If you thought this was going to be a write up of a tasty dish of black beans and white rice, I am sorry to disappoint you (but good on you for your knowledge of Spanish-language peasant food!). This post really is about Moors and Christians in Córdoba.
After arriving via the snazztastic Spanish rail system, we consulted our trusty Frommer’s book for how to get from Córdoba Central to the town’s main attraction: the Mezquita — a UNESCO World Heritage site which has flip-flopped over the last fifteen hundred years between various religions.
The book said to get on a number 3 (or was it 5?) bus from the main train station toward the old city. It doesn’t say where to get off, so we consulted the schematics and maps at the bus stop and picked a stop we thought would put us near the Jewish Quarter (where we planned to seek out an almuerzo and visit the church/mosque/church. But, future visitors to Córdoba and toters of Frommer’s books — please, please don’t take a bus from the main train station. It’s a waste of your time. Just walk it. We spent about an hour on the bus making a huge loop around and through the modern areas of the city, up and down river banks, and it was a colossal waste of time. We gave up eventually and got off the bus when we figured we were pretty close to the old city wall (we guessed correctly) and relied on our (in this case) much trustier Navigon GPS gadget instead. Within 5 minutes we were drooling over the options at Joe’s House in the Jewish Quarter. We found out later we could have skipped the hour bus ride and done a 15-20 minute amble instead.
So, what is the Mezquita? That’s not easy to answer. Paraphrasing Wikipedia here, it was a pagan place of worship, then a Visigoth church, then a mosque as the Moors took over Andalusia, and then a Cathedral again, thanks to the Reconquista. But apparently no one could bare to completely eradicate the craftsmanship and artistry of his predecessor, so there are a lot of elements going on here, sometimes layered on top of each other.
The most striking design aspect here was obviously the prominence of the arches. I was surprised to find that all manner of photography is apparently OK here. I used my flash and tripod, trying to get the best shots. Maybe they knew that it would be (mostly) fruitless.
But there was more to it than that. The Escher-esque reptition (or is Escher’s work rather Moorish instead?) and level of detail in every dimension was astounding.
And still, despite all the Moorish design, there was plenty of grandiose Catholicism, just like you want in your European cathedral. It was quite an experience, and one not to be missed if you’re in the area. Especially if you’ve got Euro-Church Burnout Syndrome (ECBOS), the Mezquita and Córdoba’s old walled city are a great side trip from Seville.
Frommer’s steered us toward this restaurant. Well, that, and our tendency to roll iconoclastic, food-wise. I mean on Christmas and Easter, we typically go to an Indian or Kurdish food restaurant (or visit Turkey). So in a city famous for its Islamic and Catholic influences, we had lunch in the Jewish Quarter.
I wouldn’t say that it’s out of our price range, but we did decided to make our lunch here the priciest meal of the visit. It was certainly fancier than any other restaurant we visited in Spain, and I felt kind of underdressed in a tee shirt with cartoon characters on it, even though the rest of the clientele were in jeans and sweaters (no ties or suits or anything like that) for lunch. When we arrived and asked for a table (instead of a seat at the bar, which he also offered us), the maître d’ snorted a bit. Sorry bud, you’re in a tourist zone, recommended in a tourist guide book, and I am…a tourist. With money to give you. If you let me.
But that was really absolutely the only hint (and it was nothing more than that) of unpleasantry. Everything else about this place was lovely. Even the waiter. We negotiated languages first:
¿Habla Vd. ingles?
No, por desgracia.
OK, no hay problema. Geht das mit deutsch?
Lo siento — ¿frances?
¡Ay, qué lástima! OK, probamos nuestro español…una botella del Paso a Paso, por favor.
And we got this lovely wine. So far, so good. Really good. Pretty darn tasty good. And it was the second cheapest one on the wine list at 12€.
I started off with a fantastic gazpacho, mixed on the table in the bowl in front of me from stuff our waiter poured from a champagne flute, a whole cherry tomato, chopped onions, and green peppers. Positively delicious — even the cherry tomato, and for me, that’s saying a lot. My main course was some bonless cut of Sephardic Lamb with sweet & sour sauce, dried fruit and nuts. Very tender and flavorful. Also loved the baby asparagus and the sweet fruit chutney on the side, hiding under my roasted potato.
Sarah started off with a salmonejo — a tangy, tomato-based thick soup with hard-boiled eggs and chopped jamón in it. It was actually too much flavor for an appetizer. She had to call me in to bat clean-up on it. For the main course, she went with Iberian pork in a mushroom sauce.
Dessert was lovely tiramisu and profiterols.
