Cordoba’s Mezquita was once the centre of Islamic life in Spain, but the Moors brought more than just romantic architecture.
In the time of the Moors life centred around the patio, which was the setting for family and social life, and the Moors had little difficulty in adapting their traditional styles of housing to the dry Cordoban climate.
“The patio was, and in many cases still is, the centre, the heart and the soul, of the houses in the old part of Córdoba.” says Jesús Atalaya, who opens his patio to the public as part of the patio competition in May. “They were also the heart of the family, where people would spend their time together, eating and socialising.”
Many private houses and patios have been turned into restaurants, and throughout the Juderia, the name given to the area of tiny, winding streets that form the old city of Córdoba, restaurants display signs advertising a ‘Patio Andaluz’. A sort of outside-inside room, the patio is protected from the elements by enormous awnings stretching from rooftop to rooftop above the diners. In the Salon de Té on Buen Pastor, a blue awning covering the patio creates the subdued ambience of a permanent dusk, while the glow from brass wall lights cast oriental shadows. A floor pattern made from black and white stones radiates from a well in the centre of the courtyard, on top of which sits a tall, elegant samovar surrounded by gilded tea glasses, stone jars, jugs of flowers and baskets of coloured calabash.
For the month of May Córdoba parties, and for the first week members of the Association of Friends of the Patio throw open their gates to the public. A music festival is held at the same time as the patio fiesta, and the streets are alive with flamenco singers, dancers and musicians, often performing in the patios themselves.
Around fifty patios take part in a competition to find the most beautiful. The winner isn’t always the one with the biggest floral display, as factors such as the preservation of architecture and the artistic use of natural elements are taken into account. The patios are beautifully decorated and adorned with brilliantly coloured flowers that glow against the whitewashed walls. The scent of jasmine, lemon balm, fuchsia and begonia infuses the air, blending with a host of other delicate aromas.
The Art of leatherworking
The Moors were masters of fine leather working, and the city gave its name to cordoban (or cordovan) the highest quality leather in the whole of Europe. For the most important of banquets the Caliphs would replace their linen tablecloths with those made of the finest leather – the better to show off their golden goblets and crystal glasses.
Much of the warren of streets surrounding the mezquita was constructed for the builders and workers at the cathedral, and the building which houses the Meryan leather shop and workshop is said to be one originally used by an employee of the Christian Cathedral built within the mezquita,. The shop’s patio, gardens and separate chapels for winter and summer suggest that it was the home of someone of considerable importance, and with it’s horseshoe arches, star-shaped fountain and hanging Moroccan lamps, you feel that at any moment you will hear the call for salat, the five times daily ritual of prayers at the mosque.
Meryan continue the traditional handwork, and the assortment of tools scattered casually across the workbenches would have been easily recognised by the Arab leather workers of the Mussulman Caliphate a millennium ago.
Taking the waters
In Islamic culture the hammam, the public baths, was almost as essential to a neighbourhood as a mosque. The Medina Califal in Cordoba, is designed in a typical Mudejar style, where the baths are a series of pools of between 19º and 40º.
After dousing yourself in two cool baths, one as jaw clenching, buttock tensingly icy as a recently melted iceberg, sinking into the delicious warmth of the relaxing pool is like slipping into a silken robe. Sepulchral lighting comes from the tiny circles and stars that perforate the domed ceiling, casting glittering reflections on the water below. Candles flicker from wall niches or cast upward glows from the base of marble pillars. The classical dome shape of the Arab arch, constructed of alternate blocks of white and maroon painted stone, rises from the pillars to form a colonnade around the bath. Above them the walls are washed with shades of deep pink in such a way as to make it look as if the bath has been there for centuries, and transmutes the subdued lighting into a roseate glow.
At some time during your ninety minute stay you will be invited to stretch out on a padded bench for a massage. You choose either head, shoulders and back, or legs and feet. Aromatic oils are used, and the comforting hands of the masseur uncoil and un-kink knotted muscles. When you slither off the bench fifteen minutes later, and submerse yourself into the delicious warmth of the pool half-a-metre away, the world may not be a better place, but quite frankly – you don’t care.
Salon de Té, Buen Pastor 13. 957 487 984
To eat: El Churrasco serves excellent quality traditional food in very traditional surroundings.
Tapas bars recommended by locals.