Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Córdoba considered

Wednesday: predawn

A moon shines over Córdoba... It isn’t a night moon. It’s the one that stays high on an otherwise dark morning. Barely visible, between Córdoba’s elegant buildings, it still makes me pause, in appreciation.

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Tuesday: afternoon

Elegant Córdoba. That is my first thought as we step off the train from Jerez and look around. I had scribbled notes on how to get to our hotel (in the old quarter, not too far from the cathedral). We want to walk. Google says forty minutes from the train station? That’s good. We like the opportunity to look around as we trudge forward.

And so we walk. And I’m thinking: this is a hellishly complicated route and, too, I’m thinking – Córdoba is not Seville or even Granada. Make of that what you will.

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Size-wise – they’re all quite the same: just upwards of a quarter million people. Like Madison, only I think back home we must fudge the data because all three cities here feel like cities, whereas Madison feels like – well, a nice place to live in, but not really a city.

But Seville felt Sevillian and Granada felt Granadian and Córdoba? I can’t quite make up a personality for this place.

In the newer part, as you follow the boulevards from the station, it’s snazzy. Elegant. Glossy. The men don’t much wear the woolen caps or felt hats that Sevillians or Granadians favor. Up in the new town, they wear pressed shirts and ties. And yes, I know in Ronda women paraded in heels, but here, they’re beyond that. Heels are so... yesterday.


And then we go down into the old town – because that’s where our hotel is. This is a confusing part of town and everyone on the Internet complains how confusing it is and they’re right. One minute you see Roman columns...


...the next minute you’re lost and if you ask any local where such and such street is, they’ll stare at you with pity. They don’t know. They only live here. They don’t need to figure it out like us, poor souls, with heavy packs (made heavier by acquisitions in Morocco and Jerez, – there’s a lesson in there, I know, I know), wondering where such and such lane is and why it’s right there on the google map but in reality not there at all.


Eventually, we find the hotel.

So the hotel. The Viento 10. I picked this one entirely based on Tripadvisor. No guidebook would have it – it’s only three months old. But since its opening, the reviews have been strong. All top scores from everyone. And the price – 70 Euros – quite attractive for Córdoba.

It’s modern. Let me rephrase that: it’s post post modern. Much care has gone into the project and if you want to be dazzled, you can look at their website.

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I wont knock it. I suppose it’s beautiful. For me, two things stand out – we look clunky and ill-fitting in this slick place, so there's that.  And, the room has only one window and it is to the side, in the ceiling – well hidden from anyone wanting to find out, say, if it is a cloudy day.

(The ‘we look ill-fitting’ comment is, I know, subjective. It could be said that Ed and I are a poor choice of customer in any place that strives for a cool aesthetic. We travel with packs and Ed’s pack is especially old and neither of us looks as if we are clued into fashion. I understand that. We don’t add glamour. But my feeling is that if you offer rates that are low, you’re going to get all sorts of guests, including unglamorous ones and you should put a good face forward and not mind. Here, I feel the hotel owner minds. He cannot understand why we walked from the station when a taxi would have been so much more comfortable. As for the packs – I’m not even going to explore his thought process there.)

So we throw down our stuff in the beautiful room with the most incredible massage shower system you could imagine, but without a credible window, and we set out.

Tuesday: just before sunset

In Córdoba, sightseeing is easy. Even as the city is seeking to be recognized as the cultural capital of Europe for the year 2016 (I don’t quite understand the competition, but I do see signs announcing that it is a contender!) there is really one reason why 95% of the tourists come here. It is for the Mezquita Catedral.

We walk through the attractive old blocks...


...toward what some regard as the most incredible structure in all of Europe (again, I’m quoting literature on this).

It must be intensely crowded around the Mezquita in the summer, because as we get nearer, the number of souvenir shops grows. Sort of like on the final stretch up to the Alhambra only more.

And then we come to the fortified walls. Impressive!


And we enter through one of the great doors – to a lovely courtyard with orange trees and palms and a fountain that makes beautiful tinkling noises and because it is now close to 5, the light is golden and quite splendid.

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It’s beautiful, it really is. To the river side, there is the mosque/cathedral, to the town side there is the bell tower...

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I find the ticket office and Ed pauses now. You go. I’ll sit in the courtyard.
Why? I ask.
Too much sight viewing. It’s pretty here, I’ll sit and admire that. You go.
I understand that. He’s had his fill of cities, fortresses, churches, too much gawking, clamoring. The courtyard is quiet and peaceful. He’ll be happier just lingering there.

I go inside.

Oh my!


This place began as one place of worship more than a thousand years ago. Since that time, it has been built, rebuilt, added to and you can see the Moorish arches and the Byzantine tiles and the Christian nave and it is all rather incredible!


At the Alhambra, I was prepared, but the Mezquita catches me by surprise.



I spend a while inside – how could it be otherwise and when I’m done, I tell Ed – don’t miss this one. And since I don’t often nudge him to do something he’s inclined not to do, he knows that it must be so and he loses himself inside while I now linger in the courtyard, watching the sun grow more golden, at least as reflected against these yellow walls.

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We are probably the last ones out (the Mezquita closes at 6 in the off season). I can’t really tell because it seems empty even before closing. Maybe a person here, a couple there. Not much action in Córdoba in January, not even at the mosque/cathedral.

We walk out on the bridge behind the Mezquita – to look at it from across the water, but really to let it all sink in – the Mezquita, the town itself.



I watch a bird take a river bath and I think how this river is less lazy and calm than the Wisconsin River back home.


We walk some more through the old quarter, including the old Jewish enclave, where there are still, today, old synagogues, even as they’re closed now.

