Córdoba, the Forgotten Gem of Andalucia

If it was anywhere else in the world, Córdoba would be recognised as a spectacular city, a potent blend of Moorish influences and Spanish style. Instead its fate has been to languish in third place on the podium of Andalucian treasures, overshadowed by Seville's operatic flair and Granada's elegant Alhambra.

Speak to the locals and you might sense a little resentment that their Córdoba can occasionally be overlooked when foreigners talk about Andalucía, but more often a relief that their city has been allowed to preserve its glories without having to make too many concessions to the tourist trade.

Those visitors who make it to Córdoba, about 142km (88 miles) north-east of Seville, return raving about its undimmed splendour. Oppressively hot in high summer (Córdoba has the highest average summer temperatures of any city in Europe), it is a city that is best seen in spring or late autumn, when it's a joy to wander its narrow Moorish streets, peering into the tiled courtyards and flower gardens that lurk behind the gates.

Photo of Cordoba Mezquita
The impressive Mezquita of Córdoba

A thousand years ago, Córdoba was among most populous cities in the world, a multicultural hub of an Islamic empire stretching across North Africa into Iberia. Even Christians in northern Europe called it the Jewel of the World.  The Moorish influence is still the most potent style in Córdoba, exemplified by the imposing Mezquita.

This great mosque was one of the most impressive constructions of the Islamic empire in the west. After the Reconquista, the Spanish, for whom architectural sensitivity was not a priority, built a cathedral inside it, but the elegant arches of the mosque are still the dominant motif.

Photo of Cordoba flower-filled patio
Flower-filled patio in Córdoba

That Moorish splendour finds a quieter echo in the private patios, celebrated every May in the Concurso De Patios, in which those tiled enclaves are revealed at their floral best, in a Spanish equivalent of an English village flower show. Significantly, the prizes go to the patios which show the most reverence for Córdoba's culture and tradition.

Those looking for the brisk flamboyance and lively noise of Andalucía might be surprised by Córdoba. It's less raucous than Seville, giving it an undeserved reputation of being haughty. The poet Manuel Machado called it Córdoba callada - silent Cordoba. It's hardly that; this is Andalucia after all where a casual conversation is usually conducted in cheery shouts, but once the day-trip coaches and tourist parties have departed, the early evening city takes on a tranquil air.

It's a place for casual exploration in the old quarter, for sipping a chilled sherry in one of its shadowy bars, lavishly-tiled and refreshingly cool. When it comes to cuisine, Córdoba looks to the coast and the mountains. It has its own variation on the traditional Andalucian summer soup, gazpacho. Salmorejo takes the basic recipe but makes it much heartier by throwing in ham, eggs, and the occasional slice of sausage. It's about the only thing in Córdoba that isn't elegantly graceful.

Córdoba is on the AVE high-speed train network that links Madrid with Seville and Malaga making comfortable travel from airports in the capital or in Andalucia very easy.