maze of narrow white-washed lanes between the Synagogue and the Mezquita he revealed a real local treasure: Bodega Guzman, whose dark tiled interior boasts the musty aroma of a wine cellar and where the local fino can be enjoyed for a staggeringly good value €1.10 a glass.
In the evening we dined at Taberna San Miguel – Casa el Pisto, a typical Andaluce restaurant where we sat in a tiled internal patio covered in feria memorabilia.
Beneath a portrait of the greatest matador of all time, Cordoba-born Manolete, painted by Chapi’s own father, the artist Rafael Pineda, we devoured local delicacies including the simple but divine cogollos al ajillo – who knew lettuce could taste this good?
Cordoba has much to enjoy at any time of year except the searing months of July and August when it’s best avoided and even locals head for the beach.
But in May it’s exquisite, even for those who don’t think flowers are that interesting. In fact, I dare you to visit and not come away with a few pots and a head full of ideas to improve your own urban garden. I certainly did.
- Check out our Andalucia travel section for more
- IN PICS: A look around the unmissable monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Cordoba’s Mesquita-catedral
- Walk this way: Why Cordoba should be top of your Spain travel list
For more photos from Cordoba’s patio festival CLICK HERE