If you are planning on visiting Andalusia, make sure to read about things to do in Cordoba, Spain – since this is where it all started! The city’s monuments moved me in such a way that I got goosebumps when walking among Mezquita columns and the caliph’s palace remains.
Established by Carthaginians, the town truly developed under the Romans who founded the colony here in 169 AD. This was the northernmost point that could be reached by Guadalquivir river which made Cordoba an important trading center for olive oil, wine and wheat. Visigoths and Byzantines inhabited the area from the 6th century when in 716 the town was declaired the capital of Al Andalus province under the Moorish rule. This was also the capital of the newly established Caliphate in 929. In 1236 Cordoba was conquered by the Catholics.
Things to do in Cordoba
There is something about the fact that Cordoba under Moors was one of the largest cities in western Europe. Its population exceeded 500,000 in the time when Granada was populated by a mere 26,000. Also, the city was much bigger than today! Cereals, olives, figs, rice, and oranges were exported to the east.
The jewelry business flourished with an abundance of gold, ivory, and jade. Two new industries began here in the 11th century – the production of paper and glass. The process of specific glass manufacture was kept secret for centuries allowing Andalusia to hold a monopoly in this kind of production. The Caliphate library held over 400,000 books… So, there is no way to be indifferent when walking along the same streets today!
Building of the mosque began in 780 AD under the rule of Abd Rahman I, but it wasn’t until Abd Rahman III and the 10th century that it got all its splendor. This is when Cordoba reached its zenith, outshining Byzantine and Baghdad with its scientific and cultural development.
There are 1,300 marble, jasper and granite columns here, which were mostly taken from Roman and Visigoth temples. They hold 365 bicolored arches.
After conquering the region, Christians destroyed central part of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in order to build chapels. The Renaissance Cathedral dates back to the 16th century.
They say that in the Moorish times all 19 doors of the Mezquita towards the courtyard of the Patio de los Naranjos were open, creating the impression that columns inside were a certain extension of the orange trees outside, while the sunlight and shadows added to the surreal ambiance.
I read somewhere that Abd Rahman escaped from the Middle East via northern Africa when his family was killed. They were the Umayyads, members of the same dynasty who built the Grand Mosque in Damascus Syria at the beginning of the 8th century, and Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. Remembering how excited I was when I visited the Syrian Grand Mosque years ago, I couldn’t wait to step into the one of Cordoba.
TIP: The Mezquita entrance tickets are sold in the courtyard and they cost 10 Euros. Audio-guide is available for another 4. The complex can be entered for free from 8,30 to 9,30 in the morning during the service, but individually and in silence.
La Mezquita has always been a synonym for Andalusia for me and an obligatory stop on the things-to-do-in-Cordoba list. I knew that I would be impatient to get to the city once I visit the south of Spain and that I would rush between the mosque’s columns. That’s exactly what happened!
After arriving from Granada by bus (the ride took 2,5 hours through a vast olive grove landscape), and left my things in the room (the accommodation was central with two huge windows overlooking the narrow streets), I asked for the Mezquita directions.
Ten minutes later I was on my way through cobblestone streets, arriving at strong walls surrounded by souvenir shops and restaurants. The gate on my left. Tourists. A few steps up and I was in the Patio de las Naranjos (or the Orange Tree Courtyard).
TIP: Entrance to the courtyard is free, you can rest in the orange trees’ shade, by the Andalusian fountain, and with the sound of birds singing in the background.
I don’t think that I was this excited throughout the whole of my Andalusia journey as I was when purchasing the Mezquita ticket. I left my passport at the counter (in order to get the audio guide you should leave an ID), thinking: „Sure, whatever it takes!“ Another few steps to take, I smiled at the security and peeked inside. The sunbeam spread over the elegant columns that were sticking out of the shadow.
Tourists were all looking up into ceilings and bicolored arches, trying to find their way through this surreal forest of columns. Step or two further, and I touched one of them.
“I can’t believe I’m finally here!”
Touching the marble gave me goosebumps and I got slightly dewy-eyed.
“Oh, I knew that the Mezquita would give me such an impression. Well, welcome, Danijela!”
