Dineen in the Courtyard

Martes, Day 2 - Cordoba

After a wonderful breakfast in the hotel (the Europeans invented "continental breakfast," and the U.S. version pales in comparison to its European cousin!) we took an organized tour of Córdoba's main attractions.

Starting out just outside La Mezquita, we explored several beautiful courtyards, where the artisans of Córdoba sell their wares. As is common in Spain, the courtyards had ornate stone mosaiacs designed to trap water and cool the area in summer.

We also visited the oldest standing Synagogue in all of Spain. It was built in 1315, after the Christians had reconquered Córdoba, by rich Jews who had gained the favor of the Christian rulers by helping to finance their conquest. The architecture is unlike any other synagogue we had ever seen - probably because it is in a very Muslim style, as the benefactors hired Mudéjar artisans (Moors who converted to Christianity so they could stay in their homes) to do the intricate plaster and tile work that characterizes Moorish style.

We then went to another beautiful courtyard, the main selling area of the silversmiths, and ceramics workers for centuries. You can hear the birds chirping, and almost smell the orange blossoms.

Probably the best courtyard in Córdoba, however, is the Patio de los Naranjos, the Patio of the Oranges within the walls of the magnificent Mezquita. A little history is in order if you want to fully understand the amazing scope of the Mezquita. The original Mosque was built in 785-787, soon after the Moorish conquest of 711. Abd al Rahman I wanted his mosque built quickly, so they used recycled materials from the former Visigoth church and ancient roman temple formerly on the site - thus many of the more than 850 columns are of slightly different heights or materials, and they compensated by slightly burying them or raising them on pedestals to make the columns uniform. The columns support the amazing double arches, which dominate the inside of the mosque. The bottom arches connect the columns, while the top arches support the roof. The red-and-white color is a result of the building materials used - sandstone (white) and brick (red). The brick was used for two reasons - not only is it cheaper than stone, but it also allows for some give and movement in the case of earthquakes. Later, the Mosque was expanded several times by Moorish leaders, each time to accommodate the growing Moslem population of Córdoba. The 10th Century expansion included the building of the Mihrab, the magnificent prayer niche whose sea-shell shape provided microphone-like acoustics. During that renovation, the powers-that-be wanted to show their wealth and power by making arches of pure sandstone, and just painting them with the brick pattern so they would match - a bad move, since this was the area of the mosque that was most damaged by earthquakes in later centuries.

The final major renovation of the Mosque was the most destructive, but it also lead to its current role - Roman Catholic Church. After the Christians re-conquered Córdoba, a small Christian chapel was built in the Mudéjar style in 1371. But the Bishop of Córdoba wasn't satisfied, and he wanted to show the full strength and glory of the Church, so he petitioned to Charles II (against the wished of many other church leaders in Córdoba) for permission to build a cathedral within the walls of the Mezquita. Having never seen the Mezquita for himself, Charles said "sure, the church is strong, go for it" (or something like that) and allowed the bishop to knock out dozens of arches smack dab in the middle of mosque and start construction on the cathedral. A few years later, when Charles II traveled to Córdoba to marry Isabella, he saw the Mezquita with his own eyes for the first time. He realized his mistake in letting the bishop cajole him into allowing the destruction of such amazing architecture, but it was far too late. It took 200 years (and therefore encompasses a wide variety of architectural styles, from Renaissance to Baroque) but the cathedral-within-a-mosque turned out pretty good, in the end. Although it is a shame that so much was destroyed, the exquisite decorations in wood, marble, and gold are simply breathtaking.

The most visible sign of La Mesquita from throughout the city is the bell tower, the Torre de Alminar. The tower was built on top of the original Minaret of the mosque. This shot of the tower, from between two of the typical flower-decorated balconies of the streets of Córdoba, is the stuff of postcards.

After the official tour, we walked over the Puente Romano, the Roman bridge crossing the Guadalquivir River. The bridge is on the original foundations built by the Romans way back when, but has the addition of a statue of Archangel Raphael, the cities patron saint, on one side. The statue constantly has candles burning at its feet, and we saw Córdobans cross themselves as they passed the statue while speeding across the bridge. The bridge affords quite a view of Córdoba proper. We finished our time in Córdoba with dinner at the other well-known restaurant in town, El Churrasco, and had our first of many wonderful pitchers of genuine Sangría. For dessert, we tried what the Spanish call toscino de cielo (literally, "heavenly bacon") but we think is almost as easily described as flan on crack. Basically, it is a flan-like custard that is about ten times as rich and yolky than normal flan. It is so thick that we could definitely understand how the allusion to bacon came about - in fact it was so rich that we didn't order it again. But, we're glad we could say we tried it.

- Day Three -