If it weren’t for the orange trees, arriving at Córdoba train station on a Sunday afternoon would feel just like approaching any other humdrum suburban town. Today, the train is full: after the hour and a half journey from Madrid, only a few families and daytrippers alight here, while the majority stay on board for the train’s final stop, Seville. A relatively unremarkable landscape rolls by; a couple of landfills, a few fields. It’s hard to tell that Córdoba was once one of the Islamic empire’s most powerful Caliphates from the greying tower blocks and discount-declaring storefronts that surround the sleepy train station. The economic crisis has hit Córdoba, like many of the smaller Spanish cities, particularly hard. There is little work for young people (however, strangely enough, a lot of new frozen yogurt parlours). In fact today, there are two distinct Córdobas – the ancient alleyways and architecture of the old city and the struggling modern city that sits around it, like a shell around a pearl. Most visitors arrive here to see the former.
‘Córdoba is an interesting city with a lot of history,’ says José Fabra Garrido, the young founder of Bed and Be, a cheerful bed and breakfast on the city’s main Calle de José Cruz Conde that also offers nightly bike tours. He explains how most tourists pass through Córdoba as part of a tour of Andalucía. ‘Most people know our more famous neighbours like Málaga, Seville or Granada. We were always their little sister – known as a little shy, maybe a little lazy…’
It’s an undeserved reputation. During the 10th century, under the rule of Caliph Al Hakam II, the Andalucían capital was a centre of economy, politics and culture, with the world’s largest library of the period. At the centre of the city, the Mezquita is one of the survivors from that era, a glorious grand mosque built by the exiled Umayyad prince And al Rahman I to rival those of Damascus and Baghdad.
The Mezquita acts as a timeline of Córdoba’s bittersweet history: a former Roman temple, its marble columns were used to build a church, and later converted into the mosque. As Córdoba was taken over by the Catholic church, a 16th century cathedral was plonked right in its centre, creating a Mosque-Cathedral hybrid that is still functional today.
Reinvention remains a trademark of the city. Today’s lack of job opportunities has created a new wave of independent businesses, such as the opening of Córdoba’s first contemporary art gallery. ‘It was a very conservative and classic city. But recently, maybe because of the crisis, people have more imagination and more creativity. A lot of young people who have been abroad come back with new ideas,’ says Garrido.
9:00am – El Mercado Victoria
‘Córdoba is known for some specific dishes, like salmorejo, a cold cream made from tomato, bread, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. We also have Salmoreteca in the market, a stand where you can taste different new age salmorejos, like the one with squid ink or another one with avocado,’ says Máximo Doval de Rey, the managing director of El Mercado Victoria, the only gourmet food market in Andalucía.
As well as Córdoba’s homegrown salmorejo, the richer and deeper offspring of gazpacho, other popular dishes include flamenquín, a fried meat roll filled with Iberian ham, as well as the textbook tapas, rows of cheese and cured meats, a gazpacheria and sweet tarts that are available among the 30-odd food stalls.
The gourmet market is the sister of the popular Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. Housed in a 19th century wrought iron pavilion known as Casteta de Circulo, the glass menagerie is an Ibérico-filled paradise. It prides itself on its dedication to Andalucían cuisine, whose kitchen is a hearty compilation of influences from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures that have inhabited the area.
This year, Córdoba was unanimously voted as the first official Ibero-American Capital of Gastronomic Culture, and in the one year since its opening, El Mercado Victoria has proved its worth in a city which has high expectations when it comes to food. Open from the early morning until 2am on weekend evenings, the Mercado is often packed – particularly in the warmer months, when its surrounding terraces and orange-tree lined gardens fill with locals – a prime example of the emerging new face of Córdovese culture outside of its historic old city.
12:00pm – Casa Árabe
At first glance, Casa Árabe is a small, charming museum, dedicated to the artefacts from Córdoba’s golden age of Islamic architecture and thought. A steep walk up one of the many slim alleyways that make up Córdoba’s dreamy old city (one alleyway is in fact so slim it is known as Calleja del Pañuelo, ‘the alley of the handkerchief’, after its narrowest point, which is allegedly as wide as a lady’s handkerchief) leads to the courtyard of Casa Árabe, a pretty, purposely-restored network of five 14th century houses and their galleries, cobbled courtyards and stairways.
Connected to the larger headquarters of Casa Árabe in Madrid, beyond the antiquities, both centres share a contemporary, forward-thinking approach to the understanding and representation of Arab culture in Spain. The Córdoba branch also hosts a high-tech media library, an Arabic language centre (devoted to both fusha and dariya), gardens, cinemas, bookshops, ‘Shukran Restaurant’ and a healthy programme of cultural events. Headed by a team of Arabic specialists from across Spain, the institution also regularly produces books and magazines in both Spanish and Arabic under its publishing wing, all available on issuu.com/casaarabe.
On the other side of Córdoba, the city has also recently witnessed the launch of Combo, its first independent contemporary art space. Tucked away among cafés on Calle García Lovera in the new city, it’s the sister space of La Fragua, an artist residency programme that takes place in a converted convent in the Córdoba countryside.