Visiting the Mosque-Cathedral is estimated to about two hours. (Dare I mention that it took me – four?) When I walked through its huge hall at the end of September, Spaniards were getting ready for the upcoming religious holiday, installing decorative figures of Christian saints among the columns. Even though it did give an additional charm to the Mezquita ambiance, with all the respect to the installments – they seemed a bit kitschy compared to the simple elegance of the Moorish architecture.
Try to notice the difference between columns, they can almost tell the story of some ancient temple they were incorporated into before adding to the mosque’s beauty. The mihrab area was just mesmerizing, so decorative and detailed in golden nuances.
Surreal arches, and more arches in other arches, beams from the courtyard and through the ceiling holes, and numerous small lanterns. In the middle of the mosque, you will find the Cathedral. They say that the conqueror of Cordoba gave permission for the church to be built here, but when he saw what they did, he immediately regretted it. Nevertheless, this is where the Cathedral stands with whitish arches and Renaissance decorations. An odd mixture that now represents a unique historical monument.
MADINAT AL ZAHRA
This grandiose palace 7 km away from the city, was built by 10,000 workers under the rule of Abd Rahman III in 936. Although the caliph’s palace stood only for 70 years, it was renowned for splendor and luxury that were not to be seen anywhere in Europe. At the same time, Madinat al Zahra is the largest archeological site in Spain covering 112 hectares. The town was destroyed and plundered in the 11th century, but nothing else was built above its ruins for nearly 1,000 years during which it was forgotten and covered with earth. It was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2018.
“Zahra” in Arabic means shining or brilliant, and so, the romantic story says that this is how the caliph referred to his favorite mistress, and thus he named the palace after her. Still, the word is also used in Arabic to refer to wealth and political power which often made rulers choose the name for states’ institutions.
When walking through the halls of the former palace today, one can say that there is a little bit of both. Because some romance slipped into all that power and luxury, at least when the architecture is concerned. The other legend says that when European ambassadors came to visit the caliph, they were led from one majestic hall to the next, abundant in fountains, food, greenery, people and trade, columns, arches, and decorative ceilings.
When after a few hours they would finally be brought before the caliph – in the throne room with mercury fountains where they could see their faces’ reflections, the throne that the ruler could rise in order to be above his subjects, and so many intricate details on every centimeter of walls and ceilings – the effect was achieved, they were stunned by something they have never seen before!
TIP: Stop by the Tourist Information Center before heading to Madinat al Zahra because this is where you will get a “yellow” bus ticket. It costs 9 Euros and there are two stations at the Paseo de la Victoria.
Similarly, I entered one room and the next came into the area once occupied by the ruler’s residence, leaned towards the column – and got those goosebumps again!
“I can’t believe what Cordoba does to me, amazing!”
The Madinat al Zahra visit has to be planned in advance because you will take a special bus ride, if not coming in your own car. The ride takes about 20 minutes and the bus will take you to the museum complex where details related to the site are displayed, along with its remains.
TIP: There are another 1,5 Euros to be paid at the entrance, but you will also be offered to see a short 12-minute-video. This is Madinat’s story displayed in 3D, extremely interesting.
When you see the museum, you will take a “local” bus which rides to the actual palace for five minutes or so. (The same one is to be taken back to catch the yellow bus to Cordoba.) And there – the hill stretches with some great views and the remains of this 10-century beauty!
ALCAZAR IN CORDOBA
The Alcazar in Cordoba was built by Alphonso XI in 1328 in order to welcome queen Isabel and king Ferdinand. This is where Cristopher Columbus was received for the first time. Alphonso XI also built the old Synagogue, one of three that nowadays exist in Spain and the only one in Andalusia.
Even though it was built for the Christian monarchs, the architecture of the Alcazar is typically Moorish with fountains, ponds and aromatic herbs. (The entrance fee is 5 Euros.)
It’s easy to recognize Alcazar with its yellowish walls and the sand surrounding it. There is a breathtaking view of the Mezquita from one of its towers on one side, while its lavish garden lies on the other.
The former Inquisition chapel room is not to be missed, where Roman mosaics dating to the 2nd and the 3rd century are now displayed, excavated from the Plaza de la Corredera. There is also a large Arabic bathroom in the basement.
As soon as you walk into the lush garden, you immediately get the same urge as in any other Andalusian patios – to sit by the fountain and rest your eyes for a minute or two, with birds singing and purl of water in the background. (Did Columbus feel the same when coming here for the first time?)
