The reign in Spain, or how Cordoba's Jewish life lingers on

By Jules Stewart, April 18, 2008

The charm of what was once the world’s largest city is undiminished

My first visit to Córdoba was made, inadvertently, in 1973, when I was taking my family on a summer holiday to Málaga. After juddering along a pot-holed road from Madrid for 11 hours in the 100-degree furnace that was a dilapidated hired Seat, we threw in the towel and reconciled ourselves to an overnight stay in Córdoba.

A month or so back, I returned, deliberately this time. The journey took one hour 40 minutes from Madrid on a 180-mph bullet train. Spain has now overtaken Italy in per capita GDP and the recent inauguration of the Madrid-Barcelona high-speed rail link is definitive proof of this turnaround.

But high-speed rail links apart, Córdoba remains, in many ways, the city of 35 years ago. In fact, the Córdoba of the 12th century — when, with its one million inhabitants, it was the world’s largest city — is still very much in evidence. Small wonder the Spanish government has proclaimed it the greatest of its national treasures.

One need look no further than Tiberiades Square in the old Jewish Quarter — designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984 — with its statue of Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbi, physician, philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, to realise how steeped in culture this city remains. In 1985, Córdoba hosted the First International Congress on the Life and Works of Maimonides.

The congress was held in the city’s synagogue which, that year, saw its first religious service for five centuries. The synagogue is located in one of Córdoba’s twisting, narrow streets, appropriately named Calle Judíos. It is the only remaining medieval synagogue in Andalucia, as well as the purest in the Mudejar style of the three which survive in Spain.

Following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the synagogue went through several bizarre metamorphoses, from a hospital for rabies victims to the guildhall of shoemakers and, in the 19th century, a nursery school. In 1885, the reformist government of Antonio Cánovas del Castillo declared it a national monument.

Not a great deal remains of the old synagogue, apart from two chambers, a small entrance hall and a prayer room. The upper walls retain their raised, ornamental decoration in the form of four, six and eight-pointed stars, and designs of plants in the Moorish style. A small cubicle bears an inscription of the synagogue’s founder Isaac Moheb, “son of Efraim Wadawa, in the year seventy-five”, and a space in which the ark was once kept.

A charming gateway to understanding Córdoba’s Jewish tradition is the Sepharad House, opposite the synagogue. I heard a lute and vocal concert of Sephardic ballads in the courtyard of this 14th-century mansion, known as the Home of Memory. A private initiative, it traces the history of Sephardic culture and its development in the diaspora with a permanent exhibition on the Jews of Córdoba, Sephardic music and the women of Andalucia.

The attraction that steals the show in Córdoba, however, is the eigth-century Mosque, described by the travel writer Gerald Brenan as “the most beautiful and original building in Spain”. Along with gems like Grenada’s Alhambra and the gates of Toledo, it is testimony that the greatest monuments of Islam are not to be found in the Muslim world, but in Spain.

A Unesco World Heritage site, the mosque was constructed over the ruins of an ancient Visigoth church by the emir Abderrahman I in 785, during the euphoric days of the Muslim conquest of Spain. Five centuries later Córdoba fell to a Christian army and the mosque was reconsecrated as a cathedral.

To drive home their point, the conquerors erected Gothic and Baroque chapels and pantheons inside the mosque, none of which detract from the building’s former grandeur.

The world’s third largest mosque, it has 900, arched pillars made of coloured brick and stone and cleverly designed to distribute the weight of the building sideways — a phenomenon visible in several bayed exterior walls. Sunlight streams in from windows in the four cupolas, creating a magical effect when combined with artificial light from thousands of small oil lamps.

Not to be missed is a stroll around the elegant Old Town Square, as well as the museum devoted to Julio Romero de Torres, whose paintings are displayed in a 16th-century hospital in the Plaza del Potro. The sensuality of Córdoba is, in many ways, embodied in the seductive women painted by this early 20th-century artist.

A particularly lovely time to visit Córdoba is in May, when the city holds its Patio Festival. The competition, held among the white-washed courtyards of the old quarter, is designed to find the best of the spectacular patios, decorated with the abundant local flora. Grabbing its coat tails is a balcony and windows competition. won last year by a house with four balconies overflowing with pink, crimson and violet geraniums.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Córdoba was finding a hotel that I was deeply saddened to leave. El Palacio del Bailío, a Design Hotel and the city’s only five-star hotel, has been created inside a 16th-century Andalusian palace in the heart of Córdoba’s historic quarter. It has restored coach houses and stables, as well as a breathtaking Moorish garden adorned with Tuscan-style 18th-century murals and marble fountains shaded by orange trees. The first-floor corridor had enormous starburst chandeliers and sumptuous sofas tucked cleverly into wall enclaves, while the room was another delight, all high ceilings, pale decor, exposed brick walls, and dark wood furnishings. Who would want to leave this sanctuary of sensuality, except to visit the spa (Ayurvedic massage, plantar reflexology, holistic balancing facial and more) or the Senzone Restaurant — for once a gourmet treat in a hotel. And — even more surprising — a fine, kosher 2002 Flor de Primavera from the Montsant region of Tarragona on the wine list.

Last updated: 2:25pm, September 10 2008