Cordoba: travel feature

Fountains and trees are welcome in a city where even flowers and flamenco can prompt heated debate.
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The Independent Travel
"A corner of paradise among gardens" is how poet Mario Lopez describes spring in Cordoba's Viana Palace. Indeed, when I was there, fountains tinkled in every courtyard, the sky was spotlessly blue and the branches of the palace trees hung heavy with oranges and lemons. Cordoba is especially good at fountains, which is just as well - at 11am, it was too hot except under the rows of palms or shady colonnades, the air thick with the scent of violets and mandarins.

Viana Palace is sufficiently off the beaten track to be one of Cordoba's best-kept secrets; it opened to the public only in 1980. Tucked in a corner of the Plaza de don Gome, it is so beautiful that you drag your feet when it's time to leave. Aguided tour can show you the intricate decor, oil paintings and cabinets of porcelain, but on a sunny day - and there are few other kinds in Cordoba - the greatest pleasure comes from wandering through the patios, each doorway bringing a new surprise; there are statues and fountains, roses, lilies and bougainvillea, and tiny tiles with lions and dragons and other strange and wonderful beasts.

Viana nestles in the north-east corner of the Juderia, the Jewish quarter of Cordoba, a maze of wiggly streets with white houses. The town had an important Jewish presence in the Middle Ages, and you can still visit the only preserved synagogue in Andalucia, dating from 1315 and bearing inscriptions of psalms in Hebrew on the pale stone walls. Elsewhere in Juderia, simple doorways reveal quiet patios with pots of loud pink and red flowers creeping up walls. This month, the city holds its flower show - the festival of the patios. The second week of May sees a national flamenco contest, and in the last week of this month, Cordoba hosts the Fair of Our Lady of Good Health in Victoria Gardens.

You can stroll through the cool, cobbled streets and be quite alone - until you turn into Deanes, where the doors sprout postcard trees and flamenco dresses, and ceramic pots and souvenirs fight for a place on the narrow pavement. But this is confined to four or five streets near the Mezquita, or Mosque.

The Mezquita draws writers, painters and photographers, but nothing can prepare you for the feel of the place. Its crumbling yellow walls give way to a courtyard that looks full of oranges, and the courtyard yields to a curious place of worship. In 796, 70 years after their conquest of Spain, the Moors made Cordoba the capital of Al-Andalus, and a mosque was built on the site of the Cathedral of Saint Vincent. In 1525, nearly three centuries after the Christian reconquest, building of a cathedral choir and chapel - an elaborate folly of dark wood and gilt - was begun in the mosque. The main body of the Byzantine mosque is a huge, airy space, lit by swaying lamps and occasional shafts of sunlight which catch the mosaic, and your breath.

South-west of the mosque is the Alcazar, or Fortress, built as a royal residence for Alfonso XI. It houses several stunning Roman mosaics but best of all are the Arabic- style gardens, with pools and fountains to cool the tourist.

To the north-east are the Archaeological Museum and the Plaza de la Corredera, cousin of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid and the main square in Salamanca. Once the main arena for dances, shows and markets in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the city's first home of bullfighting, it was left to decay for many years.

In Lorca's poetry, you can feel the fear and heat and sweat of the bullring - and if you can't face the real thing, you can trip into a museum and glimpse the glory and glamour without having to look death quite in the face. Here is El Cordobes, young and handsome, brave enough to sit down in front of a bull and remove his beautifully embroidered shoe, while the bull looks on, bewildered. Here, too, is Manolete, and Lagartijo and Guerrita, local heroes all. The walls bear the heads of bulls famous for their ferocity and bravery, and dignity, which is how the Spanish justify their national sport. Female toreadors, lately the darlings of the press, are not a new invention in Spain; one grand old poster touts a women-only corrida in the 19th century. From fountains to fighters, such exploits seem a far cry from the splendid elegance of the Viana Palacen

Cordoba connections

There are three air/rail routes to Cordoba. Iberia (0171-830 0011) flies daily from Heathrow to Seville; the lowest return fare is pounds 164.40 including tax. To reach Cordoba from Seville takes 40 minutes on the high- speed AVE line or 100 minutes on a regular train. Cheap return flights from Heathrow to Madrid on Aerolineas Argentinas are sold by Air Tickets Direct (0990 320321) for pounds 106. From the Spanish capital, the AVE takes 100 minutes. Alternatively, you could get a charter flight from a UK airport to Malaga for pounds 120-200, and travel by rail or bus.

The ideal place to stay is the Parador (government-run hotel). You can book on 00 34 57 27 59 00 or through Keytel (0171-402 8182). The Spanish National Tourist Office in London is on 0171-499 0901.