Sunday, 11 May 2014

Days 408 to 411: Cordoba and Seville

Poor Danielle. When I'm not visiting Wonders, I'm sizing up other potential Wonders. As these travels are fully geared up for visiting my self-made list of Wonders, when the schedule allows I try to let her choose places she fancies too. We'd just visited Granada, for the Alhambra, and our time was a little flexible after that. "Where do you fancy going?" I asked. Both Cordoba and Seville were conveniently in the vicinity: Danielle had been to Seville before and had loved it, but she'd never been to Cordoba. Great, I said, let's go. Turns out that both cities have structures I'd considered but ultimately rejected for my list, but I really fancied seeing anyway. Great! Poor Danielle.

Cordoba was first, and it has the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, or more snappily usually just called the Mezquita. Built from the 8th to 10th Century, it was a grand mosque on the site of a former church, itself on the site of an old Roman temple. In 1236, Moorish Cordoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile and the Mezquita was converted into a Catholic church. However, the changes weren't as radical as you might think, which is why today we have a truly unique construction. At the centre is a cathedral, in the kind of Renaissance style you see all across Europe, but spread out all around it is the large expanse of the old mosque, held up by countless columns. I say countless, there are apparently 856, but I'll be damned if I'm confirming that count. Between each pair of columns is an arch, or a double-arch rather, an arch-on-top-of-an-arch, giving the ceiling a bit of extra height (it still feels quite low). It is these arches that give the Mezquita its postcard fame - they are striped in red and white and fill the large squarish area around the cathedral centre, a glorious repeating motif. With the dim lighting through small overhead windows, the Mezquita feels very exotic.

Running the inside perimeter of the Mezquita are around forty Catholic chapels, all very nice but not matching the effective simplicity of the arches. Outside is a pleasant courtyard, and a bell tower that was once the minaret. The exterior of the Mezquita is the main reason I never added it to my candidate list - it's much plainer: fine but never world class. It's all about the inside, evoking a different world and with its 1300 years of varied history very visually displayed. In truth, based on the inside alone, this would have been a worthy contender on my Wonder list, surely placing under my Marvels sub-heading, somewhere around the Versailles or Carcassonne level.

The Mezquita is one of these buildings that have a very central role in the city; within Cordoba it serves as a natural focal point. For tourists at least. Cordoba, population around 300,000 has obviously long outgrown its medieval roots, and although the old town is pretty gigantic, it continues in a much less attractive sprawl beyond that. The tourists never go to the sprawl, they go to the delightfully twisting streets and quaint buildings that surround the Mezquita. Small cobbled lanes open into funny-shaped squares bursting with cafes. Gangs of tour groups, almost exclusively elderly folk or schoolchildren, patrol these small lanes. It's overwhelming, and if you just hang around this centre you could be forgiven for proclaiming that Cordoba has been ruined by tourism. Every delightful lane has 20 souvenir shops and 20,000 middle-aged women shoving you out the way with the absolute disdain that only a middle-aged woman can manage.

Walking across the Roman bridge in the morning is quite an eye-opening experience. With some parts dating from over 2000 years back, the Roman bridge is a core port of Cordoba, and crosses the river, taking you directly into the old centre, passing through the ceremonial entrance of the Puerta del Puente and bringing you face to face with the Mezquita. In the morning, it's like witnessing an invasion. Tour buses line up on the other side, and hordes of day-trippers pour out, stampeding across the bridge like a herd of docile yet weirdly ominous cows. You may not be afraid of cows, but you wouldn't tackle a bunch of them either. As they disappear into the city, you wonder, "How can Cordoba ever cope with this?" Like watching the Romans storm an enemy city, it appears to be the end.

Yet, step away from the centre and Cordoba handles it gracefully. The masses pack just the one small part, which feeds and entertains and sells tat to them. Cordoba has loads more charming streets and quirky lanes and squares ("unidentified trapezoids" may be a better description), and it's really easy to find them. Just walk away. So although the area around the Mezquita is terrific, it's mostly so before and after the day-tripping tour groups; otherwise, there's a whole wealth of other places to explore.

The above includes a square where 500ml of beer cost just a Euro, and an old Roman temple uncovered unexpectedly in the 1950s.

Cordoba's other highlight is the Alcazar, that is, a castle with Moorish origin but later used by Christian monarchs. It's probably a good thing we visited it before visiting Seville's as no doubt it's a dinkier, less impressive version, but it's still pretty cool. Dusty old fortifications and lush gardens - it's a winning formula.

Less of a winning formula, in my opinion, was the flamenco dancing. Danielle expressed a deep keenness to go see some flamenco dancing. As she's still rueing the missed opportunity of witnessing tango in Buenos Aires, I wasn't able to deflect her intentions, and we booked a table at a restaurant. With a seat right at the very front.

