Saturday 24th September 2011, Cordoba, Andalucia
We had the motorway pretty much to ourselves as we drove the 140 kilometres down to Cordoba. The scenery was more varied than yesterday with flowering oleanders down the central reservation and the red-earthed landscape covered in carefully tended olive groves as far as the eye could see. It is definitely a monoculture but after yesterday it looked green and relatively fertile.

Olives stretch most of the way between Sta. Elena and Cordoba

Gradually the whitewashed towns of Andalucia began to appear on hilltops to either side of the autovia. Set amidst the harsh landscape, needing protection from the sun they are a collection of tight-packed whitewashed houses with heavy tiled roofs, often quaint to explore but less attractive when seen from a distance.

By midday we were driving through the centre of Cordoba. This was not my idea of fun but the guidebook mentioned a campsite a couple of kilometres from the centre. That was all it said. Somehow we had to find it. Ian amazed me by directing me almost straight to it! When I complemented him on this amazing achievement he told me he remembered the way from last time! I'm now really worried! We've never been to Cordoba with Modestine before! He now admits that he may be muddling it with somewhere else but it's all a bit uncanny. The campsite was named El Brillante and that's now my new name for Ian!

The campsite is nothing special though we do have shade. Everywhere is dusty, the facilities are all closed and at 30 euros a night it is one of the most expensive sites we've ever used. It does not even offer wifi which has angered and frustrated more campers than just us. It is though very convenient for the city with a bus from directly outside the gate to the city centre.

Within an hour of arriving we'd parked up, had lunch and were on the bus in to town. By now, the sun, which to our relief had been enjoying a weekend lounge in bed, decided to make up for lost time, glaring sadistically down on us as we scurried between patches of shade towards the heart of this city that was once the equal of Constantinople.

We visited Cordoba, years ago when we were both still working. Then we back-packed around Andulucia using public transport. Cordoba made a massive impression on us then and it did not disappoint on this second visit.

Nowadays it is a beautiful city of 272,000 inhabitants, a tourist magnet and a provincial capital. It has lost the grandeur of its glorious past when it was once the largest city of Roman Spain and for three hundred years the capital of the Western Islamic Empire. The heart of the old city is based on the Mezquita, the largest and most beautiful mosque constructed in Spain by the conquering Moors. Surrounding it are the old Jewish quarter with its Synagogue dating from 1316 - one of only three to have survived from before the expulsion of the Jews during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, and old Moorish houses. The streets are narrow and shaded, crowded with tourists. Large mansions and residential buildings have their doors open offering views of a cool entrance hall lined with bright Arab tiles and heavy tables supporting pot plants. Others have views through an iron grill to arcaded courtyards where a fountain might play amidst huge pots of aspidistras, bougainvillea and even fruiting banana plants.

Courtyard, Cordoba

The patios of the houses of Cordoba are famous, encouraged by the council. Each is a beautiful, cool haven of green tranquillity. The Moors certainly knew how to appreciate nature, developing it as an art form that has continued to the present day. There are pretty gardens with fountains playing, the sound of running water, shady walkways with benches covered in azuelos – Moorish tiles. There are palm trees and pines, flowering shrubs and orange trees, their fruit still bright green.

The Mezquita was started between 784 and 786, constructed over a pre-existing Roman site with mosaic pavements. It was built by the Moors to serve as the main mosque of their newly conquered territory. It was extended on three occasions to reach its present size. It had over 1200 marble columns and 280 candelabras containing oil lamps. The bells, taken from St. Iago de Compostella, were brought to Cordoba where they were hung inverted in the mosque as a sign of Islamic power. Later, in the 16th century, the Moors were gradually forced back out of Spain. After their retreat a Christian cathedral was built in the very centre of the mosque.

Mosque, Cordoba

Roman mosaic floor, Mosque, Cordoba

Entering the massive combined mosque /cathedral and strolling between the marble columns was not dissimilar to entering a shady woodland. We wandered amongst the "trunks" of the mosque with their double tiers of supporting arches in alternating bands of white stone and red brick.

