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Moorish Delights: Cordoba

Part of a dazzling Islamic legacy

Cordoba once boasted 600 hammam or public bathhouses when it was the cultural metropolis of Europe, home of poets, philosophers, doctors and scientists. To experience a sliver of the sensual sophistication Cordoba once enjoyed, step inside the Arab baths recreated within an ancient Moorish house, on Corregidor Luis de la Cerda, 51 (00 34 957 484 746;
www.hammamspain.com/cordoba).You enter an enchanted realm where pools of light glimmer through latticed wall and ceiling vents. Relax in a tepid bath surrounded by high arches and walls decorated by geometric Andalucian tiles. Advance through hotter pools in deepening twilight and take the occasional icy plunge in the stone tank.

The creators of this luxury were Omeyas, Muslims from Damascus who pushed west and created a breakaway kingdom in Cordoba between 756 and 1031. Apart from bathing, Cordoba's Omeyas ruled and prayed, and left magnificent monuments to both activities.

The 10th-century mosque or mezquita (00 34 957 470 512) in the heart of the city was long reckoned the finest in the Islamic world. Catholic monarchs who drove the Arabs from Spain in 1492 built a cathedral inside the mosque's main prayer hall to stamp their supremacy. Some say this ruined the austere symmetry of more than a thousand pillars, 55 of which were ripped out to make room for the cathedral. King Carlos V bitterly regretted authorising the work, and in 1523 reproached his clerics with: "You have destroyed something unique in the world to build something you could have put up anywhere."

Cordoba's other dazzling Islamic legacy is the palace-fortress of Medina Azahara on the outskirts of town, once a mini-kingdom housing tens of thousands. You can spend a day wandering the oyster-pink marble passages and salons linked by carved stucco arches, breathtaking despite their semi-ruined state.

In multicultural Cordoba lived the philosopher Maimonides, born in 1135 and considered by some the wisest Jew since Moses. His statue in the Plazuela de Tiberiades near the Juderia, the Jewish quarter, is the most elegant in the city. Maimonides sits, wearing desert robes and turban, a book resting in his lap. The toes of his tiptilted slippers are worn creamy smooth by the reverent touch of passers-by.

Then turn down Jews Street (Calle de los Judios) to Andalucia's only surviving 13th-century synagogue, or round the opposite corner into the square named after Maimonides, to the house where he once lived. It is now the site of the Bullfighting Museum, dedicated to the matador hero Manolete, who died in the ring in 1947. On show are the hide, head and tail of the bull that killed him, plus the cape he twirled as he fell.

Andalucia's other favourite animal, the horse, is honoured in la Plaza del Potro (Colt Square), with a pretty 16th-century statue of a prancing pony. The spot was immortalised by Cervantes, who lived in Cordoba as a child and mentions the medieval Colt Tavern in Don Quixote. Once the haunt of travellers and tricksters, the tavern, with its cobbled patio and upper gallery lined with a wooden handrail, is today a council-run cultural showcase.

And when it comes to whitewashed patios, Cordoba boasts some of Spain's finest, decked with flowers and cooled by fountains. Don't miss the one in el Callejon de las Flores (Flower Alley).

Arab baths open 10am-midnight every day; €18 (£13) for a bath only; €25 (£18) for a bath and massage.

Medina Azahara opens 10am-8.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday; Sundays and holidays 10am-2pm; closed Mondays. Free to EU citizens.

Mezquita (Great Mosque) open 10am-7pm daily - Sundays to 7pm; admission €8 (£5.70).

Synagogue open 9.30am-2pm and 3.30pm-5.30pm from Tuesday to Friday; Sunday 9.30am-1.30pm, admission free to EU citizens.

The Bullfighting Museum has temporarily closed for repairs.

The nearest airports to Cordoba are Malaga and Seville. British Airways, operated by GB Airways, flies to Malaga from London Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester and to Seville from London Gatwick. For more details visit www.ba.com

Elizabeth Nash's 'Seville, Cordoba and Granada: a Cultural and Literary History' is published by Signal Books

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