Tom Sweeney spends a couple of days in Cordoba, the city of patios where Catholics go to mass in a mosque
If you’re up for a bit of mischief, walk into a busy bar in Cordoba and shout: “Hola, Rafael!”
Heads will turn, because two out of every three men and boys in this city of 326,000 people are named after its guardian archangel.
Saint Rafael rid Cordoba of the plague in 1649, but hay fever sufferers shouldn’t count on his intervention during the fortnight-long Fiesta de los Patios, every May.
The festival-cum-competition sees around 60 homeowners open their flower-festooned courtyards to the public as they vie for the €1,500 first prize for the most beautiful display.
The judges have a tough job, because every competing patio is a floral work of art, and each has its particular charm.
Bougainvillea, climbing roses and other colourful plants are trained into ornamental arches, and countless geraniums spill from clay window boxes and pots (plastic is considered in poor taste) attached to dazzling whitewashed walls.
Doors, window frames and shutters are painted anil blue, the shade seen everywhere in North African villages, and many patios have a functioning well, which helps keep the water bills down.
Others have fountains, a feature beloved of the Moors who ruled the mighty empire of Al Andalus (most of Spain and Portugal) for nearly 800 years, with Cordoba at its centre for much of that period, until the completion of the Christian reconquest in 1492.
The owners of the bigger patios boast a limonero lunero, more a lemon bush than a tree, which is planted in a corner so that it grows up and out across the walls, to which its lanky branches are loosely secured.
A mature lunero produces fist-sized fruits ready for picking every 28 days or so with the new moon, hence its name, and fills the still air with a heady citrus scent – the irresistible “perfume of the patios”.
Cordoba is no less alluring at other times of the year, though tourists in high summer who haven’t done their homework might wonder why the streets are so quiet.
The answer is simple: with July and August temperatures that regularly exceed 40C – which is why the city is known as the “frying pan of Spain” – families flee south to the Malaga coast, where it’s ‘only’ 30C.
It’s from Malaga’s Maria Zambrano railway station that Irish holidaymakers on the Costa del Sol can catch a bullet train to visit the former capital of the western caliphate.
The train, which reaches speeds of close to 300kph, covers the 133km in around 50 minutes, and the day-trippers on board are intent on seeing just one thing when they get off.
Cordoba is the only place in the world where Catholics go to mass in a mosque.
More precisely, they worship in a sizeable Renaissance cathedral plonked in the middle of a massive mosque that ceased to be a Muslim place of prayer in 1236, when the city was taken by Ferdinand III.
The construction of the cathedral was sanctioned nearly three centuries later by Carlos V, who didn’t pay much attention when the plans were laid before him.
However, when he went in 1523 to see what the builders had been up to, he was appalled.
Turning to his bishops, he lamented bitterly: “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.”
“Destroyed” was a bit strong. The mosque is so big that, remarkable as it may sound, it’s possible to visit without even noticing the cathedral hidden among the forest of 856 marble, granite, onyx and jasper pillars topped with red and yellow horseshoe arches.
This is what two million visitors from all over the world come to marvel at every year – an awe-inspiring masterpiece of medieval Moorish architecture.
Officially known as the Mosque- Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, it’s like nothing else on Earth.
Lest prospective visitors think Cordoba is a one-trick pony, there are other sights to savour.
Stroll across the Roman bridge that spans the Guadalquivir river for some of the best cityscape shots.
Escape the heat by wandering the narrow, pebble-paved streets of the Jewish Quarter, where many of the award-winning patios are located and artisan shops sell handmade souvenirs.
In the Alcazar (Palace) of the Christian Monarchs, the gorgeous gardens are a joy to behold.
When it comes time to eat, just about every cafe and restaurant serves the city’s two signature dishes.
Salmorejo is Spain’s “other cold soup”, made from tomatoes, bread, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and salt – a simpler version of gazpacho but sensational.
Vegetarians will balk, but braised oxtail is what Cordobans dream of when they’re living away from home.
While convoys of tourist coaches depart early every morning from the Costa del Sol resorts for Ronda, Granada and Seville – the top excursion destinations – more independently-minded holidaymakers hop on the train for a memorable journey back to the days when the Moors reigned supreme.
A visit to Cordoba is not to be sneezed at – unless you suffer from hay fever and go in May.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly year-round from Dublin to Malaga.
High-speed AVE trains connect Malaga Maria Zambrano station with Cordoba, from €29 one-way (Maria Zambrano is on the Fuengirola-Torremolinos-airport-Malaga Centre Mall line). Buy tickets in advance at renfre.com.
Tom was a guest of the Cordoba Tourist Board and stayed in the centrally-
located three-star Sercotel Selu Hotel (hotelselu.com), from where it’s a five-minute walk to the Jewish Quarter, 10 minutes to the Mosque-Cathedral and 15 minutes to the railway station. Bed and breakfast for two sharing costs from around €130 per night.
Tickets to enter the Mosque- Cathedral, which is open every day from 10am to 7pm, cost €10 (children €5) and are available from the on-site kiosk in the Patio de los Naranjos. Audio guides cost €4. Check out the website at mezquita-catedraldecordoba.es.
For more information on all that Cordoba has to offer day-trippers and overnight visitors, see cordobaturismo.es and spain.info.