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  • Andrew Ferren

36 Hours in Córdoba

Spend a cultured weekend in this southern Spanish city, known for its multicultural history — now being mined by a new wave of young chefs and artists. By Andrew Ferren. Photographs by Laura León.

Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its blending of Muslim and Christian architecture.

The winds of innovation are again rustling the orange trees shading the lanes and plazas in Córdoba, a city in the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Visitors can trace Córdoba’s history from its Roman ruins, to the Moorish architecture left by five centuries of Muslim rule (when the city was one of Europe’s largest and most cosmopolitan capitals), to its later churches and Christian palaces. While many daytrippers move on before nightfall, today’s Córdoba rewards a few days’ exploration: not only to enjoy its monuments (the city has four UNESCO designations), but to see how young artists and chefs are mining the city’s rich multicultural past. In winter there are fewer crowds and milder temperatures, and Córdoba is now even easier (and cheaper) to get to, with a new high-speed rail operator, Iryo, competing for fares with the rail company Renfe.


Friday

3pm | Pass under arches

No visitor should skip the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its blending of Muslim and Christian architecture, and its seemingly infinite forest of columns (some 850) and red-and-white horseshoe arches. Go at lunchtime (Spaniards eat late) on Friday when there may be fewer people. Construction of the mosque, once the world’s second largest, began around 786, recycling materials from the Visigoth Basilica of San Vicente, which it replaced. The mosque became a cathedral when the Christians conquered the city in 1236, and a massive chapel with soaring ceilings combining Gothic and Renaissance styles was inserted in 1523. (Tickets, 13 euros, about $22, plus 3 euros for the belltower. Purchase tickets online to avoid lining up.)


A view of Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, a 14th-century castle.

4:30pm | Explore a castle

If you didn’t climb the 191 steps of the mosque-cathedral’s belltower, the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, the 14th-century castle next door, has shorter towers with similar views above the city’s red-tile roofs. Built on the site of a Roman fortress on the river Guadalquivir, the Alcázar was a Spanish royal residence and, later, a military installation and a prison. A statue amid the garden’s cypresses and fountains commemorates a meeting between Christopher Columbus and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whom Columbus persuaded over several years to fund his plan to reach Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic. Parts of the Alcázar are being restored, but visitors can see the gardens as well as galleries with large sections of Roman mosaic floors discovered around town and now hung like pictures on the walls. (Tickets 5 euros; credit card only.)


Croquetas and sherry on the terrace at Restaurante Almudaina.

6:30pm | Sip an aperitivo

Having knocked off Córdoba’s two biggest monuments before dinner on Friday (and before the weekend crowds appear), restore yourself with an aperitivo at Restaurante Almudaina, a local favourite. Enjoy crisply fried ham croquetas (15 euros) and a glass of sherry (3.50 euros) in a two-storey atrium dripping with vines that feels like an indoor garden, or at the charmingly compact, tile-encrusted bar. Or, if weather permits, take a seat on the terrace, where you can watch the lights come on to illuminate the Alcázar and other historic buildings as night falls.


9:30pm | Dine like a local

On a street lined with restaurants in the modern Moreras neighbourhood, Terra Olea stands out. From a tiny open kitchen, chef Paco Villar turns out gorgeous and intensely flavourful dishes that highlight ingredients from Córdoba province. There are tender leeks sautéed in sheep’s butter with black garlic or cheeks of acorn-fed Iberian pigs with foie gras in a lush sauce spiked with local Pedro Ximénez wine. A selection of desserts arrives on a platter shaped like a map of the province, with the position of each morsel marking where its ingredients hail from. With just six tables and a 14-course menu costing a mere 48 euros (a vegetarian version is available for the same price), Terra Olea is worth a taxi ride to the edge of town. Advance booking recommended.


The Roman Bridge, which crosses the river Guadalquivir and has been restored and rebuilt over 2,000 years.

Torre de la Calahorra, a fortified tower that houses a museum.

Saturday

9:30am | Cross a stone bridge

Walk across the Guadalquivir on the honey-coloured stone Roman Bridge with its rhythmic repetition of arches. It’s been heavily restored and rebuilt, especially in the eighth century. Across the bridge is a fortified tower, Torre de la Calahorra, which houses a small museum about Córdoba’s multicultural golden age with an engaging audio guide and models of buildings, like the Alhambra palace in Granada and a typical Córdoban patio house. It’s worth the admission (4.5 euros) just for the rooftop’s view across the river towards the mosque-cathedral and the city. Nearby is C3A (Centro de Creación Contemporánea de Andalucía; free), a contemporary arts centre that opened in 2016. The current exhibition, “Remedios” (until March 31), explores individual, societal and environmental repair and healing, with works by Marina Abramović, Olafur Eliasson, Jenny Holzer, Brad Kahlhamer and others.


