I felt like I was in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Candyland.
We’d just entered the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, and its many white and red striped arches made me think about the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Until I saw Jesus hanging from the cross, which reminded me the building was converted into a Cathedral in 1236. To this day, it’s a functioning church, and it’s not rare to run into devout congregations lighting candles in several of its many naves.
The Great Mosque’s sheer size it’s impressive by itself: 590 by 425 feet, including El Patio de Los Naranjos. That’s a little less than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
It makes sense: at its heyday as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba, the city became a world-leading cultural and educational center and one of the largest European metropolis.
The “church inside a mosque inside a church” metaphor stems from disputed chronicles about how Abd ar-Rahman I, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, initially purchased half of the Visigothic church of San Vicente, which site presumably dates from the days of the Roman Empire.
Subsequent expansions would make the building the greatest of the Western-Islamic World, including the minaret. The Reconquista turned it into a bell tower before inserting a Renaissance cathedral into the building.
The iconic Patio de Los Naranjos, dominated by the Bell Tower and lined with beautiful cypresses and orange trees, functions as the main entrance (here’s where the box office is). It was the site of ritual purification before prayer.
At 177 feet, the minaret-turned-tower stands as the city’s tallest building. No visit to the Mosque-Cathedral is complete without climbing the campanario, which has the city’s best views.
Visiting the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba was life-changing. It was the first time I thought about taking one of those tests to determine if my childhood friend Ahmad and I shared any common ancestry. We grew up believing we were completely different on account of our families’ religions.
It was also the first time I thought about travel as a transcendental experience. One that goes beyond physically moving from place “A” to place “B.” Years later, I’d read a quote from the great American author John Steinbeck in his book “Travels with Charley” that put things in perspective:
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.John Steinbeck
Both Alhambra and the Great Mosque had shaken me to the core, and it was only the middle of our trip, as we would be moving from Córdoba to Seville. “Hard to top this,” I thought.
I was wrong.
We moved 86 miles southeast to the largest city (and the capital) of the autonomous community of Andalusia, the site of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Alcázar, Cathedral, and the General Archive of the Indies. And repository of modern icons like Alamillo Bridge, Puente de la Banqueta and Metropol Parasol.
After surveying the charming old town and trying some of the most delicious jamón serrano you would ever find, we headed to La Casa de Pilatos (Pilate’s House).
The Italian Renaissance/Múdejar-style Andalusian palace, holds beautiful gardens and one of the largest azulejo (tiles) collections in the world.
Construction began around 1483 by Don Pedro Enríquez Quiñones, then the noble Mayor of Andalusia, and lasted until at least 1519, when Pedro’s son Fadrique’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land inspired the biblical name.
Aside from the building itself, the spectacular garden, and azulejos, the house contains various busts of Spanish kings and Roman emperors and major paintings and frescoes by iconic artists like Francisco Goya.
San Bartolomé neighborhood, the site of the old Judería, the San Roque brotherhood, formed in 1901, and one of the iconic stops of the Resurrection Sunday procession and Barrio de Santa Cruz are some more sights worth checking.
Although we’re not bullfighting supporters, we didn’t want to end our first day in Seville without checking out The Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (and I want to clarify something here).
It is possible to disagree with and respect a place’s cultural practices. Like whaling in the Faroe Islands, which I and many others may consider animal cruelty, it is not my place to judge or dictate to a culture different than mine how to conduct their millennial business.
On the same token, I respect those who prefer not to sponsor said places with their tourist dollars be.
We visited when there weren’t any active corridas de toros (bullfights). We limited ourselves to admiring the Baroque façade, which dates from 1762, with a central entrance, Puerta del Príncipe (the Prince’s Gate), with gorgeous 16th-century iron gates.
There’s a museum with mounted bull’s heads and posters, Matador costumes and other vintage memorabilia from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. And, despite the bright day out in the ring, the tour had a solemn mood as we saw the chapel, dedicated to the Virgen de Caridad, where Matadors pray right before facing the beast.
So much food for thought, and we hadn’t even visited the Royal Alcázar of Seville or The Plaza de España (a famous “Star Wars” film location) yet.
And—the most mind-blowing of all—the General Archive of the Indies, which contains, among other crucial documents, Pope Alexander VI’s Bull of Demarcation that divided Latin America between Spain and Portugal.