Cooling Our Heels (Well, Ankle) in Cordoba

Cordoba is an ancient city: one of the capitals of Roman Spain and later the center of the first Moorish caliphate in Andalucia (starting in the 900s). Our time in Cordoba started interestingly enough, as we happened to arrive in town on the one of the final days of their Carnival festivities. (These happen all around Andalucia—the largest is in Cadiz—but we hadn’t actually planned to attend any and thought they had all finished about a week ago.)

So, we chased a little parade of costumed oddness and a few floats around town in the early evening, enjoying the costumed kids (and some adults) gathered to watch. It was charming and amusing, pleasantly nontouristy, and it was fun to see the Cordobese letting their hair down and having fun.

Old and new in Cordoba: floats in the annual Carnival parade pass by Roman columns.

There were supposed to be dance, costume, and other festivities later at night, but we eventually gave up on finding them/waiting for them (inevitably late, as so many things are here)and trekked back across town to our beds. Spanish parties never really get started until way after our bedtime anyway. Even the little kids here are better night owls than we are.

On Sunday, we visited the remains of a synagogue from 1315—the only surviving ancient synagogue in all of Andalucia. Cordoba (like Granada) had a large Jewish population in Moorish times. Maimonides the lawgiver was born here (although his family left the city when he was 10), and there’s a nice statue of him near the synagogue.

We also toured the archaeological museum, which has a wonderful collection of Roman statues and mosaics that were found in the area. There’s even a collection of grave stones celebrating local gladiators (how cool is that?).

Afterward, we poked around the old part of city. It’s much quieter and cleaner than Granada, but with more junky souvenir shops. To our eyes, it was a bit underwhelming–maybe it’s better with its famous spring and summer flowers.

The bell tower of Cordoba’s 16th-century cathedral.

We spent the next day at the Cordoba’s best known landmark—the Mesquita-Catedral. It’s a fascinating mishmash: a 16th-century cathedral build inside an 8th- to 10th-century grand mosque that itself incorporated a 6th-century Visigoth church.

Rather than replace what was there before, people just added onto it. The result is that everywhere you turn in the vast building, there is something different to see. It feels supremely discordant (just as the Alhambra was supremely harmonious).

It also makes you long to see the mosque at its peak—a great stone tent of red and white arches and columns (many taken from even older Roman and Visigoth buildings), full of doors and openings on the sides to let in the light. A vast, open, airy, horizontal space. Now, with the sides closed off to form chapels, and new walls in the middle for the main cathedral, it’s dark and boxy.

The mihrab (the small room facing Mecca from where the imam led the prayers) was stunning, though, decorated with Byzantine mosaics of gold, red, turquoise, and green.

A Christian saint (cheerful in her martyrdom) next to columns and arches of the old mosque.

A few miles out of town lie the partly excavated ruins of the 10th-century palace city of Medina Azahara. Built at enormous expense, it was both huge (a palace, 400 houses, 300 baths, two barracks, official offices, a zoo, and numerous gardens) and amazing (a hall of gold and silver, with arches of ebony and ivory, centered on a huge pool of glittering mercury).

Though the city took 40 years to build, it was occupied for only 30 years before a new king moved the capital to a different site. Shortly thereafter, the complex was sacked by Berbers. Locals used it for building materials, and little is left today other than fragmented ruins of the small fraction of the site that has been excavated and one palace hall that has been restored/rebuilt.

Luckily, we got to see most of the place and were about to return to the bus, when I (Melissa) had an attack of stupidity. “Ooh, what’s over that hedge?” I wondered, wandering over camera in hand before falling to the ground in agony. If I had looked down, I would have seen that between me and the hedge was one of the numerous foot-deep empty stone irrigation channels. Insert ankle R into slot A, and snap, the worst sprain I’ve had in years!

We were pretty sure it wasn’t broken, which was confirmed by a local medical student who happened to be around. But it was swelling fast, and there was a huge hill between me and the parking lot.

What followed (in addition a lot of pain and sheer willpower on my part) was a good example of how things work in Spain. Everyone was extremely solicitous. A sequence of guards and archaeologists let me lean heavily on them as I made my way up the hill. One called ahead to have another ask the bus to wait—and it did! But (and it’s a pretty big but), unlike any site in the United States, there was no sign of an emergency wheelchair, golf cart, or any other way to get someone injured out of this major tourist site.

That, pretty much, is par for the course. Nothing here is handicapped accessible, and very little is intentionally convenient. “If the tourists really want X, then they’ll figure it out eventually” seems to be the attitude. People en masse are pushy and difficult. People in public jobs seem determined to be as unhelpful as possible. But one-on-one, people will often be tremendously friendly, kind, and helpful.

So, I made it to the bus, which called a taxi to get us to the hostel. I then spent three days with my foot elevated and iced, waiting for the swelling to go down, while Chris ran around town trying to find crutches, painkillers, and food. Not how we had hoped to see Cordoba! But by Friday, I was well enough to limp onward.

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