Walking through the narrow labyrinth of streets in Córdoba’s historic centre at night is staggeringly evocative. The chaotically unplanned tight alleyways, interspersed with cobbled squares of trickling fountains, are eerily quiet. It feels like the ghosts of the centuries are strolling alongside you.
Córdoba is more serene and rooted in its past than its rowdy neighbour, Seville, but what a past it has. For almost 500 years, Córdoba was the centre of an Islamic empire in Europe, producing polymaths, scholars and scientists still revered to this day – a beacon of enlightenment in a time when most of Europe was in a deep slumber.
Preservation and restoration has kept the city – which was founded in Roman times, and added to in layers ever since – looking splendidly old. It’s an age of distinguished wisdom rather than decrepitude, though. Very few people walk away from Córdoba without thinking they have seen something special.
A comfortable bed
The Hospes Palacio del Bailío is an absolute delight. It’s built, as so many Córdoban hotels are, around numerous courtyards – with the central one boasting a pool among orange and pomegranate trees. The little add-ons, such as the hugely decorative Mudejar salon for guests to lounge in, elevate it from merely beautiful to an unforgettable treasure. Rooms cost from €146 (Dh611).
The NH Collection Amistad is a converted 18th-century mansion, right against the city walls. Again, it’s built around blissfully swoony courtyards, but there’s also a peaceful chic to the rooms, which are all high ceilings, light woods, grey marble and neutral tones. Double rooms cost from €89 (Dh372).
The nine rooms at the Hotel Casa de los Azulejos are simple, but the decoration – lashings of glazed ceramic tiles, traditional Spanish ponchos on hooks, lush plants all over the place – makes it thoroughly charming. Doubles cost from €66 (Dh276).
Find your feet
The Alcazar is a good starting point for those who like strolling along castle ramparts. There’s a somewhat random selection of exhibitions within the fortress walls – the ancient Roman mosaics covered in excavations are most impressive – but it’s the terraced gardens that are the real hit.
The city’s unquestioned star attraction, however, is the Mezquita – the former mosque constructed during the Córdoba caliphate’s zenith. The oldest parts date back more than 1,300 years. There’s a surreal, almost fairground-like feel to walking around inside under hundreds of red-and-white, brick-and-stone arches. The mihrab is covered in hyper-detailed mosaics, and the building seems to go on for miles. Weirdly, the modern-day cathedral is right in the middle of all this, yet kept largely separate.
No other attraction is going to compete with what’s unquestionably one of the greatest buildings on Earth, so take a different tack afterwards, and get happily lost in the shambolically un-gridlike streets of the restaurant-packed Juderia area.
Meet the locals
Hammam Al Andalus is an architecturally exquisite restoration of the city’s Arabic-style baths. They’re now a meeting place again, albeit with a few extra visitors popping in to relax in the thermal pools and have a massage. Two-hour entry costs from €24 (Dh100).
Book a table
Casa Pepe da la Judería is worth eating in for the building alone – it’s a network of cosy little rooms, some with art and trellised plants on the walls, all having a slightly different character. The roast suckling lamb shoulder for €24.50 (Dh103) is divinely tender.
El Churrasco has a formal dining area, but it’s far more fun to perch in the more casual bar area ordering tapas. Each small dish costs €2.30 (Dh10) to €5 (Dh10) – with specialities including fried cod and oxtail stew.
The streets around the Mezquita at the bottom end of the Juderia neighbourhood have plenty of shops attempting to flog trinketry to tourists. It’s pretty easy to tell the class from the crass – generally, the less crammed the window display, the better.
Jewellery – particularly intricately detailed filigree silverwork – and leather are the two local craft specialities. Go for the focused experts rather than shops hedging bets by selling all manner of other souvenir-ware as well.
What to avoid
You might be considering hiring a car for a hop around Andalusia, but trying to drive in Córdoba is the stuff of nightmares. Its tiny lanes and streets were in place hundreds of years before cars were invented, and they’re staggeringly unsuited to inching a vehicle down.
Palacio de Viana is a former private palace that has been passed down through noble families, and progressively added to, since the 15th century. The guided tours taking visitors round the house are so-so, but the 12 patios (courtyards) around which the house is built are utterly sumptuous. Each has a different look and personality, but a wander through them becomes an idyllic hour or two among intricate tile patterns, bubbling water features, citrus trees, blooming flowers and sculpted cypress bushes.
Etihad and Emirates fly direct from Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively to Madrid, from Dh2,835 return. The high-speed train from Madrid to Córdoba from Madrid to Córdoba costs from about €50 (Dh209) return, and takes an hour and 45 minutes.
Updated: April 6, 2016 04:00 AM