A Spanish road trip, reviewed

We had a car waiting at Madrid airport, we had a road map of Spain and we had a plan. Plans are good, but as the “wee tim’rous beastie” of Robert Burns’ poem knows only too well, the best laid plans “gang aft agley”. Part of our plan was to bring the road map with us, but that’s the thing about packing in a hurry. The road map was gathering dust on the dining table back in the Netherlands, but we still had a car and a plan…and that seemed sufficient to have fun in Spain.

The weather changed our plans as well. The unexpected cold rain of earlier in our trip finally giving way to more traditional southern Spanish weather as we headed to Cordoba – something we did earlier than intended. The hills of Aragon will have to wait for another time.

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

I love being in Spain. It’s easy to over-romanticise given the nature of Spanish politics, past and present, and the terrible impact of the economic crash; but I’m not the first northern European to have formed an unhealthy attachment to Spanish culture, seemingly little changed even in this era of globalisation. Where else can you be sipping a coffee in a small cafe, while next to you several locals down large (and rough) Spanish brandies at 8am on a Tuesday before they head off for a, what I imagine is a less than productive, day at work?

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

So what would be my top five recommendations from our Spanish road trip? It’s hard to whittle down so many wonderful places and experiences, but here goes…

Semana Santa in Malaga

Malaga was an unexpected pleasure – great food, great nightlife, a brilliant Picasso museum, wonderful history – Semana Santa an unforgettable experience. Before visiting I’d only thought of Malaga as part of the benighted and blighted Costa del Sol of my nightmares. Now, I’d go back in a flash. Semana Santa was just the cherry on top…an incredible festival lasting a full week. The town seems never to sleep; when it does it’s a sleep brought on by the exhaustion of too much partying – a party where tradition merges with faith, merges with modernity. It’s incredibly atmospheric.

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Chasing Quixote in Castilla-La Mancha

It’s no surprise that there is something quixotic about the red earth, white windmills and monumental castles of Castilla-La Mancha. It’s a word given to the world by Cervantes’ most famous literary creation, a dreamer of fantastical and romantic dreams, for whom the baked landscape of this off-beat region seems entirely fitting. Toledo, former home of Spanish kings and centre of the Catholic Church in Spain, is a must, as are the hanging houses of Cuenca; alternatively, tilt at windmills in Consuegra, or visit a piece of northern Europe in Almagro. Most of all, travel the narrow, near deserted roads through this mesmerising region.

Windmills above Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

Windmills above Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

Cordoba, the City of Light

People visit Spain just to see Cordoba, to walk its medina-like streets and marvel at the magnificent Mezquita. It’s worth making the journey. Spain wears its history on its sleeve, nowhere more so than Cordoba, where Spain’s Moorish and Christian histories collide and merge. The Mezquita can get crowded, so try to get there at 8am when the doors open, entrance is free and tour groups aren’t allowed for a whole hour. You won’t be alone, but you will be able to absorb some of the genuine majesty of this Islamic architectural masterpiece in relative peace and quiet. Divine.

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

Los Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia

The White Villages of Andalusia are beautiful reminders of Spain’s history and traditions; it helps that many of the most picturesque villages sit inside the mountainous Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. The stunning landscape, dotted with Pueblos Blancos, is like in a fairytale. Many of the villages include ‘de la frontera’ as part of their name, testimony to their location and role as fortified outposts on the boundary between the Christian north and Muslim south up until 1492. Spring is the best time to visit, the landscape is coming back to life and there aren’t so many tourists, or tour buses, on the roads.

Casares, Andalusia, Spain

Casares, Andalusia, Spain

…and finally…

Madrid

For my money, Europe’s most vibrant and interesting capital city. True, I’ve not visited every capital city in Europe, but I’ve been to enough to know that it would take something pretty special to dislodge Madrid from the place it has in my heart. Consider the grand Hapsburg architecture, a multitude of world-class museums and galleries, superb food, relaxed and friendly people, and a nightlife to rival anything Europe’s other capitals have to offer…what’s not to love about Madrid? Plus, for a big city, it has to count as one of Europe’s most affordable. Take to the streets and explore at leisure.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

A view from the streets of Córdoba

Córdoba finds itself in a slightly unflattering position. In almost any other country in the world, a city with the history, culture and architectural legacy of Córdoba would be at the top of most people’s list of ‘must sees’. This isn’t any other country though, in fact this isn’t even any other region of any other country. Córdoba’s misfortune, and perhaps its saving grace, is that within a 2-3 hour drive from the glorious Mezquita, are Sevilla and Granada, two cities that are world class for history, culture and architecture. If you’re in Spain how can you miss Granada’s Alhambra or the fiery Flamenco culture of Sevilla?

