Cordoba & Cadiz: Moor I Cannot Wish You

Andalucia is Spain’s, and Europe’s, most southerly point, in touching distance of Morocco. It is probably inevitable, then, that we romanticise, exoticise, and Other the hell out of it. Carmen the gypsy femme fatale, Don Quixote tilting at windmills; Spain signifies the crazy, the exciting, the dangerous. Here we the Spain that people think of when they imagine Spain, as opposed to the cities around the Pyrenees and Atlantic that are not so different from the rest of Europe. It was the last stronghold of the Muslim Moors who called their Iberian empire Al-Andalus, after the Vandals that swept in when Rome fell, and the eight centuries of Muslim rule have left their strongest flavour here; the spices in the food, the beautiful craftsmanship of the mosques and palaces, the iron railings in front of the windows that separated the female and male domains of indoors and outdoors, and perhaps the cultural practices that just don’t happen in Bremen or Birmingham; flamenco, bullfighting. As much as Spain is friendly, cosmpolitan and as plugged into the modern world as anywhere, one wonders if the ghosts of the exiled Moor, the fact that fascism clung on here until the late 70s, or the strong presence of Counter-Reformation Catholicism makes this a land of contrasts between the sunshine, the gaiety, and something more sombre. See what I mean about Othering?

We were in Seville for a week and wanted to make a couple of day trips. In Spain’s highest mountain range, with its grandest Moorish palace complex, Granada looked fascinating, both lovely and dark (the only Andalucian city that went in for Franco enough to kill their poet, Lorca) but was too far away. Cordoba and Cadiz were in different directions and seemed different enough to make a good pairing; one an ancient Roman city turned capital of Islamic Spain, seat of learning and culture turned from a metropolis into a dusty province, the other old enough to predate ancient Greece, an island rock off the coast that enjoyed a brief C18th rebirth, flourishing into the mercantile port city for a vast empire and receiving all the booty of the Americas.

Our three cities were all on the Guadalquivir river, which starts a little past Cordoba, and in Roman times was fully navigable (no longer the case, silt having done its thing). Cordoba gave the world Seneca and Lucan, and later was made the Moorish capital. Around the year 1000, it was the largest city in Europe and its people making advances in astronomy, mathematics, agriculture and engineering whilst Christian Europe was still floundering without the architectural or literary know-how that had been lost with the fall of Rome, much of which was kept alive by Muslim scholars as Alexandria burnt. For most of its history, Al-Andalus was no Saudi Arabia or ISIS, it wasn’t even a revolutionary Iran; Christians and Jews were permitted to live their lives, practice their religion and co-exist in their cities, and one such was the philosopher Maimonides, a Jew and a Cordoban native.

If people know about Moorish Spain at all, they’ll think of it as a continuous entity. The original rulers came from Damascus, but the Arabic Moors were a sort of liberal elite lording it over the North African Berbers who had to do all of the heavy lifting, and whose legitimate concerns led them to declare war on their Syrian brethren and eventually take over. The later caliphate was ruled by Moroccans of various stripes and characterised by fundamentalism, increasing intolerance of non-Muslims and in-fighting, shrinking dominions and slow decline until Granada was the last Muslim territory standing.

From Seville, Cordoba is 45 minutes on the very expensive high-speed trains, or an hour and a bit on the medium-priced trains. The train line does not appear to follow the Guadalquivir, and for some time after leaving Seville we get a view of flat fields, with hills on the northern horizon and a ridge to the south. It gets more picturesque as we draw closer to the hills. The fields are mostly soil prepared for the crops, and the odd grove of orange trees or short, spindly trees with pink blossom. It’s a Quixotic thrill to spot the odd donkey. The towns are fairly small; older ones have tiled roofs, newer ones have flat roofs with a jungle of TV aerials. Things pick up as get closer to Cordoba; the hills are taller, wooded and dotted with monasteries and hillside mini-Gubbios. There is even a castle perched at the summit of a steep and rocky cliff-face.

Cordoba’s large, open hanger of a modern station is a bit of a walk from the historic core that sits directly north of the riverside, and whose C8th great mosque draws in the visitors. To point you in the right direction there are a series of lengthy, narrow gardens; it is notable that doves are to Cordoba what pigeons are to London. The modern part of town appears a town like any other, but press on towards the Mezquita and Cordoba begins to take on the classic Mediterranean look; winding alleys of cobblestone flanked by small houses of white limestone. We soon hit the outer walls and bell-tower of Mezquita, architectural wonder of the world, one of the most important buildings of all time, and note that there is a Burger King facing its entrance.

I’ve never had the experience of visiting any of the world-famous mosques, bound as I am to the comforts of Europe, but the layout is of course a bit different to the classic Christian church. The entrance gate by the tower leads to an open patio, with fountains where Muslims would perform the ablutions before worship, the building beyond consisting of one great prayer hall; a vast, wide and low-ceilinged space with prayer niches at the back wall.

