A Day Trip to Córdoba
“Traveling for these people isn’t accomplishing a goal or sticking to a schedule; it’s about taking your time, relaxing together, embracing adaptability, and discovering whatever you stumble upon”.
My first breakfast in Spain catches me off guard: toasted bread with olive oil, garlic, fresh tomato paste, salt, hard cheese, and cured ham. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced a completely new culture. Swallowing such a seemingly bizarre combination—an Andalucían staple—with a smile re-calibrates me a bit. I have no trouble, on the other hand, with the orange juice freshly squeezed from fruit I picked out of the garden.
Today we are visiting Córdoba. “We” in this instance means me and my two Spanish friends, Isa and Chumi. As we drive there from Lucena, a small town where Isa’s family is hosting me, I look out on the countryside. It only takes one glance to see how important the olive is in this culture (as if its omnipresence in local cuisine wasn’t enough). The rolling hills are blanketed with endless rows of olive trees on white, dusty earth. Such a vast monoculture is both impressive and alien—it’s beautifully desolate.
Isa, Chumi, and I roll around Córdoba searching for a parking spot, and in doing so we become completely disoriented. After we ditch the vehicle, we try to find the city center but make slow progress. Every few minutes Chumi stops someone and asks for directions, and then we follow the directions (with varying degrees of precision) until we sense that we’re no longer making progress. Then we ask someone else for directions. Over the course of the day this happens at least a dozen times; in my entire life I’ve maybe asked for directions twice.
I’m initially frustrated by the lack of preparation and the inefficiency. After a while though, I come to see it less as incompetence, but as a different cultural perspective. No one is hesitant to ask for directions, and no one is bothered by giving them. It seems as if people just leave toward their target without knowing exactly how to get there, and they plan on relying on interactions with locals. While it may not encourage self-sufficiency, the method makes navigation a social process. I can see the value in flexibility, spontaneity, and community.
After much effort we arrive at the Mezquita, or “mosque,” and meet up with Isa’s parents. The site of the complex was once a Roman temple of Janus, then a Visigoth church, before the Moorish conquerors built several iterations of a mosque, in the middle of which a church was constructed after the Reconquista. It’s an odd combination of architecture to say the least.
The courtyard is a lush garden consisting of colorful orange trees and irrigated pathways. The bell tower, once a minaret, hangs over over the little oasis. The mosque section of the complex is made of seemingly endless rows of columns and arches, all aligned with the mihrab. It was designed to direct the simultaneous prayers of thousands of faithful toward Mecca; it is vast, egalitarian, and dark.
The juxtaposition of the Renaissance cathedral smack dab in the middle of the mosque is intentional and political. Light comes through the large windows and reflects off the white ceiling to brilliantly illuminate the interior. It’s as if to say: you, dear Christian, must walk through the shadowy remnants of a false religion in order to reach the enlightened center of truth.
On the other hand, the Spanish didn’t outright destroy all of the Moorish structures, which is more than can be said of most European cities. As we meander about the surrounding streets, Isa’s parents stress Córdoba’s importance as a crossroad of cultures and architecture. It has historically been exceptionally tolerant of its pluralistic heritage. We weave between the tiny roads of the Jewish quarter, and I can’t help but fall in love with the charming white and yellow facades.
Our next stop after the Mezquita is for tapas. We grab a beer, a slice of tortilla (in Spain, a kind of egg and potato omelet), and some sort of tomato sauce. I make short work of it while we stand in the street, and I grow concerned. What I’ve just consumed was tasty, but insufficient. I’ve heard about tapas before, mainly that they are small and expensive dishes that leave you hungry. I worry that the rumors are true.
Fortunately, I discover this is not the case in Spain. Not more than fifteen minutes after we start walking again, Isa’s dad peers into a bar and motions us over. We go inside and order more drinks and more tapas, much to my confusion. They finally explain to me how the system works here. I understand it best as institutionalized snacking—little, frequent dishes always accompanied by a beer or glass of wine. As we make stop after stop, strolling down picturesque streets lined with orange trees, it starts to come together. Traveling for these people isn’t accomplishing a goal or sticking to a schedule; it’s about taking your time, relaxing together, embracing adaptability, and discovering whatever you stumble upon.
My adopted family and I make our way toward the Guadalquivir River, toward the massive Roman bridge that spans it. This is a truly impressive structure. I’ve seen Roman works before, but I’m still awestruck by its dimensions—and the fact that it exists today (with the help of some restorations). I try to wrap my head around it as we stop to take photos, look back on the city, and look south towards the Calahorra Tower at the end of the bridge and the open countryside beyond.
As we near the other side, some sort of stir blocks the way. About two-dozen men are carrying a platform, weighed with cement bars, on their backs. Dozens more gather around to watch, and the obstruction is a bit of a nuisance. Isa’s mother tries to clarify through an indecipherable combination of Spanish and English and gestures. Isa actually clarifies. These men are practicing for the Semana Santa, Holy Week, when they will take an image from the cathedral and march it out in a ceremonial procession.
In fact, this happens all over Andalucía (and the Catholic world), and it’s an integral part of their culture. It’s clear how central religious tradition is to life here in Southern Spain. Their churches are richly decorated with golden icons, their homes are filled with pictures of the Virgin Mary, and people flock to watch some men carry cement bars across a Roman bridge.
We meander alongside the river before arriving at our final destination for the day, the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos. This is the fortified palace constructed by Alfonso XI after Córdoba was re-conquered. The pointed merlons on the battlements and lush gardens closely resemble the work of the Moors they kicked out. We wind up and down staircases (whose steps are surprisingly large, considering the people of the period who built them were smaller than us), exploring the baths, courtyards, and towers.
From the highest point in the palace, I look out on Córdoba as the daylight fades. From this vantage point I can see everything: the Mezquita, the bridge, the tower, and the web of narrow streets below. Every city in this region has a deeply layered history, but in Córdoba—more than any other—those layers are palpable.
Even with all of the history, even with all of the tourism, Córdoba is still a living city. The people who call it home have their own traditions, their own stories, and their own legacy. I can’t help but be grateful for being immersed in it, for being a part of it—if only for an instant.
Today’s blog post comes from Limitless Planet’s guest blogger, Kevin Kotur.