48 hours in Cordoba

For flora among the flagstones, visit this Spanish city which takes great pride in its flower-bedecked courtyards and patios. Glory in its mix of Christian, Muslim and Jewish heritage, says Cathy Packe

Cordoba looks at its best in the late spring and early summer, when all the flowers in the squares and patios are in full bloom. The crowds tend to be unbearable during Easter week and the heat intolerable in July and August.

WHY GO NOW?

Cordoba looks at its best in the late spring and early summer, when all the flowers in the squares and patios are in full bloom. The crowds tend to be unbearable during Easter week and the heat intolerable in July and August.

BEAM DOWN

In the absence of direct flights from the UK to Cordoba, an obvious way to get there is via Seville with Iberia (0845 601 2854; www.iberia.com) from Heathrow, or GB Airways (booked through British Airways, 0845 773 3377; www.ba.com) from Gatwick. An alternative is to go via Madrid, for example from Luton or Liverpool on easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com). Seville and Madrid have high-speed rail connections to Cordoba, taking 39 minutes and one hour 39 minutes respectively. You can book the train tickets through Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk), and check timetables on www.renfe.es/ingles. Cordoba's train station is on Avenida de America at the western side of the city.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The old part of the city is confined to the west side of the Guadalquivir river, and extends towards the north. There are traces here and there of the old city walls, most visibly along Calle Judios, on the edge of the Juderia district. A number of bridges connect the two sides of the river; the most interesting is the Roman bridge, protected at its furthest end by the Moorish Calahorra Tower. In the river itself, beside the bridge, are Moorish remains, including a restored water wheel. Cordoba is easy to explore; this is just as well, as you're unlikely to get any help from the Tourist Office, whose staff clearly see their role as putting visitors off rather than helping them to enjoy their stay.

CHECK IN

The nicest place to stay, if you want to be right in the heart of things, is the Hotel Maimonides, on Calle Torrijos (00 34 957 471 500), a lovely Moorish-style place with a courtyard restaurant right opposite the Mezquita; doubles start at €123.95 (£78) and singles at €98.83 (£62). A cheaper alternative just round the square on Calle Cardenal Herrero is the Hotel Marisa (8) (00 34 957 473 142); doubles here are from €57.10 (£36) and singles from €36.10 (£23). If you'd rather be on the outside looking in, you might consider the Hotel Hesperia (00 34 957 421 042), across the old Roman bridge (10) on Avenida Fray Albino, with lovely views over towards the old city and a pool. Double rooms are €131.62 (£83) and singles €108.18 (£68).

TAKE A HIKE

Cordoba is a city of patios – it even has a spring festival in which it shows many of them off – and there are plenty of opportunities as you wander through the narrow streets to admire the courtyards and flowers through half-opened doorways. The best place to go is the Viana Palace, in the Plaza Don Gome, which has 13 patios. All are different, but have combinations of bright flowers, tiles and water; one is even designed to look like the typical communal courtyard of the city, complete with a covered sink for washing clothes. The palace closes at 1pm on Saturday, and doesn't reopen until Monday morning, so weekend visitors wanting to see the courtyards are restricted.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Heading south east from the Viana Palace you will soon reach the Calle Enrique Romero de Torres, a small street entirely taken over by café tables; here you'll find a good choice of light meals, salads and sandwiches.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Cordoba was once Spain's most important Islamic city, until the reconquest of the country under its Catholic rulers in the 15th century, and its main tourist attraction – the Mezquita, or mosque (open Mon-Sat 10am-7.30pm, Sun 2-7.30pm) – reflects the city's religious heritage. It is an impressive building of arches and pillars, opening off the Orange Tree Court. When the Christians took it over, they ripped out the middle and built a cathedral inside. The result is an extraordinary blend of styles in which it is impossible to see where each building begins and ends.

TAKE A RIDE

The ruins of the Moorish city of Medina Azahara, one of Spain's most important archaeological sites, are a few miles outside Cordoba. The city was built in the 10th century to house up to 12,000 people. The ruins are difficult to reach by public transport; the tourist office can give you bus times, but there's a two-mile walk at the other end. Guided bus trips are organised daily by Vision (00 34 957 76 02 41), departing from the Avenida del Alcazar.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Cordoba is not great for stylish shopping, but browse in and around the Bulevar del Gran Capitan, a pleasant pedestrianised area. And there are plenty of shops in the streets between Avenida de los Tejares and Calle Conde de Gondomar.

AN APERITIF

For a really local drink, order a glass of the white wine from Montilla-Moriles; some of it is fortified, so don't be surprised if it is stronger than you bargained for! The Calle Velazquez Bosco is full of little bars: look out for the taberna or meson signs.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The smartest dinner in town can be ordered at the Almudaina, on Jardines de los Santos Martires (00 34 957 47 43 42); try for a table in the inner courtyard,decorated with trailing plants. The menu includes many local specialities, including salmorejo, a cold garlicky soup topped with crumbled hard-boiled egg and ham, and rabo de toro a la cordobesa, a stew. Another option is El Churrasco on Calle Romero (00 34 957 29 08 19). It's popular with the locals, so book in advance. The entrance is up a small alley; there is a separate entrance to the bar on Calle Romero. The menu is mainly meat dishes, but there are fish options.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO SYNAGOGUE

In addition to its Christian and Muslim populations, Cordoba has always had a flourishing Jewish community, which traditionally lived in the Juderia. This area of narrow streets and low, white buildings is lovely for a wander. The old synagogue on the district's main street, Judios, is still open to the public (Tue-Sat 10am-2pm and 3.30-5.30pm, Sun 10am-1.30pm), although it is no longer used for worship. On the same street is a 12th-century house where the ancient trade of papermaking is remembered, and the Museum of Bullfighting (open Tue-Sat 10am-2pm, 5.30-7.70pm; Sun 9.30am-2.30pm), nearby in the Plazuela de Maimonides, is another of the district's attractions.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Because of the tradition of eating late, most restaurants don't open up early enough for brunch, so you will have to look for a café if you want something to eat before midday. A good option is the Rincon de Carmen at 4 Calle Romero (00 34 957 29 10 55), close to El Churrasco; if the restaurant is still closed when you get there, the café will be happy to find you a table.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The gardens surrounding the Alcazar (open Tue-Sat 10am-2pm, 5.30-7.30pm, Sun 9.30am-3pm), Cordoba's old Moorish palace, are among the most beautiful in Spain. The Alcazar itself is worth a visit, with its Arab baths, and display of excavated Roman mosaics nearby. But the gardens are the highlight: there are formal pools, shady avenues, manicured hedges, and a seemingly endless display of brightly coloured flowers. Visitors are free to wander wherever they like, and the overall effect can be enjoyed from a terrace near the palace itself.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Never mind all the historical stuff: write home from Cordoba's literary centre – and, coincidentally, one of its loveliest squares. The Plaza del Potro was mentioned in Cervantes' novel Don Quixote. On one side of the square is the Posada del Potro, no longer functioning as an inn, as it did in the early 17th century. Opposite, and sharing a courtyard, are two of Cordoba's most interesting museums, Fine Arts and Juan Romero de Torres, both of which have displays of local paintings.

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