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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Guest Post: Córdoba

Contributed by my truckbuddy Tim from England, now resident in Spain:

Tim’s Take on Spain
Córdoba – Public Treasures, Private Passions?

I do like a nice coccyx, and that one is certainly exceptional. It’s a complex confluence of overlaying muscles that sometimes magically combine to create a wonderfully corrugated set of curves and channels at the base of the spine. I suppose Russ will tell me it’s more properly called the sacrum, but coccyx is the most commonly used term for this part of the torso and it’s such a playful word, why waste it?

Sadly, the coccyx is often overlooked, or hidden, compared to its more well known and up-front counterpart, the abdominal muscles. We all like the look of a six-pack, even if most of us have drunk ours by now! Every model worth his salt must be able to display at least a four-pack; some even have eight, goddammit! Nowadays I manage with just the one and cherish the memories of plurality!

Córdoba is a bit like a coccyx, when compared to the more well known abdominals of Granada. The beautiful red sandstone Alhambra Palace and terraced water gardens of the Generalife are justifiably considered some of the most beautiful monuments in the world, and put Granada at the top of the tourist trail in Spain. The small provincial city of Córdoba, however, stands somewhat in the shadow of its more illustrious cousin, yet the magnificent Moorish mosque, La Mezquita, and the tranquil pools and ponds of the Alcázar gardens are, to my mind, equally deserving of exploration and admiration, just like this coccyx!

When I started Tim’s Take at Russ’ behest, I decided straight away that I didn’t want to write about the ‘touristy’ side of Spain. It’s so much more than beaches and bullfights, flamenco and fiestas. Plenty of travel writers have been before me and done that. Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles got a lot closer than most, so I’m in illustrious company!

For me it’s quite simple; in order to get to know Spain, you first have to understand its people, not its cultural symbols. And to get to know the Spanish people, you have to understand their passions: their extraordinary passion for life, death, and everything in between. This is the key to understanding the never-ending illogical actions, the seemingly endless contradictions that even everyday life throws up. It’s taken me almost ten years to appreciate this, slowly at first, but I now believe I’ve found that holy grail, the unifying theory that explains everything! It didn’t help being British; we are more used to keeping our emotions under control and our passions secret.

In Spain the view is just the opposite. How can you keep quiet about something you love? If you feel it, show it! But whilst Spanish emotions are always on display, their passions are harder to discern: you have to learn what to look for, and where to look for it. Not everything in Spain is obvious – to a foreigner’s eye. So in this post I want to make a contrast between some of the very public treasures on view, and the more private passions hidden behind some of Spain’s cultural icons, just like comparing the abdominals to the coccyx. And obviously I am going to talk about bullfighting and flamenco – see, that’s Spanish logic!

Partner and I act as key holders for some of our absent neighbours, looking after their gardens, letting tradesmen in, etc. This brings in some useful pocket money that Partner likes to spend on our garden, new plants, fertiliser for the lawn, and such. Last year we made a decent surplus, and he suggested we take a short break in Córdoba during October. Now I’m not usually one for cities, but Córdoba is quite small and has many wonderful historical monuments, a rich local cuisine, and hotels that accept dogs. We tacked on a few days in Zuheros after Córdoba, so I could get my fix of the countryside, and set off for the Hotel Selou, located right in the middle of the city and next to some parks, very useful when you have a dog in tow!

Córdoba lies in the north of Andalucia, about two and a half hours’ drive away. It sits on the right bank of the broad and fast-flowing Rio Guadalquivir, still crossed by one of the original Roman bridges.

Continued after the jump . . . 

We arrived on a Monday, early in the afternoon, and whilst Partner went exploring, I took Lulu to the Jardines de la Victoria, just a few minutes’ walk away. The street market in the middle of the park was just shutting down, the brightly lit kiosks of the vendors winking out one by one as they shut up shop for the afternoon siesta. We walked through the formal gardens of citrus trees and hedges and crossed a small road leading to another, more open park beyond, where Lulu, and a lot of other dogs it seemed, could stretch their legs and answer nature’s call! There was a wonderful restaurant and cafe there with a large open terrace. A fresh-faced waiter was serving, so I needed no further excuse to sit down and have a coffee.

I rang Partner, who made his way over from his travels, and we all enjoyed the late afternoon sun whilst we planned our excursions and flirted with young Manolo, the waiter. Partner had divined that all the sights were just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel down through the old town towards the river. Chief among these was La Mezquita, the former Arab mosque, and now a cathedral, and the Alcázar de Los Reyes Católicos – the gardens of the Catholic Kings. To get to these sights we would have to walk through La Judería, the old Jewish quarter of Córdoba, still home to one of the few major synagogues in Spain, and through tiny cobbled streets lined with tabernas and restaurants – it sounded wonderful!