Mosque, Colonnades, Cordoba

Mosque, Colonnades, Cordoba

Mosque, Christian infill, Cordoba

Mosque, Christian infill, Cordoba

Mosque.Mihrab, 970 , Cordoba

Mosque.Mihrab, 970 , Cordoba

Mosque.Mihrab, 970 , Cordoba

Mosque.Mihrab, 970 , Cordoba

Mosque, Capilla de Villaviciosa. 1371, Cordoba

The walls were decorated with Arabic carvings and geometric patterns. The lighting came from the chandeliers suspended between the arches while the sides and centre of the mosque now formed the high altar and side chapels of the Christian cathedral complete with gothic arches and fan vaulting, heavy with holy statues, marble tombs, gold and iron work and over-embellished cupolas and domes. The style and function of the two parts of the building were as different as could be. It must be the strangest cathedral in the world! It is however, to see the mosque that people come. It has an awesome beauty and despite the tourist crowds, a sense of serenity and calm.

Mosque.Capilla Major. 1523, Cordoba

Mosque.Capilla Major. 1523, Cordoba

Outside, the paved courtyard is set with orange trees surrounded by stone walls pieced by keyhole-shaped gateways with Moorish stone carvings.

External walls of the Mosque, Cordoba

Mosque showing external doorway, Cordoba

Mosque, arcaded facade, Cordoba

Today we have also walked the streets of the old town. We have discovered the Synagogue and explored an Andalucian mansion dating from the twelfth century. Though much restored it gives an impression of what it would have been like with cool courtyards, playing fountains, flowers, Islamic wall decorations of tiles, woven hangings, wooden screens and illuminated lettering. There was an exhibition about hand-made paper which was introduced to Europe by the Arabs and rooms filled with soft furnishings – rugs, sofas, cushions and blankets. In the basement was a Roman mosaic from an even earlier building on the site, located in the heart of the old city.

Maimonides, a Jewish scholar born in Cordoba in 1135

Synagogue, Cordoba

Courtyard of the Synagogue, Cordoba

Courtyard of Casa Andalusi, Cordoba

Casa Andalusi, Cordoba

Casa Andalusi, Cordoba

We returned to the campsite weary but pleased with our afternoon. Tomorrow we will return to explore the Palace of the Christian Kings.

Below are a further selection of Ian's photos of Cordoba.
9th century minaret, Cordoba

Tenements in the old town, Cordoba

Puerto Almodova, Cordoba

Moorish walls, Cordoba

Roman bridge and Torre de la Calahorra, Cordoba

Torre del Alminar, Cordoba

Sunday 25th September 2011, Cordoba, Andalucia
It has been another scorching day reaching 41 degrees! It can drop as low as 9 degrees overnight and the day takes a while to heat up. So this morning we were up before it got light – about 8am – and were already down in the city by 9.30am. Everywhere was silent and wonderfully cool. The tourists were not yet around and we were able to explore the Palace of the Christian Kings in comfort.

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Once the Moors were forced into retreat in the 13th century the Christian conquerors claimed recaptured territory for themselves. The Moors hung on in Granada until 1492 when they were finally driven out of Spain during the reign of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Coincidentally it was also the year in which the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus discovered America for Spain. The country was at the height of its power.

Statue of Ferdinand, Isabella and Columbus in the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

The Palace is very much in the Arab style with crenelated ramparts and fortified gateways. Inside, the rooms are rather sombre and uninviting. They were once used by the Spanish Inquisition. There are though, some excellent Roman mosaics displayed there, one of which is said to be the largest complete Roman mosaic in Europe.

