For my last hurrah in Spain, I planned a weeklong road trip around the south. The trip started in Sevilla, Andalusia where my business school friend Cezar and I attended the Euro 2020 match between Spain and Slovakia. That night after the game, we met up with Andrew, the brother of my good friend Bradley, who happened to be traveling through the region on an open-ended trip. The next morning, the road trip began for real.
June 24, 2021: Cordoba
Our first real stop on the road trip was to be Cordoba. Before departing, Cezar and I went to the Sevilla Airport at 9:00 to pick up both our rental car and my friend Milly, who is moving from Los Angeles to Barcelona but decided to fly in early to go on the road trip.
Our timing was perfect, and we were on the road to Cordoba at 9:15. The drive took 90 minutes.
Cordoba has an illustrious history. Founded by the Romans, it eventually became the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate. During this period, Cordoba was one of the most influential cities of learning in both Europe and the Muslim world. It was reconquered by Christian Castille in 1236. Today, Cordoba is the 3rd largest city in Andalusia.
Cordoba is also among the warmest city in all of Europe. The forecast was calling for a temperature of 37 degrees!! Ooof.
After parking and running a few errands, it was time to start our day. I typically try to visit the big-ticket attractions first. Cordoba´s top attraction is the Mosque-Cathedral.
The original structure was a Visigoth church built shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire. In 785, once Cordoba was capital of the caliphate, Abd ar-Rahman I ordered the construction of a mosque on the site of the old church. It was expanded many times to the point where it was one of the largest mosques in the world.
The conversion to a cathedral occurred in 1236, but the architecture was largely kept the same. There were a few chapels created.
However, in the 1500´s, a major change occurred when a cathedral nave was constructed in the middle of the former mosque! After seeing the results of the construction, King Charles V famously commented “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace”. He then gave the funds to redo the nave and make it fabulously ornate.
Today, the building is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and basically functions as a museum. Church services (except maybe Sunday worship and major holidays) occur in a tiny, enclosed chapel in the far corner.
The Umayyad style red and white striped double arches are everywhere. It reminds me a lot of the mosques in Turkey as well as the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Egypt. Certainly, there are more pillars here.
Another highlight is the mihrab the niche that marks the direction to pray (to Mecca). Here, the mihrab contains an ornate decorative archway underneath a stunning geometric dome.
The contrast between the mosque and the cathedral in a single building is bewildering and unparalleled anywhere in the world. Many of the other tourists commented how this building is a metaphor for two religions standing side by side. This is untrue: both the Muslims and Christians destroyed the previous religion´s structures and kicked those people out. It is only tolerant architecturally.
Our next stop was the Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos or palace of the Christian Kings. The building is on the site of an Islamic fortress and the Roman governor´s residence. The palace was built in 1328 but was most famously occupied by the Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarch and most famous rulers of Spain. They were the ones who united Castille and Aragon through marriage, conquered the last Muslim city in Spain (Granada), financed Columbus´s expeditions and started Spain´s empire in the New World. In this era, Spain had no capital – rather the monarchs and the royal court moved around the country. The Catholic Monarchs used this building as a center for the Inquisition and a military headquarters when launching the assault on Granada. It was in this building that Columbus famously had his first audience with the monarchs to discuss a voyage west to India.
Due to COVID, we had to book tickets online ahead of time. Somehow, we were able to get a reservation last minute even though a crowd of people standing outside could not get in.
Unfortunately, the alcazar itself is pretty lame. There is very little to see inside. However, the gardens are pretty. They are nothing like Sevilla´s Real Alcazar but they are nice. A statue of Columbus speaking with the Catholic Monarchs lies prominently in the center. In general, I would consider this a skippable item- especially because getting tickets were so difficult.
We had some time to kill before our lunch reservation, so we stopped in the Arab baths. This was a small museum that preserved the ancient baths. Compared to other Arab bath museums in Spain, this one is among the best. However, it was so hot outside that we were wiped and fell asleep during the film.
For lunch, our friend Andrew (the guy we met in Sevilla) recommended a 100-year-old restaurant called Casa Pepe de la Juderia in the Jewish Quarter. They served traditional food from Andalusia and Cordoba. I ordered a thick garlic and tomato soup called salmorejo and rabo de torro, the tail of a bull. Both dishes were spectacular.