The mosque was converted into a church after the reconquista, and its original format has been significantly kicked around by the Spanish over the centuries, most notably where they have built a cathedral into the middle of the mosque’s ground plan (to be fair, the Moors destroyed a Visigothic cathedral to build the mosque in the first place). The Patio de las Naranjas is free to visit and has lots of people milling around, but only a fool would miss out on the interior.

Although the large arches between the patio and prayer hall would have been open in the Moors’ day, making the famous columns appear a continuation of the patio’s lines of trees, these days you show your ticket at the arch to the far right, and then walk straight into one of the most otherworldy, transcendent experiences architecture can give you.

I’d heard about the “forest of columns” and seen TV programs about it before, but nothing can prepare you for the sensation of plunging in and the first sight of those endless horseshoe double arches, all piggybacking upon one another, in their bold bands of red brick and white marble. What abundance. They give you a true sense of the infinite, and to a Protestant like myself, the myriad incense swingers added by the Spanish are every bit as foreign and exotic.

The mind-bending number of columns are needed to support the roof, because the vaulted roof hadn’t been invented yet, and it is considered that Gothic’s chief innovation was the way it allowed most of these columns to be dispensed with. But the Mezquita makes its limitations into strong points; the arches mesmerise. The dark marble columns are taken from Roman buildings (Italica, outside Seville, was built as a retirement city for Scipio’s soldiers and ended up being the third largest city of the Empire), and the Moors worked around their diverse sizes by digging cavities for the longest and adding supports for the shortest. The relatively low ceiling must have made the prayer hall feel a more democratic space, but with the dim half-light it also makes the space seem like a different dimension, as if you were underwater. There are so many columns it is as if you need to swim around them.

The main pleasure of the Mezquita is losing yourself in this space, but once you have an idea of the dimensions of this universe, your brain starts to fix on some of the other features. The central niche at the back wall, the Mihrab, whose arch is suggestive of the faithful’s prayers travelling to Mecca, is a jewel of craftsmanship that managed to survive by being bricked up and rediscovered in the C19th.

Pictorial representations are of course verboten, and as elsewhere in Islam leaves and flowers, geometric patterns and Arabic text fill in the void, their patterns reflecting the supposed harmony of God’s creation. The mosaic artists were hired from Byzantium and the work is of the same breathtaking quality as can be seen in Ravenna, particularly the glorious dome. Nothing dwarfs the visitor, as it does in a huge place like Notre Dame or St Peter’s, and the Mihrab is modestly sized, but its habit of speaking quietly makes it sound all the more eloquent. Stare at the patterns too long and you might start to feel trippy.

Elsewhere, the Mezquita is best when there are long unbroken stretches of the double arches and columns, but they are regularly broken up by the insertion little statues, altars and chapels in the Baroque style. There is a place for Baroque, but it is not in this building and however the European visitor might feel about Islam in the present climate, it is very hard not to think of these additions as vandalism.

The tampering reaches an apotheosis just off-centre, where the arches give way to a full-sized cathedral taking up a big chunk of the prayer hall, without being walled off from its surroundings. The effect is very strange. The upper reaches of the cathedral extend far beyond the ceiling of the mosque and have long, clear windows; we move from the dim half-light of the mosque to the blazing, flooding daylight of the church and the symbolism is somewhat unsubtle.

The primary point of the cathedral appears to be ‘Ha ha, we can do fancy ribbed valuting and you couldn’t’, but when compared to the likes of the Wren churches the ceiling, particularly in its hideous nave, is something of a dog’s dinner. Some components, like the carved mahogany choir, are very good, but the last word is usually given to King Carlos V, no particular respecter of Moorish heritage, who signed off the works having never been to Cordoba and scolded the builders once he had seen it: “To build something that could have been built anywhere, you have destroyed something that was unique in the world”.

It’s not all as bad as this; some of the Christian alterations, after the eyesore of the cathedral, seem significantly less jarring by comparison.

Here and there, meanwhile, you still find plenty of Moorish remnants to enjoy, such as the remarkable bits of patterned ceiling. The arches are so captivating that it’s hard to tear yourself away from the mosque, and as you find yourself loitering and looking you pick up on more and more of these details.

Back in the patio, I learn that there is a one-hour wait to climb the campanile (which was built as a shell around the original minaret) and decide to skip it. If you’re wishing for more Moorish architecture, you can always walk around the outer walls of the Mezquita which still have many of the original doors.

