On a cool, blue December afternoon in Córdoba, I sat at a busy sidewalk tapas cafe, drinking wine and nibbling on big, buttery local olives. Mellow sunlight shone against the low, whitewashed buildings and bitter orange trees along the city’s cobblestone streets. Córdoba, in Spain’s Andalusian south, is lovely and hospitable with a distinctly Mediterranean feel, though it’s not on the sea but rather on the muddy Guadalquivir River, which used to send ships all the way to the North Atlantic.
It is a city of dazzling intricacies, including tucked-away courtyards decorated with flowers and colorful mosaic tilework and small plazas, sometimes featuring a church but always with a bar that’s probably been serving for a century. Small river stones make up more mosaics, of flowers and swirls, on walking paths and around Córdoba’s many statues and fountains.
In the distance, I glimpsed the tremendous, arched Roman Bridge that spans the Guadalquivir and its surrounding nature reserve, where herons and egrets flocked in the trees. My waiter brought more wine and a plate of braised pork, and I began to suspect there was no better place to be than here, in one of Spain’s Moorish showpieces, staring down 2,000 years of history.
Given the heated rhetoric in the U.S. regarding Muslims and the fact that it’s more difficult now to visit some Muslim countries because of violence and political tensions, I was curious to see what Islamic rule might actually look like, even a version that existed hundreds of years ago. From roughly 711 to 1492, the Moors, or North African Muslims, controlled parts — sometimes large parts — of Spain. The mosques and fortresses that remain are some of the country’s most beautiful and sought-out attractions.
The Roman Bridge was built in the first century B.C. and later rebuilt by the Moors, who left a dramatic mark on Córdoba’s architecture. There are ubiquitous keyhole arches, many hammams, or Arab baths, and the ancient mosque with hundreds of jasper, marble and granite pillars. As the day slipped toward a premature winter close, the bridge swarmed with locals and tourists alike, eating, smoking cigarettes and walking unfailingly obedient dogs. A man played harmonica to a recorded blues jam, finishing by yelling, “Whooo!”
Having arrived in Córdoba via high-speed rail from Madrid earlier in the day — oh, that it were so easy to get from Minneapolis to Chicago — I checked into my antique, Moorish-style hotel, Viento 10, with gold-painted walls, pretty tapestries, exposed stone and a small spa meant to mimic a hammam. Then I strolled along the river and found this gem, Ribera Tapas, which takes seriously the snacks that accompany a glass of wine.
It wasn’t long before Desmond, a chatty Irish financier, wandered over from a nearby table. He told me he’d traveled here because “this whole city is an archaeological site, basically.” We discussed Spain’s long line of conquerors — the Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and Catholics — as if recounting an especially treacherous season of “Game of Thrones” (the Roman Bridge, in fact, was featured in an episode). Some in Córdoba call it a “city of three cultures” because during Islamic rule, when this was the capital of a caliphate, it’s thought that Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony. Certainly, the period was paradise compared with what came next: the Spanish Inquisition.
Then the conversation took a turn for the worse, to modern politics and the recent U.S. election. Did I mention that Desmond is a financier? The olives reduced to pits, we parted ways.
Late next morning — after a breakfast of toast, puréed tomato and the only pork better than bacon, Jamon Iberico — I made my way to Córdoba’s famous mosque, which was built in four stages beginning in the 700s and is considered one of the great examples of Moorish architecture. Once entrusted with an original copy of the Qur’an and an arm bone of Muhammad, it was a site for pilgrimages. I passed the tiny, popular Bar Santos, swarmed by customers leaning against the mosque’s outer wall consuming beer and potato omelets from paper plates.
Entering through the imposing “Door of Forgiveness,” I found myself standing on a large patio of tiny, artfully arranged mosaic stones, fountains and orange trees. A guide named Lidia was explaining to a group of English speakers that the mosque has functioned as a Catholic church since the 1200s and that a cathedral had been built in the middle of it. She said modern-day Muslims would like to worship inside but “they can’t pray here in the Muslim way.” It’s true that despite lobbying in recent years by Muslim organizations, Catholic authorities have declined to allow Muslims to pray alongside Christians at the mosque, which some people like to point out was itself constructed on the site of a Christian temple.
Inside, I was overwhelmed by the impact of some 850 stone columns, arranged in perfect rows, each supporting double candy-cane-striped arches. At once humble and grand, the construction is meant to create the impression of infinity. But there is a problem: While the design urges contemplation, the view in most directions is cut short by Catholic additions, including the wedged-in Renaissance-style nave.
The mihrab, a prayer niche that typically indicates the direction of Mecca, is serenely beautiful with its arched entry, patterns in gold-colored glass, inscriptions and dome overhead. I’m not religious, but I enjoy imagining myself in the stead of those who once inhabited a place, considering how it might have been regarded in its time. Reverie was difficult, however, as the end of a Catholic service was capped by a loud organ rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” I took a last look at the mathematical spread of gorgeous columns and left.