Also wonderful was the sight of young Manolo bending down and allowing us a glimpse of his fluffy coccyx. I took this photo surreptitiously (and ostensibly of Partner), so if it’s a bit blurred I’m sorry, but my hands were shaking – Lol!

That evening we had dinner in a small patio restaurant in the old town called El Choto, the kid, as in goat! It was a little cool to dine out on the small terrace, festooned with plant pots and shrubbery. Inside the art deco dining room, painted various shades of eau-de-nil and very relaxing, we had the excellent menú de degustación, a five-course introduction to Córdoban cuisine: salmorejo, a smooth, thick tomato soup served cold; cogollitos, lettuce hearts topped with salmon and anchovies; bacalao – salt cod; carne de choto - goat stew, it tastes like tangy lamb; rabo de torro - ox tail, cooked so that it just melts in your mouth! Los Córdobeses have a passion for local produce and delicacies when eating, and this meal was a fine introduction, and very filling!

Our last port of call that evening was the famous taberna, Casa Bravo, situated on the corner of one of the narrow alleys and cobbled streets that criss-cross La Judería.

By day these streets are the haunt of the endless lines of tourists, tour guides at their heads, snaking their way around the itinerary. “On your left now the Mezquita, on your right the Puente Romano . . . blink and you’ll miss it . . . hurry now, do keep together . . . .”

Ah, but at night, the Spanish reclaim their city, and if you know where look, you can find their passions on display. Monday night at the Casa Bravo is flamenco night. Not the dancers with castanets, they are for tourists, for this is a meeting of a peña flamenca, a flamenco club, where the cante, or song, is all-important, more so than the guitar, the dancing and the castanets, all recent additions, which according to purists, serve to distract from the art.

The embodiment of flamenco is to achieve the duende, a strange power that is sometimes conjured up by a singer that moves him and the audience to another place, another time. Even the Spanish have difficulty explaining it, for it can’t be summoned at will, but it is most certainly about passion, and the sharing of that passion with an audience.

I have to say that I am not a big fan of flamenco. I have tried to understand it, but the songs are sad and mournful, indeed they are black. I can appreciate and enjoy the skills of the artists, and the passion it brings forth, but sadly the duende is not in me.

About 30 people are sat at long tables, men and women, mostly old, five or six of them with guitars. They take turns to sing, sometimes solo, sometimes with guitar accompaniment. Old and cracked voices are kept moist with a constant supply of pale manzanilla sherry, bought up from the cold cellars in jugs and decanted into bottles at the table. This is true flamenco, and although I have my camera, it seems intrusive, almost rude, to photograph such a passionate and strangely private event. This short video, taken a few years ago in the taberna, will give you a feel for the evening.

It was a real shame I didn’t feel I could use my camera because as an old man begins to sing, I noticed the handsome young guitar player wearing a T-shirt who accompanies him. His name is Jaime, and he looks, and plays, like an angel. Short hair, fashionable beard, his muscular arms contrasting with his delicate hands and long fingers. I notice how the old boy signals him to play by placing his hand on the guitarist’s thigh, out of sight of the audience, for only the singer knows where the song is going, and when he needs a breath. The signal to stop however, is a much more visible gesture, a light pat on the shoulder, a public expression of thanks. That both men passionately loved their art was apparent, but the passion they shared with each other was more intimate, almost loving, not erotic, but suggesting true friendship.

As the song finished the old man stood to take a bow, his rheumy eyes misty. He bought a gnarled hand up gently under the guitar player’s arm in order to raise him to share in the applause. As the angelic Jaime stood up, fashionably low-hung shorts revealed bright yellow underwear and a wonderfully grooved coccyx. Why didn’t I use that camera! But the day’s events went to show that coccyges are like buses – you wait ages for one, and then they all turn up at once!

Next day we set off for La Mezquita, justifiably the jewel in Córdoba’s crown, and, for now, it’s most public treasure. The site has been a religious one since Roman times, and the current tenant is the Roman Catholic Church, whose cathedral was built within the Arabic mosque in the middle ages.

The magnificence of the mosque is due to the multitude of forest-like red and white arches that branch from the stone and marble pillars within. In order to give the interior extra height, 2 tiers of arches were used, an architectural innovation for its time.

In the 16th century, the cathedral was greatly expanded by the Cannons who desired more sumptuous surroundings. They cut away the centre of the old mosque to do so, and earned the displeasure of Emperor Charles V. “You have destroyed something unique,” he said, “to build something commonplace.” What a put down! Fortunately enough remains to give us an indication of the beauty and magnificence of the original mosque; it maintains an air of peaceful calm, rare in Spain.