As the restaurant was in the Jewish Quarter, it is worth mentioning Cordoba´s rich Jewish history. Jews came to Cordoba during the Muslim period. Cordoba had one of the largest Jewish populations in Spain. Many famous Jewish thinkers and rabbis came from Cordoba. The most famous Jew from Cordoba is Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish theologians of all time.
After the Reconquista when Catholics retook the city, the Catholics implemented the Inquisition where Jews, conversos (Jews who previously converted to Catholicism against their will but might have practiced Judaism in secret), and Muslim conversos were forced to convert to Catholicism, leave Spain, or die. Spain´s Jewish population then went to zero for over 400 years.
The ancient synagogue of Cordoba, dating from the 1100´s is still intact with its impressive, engraved walls. A statue of Maimonides is outside.
We then wandered through the empty town to check into our hotel. People in Andalusia take their siestas more seriously than the rest of the country. I understand this because it is too hot during the summer to do labor in the mid-afternoon.
After our own siesta, we tried to help Milly get a SIM card. All the stores appeared to be about 400 meters north of our hotel. It turns out that there is a lively modern city center here! We truly had no idea that this was here since all the tourist activities are in the sleepy Jewish Quarter.
The modern center is lively, has tall buildings and looks like any other large Spanish city. The place was also packed- something we had not seen all day in Cordoba. Until now I was surprised by how empty Cordoba felt. The pedestrian squares, cafes, and shops were full of life. Oh, and due to bureaucracy and shocking incompetency, it took Milly 2 hours and 2 shops to get a SIM card. If you want a SIM card in Spain with less hassles, go to Orange and not to Vodafone.
For dinner, we visited a food hall. It looked like a small typical Spanish market except everything had prepared food. We ate Moroccan tagine, Galician octopus (pulpo a la Gallega) and olives. It was so delicious!
At dinner, we discussed how we enjoyed both hanging out with Andrew in Sevilla and how he gave us great food recommendations multiple times. We decided to try to get him onto our trip. After a bit of convincing, Andrew said yes and booked a train to Cordoba the next morning.
We then headed to the Roman Bridge, the spot where people go for romantic strolls at night. There, we watched a concert from afar. The atmosphere here was magical.
June 25, 2021: Medina Azahara
Andrew was scheduled to arrive at 10:30, which gave us time to visit one final spot in Cordoba. We selected the Medina Azahara: a recently excavated ancient Islamic city and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Medina Azahara is located 10 kilometers outside of Cordoba. However, to visit, you have to also take a 5-minute shuttle from the parking lot/museum up to the ruins themselves. Only a small portion of the city has been excavated, but that portion includes the area with the main palace.
The city was once the capital of all Islamic Spain (which was mas o menos all of Spain save Asturias) from 940-975. At that time, it was trendy in the Muslim world to build an administrative capital slightly outside the main city. Two caliphs ruled from Medina Azahara.
Medina Azahara was completely abandoned in 1010 in favor of Cordoba and soon lost to time. However, many of its columns and archways were stolen and used in mosques and palaces all over the Muslim world and even in Sevilla´s Catholic cathedral. The palace is considered to be the archetype Moorish building in Andalusia and inspired a long legacy of successors around the country and world.
We were on the first bus of the day at 9:10. We spent 45 minutes walking around the city. By the time we returned down the hill at around 10:00, the weather was scorching. If you go, avoid the summer or go as early as possible.
For me, one highlight of Medina Azahara was the museum, which does a great job at explaining the historic context of the city with English descriptions.
It was now time to pick up Andrew and continue our road trip to Ronda!
A famous travel YouTuber named Drew Binsky named Cordoba one of the most underrated cities in the world and I would agree. Most tourists come on a day trip from Sevilla where they see the Mosque-Cathedral, get lunch in the Jewish Quarter and head back. While all that is amazing and worth the visit, the city offers a lot more in the form of a the modern city center, Andalusian culture, and many activities at night. Therefore, a full day and night would be the perfect amount of time to properly experience Cordoba.
Medina Azahara was fun for me, but I studied archaeology and enjoy any ruins. For the average person, this is skippable- especially in the summer heat.