SPAIN is not short of beautiful cities oozing history from between the cracks of their ancient iconic buildings, such as Granada’s Alhambra and Sevilla’s Alcazar.
But one comes above the rest, according to a poll published by global travel bible Lonely Planet: that of Cordoba, a true melting pot of ancient, modern and everything in between.
The birthplace of renowned Roman playwright Seneca and Jewish philosopher Maimonides, to name two great thinkers, the place is a veritable warren of historic sites.
Now, when the flower-filled patios are at their best and the city is at its most festive is the perfect time to visit.
It’s easy to visit the city and see little more than the splendid ‘big three’ – the Mezquita, the alcazar and the medina. Understandably they are the stars of the show. But take the path less trodden – just follow your nose and take an aimless amble around – won’t disappoint.
The Church of San Francisco, built by Fernando III in the 13th century, with its adjacent square and fine red and white porticoes, makes a fine place for a first stop, away from the crowds.
Heading west, you’ll pass through sinuous stone streets, the most famous among them, the Calleja de los Flores. A quaint alleyway lined with flower pots, it is one of the most photographed streets in Andalucia.
From here it is just a gentle stroll to Casa Arabe, also known as Casa Mudejar, an arts and culture centre that hosts quality photography exhibitions on niche topics. It’s another tranquil spot, despite being just four minutes’ walk from the Cathedral.
After a typical lunch of tortilla and salmorejo – Cordoba’s celebrated tomato purée topped with jamón serrano (or just the hardboiled egg for vegetarians) – at any one of the many appealing cafes nearby, meander along the riverfront. The marvellous Puente Romano, the 250-metre stone bridge, dates back to at least the second century AD.
But that makes it relatively modern in Cordoba terms: The city was founded around 152 BC by the Romans. Corduba, as it was called then, was the capital of Hispania Ulterior and flourished economically thanks to its prized olive oil which, like today, was exported far and wide.
It became a Roman colonia between 46 and 45 BC, but after investing money and troops in the wrong side in the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, it was sacked by order of Caesar, and some 30,000 people slaughtered as a reprisal.
These seismic events would inspire Lucan, born in Cordoba just six years earlier, to compose one of the most extraordinary poems in the Latin language: the Pharsalia, a subversive, gory epic about the war.
The Museo Julio Romero de Torres is tucked away on the Plaza del Potro. A cosy, elegant museum dedicated to the eponymous local painter, is an unexpected gem – though the artist’s distinctive style is by no means to everyone’s taste.
Romero, born 1874, was possessed with the fervour of flamenco, which he often personified as a naked or scantily clad lady, such as in La Musa Gitana (‘The Gypsy Muse’).
Many of Romero’s busty women were depicted spilling out of their garments in one place or another, leading feminists to vilify him; nonetheless, his striking style that fused a gamut of motifs – classical, mannerist, Christian, Andalucian, is . . . memorable. For a broader perspective on art, there’s always the Bellas Artes Museum opposite.
However aimless your wanderings, do try to steer towards the Viana Palace. Dating back to 1492, this lavish manor exhibits an unusual intertwining of Roman and Arabic architectural styles and boasts 12 beautiful patios, not to mention sumptuous salons that evoke the lifestyles of the various nobles who were lucky enough to call this place home.
Flowers and fruits fill the air with scent, and nearly every courtyard is bursting with colour. The reception patio, with its porticoed galleries supported by stately Tuscan columns, and the serene Patio de los Naranjas with trickling fountain and spectacular purple wisteria are particularly soothing and serene – although perhaps not in May, when it is one of the must-see stops for visitors touring the flowering patios.
- IN PICS: A look around the unmissable monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Cordoba’s Mesquita-catedral
- Patios of Cordoba: Where even the most reluctant gardener will find inspiration
- Cordoba’s Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos: Where the Christian, Roman and Moorish meet