By the time we finally leave it’s lunchtime. The guidebook has numerous suggestions, almost all of which appear to have a rather cavalier attitude to following their advertised opening hours. One, Bodega Guzman, turns out to be an open bar giving a very good impression of a closed one, perhaps so as not to encourage the coach trips. Inside we find a shady, high-ceilinged cave with the customary bull’s head, many framed photos and posters displaying ferias and great matadors of the past, and a lot of old men drinking sherry poured from the barrel (in contrast to central Seville, where almost everyone is on the beer). One has tied up a dutiful dog outside and we speculate he has told the wife he is walking the dog in order to have an illicit few with his mates. We appear to have stumbled across the Andalucian equivalent of the old man pub, with bullfighting standing in for horse racing.

Happily my guidebook tells me that Cordoba’s local sherry is called montilla and they will be greatly offended if you ask for any of the Jerez wines, so I don’t get off on the wrong foot. The stern barman has the hangdog demeanour of Moe from The Simpsons, but turns out to be quite helpful when he sees my eyeing up the tapas. The albondingas (meatballs in thick sauce) are so good we go back up to order a full racion; I don’t love the salmorejo  (a tomato and sour cream concoction with flecks of jamon) quite as much but I can imagine being just the ticket on a 40+ summer’s day.

Several sherries to the wind, we emerge blinking into the afternoon sun and pop our heads into the tiny, two-room and surprisingly Islamic-looking remains of the synagogue, built 1305 and still here five-and-a-bit centuries after the expulsion of the Jews (it became a rabies hospital after this). Looking at the Moorish-style geometric patterns, I think of how London’s Bevis Marks looks almost identical to a Wren church, and how people use the Jews’ willingness to adapt to depict them as suspect chameleons; you can’t win.

The Roman bridge crosses the river- although most of what we see today is Moorish, only the two nearest arches are original Roman, and the whole thing has been given an aggressive scrubbing in  recent years. There’s also a Moorish water mill, built to transport water to the nearby palace and rebuilt after Queen Isabella found it disturbed her sleep and ordered its dismantling.

Further along and slightly back from the riverside is the tiny Plaza del Potro, named after the equally diminutive colt on the fountain, best known for the very old posada that Cervantes is believed to have stayed in and which he namechecks in Don Quixote with the implication that it was highly unsalubrious. Now a little museum, it’s pretty, quaint and spotlessly clean but use your imagination and you can picture one of Cervantes’ nocturnal scenes of passing travellers and extraordinary coincidences taking place in one of its rooms.

Across the square is a museum dedicated to Cordoban painter Julio Romero de Torres, who turned out lots of turn-of-the-century paintings of girls with their kit off. We opt to continue drinking instead, and as I look at his stuff on Google Images I think we chose well. Bodegas Campos is a fairly pricy restaurant that is happy to let you sit at the bar for a couple of montillas and will chuck in a free plate of olives. It’s fascinating to see the painted tiles in the hall which commemorate the visit of Anthony Blair and appear to suggest that Donald Tusk was the Polish PM.

The distance and the train timetable dictated that we would only have four hours in Cadiz, which made for a rather whistlestop itinerary. I was glad to make its acquaintance, but regretted that it was so fleeting; the impression I got was that Cadiz is not to be visited for any particular knockout sights, but for its particular atmosphere, that of a tough, melancholy sailor’s town full of quiet no-frills bars and long, narrow streets in which much of the light is blocked out by bay windows. It felt like the Hispanic variant on one of those boarding-house seaside towns whose kiss-me-quick joviality exudes a Pinteresque menace.

Cadiz (I assumed the pronunciation would be cadeeth, but the one Sevillano we met who was excited to hear we were going called it Gadix) boasts the honour of being Europe’s oldest city, having been founded by the Phoenicians long before even the Greeks were up and running. There are scant traces of pre-history in the city streets, however; at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, Cadiz’s recent history is tied up with the silting of the once-great river. In the C18th, when it became impossible to sail as far as Seville, traditional clearing-house for the spoils of empire, operations were moved to Cadiz and the city experienced a mini golden-age as its country went into decline, becoming a bustling, cosmopolitan, and wealthy port; it was to Spain what Trieste was for the Austrians.

Taking the train from Seville, the landscape starts getting pretty around Jerez with layers of rolling hills (and I am amused to spot the covent-like white walls of the Harvey’s Bristol Cream headquarters). As you pull towards Cadiz the Atlantic suddenly appears out of nowhere, with beaches of peachy golden sand looking decidedly odd on a grey, stormy morning in February.

The station is at the edge of the old town, which squeezes into one end of the narrow strip of land. Passing the neo-classical town hall, which is marking carnevale by placing two giant inflatable cartoon witches on its balcony, we dive into the dense inner grid of streets just as the heavens open. In need of a coffee, we pop into Cafe Royalty, which is very pretty but has prices that would be standard on Piccadilly and are eye-watering in Andalucia (with a name like that, I suppose they were trying to warn us).

