As capital of the Umayyad caliphate of Spain (929-1031), Cordoba was one of the largest and most advanced cities in the medieval world. The splendor of that period can still be seen in the Mezquita (built and enlarged between the eighth and 10th centuries), known as one of the greatest sights in Spain. Rows of columns and red-and-white-striped horseshoe arches, the ornately decorated mihrab (prayer niche), and maqsura (area reserved for the caliph) will not fail to impress. The cathedral that was inserted into the middle of the mosque in the 16th century will also inspire you to reflect on Spain's varied history.
Surrounding the Mezquita is the historic quarter—a district of narrow, winding streets with some of the outer walls preserved, medieval gates, plazas and charming patios brimming with bright flowerpots. The Jewish Quarter, just northeast of the Mezquita, is a good place to start strolling. Architecturally speaking, there is not much left of the Alcazar (palace) of the Christian monarchs, but the gardens are lovely. A walk across the Roman Bridge will give you a good view of the city and mosque, as well as a noria (waterwheel) and old mills on the Guadalquivir River.
We also recommend a day trip to Medina Azahara, particularly if you're interested in Islamic architecture. The palatial city was built in the 10th century to the west of Cordoba and is considered a high point in Moorish art. Although only a portion of the city has been excavated so far, some of its buildings have been reconstructed, which gives you an idea of the rich ornamentation used at that time. A guide is helpful for orientation and to explain the significance of various buildings and sites.
Plan to spend at least one night in Cordoba, which lies 185 mi/300 km south of Madrid. If visiting in May, enjoy the festival of patios, when scores of immaculate, private courtyards are opened to the public and owners compete for the best floral displays. You'll also be treated to performances of flamenco song and dance.
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