Doña Mencía is a sleepy town at the foot of the Sierra Subbética. Built on a small plain and bathed in the lucent Andalucían sun. Palm trees and cypresses are in abundance, but I was more interested in searching for my recently detached near-side wing mirror.
Not accustomed to driving on the right, I naturally kept too close to the near-side curb. My wing mirror had clipped the wing mirrors of cars parked on that side of the road. It was as if my car was shaking hands with them, like a dignitary greeting a line of footballers before a match.
With the mirror rattling around in the glove compartment I headed north-west towards Córdoba. The air-conditioning whirred quietly away maintaining a healthy temperature differential between me and the outside world.
Unlike cities in Britain, southerly Spanish cities have no suburbs, they simply 'start'. For someone as timid and insecure as me it is quite alarming. One moment I am driving along a near deserted N432. The next jostling for position on the Carretera Castro heading towards the Avenida de Granada and the most appalling confluence of roads, roundabouts and squares. I imagined driving in Spain to be easy. If it were difficult, surely no one would have rented a car to an idiot like me.
With La Plaza de Andalucía looming I lost my nerve and headed for the dirt verge. I pulled up next to a bright orange rubbish dumpster. Córdoba is a city known for its car crime. I took this to mean that every male from the age of 14 to 65 viewed it as a full-time occupation. It was with some apprehension that I shouldered my camera bag and headed off in the direction of the Roman bridge over Rio Guadalquivir.
The bridge looked impressive it was amazing how well it had lasted. Built in the first century, admittedly repaired and partially reconstructed over the years but it still reflected the craftsmanship of the Roman engineers. A shrine to San Rafael completed in 1651 is about halfway along the 16 arch structure. Candles and flowers are always present at the tabernacle, while older Córdobenians still doff their hats as they pass.
I was just changing film when I noticed a plaque ‘Puente San Rafael’. I felt such a fool, the wrong bridge. I reloaded my camera and rattled off another roll of Velvia. I was trying to appear competent for any onlookers. I then skulked up river in search of the Roman bridge.
At the western side of the Puente Romano stands the Gate del Puente, built in the sixteenth century by Philip II. This complements the Torre de la Calahorra at the eastern entrance to the bridge. The tower now houses the Museo Vivo de Al-Andalus, emphasizing the three cultures which are the very essence of Córdoba. A city that epitomizes diversity, religious tolerance and passion.
My trip to Córdoba was specifically to visit the Mezquita or rather the Holy Cathedral and former mosque of Córdoba, as described in official literature. It is very rare to find a religious site where evidence of previous doctrines remains. This may be more to do with the grandeur of the Great Mosque rather than any tolerance on the part of Ferdinand III.
In 785 Abd al-Rahman I initiated the first phase of construction on the site of a Visigoth basilica. Further expansions took place over the next 200 years by a succession of Emirs. With the coming of the Christian reconquest a cathedral was built within the fabric of the Mosque. The Muslim minaret replaced by the Christian Torre del Alminar.
The coolness of the interior was most striking, almost cold, the complex air-currents proving as efficient as any air-conditioner. The multitude of columns confuse the vision, the eyes have difficulty focusing while the sheer scale of the building is disorientating. I had the feeling I was inside an enormous and complex sculpture designed to comfort and calm.
The pillars support arches whose voussoirs alternate red and white, the whole effect of shape and colour is stunning. The structural and cosmetic makeup of the prayer hall is reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Damascus betraying the common Umayyad influence. The unprecedented decision to build the Christian Cathedral within the Mosque has led to startling incongruities. The Gothic church rises from the very heart of redundant Muslim prayer hall.
Mosque of Cordoba
The entrance to the mosque is via the Patio de los Naranjos although Olive trees and cypresses are more in abundance now. It was here that I emerged from the cool shaded pillared halls into an inferno. I do not know what demonic forces had been at work while I was in the Mosque. The morning now superheated and the sun’s glare so intense it stung the eyes.
My exertions, both this morning and at the bar last night had left me tired and dehydrated, I was not in tip-top condition. My lips chapped, my face red from the sun, I had a raging thirst and my vision became blurred. My camera bag felt as if it were full of bricks and my legs were going, I stumbled into a taberna.
I attracted an admiring crowd as I fell into the bar, “Agua, muy frío, por favor” I croaked. The mozo de la taberna looked at me in pity as I downed the cold liquid. With my thirst quenched I realized how hungry I was. I decided I needed some protein. A steak would be do the trick. I ordered a glass of fino to put an edge on my appetite and to sip while I studied the menu. The fino was superb; I have only tasted better at the hotel Alfar near Montilla. A hotel I can thoroughly recommend along with the excellent staff.
The bar had an English menu which was the stuff of Goon Show Scripts. What I took as grilled steak was described as 'Products of slaughter to the stone'. The translation,
possibly made using a Spanish to Polish and then a Polish to English phrase book. The translation may have been poor but the meal was first-rate. Tender rice with a crispy salad and succulent steak washed down with chilled fino. A simple meal perhaps, but the quality of the produce and the skill of preparation made it memorable.
I left the bar full of bonhomie and 'Products of slaughter to the stone'. I walked from the Avenida del Alcazar to the Puente San Rafael where I crossed and made my way to the car.
I am a bad driver, mainly because I lose concentration and let my mind go off in any tangent it chooses. Today was no exception. I was oblivious to the blaring horns and waving fists as I pulled away musing over the days events.
The journey to Córdoba was more or less obligatory. The Great Mosque is on everyone’s list of places to go when in the area. In Spain, if one expects the mundane it usually proves to be extraordinary. This is the nature of Spain. It is one of the reasons every trip surpasses the previous one. Why I, at least continue to return!