Once, Cordoba was the capital of the Iberian peninsula and the largest city in the world.
That was in the 10th century. It’s difficult to believe it now, for Cordoba has shrunk from its former status as a metropolis to a beautiful Andalusian jewel, with roofs of coloured tiles and storks nesting untidily on towers.
There was a patio festival under way while we were there: courtyards tumbled with tiers of pink and red geraniums, sometimes standing on fragments of architecture from the Roman period.
Captivating: Cordoba’s Roman bridge and Mezquita, the city’s greatest landmark
History abounds. Ancient columns are plentiful and many have been built into the corners of buildings, originally to protect them from being damaged by passing carts. Also inherited from the past is a happy philosophy expressed by a sign in a cafe we visited: ‘The only urgent thing is to live.’
Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, came here in 1587 with the unenviable job of requisitioning supplies for the forthcoming Armada. The Posada del Potro, a former inn that today houses the Fosforito Flamenco Centre, in the Plaza del Potro, survives from his time.
A stroll along the Guadalquivir — the ‘Great River’, as the Moors called it — takes you past a Roman gate and bridge to the Alcazar of the Christian Monarchs, a castle and palace that was built on the ruins of a Moorish fort in the 14th century. It later housed the Spanish Inquisition, which burned heretics at the stake.
Oddly, Cordoba’s greatest landmark — the cathedral, still generally known as the Mezquita, or mosque — is a spectacular example of cultural tolerance, at least as regards its architectural form.
An equestrian show with flamenco dancer at the Royal Stables
This truly amazing building began as a Roman basilica, the foundations of which have been excavated. When the Moorish commander Abd al-Rahman I captured Cordoba in 756, it was turned into a mosque.
There were 11 naves of double arches (one on top of the other), each made of alternating stripes of tile and stone and supported on a reused Roman column. Over the centuries, subsequent builders expanded the grid so that, by the end of the 10th century, there were 850 columns.
Later, Moorish rulers fell out with each other and their subjects, enabling a gang of Christian knights, who scaled a tower on a stormy night, to seize the city in 1236. Ferdinand III, king of Castile and Leon, galloped in to claim the credit.
But Cordoba’s new rulers did not expunge the Mezquita. Instead, they planted their cathedral in the middle of it. And the result is extraordinary.
You enter via the old patio of the mosque, containing 90 orange trees and a fountain whose tank would once have provided water for Muslim purifications.
Inside the building, the feeling is more like that of a forest than a work of architecture: there are seemingly endless avenues of columns. After wandering for some time, you find an ornate nave, choir stalls and an organ case.
Clive describes the Mezquita (pictured), or mosque, as an ‘amazing building’
For goodness’ sake, don’t lose sight of the people you’ve come with: in the immensity of the old mosque, with its long vistas of apparently identical arches, they might be very difficult to find.
In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain (and later so were the Moors). But they had been tolerated under the caliphate: most of the city’s old quarter is known as the Juderia. Among the maze of streets is a synagogue, dating from 1315 and covered in a filigree of the same sort of Mudejar (Moorish taste) ornament as the Mezquita. The synagogue was converted into a hospital for rabies sufferers, then a chapel for the shoemakers guild, and has now been heavily restored.
Horses are big in Andalusia. In Cordoba, they can be seen in the splendid setting of the Caballerizas Reales, or Royal Stables. Here they have been trained in the Renaissance tradition of the haute ecole (developed from movements that could be used on the battlefield), best known from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
Horse lovers will swoon at the immaculate dressage, often performed with a flamenco dancer.
Game Of Thrones fans will want to see the Castillo de Almodovar del Rio, 18 miles to the west of Cordoba, where Olenna Tyrell, played by Diana Rigg, drank poison. She should have listened to the motto: ‘The only urgent thing is to live.’