KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We practically flew all the way to Cordoba on the ‘Ave’ (bird) super-fast train from Madrid. At times we were traveling a 300 km/h. The train was amazingly modern and comfortable, and I was delighted to see that there were plug-ins for laptop computers. Anil and Donna chatted or read books while I started working on my journal with descriptions of our adventures in Madrid. I barely got into writing mode and it was time to pack up and disembark.
We walked to the nearest bus stop and caught a local bus from the station into the old part of Cordova. We all kept an eye out for the famous Mesquita, an ancient mosque that later had a cathedral built in its center. The bus arrived at the river’s edge and turned left to follow along the boulevard. We drove on for several blocks when we all realized that we were leaving the narrow streets behind and entering a more modern section of the city. I quickly rang the bell to stop the bus and as we hurried to take off our luggage I heard a pin pop and found the handle on my brand-new suitcase had come off the retractable stem that protrudes from the case.
Rats, double rats! There we stood on the sidewalk as the bus carried on down the street. It was clean that the rivets that are supposed to hold the handle to the retractable stem were defective and couldn’t withstand the strain as I turned the case to wheel it around. We tried putting the stem down into the case, but that mechanism was broken as well. We had a good look at the problem and thought we needed a temporary fix until we could find a hotel and deal with the suitcase later.
Donna commented that we needed something like a wire or a hairpin, and shock of all shocks, she looked down at the sidewalk and there was a large ladies hairpin lying on the edge next to the stonewall. She grabbed it with the comment ‘An angel left this here for us’, and proceeded to wire the handle back onto the stem. At this point, I was regretting buying a suitcase that had only one stem for the handle instead of two. This was a Heys suitcase, a brand that we have been using throughout our travels for years and we had always admired their durability. This one must have been a lemon.
That problem solved, we studied the map in our guidebook trying to determine which direction to walk in, when we noticed a large police station across the street. We crossed and asked the sentry, in our best ‘gorilla’ Spanish, if he could direct us to the street we wanted. Before we knew it, the officer in command of the station was standing studying a map and consulting with at least four other junior policemen. They were incredibly helpful and we were pointed in the right direction and on our way very shortly.
We had at least a twenty-minute walk ahead of us, back to the center of the old town. What I had failed to note was the scale of the map. We were used to massive big cities like Buenos Aires and Madrid with a sale of about one kilometer per inch, and this map was more like 200 meters per inch. What looked like a long distance for the bus to travel was really about one fifth what I had figured. Lesson learned, I hoped.
It was siesta time and the old town was closed and shuttered. There was barely a soul on the narrow streets, which were lined with whitewashed buildings. Luckily, it wasn’t very hot, but we were still pretty warm and thirsty by the time we arrived at the hotel we hoped would have a room for us to stay. We looked through a beautiful wrought iron gate at the cool, plant-filled courtyard and rang the bell. It took some time for the manager to appear. She probably didn’t expect anyone at that time of day, and we were disappointed to learn that the hotel was ‘completo’, and would be for the next few days.
We asked her if she could recommend another hotel nearby, and she directed us to one just around the corner. This one also had an interior courtyard, filled with plants and an elderly gentleman and his son greeted us. We had left Donna outside with the luggage while we went in to enquire, and at first they were a little puzzled as to why we would want a triple room for three nights. The son went out to see about our luggage and the third guest, and then the father and son huddled together to see how they could accommodate us. We were relieved to learn that they had two rooms available, but only one had a private attached bathroom. The other had a private bathroom, but it was across the hall from the room itself.
By now we weren’t in any mood to continue looking for a triple room, and we chose to stay at this lovely place. Anil called ‘dibs’ on the room with attached bathroom, but it did mean that we had to haul our luggage up several flights of stairs as a penance. Donna’s room was right beside the reception desk, not a bad place to be when a woman is staying in a room on her own.
Things hadn’t gone as well as we were used to them going. We had to deal with a broken suitcase one week into our nine-month trip; walk a long distance dragging the said suitcase; split up into separate rooms and then carry the suitcase up a steep staircase without being able to push down the retractable handle. Annoyances, yes, but nothing too serious. We decided it was time to freshen up and head out for a nice lunch, and then after getting the lay of the land, we would make a booking for a two-hour visit to the ‘hammam’ (Arab baths) that we had read about in a brochure on Cordova.