The vast cathedral is an obvious landmark, and one that illustrates the paradox of Europe’s oldest city being something of a Johnny-come-lately, as it was built during that C18th boom. It’s €5 in, which we are willing to pay to escape the rain.

They give you an audioguide, which provides far greater detail than anyone not doing a PhD on Cadiz cathedral would ever want or need. Inside the white stone, the wide aisles and the serene classical Baroque make it seem a bit of a cousin to St Paul’s.

There are paintings, a few of those gory statues of the wounded Christ that the Spanish excel at, a fancy gilded tabernacle behind the altar, and some excellent carvings in the wooden choir (with an orchestra of putti sitting on the top). All perfectly valid, but nothing that burnt itself into my memory. The odd crypt made of enormous bricks contains the graves of a famous local composer and a screenwriter.

As you work your way towards the end of the circuit there are a couple of curiosities; a miniature John the Baptist that is too small for its niche and puts Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge in mind, and a slightly art deco Christ standing on an illuminated globe as if he were doing a spot of advertising for a tyre firm in the 1920s.

Afterwards I nip up the bell tower for some views of Cadiz, and despite it being a foul day the perspective does help me to make sense of the place. The waterfront, the palm trees, the cramped old town, and beyond it the myriad cranes of a busy working port; all these things made me think of Bari.

The cathedral itself is up close to the waterfront -although it turns its back on it to cast a watchful eye on the visitors scuttling across its plaza- and the crypt must be below sea level. The contrast between the yellow tiles of the dome and the blue sea beyond it is striking, even in gloomy weather. On a summer’s day, with the sea a brilliant blue and the tiles twinkling like gold under the Spanish sun, I’m sure the effect comes across thousandfold.

Since it’s raining harder than ever, we head into Freiduria Las Flores and manage to nab the last spot at the bar just as the lunchtime rush is at its peak. A freiduria, from what I can tell, is a bit like a fish ’n’ chip shop. This one is split into two sections; a take-away shop where they serve fried fish and seafood in paper cones, and a bar/restaurant serving tapas, raciones and drinks. Cadiz being famous for its fresh seafood, we try a few tapas such as baby squid and shrimp fritters; the batter tastes of cumin. The friendly barman tells us to try the speciality, and with his smattering of English and our barely-existent Spanish I deduce that it comes from the “shark family” (we look it up afterwards and it appears to be dogfish).

Fed and watered, we try Cadiz’s museum which is free entry, and reputedly slightly ramshackle but with good stuff; the first thing you see is a scale copy of the Farnese Hercules. The top floor starts with a Miro portrait before moving on to increasingly abstract works by local artists. The next floor is pretty, sentimental C19th painting that gives way to some older, better work, including some slightly Bosch-like religious paintings by a Flemish artist whose name escapes me.

We then hit a whole stack of Zurbarans, matching panels evidently salvaged from a monastery that is no more. Zurbaran is yet to fully click with me, I don’t know whether it’s too far from my beloved Renaissance or whether Spain overcompensates for its Islamic heritage with an excessively pious Catholicism. His paintings are sombre and stark to the point of asceticism; his saints are intense, psychological and appear to be wrestling with their faith in a way that is quite alien to our post-modern, know-it-all age.

The ground floor is probably the best of the lot, with antiquities from Roman Cadiz and even the Phoenicians. I find it hard to get excited by pots, jars and tools, however ancient, but the enormous twin sarcophagi are pretty exciting by anyone’s standards.

There is a trove of Roman funerary stuff, with the macabre touch of a grave still containing its human skeleton; also busts of Drusus and Germanicus, and inscriptions which I have no hope of decoding without Mary Beard at my side. Prominent is an enormous statue of the Seville native Emperor Trajan, now sans hands (perhaps he was caught scrumping oranges from the local mosque).

It has finally dried up afterwards, so we walk out to the seafront and contemplate the ocean. Funny to think we’re closer to Africa at this point than we are to the flat we’re staying in. A long stretch of the seafront contains a nice park with geese and waterfalls.

Elsewhere, seafront Cadiz is in diverse states of repair. There were presumably decades of decay under Franco, but luxury flats with gyms are going up and hypercapitalism is starting to sink its fangs into the place. It is perhaps illustrative that the next two photos were taken standing on the same spot (the equestrian statue turns out to be Simon Bolivar).

Further along is a little harbour with a little castle, a beach and a pair of structures that look as if they are abortive piers, reluctant to stride out into the freezing water. If all of this hasn’t exactly shut up shop for the summer, none of it was built with cold rainy days in mind. At one of Europe’s most southerly points, today feels as if we have walked into an ageing Hollywood star’s trailer before any of the make-up has gone on. Perhaps we should have observed the very British weather by going to Gibraltar.

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