12:30pm | Stroll the quarter 

Among the city’s busiest districts, la Judería, or the Jewish quarter, is a maze of picturesque whitewashed alleys and is home to the 14th century Córdoba Synagogue (free). It was repurposed after the 1492 expulsion of Jews, but still reveals the original layout and elements of its Mudéjar decor — a blend of Muslim and Christian design that is unique to the Iberian Peninsula. Around the corner is the tiny, luminous Chapel of San Bartolomé (2.50 euros), where Mudéjar tile mosaics and intricate plasterwork enhance a 14th century Christian temple. The neighbourhood is also known for handicrafts, especially platerias (silversmiths) like Ana Martina, a family-owned jeweller known for delicate filigree work (earrings from about 38 euros). More diverse crafts are nearby in the Zoco Municipal de Artesanía, a market in a traditional patio bursting with flowers.


A bowl of mazamorra, an almond soup, at Casa Pepe de la Judería.

Get a taste of Córdoba by hopping around to three bars and cafes in the Judería. The tiny Bar Santos has the town’s most famous tortilla española, a 15-centimetre-thick omelette that looks almost like a wheel of cheese (tapa-size slices, 2.80 euros). Nearby, El Churrasco, with its woodfired oven, has wafer-thin fried eggplant (9.80 euros) that comes with salmorejo, a thicker version of gazpacho, or a drizzle of honey. The bar at Casa Pepe de la Judería is packed with people enjoying mazamorra, an almond soup served here with cubes of sweet quince paste (12 euros), and other tapas. Instead of fighting the midday scrum, book a table on the patio or in the warren of pretty rooms upstairs to eat wintry Andalusian fare like oxtail, roast pork or luscious tuna from the Strait of Gibraltar (lunch for two, about 80 euros).


4pm | Pick a bite-sized museum 

In a beautiful plaza perfumed with orange trees and jasmine, somewhat out of sight from the crowds swarming around the monuments along the riverbank, is the Museo Julio Romero de Torres (4.50 euros). Among Córdoba’s best-known painters, Romero de Torres, who died in 1930, is known for his powerful portraits of women, often staring intensely back at the observer. In front of the museum stands the Museo de Bellas Artes (1.50 euros), which highlights mostly Spanish artists from the Renaissance to the present. Or go back to the city’s earliest beginnings at the Archaeological Museum, just a short stroll away, where rows of seats from Córdoba’s ancient Roman theatre now serve as display shelves for smaller sculptures like portrait busts.


A fountain at Palacio de Viana, a 15th-century palace with 12 traditional patio gardens.

6pm | Visit a palace

While daytrippers might see only the mosque-cathedral and the Judería, Córdoba’s real centre for locals is around Plaza de las Tendillas, a large square full of shops and restaurants. (Although it feels like a new part of the city, Columbus lived nearby in the late 1480s.) Start your visit at Palacio de Viana, a 15th-century noble palace expanded and rebuilt over more than 500 years. It features 12 beautifully designed traditional patio gardens that function almost as outdoor rooms. The palace closes at 7pm, but is especially magical at twilight. Near the palace, El Cristo de los Faroles, a statue of Jesus surrounded by a cluster of elegant lanterns, also makes an evocative visit after dark.


9pm | Enjoy Andalusian food 

When chef Paco Morales opened Noor in 2016, its concept seemed like a dare. A restaurant serving 10th-century Andalusian dishes? (The chef’s commitment to historical accuracy meant no tomatoes, potatoes or capsicums, which arrived from the Americas centuries later.) Fast-forward to today and the restaurant has recently received its third Michelin star for its inventive time-capsule cuisine, which is now focused on the 17th century. The Moorish influence appears even in small ways — handpainted ceramics, embroidered details on the staff’s uniforms — while dishes like roast pigeon with tomatoes, paté and chillies or local oranges in orange-blossom syrup offer diners an only-in-Córdoba experience. Menus vary from 11 courses (145 euros) to 23 (245 euros), with wine pairings averaging 125 euros.


