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The allure of Cordoba

Rick Steves

Rick Steves' Europe

9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013

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Tucked into a bend of its river, the Andalusian town of Cordoba has a glorious Moorish past. While its old wall evokes the history of a long-ago empire, its elegant cityscape and convivial squares show a modern pride. Typical of southern Spain, it's a people-friendly place filled with energy and color.

Cordoba's centerpiece is its massive former mosque -- or, in Spanish, Mezquita (for pronunciation ease, think female mosquito). Magical in its grandeur, this huge building dominates the higgledy-piggledy old town that surrounds it. At its zenith, in the 10th century, the mosque was the center of Western Islam and a cultural hub that rivaled Baghdad and Constantinople. A wonder of the medieval world, the mosque is remarkably well-preserved, giving visitors a chance to appreciate Islamic Cordoba and the glory days of Muslim rule.

Grand gates lead to an outdoor courtyard sheltered by orange trees. Long ago, worshippers washed here before prayer, as directed by Muslim law. Entering the mosque, you step into a fantastic forest of delicate columns and graceful arches that seems to recede into infinity, as if reflecting the immensity and complexity of God's creation.

Inside, it's easy to picture Cordoba as the center of a thriving and sophisticated culture. During the Dark Ages, when much of Europe was barbaric and illiterate, Cordoba was a haven of enlightened thought -- famous for a remarkable spirit of religious tolerance, artistic expression, and dedication to philosophy and the sciences. Jews, Christians, and Muslims had figured out how to live together more or less harmoniously. Everyone spoke the same language, cooked the same dishes, wore the same type of clothes, and shared the same public baths. It was one culture, with three religious traditions.

But in 1236, when Christians conquered the city, everything changed. According to legend, one morning Muslims said their last prayers in the great mosque, and that afternoon the Christians set up a portable altar to celebrate their first Mass. Later, as if planting a cross into the mosque's religious heart, they build an imposing cathedral in the middle of the Mezquita. Towering overhead, the cathedral's bell tower encloses what had been a minaret. In its juxtaposition of traditions, the Mezquita uniquely embodies the interplay of Spain's Christian and Muslim cultures.

Cordoba has a fortress (Alcazar), a 14th-century synagogue, a Roman bridge, and the Museum of Al-Andalus Life (unabashedly pro-Muslim), but most tourists leave the city having seen only the Mezquita and the trinket shops and cute medieval quarter that surround it. But Cordoba is much more than its historical self. A short walk beyond the tourist zone takes you to a zigzag of residential lanes, whitewashed and narrow. People really live here. There are no tacky shops, and just about the only tourist is ... you.

Go on a scavenger hunt for patios. For a respite from the hot, dry climate, locals retreat to open-air patios to cool off. These mostly hidden spaces are usually tucked behind ornate ironwork gates. As you wander, peek into any open patio door to catch a glimpse of a flowery retreat (homeowners are proud to show off their patios).

Flowers are front and center in Cordoba each May, when the city celebrates a series of festival events. First comes the Battle of the Flowers parade, with women tossing flowers from blossom-covered floats to eager crowds. Next, for the Festival of the Crosses, neighborhoods proudly make and display 10-foot crosses festooned with flowers. Residents gather for months beforehand to prepare their crosses in secret; in an earlier era, the work parties were an excuse for young singles to meet. Perhaps the most emblematic Cordoba event, however, is the Patio Competition, when residents open their gardens to the public in an intense contest to select the city's most attractive patio. If you have a penchant for patios, visit Palacio de Viana (a.k.a. the Patio Museum) to stroll its 12 connecting patios, each with a different theme.

Cordoba is an easy day trip (it's a short train ride from Sevilla) -- but if you really want to know the place, spend the night. Like everywhere in southern Spain, evening is prime time. Throughout the spring festival season, locals pack the squares in community-wide celebrations. During the Festival of the Crosses, each neighborhood association sets up a bar next to its flowered cross to serve drinks and tapas (the local specialty is salmorejo, a creamy version of gazpacho). Mellow guitar notes and seductive flamenco beats fill the air.

Experiencing the traditional culture of Cordoba -- celebrated by and for its locals -- trumps any packaged tourist show. With its beautiful courtyards, lively traditions, and infectious atmosphere, Cordoba rewards those who aren't in a hurry.

(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)