Córdoba is another of those cities best explored on foot; parking can be difficult. It is impossible to see everything in one day. It can take the best part of a day to walk around the walls from the west gate to the south gate particularly if you wander off into the gardens and examine the bathhouses, the stately buildings and towers that seem to spring up every few metres and occasionally stop to take in the views across the river or spend time partaking of refreshments at some of the many charming courtyard cafés you will encounter.
Strategically placed, at the highest point of navigation on the River Guadalquivir, Córdoba started life as an Iberian settlement. In 152 BC the Romans established Corduba Patricia as a Colonia. After 27 BC the city became the capital of Baetica. Following the Romans, Córdoba was occupied by the Visigoths. The occupation proved unpopular with the locals and a revolt against the Visigothic King Agila around 554 AD, led to a short period of local independence that came to a sudden, and bloody, end in 572 AD when the Visigoths decided the Cordobians had started an unacceptable precedent. The Arabs arrived in 711 AD and Córdoba soon replaced Seville as the capital of Al Andalus. It is the architectural remains from the period between 711 AD and 1236 AD when the city was retaken by Fernando III of Castile, that attract the tourist.
Most visitors make a beeline for the Mezquita, and little wonder. It is the third largest mosque ever built. The original structure, dedicated in 786 AD, was extended and enlarged over the entire period of Arab rule, each king trying to outdo his predecessors. It is now a ‘forest’ of columns. The earliest section contains original but re-used Roman and Visigothic pillars and, in the north-west corner a free-standing Visigothic altar. The Mezquita is unique in Spain because it not only survived the re-conquest, it was considered so magnificent that between 1523 and 1607 a Renaissance style church was built within the structure. The church is now the repository for the ecclesiastical treasures which is worth a trip in itself. But back to the Romans.
The guidebooks tell you there is little remaining from the Roman period and promptly send you to the Mezquita but if you know where to look there is enough left to give you an impression of their city. For instance, near to the Hotel Tryp Gallos at the junction of Paseo de la Victoria and Calle de Concepcion is situated what was the Roman west gate into the city. On the Paseo side is a Roman cemetery. In the centre of the city itself is a temple but do not be fooled. This is a reconstruction. Only two columns are original. However, the renovations are using the original foundations and floor plans. Leaving the old city through the south gate, you will then cross the 250 metre long Puente Romano. This 1st century BC bridge has 16 arches spanning the Guadalquivir river. It is worth stopping halfway across and looking up and down the river. You will notice islands and channels that appear man-made. You will also see the remains of, and in one case, a whole, huge, waterwheel. The wheel is part of the extensive system, started by the Romans and perfected by the Arabs, that allowed the surrounding land to be irrigated and then used to grow olives, grapes and wheat that was then shipped back to Rome and later, during the Moorish occupation, throughout the Islamic empire.
The Calahorra Fort at the south end of the bridge is an Arab construction from the Almohad period that now houses an interesting Islamic museum. For a particular view of how integrated, politically and religiously, the Arabs were with the native population, and how advanced scientifically they were, then the fort is worth as much attention as the Mezquita. It is here that there is a wonderful collection of original Arabic navigational instruments including an ancient astrolabe that predates the invasion of 711 AD.
For those who prefer strolling then the medieval quarter called La Juderia, (The Jewry) is a labyrinth of winding streets, small squares and courtyards. In May there is a competition. The patios are decorated with flowers and opened to the public. One lucky household will be chosen for owning the ‘most beautiful courtyard’. It is in this area that you will find small bars, restaurants and cafés and innumerable shops. You will also find silver. For hundreds of years, La Juderia housed the silver merchants and craftsmen who produced the jewellery for which Córdoba is famous.
Whilst you are in the Juderia take a look in the Galeria de la Tortura where you will find grim reminders of how Inquisitors extracted confessions from the hapless souls brought before them during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition was used for both political and religious reasons. Spain is a nation-state that was born out of religious struggle between numerous different belief systems including Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Judaism. Following the Reconquest of Spain by the Christian Spaniards the leaders of Spain needed a way to unify the country into a strong nation. Ferdinand and Isabella chose Catholicism to unite Spain and in 1478 asked permission of the pope to begin the Spanish Inquisition to purify the people of Spain. They started by driving out Jews, Protestants and other non-believers.
In 1483 Tomas de Torquemada became the inquisitor-general for most of Spain. He was responsible for establishing the rules of inquisitorial procedure and creating branches of the Inquisition in various cities. Córdoba was home to one of the principle tribunals. He remained the leader of the Spanish Inquisition for fifteen years and is believed to be responsible for the execution of around 2,000 Spaniards. The Spanish inquisition became so bloody and notorious that even the Catholic Church and the Pope himself attempted to intervene but were unable to wrench the extremely useful political tool from the hands of the Spanish rulers.
Accused heretics were identified by the general population and brought before the tribunal. They were given a chance to confess their heresy against the Catholic Church and were also encouraged to indict other heretics. If they admitted their wrongs and turned in other aggressors against the church, they were either released or sentenced to a prison penalty. If they would not recognise their heresy or indict others, the accused were publicly introduced in a large ceremony before they were publicly killed, many by burning or sentenced to life in prison. The Spanish Inquisition's reign of terror was finally suppressed in 1834.
For a more tranquil experience, there is the Casa Museo Arte Sobre Piel. Córdoba is famous for its leatherwork, in particular, the technique known as guadameci, intricate embossed designs with gold, silver and coloured paint. The leather, alumed hair sheepskin, was uniquely soft, and white. This was then dyed a beautiful red colour using madder, producing the unique red leather of Córdoba. The practice, introduced in the 10th century, died out after 1610 when the practitioners of the art, the Moriscos, were expelled from Spain. Modern craftsmen are re-introducing the craft, and their work is displayed in the museum.
Between the river and the Mezquita is a rather sombre looking ensemble of buildings. This is the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos. The uninspired exterior hides a splendid interior. Built on the orders of Alfonso XI of Castile in 1328, the fortress contains magnificent gardens and courtyards. The Alcázar of Córdoba is so beautiful that it became the favourite residence of Isabell I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon after the reconquest in 1492.
To round off your visit to Córdoba, you could partake of the Arab baths. There are a few such establishments in the old part the city, some retaining use of the original structure. You will be plied with mint tea while you languish in the warm bath. Fragrant candles illuminate the cold and hot bathrooms, and sumptuous oils will be massaged into your body by experienced masseurs. It is just a small taste of how a minority of the population lived in luxury in this noble city.