In the secret gardens of the Moors

Mark Stratton ventures beyond the famous mosque into the heart of Cordoba

In the glossy world of packaging destinations, the Andalusian city of Cordoba tends to be marketed on the strength of one architectural gem, the Mezquita. Undoubtedly the most sumptuous and important mosque ever built in Western Europe, much is made of the Mezquita being the symbol of Moorish Spain. It was the crowning glory of 500 years of Islamic rule, which ended in 1236.

In the glossy world of packaging destinations, the Andalusian city of Cordoba tends to be marketed on the strength of one architectural gem, the Mezquita. Undoubtedly the most sumptuous and important mosque ever built in Western Europe, much is made of the Mezquita being the symbol of Moorish Spain. It was the crowning glory of 500 years of Islamic rule, which ended in 1236.

But the city's distinctiveness comes from the subtle absorption of the Moorish influence, or mudejar, into the city's later design and architecture, and a quick visit solely to see the Mezquita - perhaps travelling between Cordoba's more fashionable neighbours, Seville and Granada - scarcely does the city justice. It needs to be slowly digested on foot.

Why go?

To discover life beyond the Mezquita. It's a place to wander aimlessly, losing yourself in the time-locked streets of south-west Cordoba's old quarter, and discovering white-walled lanes, chequerboard cobbled plazas fringed with Seville orange trees, and hidden Renaissance and Baroque churches. But the authentic Cordoba is unquestionably viewed with stolen glances into the stylish residences. For beyond the wrought-iron grilles - with startling uniformity - is a near-secret world of exquisite tiled patios studded with trickling fountains and wrapped in scented foliage.

Why now?

Quite simply to avoid the crowds and tour parties that fill the streets around the Mezquita and La Juderia from Easter onwards, especially during Cordoba's famous festival - Concurso, Patios, Rejas y Balcones (4-15 May) - when a selection of private courtyards open to the public. And the climate is mild until Easter.

The mission

There's little need to stray far from the old quarter, which spreads north from the murky river Guadalquivir to Cordoba's lively, modern hub, Plaza Tendillas. Due north of the Mezquita, La Juderia's tangled lanes, once the thriving Jewish quarter, is where you will find one of Spain's few surviving synagogues, on Calle Judios. This 14th-century temple, complete with elaborate stucco walls, was built before the Jews were expelled from Cordoba in 1492.

It's close to the Museum of Bullfighting, where the world of tauromachy is seen through the spangly costumes of renowned ex-matadors, such as El Cordobes and Lajartijo of Malaga, which are more Come Dancing than machismo.

Casa Andalusi, at Calle Judios 12, offers a rare opportunity to enter a typical Cordoban house, admission Pta300 (£1.15). The sensual arches and mosaic patio of this 12th-century residence illustrate the incorporation of Islamic design into the city's post- reconquista architecture. The Palacio de Viana, east of Plaza Tendillas, the 14th-century seat of the Marquises de Viana, has a dozen or so patio gardens in differing styles, ranging from the romantic "Madame Courtyard", where a water-nymph fountain is ringed by clipped cypresses, to the main garden - a formal ensemble of citrus trees and box hedges shaded by an immense 400-year-old holm oak.

One of the finest Renaissance mansions in town is home to the Archaeological Museum at Plaza de Jeronimo Paez, with its wonderful collection of Roman artefacts: gladiators' headstones, complete mosaics, terracotta oil urns, columns and capitals.

The Museo de Bellas Artes has an austere collection of work by Spanish artists such as Valdes Leal, Zurburan and Murillo, with a separate museum for Cordoba's most famous artist, Julio Romero de Torres, who died in 1930. His canvas Naranjas y Limones amply demonstrates his passion for voluptuous Andalusian women. The Posada del Potro opposite, now a contemporary gallery, was mentioned by Cervantes in Don Quixote.

Eventually, all routes return to the Mezquita; tickets cost Pta900. Built by successive Caliphs after Abd Al-Rahman I in the 8th century, the fragrant Patio de los Naranjas and, inside, the hypnotic symmetry of 850 red and white arches running all the way to the mihrab where prayer was called, take the breath away. The Catholic hierarchy's 16th-century conversion of the mosque to a cathedral with the insertion of a transept coro, chapels and Renaissance cupolas is visually confusing, but quite wonderful. Save it to the end of your stay for a really grand finale.

