Our sixth stop in Spain was Córdoba. Today it is a moderate-sized city of about 330,000 but in the 10th century, under Moslem rule, it was one of the largest cities in the world and capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba (most of the Iberian peninsula and a bit of North Africa). It was a major cultural and economic center and one of the world’s great centers of learning.
The main reason to come here, for us at least, was the Mezquita de Córdoba, a Cathedral inside a Mosque that’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. It was originally a Christian church, until the Moslems conquered Córdoba in the late 8th century and convert it to a mosque. When Ferdinand III recaptured the city for the Christians in 1236, they start using it as a church again; apparently awed by the mosque’s, well, awesomeness, they initially just modified it for worship services.In the 16th century, though, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who was also, confusingly, King Carlos I of Spain) decided they needed a Renaissance cathedral in Córdoba so he had a big section in the middle of the mosque torn out and a big old cathedral just dropped into it. When he saw the finished product he is reported to have said “I have destroyed something unique to the world.”
Destroyed? Yeah, in a way. And yet what’s left is pretty amazing, a Cathedral inside a mosque. You walk into the building and it’s a dark, brooding mosque with hundreds of striped red-and-white arches under a comparatively low ceiling. Humbling and contemplative. Then there are interior walls within which is a bright, brilliant, soaring cathedral with all the gilding and majesty you’d expect from a Renaissance cathedral. Both are stunning. And together they’re, well, unique to the world.It reminded me of walking around Paris not long after we’d been in Genoa. We loved Genoa in part because of the beautiful narrow winding medieval streets. We love Paris in part because of the beautiful and grand boulevards. Yet those boulevards exist because Emperor Napoleon III had the narrow winding medieval streets torn out. We’d be horrified today if someone ordered something similar, yet it’s what makes Paris Paris. And while destroying the Mosque by dropping a Cathedral in it would not win the votes of historic preservationists today, it created a strange and unique and beautiful piece of architecture.
One more thing about the Mezquita. The entrance fee is about $9, but between 8:30 and 9:30 AM, they let people in for free. Individuals, that is, but not tour groups. So every morning Mark & I would get up, have a quick breakfast, and go there to enjoy the beauty and strangeness without the hordes. The only downside of touring the space was that we were never allowed into the Cathedral itself. You could look in from a couple side areas, but you could never actually go into it or get a view of the whole length of the nave. I don’t know if that was just something closed off for the early morning crowd or what, but while we could walk all around it we could never get in or actually see it very well at all.
An unexpected highlight of Córdoba: the dental care! One night while enjoying tapas at a little place we came to love part of one of Mark’s teeth fell out. So the next morning (instead of a long hike in a nearby national park we’d planned) a woman at the front desk of the hotel recommended a dentist who made an appointment for that morning. After examining him she explained that a 1970s-era metal filling had expanded until it just broke the remaining tooth. So she filled him with novocaine, drilled it out, and put in a new filling. By lunch time he was good as new, and all for about $90. Try to do all that in one morning in the U.S.
Finally, it’s worth noting that we picked a good time to come here. In planning this pass through Spain we hoped it would stay warm long enough to enjoy it before crossing down to Morocco. Well, so far so good; the weather’s been cool but usually pleasant. What we didn’t realize is that Córdoba, it turns out, is the hottest place in all of Europe. Yup, number one. Average daily highs – average – are 98 degrees in July and August with the temperature regularly up in the 100s. The weather was delightfully cool while we were here, though, with intermittent rain. We weren’t complaining, to be sure; a little rain beats the heck out of 100-degree temperatures. And … with a little rain you can get a nice rainbow.