That all three cities are in the Spanish province of Andalusia is just unfortunate. Of the three, Córdoba is generally considered the one to miss if you’re short of time; perhaps make a day trip, but don’t overstay your welcome and be sure to be back in Granada or Sevilla by nightfall. This must irritate the good folk of Córdoba, after all their’s was one of the greatest cities of the medieval world; areas of the old city, the medina and Juderia, were home to some of the greatest thinkers of their time and are perfect for exploring on foot; and in the Mezquita, Córdoba has a building that was the envy of the medieval Islamic world, and isn’t doing too sloppily in the 21st Century.

Add to this some tremendous food and entertainment, and you have a city that should be a world beater. Yet, and yet…Córdoba can’t quite shake off it’s second tier status, receiving a fraction of the tourism (and the tourism income) that the other two receive. This brings benefits, it means the town has a more laid back feel, things are priced more reasonably and it isn’t as commercialised or crowded. It’s still possible to get a seat in a popular (with locals and anyone with a Lonely Planet guidebook) restaurant. At least that’s true in spring. Good luck in summer.

You’re more likely to be having a glass of local sherry with actual locals in Córdoba…every bar has its own non-label village-made sherries, making having a glass an important form of cultural immersion. I committed myself to extensive cultural immersion, and can confirm most of the sherries were delicious – even the bizarre mix of Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso that was forced upon me (forced, I say) in one bar. We were going to visit the region south of Córdoba where a lot of the sherry comes from, but there just wasn’t time.

Most day trippers come to see the Mezquita, wander the narrow maze of nearby streets, head over to the Alcazar and then leave again. Virtually all the tourism is centred around these few streets, but the town has much more to offer and you could happily spend several days just wandering the streets.

To one side of the Plaza Mayor (I forget which side), the streets are full of fabulous bars and restaurants; admittedly, mostly full of sherry-drinking old men, especially around lunch time. Luckily, I self identify as a sherry drinking old man. Further afield is the Plaza de Corredera, scattered with bars and connecting to winding lanes on all sides. It looks similar to the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, only a little rougher round the edges and with barely a tourist, or living statue, in sight. There are good museums, but when you’re in a town that has seen this much history, absorbing culture just seems to happen.

I’m not saying give Granada and Sevilla a miss, but Córdoba is definitely worth a day or two of anyone’s time…

The Great Mosque of Córdoba, the majestic Mezquita

I was genuinely fearful that my expectations of the Mezquita might not be matched in reality. The Great Mosque of Córdoba is, after all, supposed to be one of the world’s great architectural achievements, on a par with Agra’s Taj Mahal, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia or the Pantheon in Rome. I need not have worried, the Mezquita is sublime. The salmon pink and white striped arches of its interior are graceful yet simple, creating a sense of space and lightness that is both peaceful and spiritual. It is a building that speaks volumes about the visionaries who created it.

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

The design was revolutionary for the time, simultaneously a break with Islamic tradition while harking back to the earliest Islamic prayer spaces in traditional desert homes: the dozens of pink and white arches represent date palms. In keeping with the concept that nothing should come between worshipper and God, there are no superfluous frills, just a space that encourages deep contemplation. Even today, after the building has suffered centuries of Christian additions, you get a sense of the unique genius of the building.

The same cannot be said of the great lump of a Cathedral that was added to the centre of the Mezquita in the 16th Century; a piece of cultural vandalism not dissimilar to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. Nor does the addition of numerous chapels around the walls of the Mezquita do anything but detract from its original glory. The two architectural styles are diametrically opposed. The Islamic, calm, peaceful and reflective; the Catholic, brash, shrill and overwrought, as if competing for a prize it could never hope to attain.

After years of petitioning from the Church, King Charles I, against the wishes of Córdoba’s city council, gave the order to have the centre of the Mezquita torn out and replaced by the Cathedral. It took over 250 years, and numerous changes of architectural style, to complete it; but the magnitude of the cultural destruction was soon understood. Charles I, a man so deeply convinced of his Catholic faith that he is best known for his attempts to stop the spread of the Protestant Reformation, admitted his error.

Charles is quoted as saying, “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.” I couldn’t agree more. At least the majority of the original Mezquita remains and I now finally understand why someone would visit Spain, just to come to Córdoba, just to see the Mezquita.

