RICK STEVES' EUROPE: Strolling through Cordoba's artistic back streets

Visitors wander through the Mezquita, Cordoba's immense mosque.

Published: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 30, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Wandering the art deco streets of Cordoba in southern Spain, I'm drawn to a commotion on a square. It's almost midnight - everyone's out, savoring a cool evening. Short men with raspy tobacco voices and big bellies jostle and bark as a dozen little schoolgirls dance a makeshift stage. Even with cell phones, iPods, and straight teeth, Andalucia's flamenco culture survives.

Cordoba - the number three city in Andalucia for sightseeing - is visited mostly for its Mezquita - a vast mosque with a cathedral built in its middle. A touristy zone of shops and tour group-friendly restaurants surrounds that Mezquita, one of the glories of Moorish Spain. Beyond that, there are almost no crowds.

Avoiding tourist crowds is important these days, especially when traveling in peak season to popular destinations like Cordoba. If you eat late and don't mind the smoke, only happy locals surround you. I've noticed that in Spain, a restaurant recommended in all the guidebooks may feel like a tourist trap - filled with Americans - at eight or nine o'clock, but by 11 p.m., tourists head for their hotels and the locals retake their turf.

As anywhere, just wandering the back streets gets you all alone with the town. Exploring the residential back lanes of old Cordoba you can catch an evocative whiff of the old town before the recent affluence hit.

Streets are narrow - designed to provide much appreciated shade. To keep things even cooler, walls are whitewashed and thick - providing a kind of natural air-conditioning. To counter the boring whitewash, doors and windows are colorful. Iron grills cover the windows. Historically these were more artistic, now more practical. Stone bumpers on corners protected buildings against reckless drivers. As you'll see, scavenged secondhand ancient Roman pillars worked well. Lanes are made of river-stone cobbles: cheap and local. They provided drains down the middle of a lane while flanked by smooth stones that stayed dry for walking. Remnants of old towers from minarets survive, built into today's structures. Muslim Cordoba peaked in the 10th century with an estimated 400,000 people, and lots of now-mostly-gone neighborhood mosques.

In Cordoba, patios are taken very seriously. Patios, a common feature of houses throughout Andalucia, have a long history here. The Romans used them to cool off, and the Moors added lush, decorative touches. The patio functioned as a quiet outdoor living room, an oasis from the heat. Inside elaborate ironwork gates, roses, geraniums, and jasmine spill down whitewashed walls, while fountains play and caged birds sing. Individuals own some patios; some are communal courtyards for several homes and some grace public buildings like museums or convents.

Today, homeowners take pride in these mini-paradises, and have no problem sharing them with tourists. As you stroll Cordoba's back streets, pop your head into any wooden door that's open. The owners (who keep their inner black iron gates locked) enjoy showing off their picture-perfect patios.

Well after midnight, the city finally seems quiet. I climb into my bed. Just as I dose off, a noisy and multi-generational parade rumbles down the cobbled lane. Below a band of guitars and castanets with a choir of those raspy tobacco voices funnels down my narrow alley. Grandmothers - guardians of a persistent culture - make sure the children pick up their Andalusian traditions. One woman looks up at me, catches my eye, and nods, as if satisfied that I was witnessing the persistent richness of their culture.

E-mail Rick Steves at rick@ricksteves.com.

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