3:00pm – Salón De Té
Córdoba is a thoroughly Spanish city, however you can still find a few remnants of the city’s Arab roots, particularly in its old town – the largest urban UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world. Try a rosewater scented rubdown at one of Córdoba’s Turkish-style hamams, or take a tea at Argana or Salón De Té, two teahouses that both sit a stone’s throw from Córdoba’s Mezquita in traditional houses dating back to the 16th century.
Black, green and ‘té a la menta’ are served in Moroccan style glasses as guests sit around the Andalucían courtyard, full of blue mosaic tiles, stained glass windows, sprawling spider plants and plenty of saffron and rose-coloured cushions. As prickles of Andalucían guitar and Natacha Atlas CDs play from a distant stereo, it may feel a little touristy, but it’s a peacefully kitsch moment. Later, after sunset, candles are lit and shisha is served.
‘It’s an Arabish city’, says Jamal, the owner of Argana, who moved to Córdoba 25 years ago from Tétouan, Morocco. He fetches a few ‘dulces Arabes caseros’ from a glass-fronted cabinet – mammoul, nutty white chocolate and other familiar sweets prepared by a wife-like figure with a habit of occasionally shouting from the neighbouring kitchen – and suggests a visit to one of the city’s three surviving mosques (the city once boasted up to 300 under the rule of the progressive yet ruthless Caliph Al-Hakam II). ‘People like to come here, to smoke shisha in Córdoba,’ Jamal says. ‘Hopefully soon we’ll be serving Arabic food too.’
7:00pm – Night Bike
There’s one thing that José Fabra Garrido recommends to all of his guests at the Bed and Be hostel-hotel: a walk across the city’s Roman bridge after sunset, from where you can see the Mezquita and old city in all its glory. Garrido, who returned to his hometown of Córdoba to set up the business after years of working and studying abroad, adores the view so much that he offers free bike tours every night, for free. All are welcome. ‘We don’t surprise you with historical facts we’re not tour guides, it’s not exactly our background. The tour is more like a round with your friends. We stop at places that we like – a tapas place, a nice corner or patio. It’s a really good way to see the city.’
Every evening without fail (weather permitting), the tour sets off from Bed and Be, which also runs a small bike hire shop, for a night ride across the city. The tour begins at 7pm in winter and 9pm in summer, ensuring cyclists catch the sunset as they descend through Córdoba’s shopping streets to the old town, pedaling their way through the alleyways until they reach the mighty Mezquita.
‘It’s a small city so you can understand its streets very quickly. You can walk somewhere and then easily walk back, there’s no need to take a bus. And you are always surrounded by local people,’ says Garrido.
After a loop around the old town, across one Roman bridge and back towards town on another, the group makes a routine pitstop at La Bicicleta – a small café that’s popular with Córdoba’s cool crowd – for tostas, hummus and fresh juice. The owners are cycling junkies themselves, and offer a small discount if you arrive by bike.
‘Spain is in a bad situation, especially Andalucía and especially Córdoba. Most of my friends are in Barcelona or Madrid, or out of the country. Unemployment is really high, 20 or 40 percent for young people,’ Garrido sighs. However, he believes, it’s small initiatives like La Bicicleta, a tourist map created by the city’s young graphic designers or his nightly bike rides, that are saving the soul of the city, and should encourage more visitors to Córdoba – not just for its ancient history, but for its distinctly Andalucían hipsters.
9:00pm – Filmoteca de Andalucía
Pablo García Casado, the director of the Filmoteca de Andalucía, is an animated man. From his top floor office, where his desktop computer sits on top of a pile of dusty film reel canisters, the poet and film lover explains how the film archive found its home in the 16th century building, a former nunnery and orphanage. ‘That was a decision by the cultural office of Andalucía, so that not everything we have is in Seville! Which is often the centre of all things cultural in Andalucía.’
The building sits around arguably one of Córdoba’s most sublime courtyards – an Andalucían dream in the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter, full of orange trees, patterned mosaics and, unlike most courtyards, a vintage film projector and editing suite. The film archive collects and restores vintage equipment, along with films dating back to 1910.
Nearly every night a film is screened (from Andalucían indie to Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘El Padrino’) in one of its two cinemas, which are open to the public along with its library of books and film magazines. During a grand tour of the building, Casado proudly strokes one of the cinema’s Multikino 35mm projectors.
The ‘Cinema Paradiso’-style set up is used to project restored films, from the collection of refrigerated reels in the three purpose-built ‘cold rooms’ that sit below the courtyard. ‘We collect anything to do with Andalucía. The culture of Andalucía is not like the rest of the Spain, as you know. It’s different here than from València or from the north,’ Casado smiles. ‘But when people think about the image of Spain, it’s the Andalucían one – the bullfighting, the flamenco…’
In that sense, the film archive is not only preserving Andalucía’s visual legacy, but a Spanish identity – or at least Hollywood’s perception of it. ‘We brought over a silent film from America by D.W. Griffith, which dates back to 1911. It’s called “The Spanish Gypsy – A Romance in Sunny Andalucía.” It’s shot in California and people are dressed like gypsies but in a different way – like the gypsies of Hungary and Eastern Europe! It’s a very funny film, very dramatic – about a woman, of course.’
This article appears in the issue45Buy Now