As readers may recall from my Easter Island experience, I have a deep-rooted fear of dance performances, as I am terrified - a real, honest fear - that they will become interactive and I will have to join them. I am not at all a fan of interactivity in performances. Easter Island saw my fears come true, and seldom does the night pass where I don't awake in tears, traumatised. By placing me right at the front of a flamenco performance it was ensured I would be a nervous wreck throughout. Making things worse, after only a few minutes I realised the men were dressed in black trousers and black shirts - exactly the same thing I was wearing. What if they mistook me for an out-of-town flamenco performer and asked me to join them onstage? While you may think this ridiculous, it is the kind of thing that flies into the mind for those with phobias. In the end, I'm happy to say, the dancers just danced and the watchers just watched. Phew.

Seville then followed. Seville is about as twice as large as Cordoba and has a structure even more unusual that the Mezquita: the Metropol Parasol. Finished just three years ago, this is a brand new addition to the Seville skyline, and it is just about the most unusual and unique thing I've ever seen. I can't think of a close comparison. In as much of a nutshell as I can put in, it's a gigantic series of inter-connected wooden lattice quasi-mushrooms forming a kind of umbrella over a city square, on top of which you can walk and see views across the city, enjoying a drink or two if you wish. Maybe I'll just show you some photos.

It should be ridiculous - but it isn't. It's amazing, an inspired gamble by the designers and the Sevillian authorities. How many councils would give the go-ahead to something like this? The best thing about it is how unobtrusive it is. Seen from a distance, the colours make it blend in with the surroundings, and it's only when you arrive in the square that you notice it. It's highly unusual, but not at all ugly. At first, it just seems like a series of weird blobs in the sky, but after some exploration it really makes sense. I'm a massive fan. I'd read about it before these travels and had briefly flirted with adding it to my list. I kind of wish I had. Sure, it's not going to trouble the top lot, but it would have had a very credible placing. It's not something you're likely to forget in a hurry.

Seville is a lot more famous for other buildings, such as its huge cathedral and likewise sprawling Alcazar. They're very nice. Take a look for yourself and read Wikipedia if you want to find out more. Yes, you have my permission.

Perhaps making the strongest impression on our Sevillian visit was the April fair. Despite it being May, Seville celebrates a fair two weeks after Easter, which itself is a big fair and holiday. It lasts six days, longer unofficially, and involves dancing, bull-fighting, and Spanish-style partying. It also meant extremely limited accommodation (we had to settle for expensive dorms) and lots and lots of women in colourful flamenco dresses. One afternoon, Danielle said to me "I wonder where they're all going," and she came up with idea of following one. These days, it's inappropriate for men to follow women around the streets, but I think it still might be just acceptable for married couples to do so. So we followed. And soon one girl in flamenco dress turned into a gigantic street of girls in flamenco dresses. And then we came to this.

We'd stumbled upon the fair, which we explored and again returned to the following evening. Around a thousand tents, packed with revellers day and night, for many days and nights. A hefty pot-pourri of strong colours, the din of thousands, the smell of horses, and the essence of a music festival distilled into a traditional Spanish extravaganza. It was a remarkable place to wander and soak up the atmosphere. Sadly, all but seven tents are private, owned by associations, political parties, prominent people, and corporations, meaning this festival is a somewhat exclusive one. The seven public ones are owed by municipal authorities, and Danielle and I visited three of them. They were terrible. Imagine a school disco taking place in a tent, with hundreds of people pressed against each other or in epic queues for the single bathroom. The music was so abysmal that when "Saturday Night" by Whigfield came on, the tent erupted into a cheer. "Danielle, we need to go," I said. I'm all for cultural experiences, but there's a limit.

Cordoba and Seville form kind of a charm triangle along with Granada, a hat-trick of Moorish medieval-style delights. They were all also utterly roasting, an unseasonable heat we were told in Seville, with temperatures far into the 30s. Even Danielle, who has a finely tuned appreciation for sunshine, found it on the hot side. We were sad to leave Seville, as we had been with Granada and Cordoba: all had been wonderful places to visit. Nonetheless, when I saw that the forecast for Valencia, our next destination, was in the low 20s, I couldn't help but be relieved. As the hostel we'd booked appeared to have washing facilities, for my collection of very sweaty T-shirts, I think it was relief I sensed from Danielle also.


  1. I see what you mean now about the mushroom structure in Seville. It does indeed seem to not only fit in, but add something positive to the city, which in this day and age is no easy feat for a modern structure in a surounding full of older monuments which have stood the test of time and "proven themselves".

    Looking at the photos, I wonder if it isn't in part due to the fact that there has been some thought put into making it with an intricate and detailed design. From the 1950s to the 1990s, it seems as if architects reckoned that decoration and intricacy for the sake of it was a pointless distraction from the functional aspect of what a structure should be. Which is why we are often astonished to see a modern structure actually have details that serve no other purpose than to be pleasant to look at (on top of other aspects that do indeed perform a function).

    Oh, and "Saturday Night" by Whigfield - I'd managed to forget about that song until you mentioned it. I will have to listen to several hours of decent music now to flush it out of my brain.

    1. Seville's Metropol Parasol is a wonderful example of modern architecture not going for the glass/chrome/concrete look, and I sincerely hope others follow in its lead.

      Sorry that I've got "Saturday Night" stuck in your head. I'm pretty sure the Macarena was playing that night too.


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