Córdoba’s Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (the Palace of the Christian Kings) doesn’t make the same mistake. After our visit to the Mezquita, we wandered over towards the Alcázar in an uplifted state. After visiting the wonderful gardens that are the centrepiece of the Alcázar, we were even more uplifted. Built in the 14th Century on top of both Roman and Morrish structures, perhaps its most significant historical moment was the first meeting in 1486 between the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Christopher Columbus. A meeting that would be the catalyst for Spanish colonisation in the Americas.

More infamously, the Alcázar was used as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition – the tool that was originally utilised by Ferdinand and Isabella to root out Muslims, Jews and other heretics from their new Kingdom. The Inquisition moved in in 1482 and would terrorise and torture their way through the next three centuries from within these walls. Something to remember when you’re admiring the beautiful gardens and panorama over the city from what is now known as ‘Inquisition Tower’.

The buildings of the Alcázar are less interesting than the gardens, but there was a time when this was both a lavish palace for the Caliph of Córdoba and a primary residence for Ferdinand and Isabella. The gardens are terraced and there are ponds, waterfalls and fountains dotted throughout. During Moorish times huge water wheels were constructed on the Rio Guadalquivir to pump water into the gardens and palace. They aren’t used anymore, but a replica of the originals can be seen in the Guadalquivir still.

Córdoba, Spain’s City of Light

We arrived in Córdoba just as a thunderstorm and torrential rain struck the town. It was a storm that had the makings of the beginning of the apocalypse: roaring thunder, brilliant lightening and rain that bounced off the roads, all followed by a giant, luminous rainbow. We were beginning to wonder if the dodgy weather was following us, but once the storm passed the sun gloriously illuminated Córdoba once more. It was a relief because Córdoba is best explored on foot over several days, you need the weather on your side for that.

This was once the flourishing and strategically vital capital city of Islamic Spain, the glories of which are the stuff of legend. There was a time when Córdoba was estimated to be the largest city in the world; sometime around the 10th Century there were perhaps 900,000 people living in the city. Today it is clear that those times are long past, the modern city is home to a third of that number, approximately 320,000 people. Its relatively small size gives Córdoba a relaxed feel, despite the numerous tourists who visit each year.

It’s hard to overstate Córdoba’s historical importance, particularly under the Moors when it was one of the main centres of the Umayyad Caliphate. The Caliphate stretched from Spain, across North Africa, the Middle East and Arabian Peninsular, to the Caucases, Central Asia and modern-day Pakistan. As one of the great urban centres of this mighty empire, Córdoba was more cultured, more learned, more opulent and more powerful than any other city in Europe – most of which was still languishing in the post-Roman Empire Dark Ages.

The city sat at the centre of a giant trade empire, and grew fabulously wealthy. Its wealth was matched by the opulence of its buildings and the lifestyles of its rulers. The crowning glory, the Mezquita, was said to have rivalled Mecca as a place of pilgrimage. It’s hard to imagine any other city daring to make that claim today. The Umayyad’s established Europe’s first university here, and the city attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the time. Córdoba established a reputation second-to-none throughout the Caliphate for science, theology, philosophy and the arts.

All good things come to an end, however. Internal power struggles led to the collapse of Córdoba as the centre of the Caliphate, the crown passed to Sevilla, and eventually to Granada. The coming of Christian rule saw a sharp decline in Córdoba’s fortunes. The city was captured by the Reconquista in 1236, over 250 years before the end of Islamic power in the Iberian Peninsular. Whether deliberate or not, starting with the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, Córdoba became a backwater; its population diminished along with trade, culture and its place as a centre of learning.

You don’t have to look too far to glimpse those former glories though, not just in the Mezquita, but throughout the narrow streets of the former medina and the Juderia, the old Jewish Quarter. These are some of the most atmospheric streets I’ve ever walked. Twisting and turning your way around the city is pure pleasure. There is always a glorious plaza or a wonderful historic building to surprise you, and once you’re away from the few streets around the Mezquita you can often find yourself alone.

The old city can feel unearthly and claustrophobic at times, to get your breath and bearings head to the river and cross to the far side for incrdible views back over the city. At night, when the Mezquita is illuminated and reflected in the slow waters of the Rio Guadalquivir, it is a mesmerising sight – especially if you’re stood next to the Roman bridge which spans the river and brings you to the Mezquita itself. The Rio Guadalquivir is Spain’s only great navigable river. As early as Roman times it was navigable all the way to Córdoba, a key element in the growth of the city.

It would be fair to say we fell a bit in love with Córdoba. Despite the early rain, despite the coach parties that crowd the streets periodically (particularly French school children for some reason), and despite the touristed area around the Mezquita selling 50 shades of tourist tat, this is a city that lives and breathes its magnificent history. Córdoba casts a spell that is hard to get out from under.