In the 10th century Cordoba was an impressive place. It had a mixed Muslim, Jewish and Christian population of nearly a million – three times more than now – and was the capital of a great Islamic caliphate. It was Europe's most thriving intellectual hub, home to its first university, a centre for cutting-edge science and a great transmitter of lost Ancient Greek culture to the West. It was known for its leather and silverwork, its public baths, lemon-scented palaces and opulent lifestyle.
None of it lasted, of course. Humans are ever thus. Spain's Muslims started in-fighting, fervent and intolerant Catholic monarchs took over, and things went to hell. Not that our Insight Vacations' travel director Elena puts it quite like that. Her view is that Spain was liberated from the Muslim yoke, and never mind the Spanish Inquisition. Yet, even she is impressed by Cordoba's great mosque, rightly urging us to visit it on a half-day excursion from Seville.
I'm glad I listen to her always useful advice. Why join an escorted journey if you aren't going to pay attention to local knowledge and experience? Now Cordoba is emerging around me like a pop-up version of The Arabian Nights. Courtyards are shaded with orange trees, gateways might as well be in Morocco, Arabic calligraphy loops across facades. We stroll down whitewashed alleys below a soaring minaret.
The minaret (now a belltower) is the exclamation point that marks Cordoba's Mezquita, which is so entangled in the old town it could almost go unnoticed, despite its being one of the largest mosques anywhere. The eighth-century Islamic masterpiece has an interior of red-and-white striped arches that recede into shadowy corners and create a slightly disorienting maze. The stonework is bold but the atmosphere dim and serene. At one end, Byzantine mosaics glimmer.
Buried at its heart is an opulent baroque cathedral intruded into the architecture in the 16th century, in what we might now describe as a shocking act of cultural vandalism. The cathedral is a brash, triumphalist parasite forever intertwined with its host. Yet the result is one of the world's most extraordinary hybrids, a clash of Arabic inscriptions and saints' statues, geometric Islamic minimalism and ornate baroque effusion.
Our local guide fills in the details of the architecture and history of the great structure, and then we're off to explore on our own. The mosque-cathedral is Cordoba's most famous sight, but this is attractive old town above the Guadalquivir River is dotted with curiosities, from a Roman archway to a medieval synagogue deep in the former Jewish Quarter. The gardens of the royal palace, which was founded during the Islamic era, are heady with the scent of roses. In a tiny piazza, I find a statue of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who lived in Cordoba in the 12th century.
As I meander away down side streets, crowds thin and souvenir shops dwindle. Retirees sit under the trees in small squares, drinking coffee. Overhead, balconies bloom with geraniums, blood-red against white walls. Behind iron grilles, patios erupt in blue tile work and more flowers. Rugged old neighbourhood churches smell of candle wax and polish.
Here and there I spot an archway or a truncated swoop of calligraphic inscription that recalls Cordoba's glory days as a centre of tolerance and learning. A brief moment in our great human endeavour when things seemed to go right for a while. Such are the things upon which to ponder as our Insight Vacations coach rolls onwards through the exhilarating sights of Spain.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Insight Vacations.
Insight Vacations' has several journeys in Iberia that visit Cordoba. Its 15-day Best of Spain and Portugal itinerary runs weekly between Madrid and Barcelona (or the reverse) from April to October and visits destinations including Salamanca, Porto, Lisbon, Cordoba, Seville and Granada. Prices from $4727 a person twin share including some meals, Insight Experiences, a travel director and local specialist guides. The optional afternoon visit to Cordoba is $45. See insightvacations.com/au