La Bohême, one of a string of cosy bars along the Calle Diario de Córdoba.

11:30pm | Follow the bar vibe

Plaza de la Corredera, a grand public square that offers wide-open space amid Córdoba’s zigzagging streets and lanes, is lined with compact bars and cafes whose seating spills outside. In the cooler months, stay warm by heading to a nearby string of indoor bars along the Calle Diario de Córdoba, a short stretch of a main road that winds down to the river. The dimly lit La Bohême feels like a cosy living room, while the neighbouring Último Tango, though larger and darker, is still conducive to intimate conversation. Things get more boisterous a block north on Calle Alfaros, where El Automático draws the city’s art crowd. Finish at the brightly lit Casa Cuba, where live music might erupt on any given night and mojitos cost just 5 euros.



Sunday

A cafe con leche and toasted half baguette with freshly grated tomato and jamón Ibérico at Taberna La Cuarta, located in front of the ruins of a Roman temple.

9am | Toast a Roman temple

Taberna La Cuarta, a stylish Spanish bar and cafe open from early morning until after midnight, is one of the best places in Córdoba to grab a simple breakfast. Even better is that it places diners in front of the ruins of a Roman temple. With that view plus a cafe con leche (1.50 euros) and a toasted half baguette, topped with freshly grated tomato, jamón Ibérico and a drizzle of olive oil (3.50 euros), one gets a satisfying double dose of the city’s historic and culinary appeal.


11am | Soak your cares away

Among the great and enduring (or at least revitalised) traditions of both the Roman and Islamic cultures is the appreciation of thermal baths. The Caliphal Baths (3 euros), a small but informative underground museum, has recovered and re-created some of the chambers of the former royal hammam, explaining how central bathing was to local culture. 


Hammam Al Ándalus, a bath complex that offers massage.

A 10-minute walk away, pamper yourself like a caliph at Hammam Al Ándalus with 90-minute bathing sessions that can include various massage treatments (sessions start at 40 euros). Or head just 15 minutes outside the city to explore the 10th-century archaeological remains of Medina Azahara (1.5 euros, plus 3 euros shuttle bus to the ruins), the sophisticated palace complex built by Abd al-Rahman III, the first caliph of Córdoba, when al-Andalus, the Arabic name that eventually evolved into Andalusia, rivalled the great courts of Damascus and Byzantium as the most powerful and prestigious of their era. 




A carriage driver waits for customers.

Key stops

La Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an eighth-century mosque turned cathedral that is a grand example of Moorish architecture.


Noor, a restaurant that just earned its third Michelin star, serves inventive dishes inspired by Córdoban history.


Museo Julio Romero de Torres highlights the work of an early 20th century painter.


Palacio de Viana, a 15th century palace, is emblematic of the city’s distinctive patio houses.


Where to eat

Restaurante Almudaina, a tavern favoured by locals, has a two-storey atrium dripping with greenery.


Terra Olea turns out elevated modern dishes with traditional Córdoban ingredients from a tiny open kitchen.


Bar Santos is a classic tapas bar known for its Spanish tortilla, a thick potato omelette.


La Bohême is a dimly lit bar offering tea and coffee as well as cocktails.


Automático is a club favoured by the city’s artistic set.


Casa Cuba is a casual Cuban spot with cheap mojitos and a predilection for partying.


Taberna La Cuarta is a stylish all-day cafe and bar with traditional Spanish fare and views of a Roman temple.


Where to stay

Balcon de Córdoba features 10 cosy rooms spread around three small patios just steps away from the mosque-cathedral, with a rooftop terrace and restaurant with staggering views of city monuments. In winter, rooms start at 195 euros (about $323).


Hospes Palacio de Bailío, Córdoba’s first five-star hotel, features 53 rooms in part of a restored palace with pretty gardens and a pool far from the hubbub of the Judería and the mosque-cathedral. Rooms during the northern winter start at about 150 euros.


Hotel Viento 10 is a charming three-star hotel with eight modern rooms built around a 16th-century colonnaded patio where breakfast is served; there’s also a spa with a sauna and a hot tub and a selection of massages. Rooms start at 70 euros.


For short-term rentals, the Centro neighbourhood between Plaza de San Miguel and Palacio de Viana offers ready access to many sites, away from the thick of the tourists.


© The New York Times


This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 146 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “36 Hours in Córdoba”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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