One of the brightest stars in the Andalusian firmament, the city of Cordoba, together with Seville and Granada, has long been one of that region's prime destinations.
It's home to a compact yet picturesque old quarter and a clutch of monuments dating from Roman times and the heyday of Al-Andalus. Above all else, this small city is dominated by the astonishing Mezquita, Moorish Spain's largest and most spectacular mosque, which was turned into a cathedral in 1523.
The Palacio del Bailio, or Bailiff's Palace, has a fair stab at reflecting the city's venerable history. The words "Bailiff" and "Palace" make odd, if not disconcerting, bedfellows but the 16th-century mansion's origins lie with two noble families and the Lord of Aguilar, a dignitary of the ancient Order of Malta. Today's visitor might be more swayed by this being Cordoba's pioneering five-star hotel, as well as its impressive synthesis of heritage and hospitality.
Tucked away in a little knot of streets just south of the Plaza de Colon, this discreet property is an odd blend of old and new. The hotel's ancient fabric has almost entirely been remodelled and updated within. One part the renovations couldn't touch was a Roman mosaic floor lurking in the basement and this alone makes the mansion an official Site of Cultural Interest. Once restored, the owners installed a glass floor in the main dining hall – a neat yet practical bit of architectural theatre.
Most of the public interiors have a modern palette of cream walls and contemporary lighting, and it feels as if several designers had a hand here to somewhat random effect. One truly memorable and thoroughly original part of the hotel is the elongated "Neo-arab" library or study (though there are just a few books) with decorative plasterwork and arabesque motifs that beautifully recall Cordoba's vital Moorish heritage. The main courtyard is a joy, with a formal garden and seating shaded by citrus trees and high walls. There's also a decent pool, essential in fiery Cordovan summers.
Somehow 53 rooms and suites are made to fit in this modest-sized building – all are different and fall under five categories ranging from Dreamer's to a huge Grand Loft Suite. The cheaper rooms tend towards modern styling while the others have a distinctly old-world heritage feel. All have quality linen and extremely comfortable beds, plus plasma TVs with DVD players. Inevitably some ground-floor Dreamer's rooms are darker than others and you may not necessarily feel you're awakening in sun-drenched Anadalusia. Bathrooms feature all the usual amenities except, bizarrely, what some might feel is a practical sink – mine was minimalist, with no room to conveniently place toiletries or knick-knacks though it's hardly going to ruin one's day or stay.
The food and drink
Senzone is the hotel's tapas bar as well as restaurant. The former comprises a long barrel-vaulted chamber in the basement with its own street entrance. Beige walls, rose-pink lampshades, halogen spotlights and downlights, and framed matador pictures lend a pleasing contemporary feel. The restaurant has a separate dining room, though hotel guests tend to be served in the main lofty dining hall with the glass floor (which is also used for breakfast). The food – a sort of modern Andalusian-Euro fusion – is excellent with plenty of pork and fish though some of the menu's English translation is unintentionally awry (cheese juice anyone?). Starters range from ¤13 to ¤27, mains from ¤20 to ¤30, deserts at ¤8.50; there's a seven-course tasting menu or a three-course meal for ¤60 per person.
The Bodyna Spa has several treatment rooms beside a small courtyard offering massages, facials, body treatments (choose from Javan, Moroccan, Thai and Indian "rituals") and waxing. In the basement, the original vaulted Roman baths have been adapted and modernised with three pools of different temperatures.
Most public areas and some rooms enable wheelchair access. Children are welcome – no charge for those under six years old, free cots on request, extra beds available.
Double rooms from ¤150 per night plus taxes excluding breakfast which is ¤20 per person.
Palacio del Bailio, Ramirez de las Casas Deza 10-12, 14001 Cordoba (00 34 957 498 993; hospes.com).