Roman mosaic of Polyphemus and Galatea,(2nd/3rd century AD) Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Roman sarcophagus,(2nd/3rd century AD) Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

The really wonderful thing about the Palace though is the garden. Inside the castle walls there are shady avenues running beside rectangular ponds filled with huge carp. Today we found fountains playing while the date palms, orange, lemon and pomegranate trees offered welcome shade and the flowerbeds were filled with geraniums, marigolds and a host of other bright flowers. Between the gravelled walkways ran tiny runnels of gurgling water used to irrigate different areas of the gardens. Truly the Arabs had a wonderful appreciation of nature and natural beauty. We mused that they brought garden delights and learning to Cordoba while the Christians brought the Inquisition.

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Pomegrantes, Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Because of our age we found we had free admittance to the Palace! Our age did not deter us from making full use of our ticket and we climbed the steep, narrow stone steps up to the ramparts from where we could look across the gardens to the city beyond, to the mosque and as far as the river, crossed by a magnificent Roman bridge. Down on the river too can be found the remains of several water mills established when the Palace was built, used to pump water up to supply the streams and fountains of the royal gardens.

Watermill originally used to work the fountains in the gardens of the Alcazar, Cordoba

Mosque, seen from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba

Cordoba seen from Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos

Although it is the Arab influence and the amazing mosque that chiefly attracts the visitors, it was once the major centre for the western Roman Empire and, apart from the mosaics, the city is rich in Roman remains including a temple and a theatre. When we visited Cordoba, many years ago, we were enchanted with its archaeological museum, entered via a charming mudejar courtyard filled with potted plants and Roman statues. Now this has been replaced by a smart, modern museum with state of the art interactive screens and all the marvels of modern technology. It is still a wonderful museum filled with statues and artefacts discovered during excavations in the city, mainly of Roman origin but tracing the history of Cordoba through from its Iberian origins, through the Roman, Visigothic, Arab and Christian occupations.

Roman frieze, collecting olives, Museo Arqueologico, Cordoba

9th century Arab capitals, copying Corinthian models, Museo Arqueologico, Cordoba

Double funerary urn. Roman. The glass urn is complete having been protected within the second, lead urn, Museo Arqueologico, Cordoba

Near the museum we found a tapas bar. Too hot for us on the terrace so we wimped, all alone, in the interior as we enjoyed cold beers and a large bowl of prawns – a combination we'd never have thought of for ourselves but the barman assured us we'd love them – at least we think that's what he was saying. In any case we did enjoy them and the whole lot only cost us 8 euros.

Gambas y cervezas, Cordoba

Ian then sadistically dragged me across the Roman bridge. I personally doubt if there was a single stone from the original bridge remaining but it was beautiful, even though fully exposed to the afternoon sun. On the river were the remains of some of the old mills.

Roman bridge, Cordoba

Watermill seen from the Roman bridge, Cordoba

Torre de la Calahorra at the far end of the Roman bridge, Cordoba

Puerta del Puente at the start of the Roman bridge, Cordoba

By now the day was at it hottest and being Sunday all the museums and cool places had closed for the rest of the day. So we joined the crowds, scouring the souvenir shops, looking for a birthday present for our granddaughter Deyvika who will soon be four. We now have to find a way to pack up and post a red flamenco dress with black spots with a matching fan and pompom for her hair! With luck she will dance her own version of flamenco for us when we get home! Meanwhile, I spent the afternoon testing out her fan.

Back in the more recent part of the town we discovered several large squares. By now shadows were forming and happy families were enjoying ices and cold drinks beneath the palm trees. We joined them for chocolate ice cream and a chance to rest. We were exhausted after most of the day on our feet.

Finally Ian dragged me to admire the Roman temple before we made our way to the bus stop for the air conditioned ride home. It has been a really great couple of days. Tomorrow we move on to Ronda, up in the mountains above the Mediterranean. Gradually we are drawing closer to our ferry destination of Algeciras.

Roman temple, Cordoba

Incidentally, there are very many young gipsy women on the streets of Cordoba, each with a small baby. They are the tools of the trade. Every woman looks up pleadingly as visitors pass, begging for money to buy food for the baby. However hard one is, it is always a horrid feeling to ignore them despite realising that they are only there because of the visitors. It never happens except in tourist areas.