The question now is how much longer La Mezquita remains public, for the Church realised six years ago that in 2016 as sitting tenants, they would become de facto owners of the building. This was kept suitably secret, but quietly and gradually all references to the mosque were removed from tourist literature and official documentation. It was now to be known simply as the cathedral, and history was to be re-written. With only 2 years left to go, the Córdobeses have suddenly realised that their beloved Mezquita, for that is what they themselves call it, was in danger of slipping away from their grasp. A campaign is now under way to retain public ownership of the site, supported by local and provincial government. I wish them success, for they have an uphill challenge against a powerful and determined opponent.

On our second evening we visited a very Spanish bar, the Bodega Guzman, hidden from the street behind two massive wooden doors, painted dark brown and studded with iron bolts. Inside however, it is more welcoming, and is justly famous for serving a wonderful selection of embutidos, local sausages of varying content and flavours. Dark oak barrels decorated the walls behind the bar and also doubled as tables placed between high wooden stools. The bar is very popular with the locals, and so was very noisy, passion for a good evening out was to the fore. However, a small side room was less crowded, and we sat there. The walls were hung with pictures of bullfights and matadors, in particular – Finito de Córdoba.

As I looked around, it dawned on me that this was not pure decoration. Glass cabinets contained numerous mementos and personal effects, even a suit, from this famous local matador. A wonderful pen and ink sketch showed him staunching an abdominal wound: the stomach muscles were beautifully captured, as was his hand applying the compress. It reminded me of nothing so much as the images of Christ on the cross, the wound in his side, that I had seen earlier in the cathedral. This little room was actually a shrine. Someone’s passion for the corrida, the bullfight, and of course, for Finito, was what was really on display.

I have many Spanish friends who are aficionados of the corrida, but I have not been to one myself, and probably never will, for I know I wouldn’t enjoy the spectacle. You don’t need to be in a car crash to know it’s going to hurt. But if anything symbolises the Spanish sense of passion, it is most likely the bullfight. Successful matadors are worshipped; they are young and virile, brave and invariably handsome. Dressed in ridiculously tight suits, they personify masculinity to many Spanish, and symbolise passion in all its shapes and forms.

Our last morning was spent visiting the gardens of the Alcázar, laid out in traditional Arabic style, with many ponds, waterfalls, and fountains, as well as avenues lined with tall cypress trees and hedges of sweet smelling myrtle. A tranquil place, somewhere to pause for breath and to escape those shrill tour guides and their errant broods!

History was to be made here, for this was the spot where one Cristóbal Colón, better known to us as Christopher Columbus, met Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, to discuss and plan his voyage to reach India by sailing west instead of east. How Spanish then, that it should be America he discovered instead – hence the derivation of the name West Indies for the countries of the Caribbean.

Whilst the Alcázar is a very public treasure, so too now are the once private patio gardens of the city. Living in a city with no space for proper gardens, for years the people put their passion for flowers and colour into covering walls with hanging baskets of scarlet geraniums and brightly-hued surfinias. Tubs of palms and ivy filled every available space. Only glimpses of these private paradises could be seen from the streets. But slowly, what was a private passion became competitive, and tourists began to flock to view the best-kept displays.

Now Córdoba is well-known for its annual patio competition, when the tiny terraces and courtyards of the old town are filled with amazing blossoms and blooms. Many are also open to the public; indeed, so popular has it become that nowadays strict rosters for opening times are required, in order that pedestrian and vehicle traffic can flow smoothly. In Córdoba, as in much of Spain, private passions have become public!

October is not a good time to see the patios, but they are at their best in May, when the competition is held, so here’s a stock shot.

In tribute to La Mezquita, I had chosen Flanagan and Allen singing ‘Underneath the arches’ to play us out, but then I thought you might enjoy some more images of the city. The volume is set rather low on this clip, so turn it up and sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds as John Williams strums his way through ‘Cordoba’ by Isaac Albeniz:

But despite all the sights and sounds of Córdoba, my favourite image from our trip was a photograph I took very late on our last night. The public treasures had long been closed and dusted down, the tabernas were shutting, all passions spent. A wave of cleaners dressed in yellow and green overalls passed through the old town, sweeping the pavements and hosing down the narrow cobbled streets, which looked like new as they glistened wetly in the dark. After this freshen-up, there will be just enough night-time left for a short rest before another daily show of public treasures and private passions begins. But this time for someone else to discover, and perhaps write about to.

I hope you enjoy these occasional Tim’s Takes and can share in my own growing passion for Spain. There, I’ve declared it – how frightfully un-English of me! Hasta la próxima!

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