One stifling August day, like the mad English folk that we are, we set off to the ancient Moorish city of Córdoba, to see if La Mezquita, Córdoba's C8th mosque, was all it’s cracked up to be. I don’t mean to sound philistine but we have been to the Alhambra several times and it could hardly be a match for that Islamic jewel – or could it?
The finest example of Islamic architecture in Europe
La Mezquita is hailed as one of the world’s greatest examples of Islamic architecture. An enormous mosque, squatting across the river in Córdoba’s small historic centre. Our eight year old daughter was positively desperate to get there “I want to go to the mosque now” became an ever repeated phrase (we never did quite work out why) but first, to eat.
We headed to the infamous Bodegas Campos close to La Mezquita. A warren of cool, dim rooms and a welcome escape from the midday heat. Bodegas Campos has a long list of famous clientele and was recommended to us by top Spanish blogger Molly Sears of Piccavey fame and who were we to argue?
Tony woz 'ere
Following the well trodden path to Bodegas Campos
Archetypically Spanish, bold colours and walls covered with photographs of past clients, Bodegas Campos was perhaps a bit too predictable for us. When dining with two vegetarians you can get a little tired of the meat free favourites! On top of this we discovered that we were walking in the footsteps of former Prime Minister Tony Blair (of Iraq war shame). But the Spanish way of doing things soon helped us put this to one side. We ordered gin and tonics and the pour was one where, unbeknown to me, one gestured to the waitress to stop. This mistake on my part resulted in an enormous G&T that I quickly passed to one of the vegetarians.
We had, as we are apt to do, over ordered, seriously over ordered. The food came on big plates, and kept on coming. The cod was lovely but there was just way too much of it and the vegetarians couldn’t help us. Aubergines in canna de miele, salmorejo (sin jamón) pimientos de padron…. A little later we headed to the Juderia. (“I want to go to the mosque now”).
The bellower from Calleja de las Flores
Wandering around the Juderia
The ancient Jewish quarter forms part of the UNESCO listed historic centre, smaller than expected and, to be frank, a little disappointing. Trying to capture a shot of the mezquita’s belltower down La Calleja de las Flores was nigh on impossible because one individual (taking an awful lot of selfies) seemed hell bent on getting in the shot however long we waited. I felt the street was a bit of a let down, I expected more flowers, many more flowers, there are streets in Arriate, five minutes from El Olivar with hundreds more flowers, and without the tacky tourist shops that have opened up here. Nonetheless, you could see the belltower (“I want to go to the mosque now”).
Gold doors glimmer in the heat
Almost as impressive on the outside as it is on the inside
So, to La Mezquita, which quite rightly has its own UNESCO listing. First we walked around it (no mean feat in the heat) and admired the incredible doors. Golden doors, heavy doors, studded doors with the classic rust/cream striped horseshoe shaped Moorish arches by which the Mezquita is known. Then we went in, to the Patio de los Naranjos, a beautiful cobbled patio with super neat cypress and tropical looking date palms. More so than the Alhambra, it felt overwhelmingly Arabic. Beautiful little channels to irrigate the plants, ornately carved wooden screens and that ever-present stripe of rust and cream.
The beautiful Patio de los Naranjos
At last...to the Mosque
So, to La Mezquita, which has its own UNESCO listing. First we walked around it (no mean feat in the heat) and admired the incredible doors. Golden doors, heavy doors, studded doors with the classic rust/cream striped horseshoe shaped Moorish arches by which the Mezquita is known. Then we went in, to the Patio de los Naranjos, a beautiful cobbled patio with super neat cypress and tropical looking date palms. More so than the Alhambra, it felt overwhelmingly Arabic. Beautiful little channels to irrigate the plants, ornately carved wooden screens and that ever-present stripe of rust and cream.
Beautiful stonework details can be found everywhere
Hushed whispers amongst the pillars
I was worried that I had done what I do best – over researched – and that the awe inspiring size of the building would be lost on me: It wasn’t.
A forest of stone arches, stretching from brightly illuminated glades to dark and silent corners stretched out before us. The biophillic effect of this still and hushed forest made it feel somewhere between religious building and ancient woodland. Atheist or not, it felt good.
What did not feel good, however, was the forced cathedral stuffed into the centre of this serene landscape. Grotesquely ostentatious idolatry broke the spell of this enchanting place, it felt defaced, vandalised. I turned away to find the marks left by the highly skilled stonemasons whose labours made this mosque an architectural first – only in Mecca had a space this vast previously existed. Once upon a time Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together harmoniously in the Caliphate of Córdoba and the hybrid architectural style of La Mezquita reflects Visigoth, Roman, Byzantine and Arabic styles but this is a working cathedral, they call it a mosque-cathedral but it is the Catholics who gather here now.
Right in the centre of the mosque they saw fit to build the cathedral
Timing is everything
We timed our visit during the hottest part of the day, cool marble floors and a vast, dark space create a cave like temperature (albeit a pretty warm cave) that was satisfyingly empty (everyone else was having lunch) and we almost had the place to ourselves apart from some old Spanish ladies, who, whilst we were awed and silently taking it all in, saw fit to break into fits of giggles. Their good times soon came to an end when a suitably grim looking security guard silenced them with a gesture that I can only describe as akin to Mr Happy’s face before he became Mr Happy. That'll teach them to laugh in a working Cathedral.
The Roman bridge of GOT fame
We headed back out into the dazzling sunshine with a view to taking some photos of the Mezquita from the other side of the river. Many of you will recognise the impeccably clean bridge as the city of Volantis from Game of Thrones. It's a lovely (pedestrianised) walkway from the historic old town to a modern, and to me, rather unforgiving, urban one but the river itself is filled with verdant willows and crumbling mills, a little bit of Córdoba that is quietly decaying downstream.
It was this lush greenery and the vast silence of the striped stone forest that impressed me about Córdoba. But for our daughter, it was the mosque.