Remember this

The Mezquita's interior will linger long in the memory, but for something unusual, a bicycle hire shop, Cordoba La Llana En Bici (tel: 00 34 639-425884; www.cordobaenbici.com) at Lucano 20, east of the mosque, offers night-time cycle tours starting at 10pm when Cordoba has a different aura. The tabernas buzz and the narrow, lamp-lit lanes take on an eerie quality. A memorable stop is at Plaza de Capuchinos, where a much-venerated 18th-century statue of Christ surrounded by lit lanterns is a moving spectacle.

Where to stay

One approach to seeing more of Cordoba's stylish residencies is to stay in one. For economy and elegance, numerous one and two-star hostels, mostly Cordoban houses with courtyards, lie east of the Mezquita. They start at around Pta3,000 for a double, although if you want enough room to swing a cat, the Hotel Maestre on Calle Romero Barros (tel: 00 34 957 472410) has excellent value doubles from Pta6,000.

For greater luxury, the Amistad Cordoba (tel: 00 34 902 115116), in La Juderea, is two linked 18th-century mansions with an interior mudejar courtyard, where doubles start from Pta18,000.

Eating out

Cordoban regional cuisine is very distinctive and can be sampled as tapas in the atmospheric tabernas from around Pta250 per dish, or as raciones in more formal meals. Salmorejo, a creamy gazpacho with ham and egg, is found everywhere, as is rabo del toro (bull's tail in tomato), cordero con miel (lamb in honey), and albondigas con caldo, basically meatballs with panache.

Some of the tabernas have become historical landmarks, and for a light tapas lunch, the glasshouse courtyard of the century-old Taberna Sociedad de Plateros (tel: 00 34 957 470042), filled with wittering birdsong, is charismatic and enjoyed by locals. If fish tapas appeals, then Taberna Casa Salinas, near the Puerta Almodovar gate, specialises in boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar), served in an informal atmosphere of harsh wooden tables and blue tiled walls.

For something a little more upmarket, Restaurant Federacion de las Peoas (tel: 00 34 957 475427) at Calle Conde y Luque 8 has an almost Disney quality to it, with fountains and abundant Mezquita-style archways within the courtyard. But with salmorejo to start and their speciality zarzuela de pescado (fish stew) accompanied by rioja, our meal came to around Pta3,000 per head.

There's only one tipple that the Cordobans have eyes for: Montilla-moriles, produced by vineyards south of Cordoba. This dry sherry is sold everywhere, but nowhere more distinctively than at Bodega Guzman, just north of the synagogue. Within the cavernous bodega - all tiled walls and bullfighting memorabilia - the sherry is served from dark wooden casks at Pta110 per glass, and drunk by groups of old men who look like they have it flowing through their veins.

Nightlife

As few restaurants open before 8pm, dining is likely to consume the evenings. If you're desperate to take in some flamenco, the club Tablao Cardenal at Calle Torrijos 10 is touristy, but heels tap from 10.30pm.

Spending your money

For a city with such a reputation for fine craftsmanship, particularly silver and leather, the shops and boutiques circling the Mezquita are somewhat tacky. It's better to spend your money on the natural produce of Cordoba's terrain.

South of the mosque, Bodegas Mezquita (www.bodegasmezquita.com) is an attractive shop selling cheeses, Montilla-moriles and olives, and on Calle de San Fernando 12, La Tienda del Olivio (tel: 00 34 957 474495) is full to the gunwales with different varieties of extra virgin olive oil. If the giant hanging Serrano hams appeal, then COVAP, where Calle Diego Leon meets Plaza Tendillas, has superior pieces for about Pta2,450 per kilo.

Deals and packages

Cordoba has no international airport, but both Madrid and Malaga airports are served by low-cost operators such as easyJet (www.easyjet.com). From these cities, Cordoba can be reached by train (www.renfe.es) in around two and two and a half hours respectively. Kirker Holidays (tel: 020-7231 3333) offers three-night city breaks from £390 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Madrid, rail transfers, and b&b accommodation at a central hotel.

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