Bus to Granada
After noisily dragging my roller bag over a mile of cobblestones, I boarded the bus for Granada, another of Spain’s Moorish jewels, two hours away. The city is home to the formidable Alhambra, a largely intact Muslim complex — an architectural marvel — built as a seat of power during the 1200s and 1300s, as the Islamic reign declined.
The countryside between Córdoba and Granada looks like a thousand paintings strung together, a dreamy slide show of low mountains in green and brown and red, countless olive trees and small towns built around decrepit churches. At least it did until about halfway through the trip, when the bus driver pulled to a stop and killed the motor.
I stepped out to find a group of men standing around the back of the bus, where the engine lid was propped open. An Englishman, who had declared this “not exactly a garden spot,” was talking about a broken-down bus he’d been on in Cuba that was fixed using only a pair of women’s nylons. Just as I was wondering whether the adjacent town had a hotel and how fast I would have to run to get there ahead of the others, a new bus arrived.
Granada, more bustling than Córdoba, rests in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, with a ski resort 45 minutes away. One of the city’s main drags is the Calle Reyes Catolicos, a street of banks, stores, plazas and “Shawarma King” and “Kabab King” restaurants. On the evening of my arrival, after making my way through an alley of tiny shops selling Moroccan-style lanterns, hookahs and clothing, I spotted congenial families at sidewalk tables eating kebabs and drinking tea.
Early next morning, I exited the charming Gar Anat hotel, too full of anticipation even to wait for coffee, and ascended the hill toward the ancient, walled Alhambra, which towers above the city among clouds of evergreen and deciduous trees.
The complex — home to the Nasrid Dynasty, which ruled from 1238 to 1492 — comprises various grand entrances, including the Justice Gate and the Wine Gate, a fortress, multiple palaces and tiered, pleasantly symmetrical gardens that were semi-blooming even in December. Washington Irving, in a book he wrote in the 1800s, described the Alhambra as “a Muslim pile in the midst of a Christian Land … an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.”
I entered along a pathway with views of Granada below and trees on either side. The military fortress, or Alcazaba, in all its crumbling splendor, is the oldest part of the Alhambra. Basically a series of towers and walkways, it offers sweeping panoramas, including of the ancient Muslim neighborhood, the Albayzín — a sprawl of white houses with red-tiled roofs that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and the Sierra Nevada in the distance. I couldn’t help but think how smart it was to build here, as soldiers could spot trouble coming from any direction.
The Alhambra’s main attractions are the Nasrid Palaces, several interconnected structures so enticing with their elaborate tilework, intricate domes, serene patios and fountains, and inscribed poetry and Qur’anic passages that after completing the “Reconquista,” Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand moved right in. As with the mosque in Córdoba, the Christians made modifications, largely frowned upon by certain authenticity-seeking explorers.
Most transporting were the Court of the Myrtles, a garden meant to evoke the paradise of the afterlife with its pool and flowers, the cedar dome in the Hall of Ambassadors embedded with stars representing the seven levels of heaven, and the eight-pointed dome in the Hall of Abencerrajes. The dome was made using a plaster or stucco technique called muqarnas, which most closely resembles honeycomb or, if you squint, lace. The same scalloped, prismatic style was used to create the dome in the Hall of Two Sisters.
Most of the day gone, I hiked to the Generalife, the complex’s summer palace, which is separated from the Nasrid Palaces by a series of gardens and orchards, enchanting in color and shape. Birds chirped, squirrels foraged and dogs barked in the distance as I looked back upon the Alhambra from this high point. It seemed very well thought out indeed, constructed to impart a sense of well-being and an appreciation of nature.
My trip ended at a restaurant called Mirador de Morayma, in the Albayzín, with a friend. We managed to get a 7:30 dinner reservation, early by Spanish standards, but it was already dark as we climbed upward along the confusing, weblike streets of the neighborhood. We passed small houses and rows of scooters and made several wrong turns, corrected via smartphone.
We elicited barely a grimace from our waiter as we chose to sit outside on the patio, where it was still above 50 degrees, rather than at an elaborately set indoor table. The reason was obvious: From between the patio’s pillars, we had an eye-popping view of the Alhambra’s exterior, gold-lit and majestic in the distance.
We devoured chicken with grapes and tenderloin with potatoes, accompanied by Spanish wine, all the while looking up at that “Muslim pile,” just as people had for hundreds of years. In the dark, from so far away, I could imagine the Alhambra as it once was, a working fortress and home to thousands of people, including sultans. When the waiter brought complimentary glasses of cherry liqueur, I nearly laughed with joy.
Jennifer Vogel is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.