The photo on the title page of my 11th grade Spanish textbook captivated me. The picture showed a temple of some sort with an array of stone columns. The columns supported a seemingly endless system of red and white arches that faded away to a vanishing point. As a high school junior, this picture stared at me every time I opened my Spanish book to practice verb conjugation or learn the vocabulary of a typical household. Not sure if my 16 year old self would have ever dreamed that seeing this place in person was even a possibility.
This temple, with its two-tone archways is actually the Mezquita, a Moorish mosque turned cathedral in Cordoba. Cordoba is located conveniently on the AVE high speed rail line that connects Madrid and Sevilla. Even if you do not plan on staying the night, a stopover en route between these two cities is a must. When you arrive in Cordoba by train, grab a free city map from the visitors’ center in the station, then take your luggage with you across the street to the bus station where there are lockers. There are different sizes to choose from, so pick the smallest one that holds your stuff. A large locker will run you around 3.50 euro, but they only accept coins, so be sure to have change handy.
After you grab just what you are going to need for the afternoon, follow your map from the station to the old town. If you walk directly to the Mezquita, it is a 20 minute trek. The old town is a maze of narrow streets and white washed buildings. Spain is hot, and in the south of Spain, miles from the sea, it is even hotter. The medieval villagers who built this city knew what they were doing. In order to maximize the shade on their streets, they made them narrow and to reduce the temperature in their houses, they painted them white to reflect as much of the sunlight as possible. The old town is filled with small cafes and shops and the labyrinthine layout makes it fun to meander through. Take your time here and enjoy the picturesque plazas and perhaps grab some paella or a Coke at a nearby cafe. Unless you are from the desert, you will probably find it too warm for coffee.
After wandering the streets of the old city, you will eventually come to the Mezquita. This incredible place of worship was built as a mosque by the Moors in 785. The Moors arrived in Spain in 711 and brought with them their extensive knowledge of architecture and mathematics, as well as their religion and artwork. They built the Mezquita on the site of a Christian church, and when the Spanish launched a counteroffensive, they built a cathedral inside the mosque. During the reconquista, many mosques were leveled and churches built in their place. Not here. The Spanish recognized the artistic and architectural brilliance of the Mezquita and decided to build their cathedral inside of it, thus preserving most of the mosque. The effect is pretty amazing, actually. In much of the Mezquita, the cathedral part is obscured by the Moorish columns. It is only when you are standing in the apse and you look straight up does the place suddenly become a cathedral and nothing else.
The Mezquita is open from 10am to 7pm (6pm in the winter) Monday through Saturday, and 2pm to 7pm (6pm in the winter) on Sunday. For Catholics interested in worship, Mass is held Sunday mornings. Admission is 8 euro, but free for services. Respectful attire is required.
Cordoba is the perfect afternoon stopover between Madrid and Sevilla. Allow a couple of hours to see the old town and Mezquita as well as a some time to grab some tapas at any of their delightful restaurants.