The narrow, winding streets of Cordoba's Old City hide treasures from a splendid past at the heart of European culture
Walking into the forest of red and cream striped arches of Cordoba's Mezquita - an architectural evocation of the date palms of a Saharan oasis - can bring a catch to the throat and tears to the eyes. To simply stand still in the midst of this place is deeply moving; as in Jerusalem or Istanbul, the air is thick with centuries of different cultures and beliefs.
Most guidebooks, oddly, only list the 'official' opening hours for the Mezquita, starting at 10am. This is the hour at which tour groups are admitted, and the cathedral's huge, shady space quickly fills up, camera-wielders blocking the views of the golden tiles around the qibla and wandering over the macabre gravestones set in the floor, skull and crossbone motifs carved in black marble. But the complex actually opens to individual tourists one or two hours earlier (check with your hotel or the Mezquita information kiosk, as the times change). Arriving at 8 or 9am, the cool and quiet is the perfect environment for contemplating nearly a thousand years of Islamic and Christian history.
Founded by the Romans, Cordoba was one of the great cities of the Islamic kingdoms of Andalucia, a centre of learning for the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths. Although relations between the communities weren't always harmonious, they did display a level of tolerance unusual in any day or age. Amongst the reminders of this are a traditional silver industry, making delicate filigree jewellery, including intricate Jewish religious motifs, and, on the Calle de los Judios, a tiny synagogue built in 1315, with inscriptions uncovered by recent restoration. It's one of a very few medieval synagogues to survive the persecution and expulsion of the Jewish people which have periodically swept Europe throughout medieval and modern history. Spain's Jews were finally expelled by the Catholic Kings in 1492, but historical treasures like this are helping to breathe life into understanding of Andalucian culture and its peoples.
A little further along Calle de los Judios, another ancient building houses the Casa de Sefarad, named for the ancient Arabic word for Spain, which lives on amongst the Sephardi Jews. Set around a pretty cobbled courtyard, the rooms house information on the daily life of Jewish people in the city nearly a thousand years ago. A display also highlights the role of women in Andalucian literature, music and politics. Regular tours in Spanish and English are available, and there are often concerts of Arabic, Jewish and traditional Andalucian flamenco music and dance. Book as soon as you see posters for these – the small space means they sell out fast.
Cordoba's historical sites are mainly confined within the old city (with the exception of the Madinat as-Zahra, the great Moorish palace outside the city, sacked and razed to the ground in 1010; that requires a car or bus tour) and are therefore easily within walking distance of each other. This means that there are ample opportunities to wander the narrow alleyways of the city, hung with jasmine and bougainvillea flowers, and peer through doorways and arches into cool green courtyards, Cordoba's famous patios. In May, watch out for signs proclaiming 'patio', which means that private gardens are open to visitors and you're welcome to go and sit amongst the orange trees and rambling stonework.
Throughout the network of tiny whitewashed streets you'll also find little tapas bars, serving chilled regional wines and dishes such as tortilla de patatas – thick, filling potato omelette served in slices – and salmorejo, a chilled soup similar to a thick gazpacho (vegetarians beware: it often comes garnished with ham). These are often the best places to eat in the city, although if you're staying more than a few days you might like to ring the changes at restaurants like the chic, contemporary Amaltea on the road overlooking the Guadalquivir. At all costs avoid the many tourist trap restaurants, especially those off the Plaza del Potro – they're easily identified by their multilingual plastic menus and printed outside boards offering identikit meals straight from the freezer.
Finally, after a day amongst the tiny streets and squares of the old city, talk a walk along the banks of the great Rio Guadalquivir, and across the Puente Romano. At the end of this huge medieval bridge there is a historic tower, used as a prison at various points in the city's history and now housing factual displays. But a much more pleasant way to end the day is to sit on the benches or walls of the bridge, watching bats catching insects in the dusk or, in spring and autumn, seeing the thousands of migratory birds, including ghostly white egrets, which roost in the willow trees in the wide, shallow river.
Hotel: of Cordoba's many hostels and small hostels, Hostal el Reposo de Baghdad is the prettiest.
Tours: if the winding streets of the old town are too confusing, try Mezquita de Cordoba walking tours.
Restaurant: Bodegas Mezquita have several bars around the city, including one right next to the Mezquita, serving reliable tapas.
Tour operator: Imaginative Traveller offer tours incorporating Cordoba and other Andalucian sites such as Granada and the region's countryside