Summing it up: if you’re in Córdoba for lunch, this is a great place to splash out a little. The “Wintergarten” room we ate it was very pleasant — both rustic- and modern-feeling at the same time. Thanks to Frommer’s for the tip on this one.
Or: Spain, Spring 2011, Day 3, Part 1: train travel
Following some advice from our extremely helpful and friendly hotel staff, we opted to do our third day on this trip outside of Sevilla in Córdoba, instead of Granada like we’d originally planned. We got a very pleasant taste of the Spanish train system and had plenty of good luck with the weather and the old walled city in Córdoba.
First challenge: picking a train station from which depart Seville. The rail network connecting Seville to other cities offers plenty of frequent options in all directions and classes of ticket, so we weren’t too worried about just showing up and picking a train based on whatever looked convenient at the time of our arrival. Our concierge recommended taking a taxi to the Santa Justa train station and departing from there. At first, we thought that was a little weird, like
Why isn’t there there a Hauptbahnhof?, and
Would all the bus and tram lines in the city naturally lead to said missing Hauptbahnhof?
Then we remembered, this is Spain, and not Germany.
We paid about 10 or 12€ for the taxi ride from the Casco Antiguo to Estación Santa Justa and put our Deutsche Bahn skills to work. At first glance, the layout of the train station seemed pretty much like many others we’d seen in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.: a shopping area, ticket service counters, snack bars. We tried to use the ticket automats to seek out a hin-und-zurück connection to Córdoba, but gave up quickly owing to vocabulary deficiencies (indeed, I often struggle with these in English, too). So we headed off the ticket counter and were shocked and amazed to find not just one massive line, but in fact five or six different ones, organized by urgency of service need. If you need help with an immediate departure, there’s a line for that. If you need help with a departure sometime today, there’s a line for that. If you need help with a departure on another day…there’s a line for that — and it all worked (both in Seville and Córdoba). And guess what: while waiting in line — anywhere in Spain, actually — we never felt the need to define and defend our personal space. It’s not like Spain is (that much) bigger or more densely populated than Germany; it’s just that they’re not seeking every opportunity to gain 4mm on their closest competitor in the race
to the ticket counter
onto the bus
into the museum
I have never seen the DB ticket counters organized in such a way, and for how often their long-distance trains are delayed and passengers must be re-routed, you’d think they’d implement a system like that. But OK, this wasn’t the last instance in which RENFE impressed us with its professionalism and organization.
We headed towards the platforms much earlier than we thought necessary. As we approached the long escalator leading down to the tracks, a woman asked us show her our tickets. She checked them, and allowed us to pass onto the escalator. At the bottom of the escalator, our bags (just backpacks full of camera stuff and bottled water and guide books and other typical tourist stuff) went through an x-ray machine. At that point, we remembered what might justify the extra security “just” at the train station. Post-baggage-screening, a guy in another smaller ticket window checked our tickets yet again and pointed us to toward the train car containing our reserved seats. A smiling Zugbegleiterin greeted us there and welcomed us on board into the spacious, roomy, clean, and pleasant-smelling train car. We were travelling in tourist-class seats on a high-speed line (think ICE equivalent). Nice!
Here are some final bits of knowledge gleaned from the experience:
Even if you buy a one-way ticket originally (perhaps, because like us, you were travelling on a loose schedule at best), hang onto it. You might be able to show that one-way initial ticket at the ticket counter for a price reduction on the way back. It’s probably still cheaper to book a there-and-back ticket at the outset, if you can, but RENFE has some sympathy for the spontaneous traveler, expressed in the form of a discounted one-way ticket back.
These are the classes of trains we saw while thinking about getting from Seville to Cadiz or Granada or Córdoba:
Top-level. Most similar to the ICE-level trains in Germany. But the tourist class tickets for the AVE felt like ICE first-class tickets. Seems more expensive than 2nd class ICE travel for the approximately the same distance (say, from Regensburg to Nürnberg), but it was definitely a step up in terms of customer service and personal comfort. They even handed out free headphones to watch the video playing on the ceiling-mounted monitors.
Somewhere in the mid-range of the pricing, and almost as fast as the AVE (at least for the Sevilla-Córdoba route). From the outside, these trains looked a lot like AVEs.
Much cheaper and slower than the other two. The ones we saw in the train stations looked like DB RE/RB equivalents.
Most importantly: it’s not Germany. You can’t expect to walk up the platform one minute to departure, board and seek out your seat while the train rolls out of the station; the extra security measures require more time. Expect to be on the platform at least 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure, and that ought to work out nicely.