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Inevitably, you'll see people opening up folded maps, trying to place themselves in the complicated network of alleys.

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It’s been a long time since we ate our boiled egg and cheese sandwich at the Jerez Casagrande. I’m hungry and so we find a tapas place and have their special – a house tapas of potato salad and a glass of wine (or beer), for 1.5 Euro.


Still needing more food, I order the friend eggplant with honey and sesame seed – I’ve been meaning to try it as it’s a very common regional tapas. It’s good: like a tempura sweetened by honey.


We walk back to the hotel and we’re growing used to it now – who cares if it’s night or day, it’s dark now and it’ll be dark when we leave here the next day, early in the morning.

Tuesday, quite late

Later, when it’s proper dinner time in Andalucía, we set out to the Bodega Campos Tavern, where we have roasted peppers with tuna, followed by one portion of artichokes with Iberian ham and one portion of asparagus with egg and Iberian ham and it’s good, really it is...


...even though we kind of miss the seafood of Jerez and the other places we visited – all had been screaming seafood at us, except not here, not now. Córdoba is a city of meats.

Wednesday, quite early

The next morning, we leave the new and glossy hotel before anyone is up and around. We walk, even though it’s dark (Ed has his flashlight, but we don’t need it – there are street lamps, enough to give us a place to study the maps), up, up, to the new town with the lovely square, scrubbed clean for the new day...


...and we are at the station in plenty of time for the 7:22 to Madrid.

It’s a crowded bullet train, with a zippy top speed of 165 mph but everyone has a wonderfully comfy seat and I wont say anything more about how I feel about trains because every Ocean reader must surely know that I think they are a superb way to see the world and your own back yard too, should you be so lucky as to live close by to a train route which, in Madison, unfortunately, we are not.


(Here’s Rorschach like shot from the ride: focus on the inside, focus on the outside...)


It’s a tight connection for us – from train to airport bus to flight, but we’re sure that the train will come in on time – RENFE – Spanish Rail – has a guarantee: if the bullet train is more than five minutes late, you get a refund on your ticket. They don’t give many refunds.

Wednesday: a confusion of hours and places

Our flight to Atlanta is a Delta flight and for the first time in years we’re in a transatlantic flight that’s half empty. It feels very strange.

I rarely fly this path. Madrid to Atlanta is a long flight – nearly 10 hours and it takes us, of course, a tad south. But here’s a stunning gift: the flight path has us come in over Cape Cod, then straight down the Atlantic coast so we can see a sunny Providence, Newport, an even sunnier Long Island, and a stunning view of New York and Manhattan – one that I’ve rarely, if ever, seen from this high up.


We have several segments of flights still before us (I'm posting from Atlanta). Deliberately. I collect segments like others collect coins and swords and automobiles. There wont be a sun shining over Madison when we finally arrive. But the moon should be there. Over snow-covered fields, frozen solid. Last I heard it’ll be some thirty degrees below freezing outside the farmhouse when we get in.

Jerez de la Frontera in the morning

We are the tourists Tuesday morning, doing what tourists do best -- gawk, walk and take photos of what the people of Jerez would surely consider normal life. Surely they wonder why anyone would want to take pictures of market foods. And odder still – of fish, ubiquitous that they are. Surely they're thinking -- don't you have any of this back home? 

Well no, not really. Back home, we're far from ocean waters. Back home our fish come mostly frozen. Back home fresh cuts and exotic crustaceans are for people with time and money on their hands. In other words, not for the overworked over stressed people that we are, you know -- with the long commutes, and ballet lessons and soccer practice for the kids, and lawns to mow and snow to shovel. Yes, back home, I hear there's snow.

Today, in Jerez de la Frontera, it is the first fish market of the week and I can hardly believe that this town has a population of only 210,000, because there is enough seafood at the market to feed ten times that many. And the variety!




I feel that we hadn’t eaten enough of it – that it would be great to do this all over again, only now with these images of shellfish, fish fish, squid fish, who knows what fish, all of it to help guide us through the menus.


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The market has a wealth of produce too and that’s no surprise. Southern countries have better winter markets. It’s not fair, but what can you do.


(biggest mushroom guy)

It would be wrong not to recognize the meat vendors as well, even though dead flesh (as Ed calls it) is a little less photogenic than dead fish. Odd but true. We'll stick with the sausages -- of which there are many.


There is a nice social vibe around the market – it’s always that way. People grabbing a coffee with someone they've run into, intentionally or otherwise.

But, here's the thing -- it is also quite nippy outside (in the forties). The sun’s out, but the wind’s picked up. I’m told it never gets below freezing here, but I would guess that this day must surely count as one of the colder ones.

Our train’s at 12:08. We’ve deliberately set aside time to see the Alcazar before we leave, now, finally, in the glow of a sunny day.


Such a contrast with the Alcazar in Seville (I wont even mention Granada)! We are the only ones there, walking the walls and small gardens, poking into relics of old baths, climbing towers...


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The palace itself has seen sad years. It’s been restored, but in its more modern incarnation, it offers little for tourists who want to be amazed.

Okay. We did our tourist run. Time to leave this sherry town of Tio Pepe.


We pick up our bags from the hotel that was such an affront with its massive locked doors on the first day and grew to be probably the most splendid place of our entire trip.

A long train ride to Cordoba. We’re on the local train. Nearly three hours. Time to readjust one’s sensibilities. Time to do some work too – there’s another sensibility for you: next week classes start.

And Cordoba? That’s tomorrow’s post. A late one at that. We need to make our way back to Madison.