A pilgrimage by train from Barcelona to the mosque at Cordoba reaps a golden surprise. Then on to Cadiz, where the gold-domed cathedral looks down over a very different city
I love travelling on overnight trains, and our journey on the trenhotel which runs between Barcelona and Cadiz did not disappoint. With its dinky little two berth compartments, the beds were so comfortable that we were soon oblivious of the rails that slipped by beneath us at such great speed. We had eaten an excellent dinner in the restaurant car first, covertly watching the reflections beyond the pitch black windows and imagining our fellow diners to be characters from an Agatha Christie movie. But this was not the Orient Express. During this night we were to travel the length of Spain.
We planned to leave the train early the next morning at Cordoba, where the mezquita (or mosque) was to be the focus of our visit. We had fallen in love with Moorish architecture at the Alhambra in Granada. Cordoba therefore, was a must. We then planned to finish the journey by local train (www.renfe.es) to Cadiz.
Our train attendant alerted us as we approached Cordoba, and within minutes we were standing outside the station on a chilly early November morning, unprepared for the surprise that awaited us. We took a bus to the edge of the old town, stepping off into a fairly ordinary street, with parked cars, some pretty doorways and the odd shop. Then I spotted something totally unexpected - canopies of oranges above my head, like miniature suns in an emerald sky. Indeed, orange trees, burdened with ripening fruits, ran all the way along both sides of the road towards the departing bus, as it vanished into the early morning mist over the River Guadalquivir. This was less a bus stop, more an orange grove. Steering our cases around windfalls that still clung to their glossy leaves, we followed a signpost down a narrow lane towards the mezquita, and our hotel.
Where to stay
The hotel was perfect in all ways. Fountains played in an inner courtyard garden, reflecting the Moorish architecture around us. The Conquistador is situated in the Magistral Gonzalez Francez, a street that runs alongside the entire east wall of the mosque, opposite two magnificent golden gates set in the ancient walls.
Feeling impatient, we left our cases with the friendly reception staff, and entered the mezquita through the Puerto del Perdon, just around the corner. Here we marvelled at the sight of yet more orange trees, laden with fruit. We had entered the aptly named Patio de los Naranjos(oranges). People coming to pray could cleanse themselves in its fountains and gaze through open doorways to where elegant columns extended beyond the lines of orange trees into the mysterious interior.
We were first in the queue for tickets and so, when finally admitted, we stood alone beneath the myriads of columns. The whole building was hushed and dark, with shafts of light illuminating the deep red stripes of the countless arches. We looked around us in awe, like tiny rabbits in an enchanted forest. It wasn't long before larger parties began to fill the aisles. We moved on to explore the Juderia, the fascinating old quarter of Cordoba, while vowing to return again early the next morning.
Travelling overnight by train has one great disadvantage; you can't see the landscape. We had bought a two way ticket to Cadiz, leaving the train early at Cordoba. Now, as we undertook the final part of our journey by local train, we could actually see the countryside. We travelled past marshlands and over the long straight track alongside the Atlantic, which ended at Cadiz station on the very end of the peninsula. We had traded the oranges of Cordoba for the gold of Cadiz., with the gilded dome of the baroque cathedral standing out above the town before us. Cadiz once flourished as a port trading in gold and silver, and you can see the results of this wealth in the tall houses, elegant squares and tree-lined parks. Sadly all that glisters is not the real thing; the dome is actually clad in yellow ceramic tiles and many of the once elegant buildings are decaying.
Our hotel was a disappointment, and at first we did not much like Cadiz with its slightly seedy, run down air. How we wished that we had booked a room at the more reliable Parador Atlantico Hotel Cadiz which is beautifully situated in the quieter end of town overlooking Cadiz's prettiest beach, Playa de la Caleta. Unlike some other more glamorous Paradors it occupies a plain modern building, but its rooms are well furnished and look out over the Atlantic swells.
We left Cadiz earlier than planned, but my thoughts often return to its raffish streets and alleyways, and the relaxed non-touristic feel of it all. Travel is like that. Sometimes you are surprised by the places that make a lasting impression.
We now had a day to spare in Barcelona, so we booked a room at our favourite Hotel 1898. This hotel was converted from an old tobacco company building, fronting Las Ramblas. We first stayed there shortly after it opened two years ago, and were seduced by its air of restfulness and style. It is hard to imagine the hustle that lies beyond the enormous glass doors, as you sink into one of the dark brown leather sofas and inhale the slightly musky ambience of the cooled air. Prices have increased since those earliest days, so this was a bit of an indulgence. There is much to see in Barcelona. A short walk up Las Ramblas brings you to the amazing Casa Batllo, perhaps the most beautiful of Gaudi's architectural creations. One visit is certainly not enough to appreciate his clever innovations and the sheer style of the place. This time we also wanted to relax in the hotel and bathe in the beautiful pool and spa area under its vaulted stone roof.
We planned to retrieve our car the next morning from one of the city's long term car parks, but first we chose to breakfast at our favourite food stall in La Boqueria. This is Barcelona's famous food market, just next door to our hotel. We perched on bar stools and breakfasted alongside market porters sipping brandy with their coffee, after their morning's work. We ordered freshly squeezed orange juice (of course); pa amb tomaquet, the Catalan dish of bread, garlic and tomato; and slices of tortilla. Meanwhile we watched the stallholder setting out platters of fresh fish, meats and vegetables to be cooked "a la plancha" as the day progressed.
We had travelled effortlessly from the north to the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, and back again, but now it was time to leave Spain. We would be back.