The Jewish quarter or the Juderia is renowned for narrow streets, arches between white-washed houses and Andalusian patios filled with flowers. This is where the old Synagogue is, the only one in Andalusia, but also the monument to Sephardic scholar Maimonides who was born in Cordoba. Jews inhabited the area during Romans and Visigoths, and were the significant part of the intellectual elite under the Moors.
Did you know that Seneca and Ibn Rushd (or Averroes) were born here? While I walked towards the Jewish neighborhood, it crossed my mind how great Cordoba must have been 10 centuries ago when Ancient Greek philosophers were translated into Arabic, and then Latin (without which the western civilization couldn’t even dream of the Renaissance), when I reached the Ibn Rushd’s statue.
The man who translated the original Aristotle’s inscriptions, and wrote his own arguments on the margins, actively took part in contemplating the world in the potent intellectual 12-century Cordoba. No wonder the city became so famous as the center of knowledge and science, with a mixture of cultures and traditions.
“I wish I could have seen how marvelous this knowledgeable hive was…”
Took numerous pictures of the statue, snap, snap!
“Well, maybe I have! I might have carried Ibn Rushd’s scrolls around, who knows, tripping over my galabia and being fluent in Arabic!”
…Beautiful courtyard emerges before me – this is what you see in tourist guide books – the typical patio in the middle of the house. The place was crowded with tourists entering the Synagogue and the Andalusian House…
“And now, 1,000 years later”, my mind continues: “I graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy, took lessons in Arabic, and came back to greet the Cordoba scholar one more time! Like in the movies!”
The first version of the bridge was erected over Guadalquivir river in the first century AD. It was reconstructed numerous times during these 20 centuries since then. The bridge connects the Mezquita and the Torre de Calahorra, the tower that was originally built by the Moors and reconstructed by the Catholics that now houses a museum.
One cannot avoid seeing a picture of the heavy stone bridge with the Mezquita in the distance, right? Well, this is the very bridge. Although it’s a 20-century old, it still looks impressive, so make sure to put it on the things to do in Cordoba list. (Maybe you remember it from the Game of Thrones? This was the Long Bridge of Volantis that Tyrion Lannister and Varys were crossing when going from Pentos in a carriage, which they didn’t leave for days.)
TIP: If you fancy a visit to the Torre de Colahorra, make sure to ask about the opening hours,
because just like shops and restaurants (which almost left me hungry a few times), museums also have lunch breaks and siestas. It will probably be closed between 14 and 16,30.
It was too hot (even in the middle of September), and I had to find something to eat, so the small restaurant next to the tower seemed like a nice idea. I found “tortilla de patates” specialty, and “pastel cordobes” dessert (the latter being like a tart with apples).
Two more Roman monuments are to be seen here – the so-called Bridge Gate, through which the city and the mosque were entered, and the Roman Temple. The temple is even more imposing considering that it is located in the city center with cars driving by and crowded restaurants surrounding it. (How lovely that my accommodation was also situated here.)
TIP: Make sure to avoid coming to Cordoba during summer. Due to its geographical position, the temperature here often reaches over 45 degrees, making the city one of the hottest in Spain.
Don’t hesitate to walk around Cordoba and try avoiding larger streets, since the narrow passages are extremely charming and quite frequent. You will enjoy the stroll from Templo Romano to the Plaza de la Corredera, the vast plateau with restaurants and the vivid meeting point of Spaniards.
Plaza de las Tandillas is another vast square with restaurants, cafés, a huge fountain, and a lot of people. If you didn’t have your lunch around the Mezquita, at the Jewish quarter, or at the Plaza de la Corredera, consider having it here. It’s easy to find “menu of the day” deals (three-courses meals) for 7 to 10 Euros. Seafood “paella” is a must, along with the “flamenquin” (deep-fried rolled and sometimes stuffed ham).
When I was on my way from Cordoba to Sevilla, I took an early morning departure bus ticket again and was planning to stroll one more time through the city. Nevertheless, it slipped my mind that the sun rises here as late as 8 am, making me walk to the bus station – in the dark.
Still, nothing that one huge “empanada” for breakfast couldn’t cure. Not only that it was a fresh pastry with cheese, but it was big enough for two and so delicious! I managed to finish it pretty fast, though. (Luckily, it was still dark outside…)
The full ANDALUSIA series