We found a lovely restaurant for lunch and ordered the ‘menu del dia’. In Spain, beverages are included in these meals and without thinking, we ordered sangria all round. It was refreshing, cold and delicious. About halfway through our meal, I suddenly remembered that I was avoiding drinking Spanish wine for fear of triggering a migraine headache and messing up our touring schedule. Well it was too late now, and only time would tell whether or not I could tolerate the additives in local wine. For some years now, I have only allowed myself to have wines from Chile and Argentina after finding that they don’t trouble me. I dreaded a pounding headache, but relished the sangria. I don’t know how you say “C’est la vie”, in Spanish, but that’s the thought that was going through my mind at the time.
After lunch we found the city coming back to life, the souvenir shops had all their garish wares displayed again and the outdoor cafés were being set up for the evening guests. We walked down to the Mesquita and entered through the gates into the courtyard filled with orange trees. We had read that this was the garden of the old mosque where worshippers would come to wash themselves in preparation for praying. We decided to wait till the following day to tour the inside of the mosque cum cathedral and instead walked to the hammam to book an appointment for a soothing bath later that night. We ended up choosing to go to the baths at 10:00 pm because we knew we would be so relaxed that we would just want to head to bed once the two hour soak and massage was done. It turned out to be a perfect choice.
I had first visited an Arab hammam when I travelled in Morocco in the early 1970s. The one I went to with my traveling companion, Bronwyn Cole, was a traditional bath used by the local women of Fez. This was not a tourist hammam, and I was surprised that these women, who walked through the streets completely veiled and covered from head to toe in heavy cloaks, would disrobe down to nakedness once they were in the hammam. We caused a bit of a stir when we arrived, but after the initial side glances from the other women, everyone just proceeded to scrub themselves, soak in the steaming water and even rinse the henna out of their hair, henna that had been applied at home and left to seep into their long, thick hair.
The hammam in Cordova was a beautiful structure, built to resemble the ancient baths of the Muslim inhabitants of past times, but was decidedly co-ed. We were instructed to bring along bathing suits as the men and women would not be separated into different areas. This was probably just as well because Anil would have been alone, and we could not have expressed our delight to each other as we plunged into the hot water, moved into the steam baths and then gingerly dipped our bodies into the ice-cold tubs in yet another room.
We were able to soak for over an hour before our numbers were called for our massages. Donna and I had opted for two massages, one an exfoliating treatment and the other a relaxation massage. For the first massage, we climbed onto a stone table near the edge of the large soaking pool and were scrubbed down with a rough glove, heaven. Then the attendant arrived with a huge plastic bag filled with what appeared to be soap bubbles. I had never seen anything like that before. She squeezed the bubbles all over my body and the tingling sensation that they made as they popped was weird, but somehow relaxing too. Then she poured hot water all across my back and legs to rinse off the soap. I didn’t want to move, ever, ever again.
When that treatment was done, we were asked to move to a relaxation massage table, and this was much more familiar. These were set up all around the soaking pool, and I’m sure that was a good arrangement for people who are not used to having a massage. There was no way anything inappropriate would happen, although Donna did tell me that she was a little uncomfortable that her masseuse was a man. The relaxation massage was over all too soon, but we still had plenty of time to enjoy the hot and cold pools and the overall steamy atmosphere of the hammam. It was quite crowded initially, but gradually the other visitors left and we enjoyed the peace of the place even more.
I tried several times to get up the courage to submerge myself in the ice cold pool, but just couldn’t manage the cold water on my back. While I was making a another attempt, a young man who was floating in an adjacent pool told me there was nothing like the feeling of going from the hottest water into the coldest. I decided to be brave and plunged right in. I was hooked! For the remainder of our time there, I just kept going from one pool to the other. Seventh heaven!
Alas, the tinkling of finger cymbals signaled the end to our stay and we dressed with difficulty and dreaded heading out into the midnight chill. Surprisingly, the evening was warm and there were still plenty of people in the streets. We said good night and climbed the stairs to our room. We left the window wide open and collapsed on the bed, so completely relaxed we thought we’d sleep for a week.
Nothing doing, all night tourists were arriving in Cordova and dragging their suitcases through the narrow streets below our window. Others had only been out enjoying the warm night air in the street cafés and seemed to continue the party as they walked to their hotels. It’s incredible how the sound carries when there is nothing to muffle or absorb the noise. The people seemed oblivious to the racket that were making as they discussed which route to take in the darken lanes. At last I got up and shut the window, turned on the air-conditioning and fell soundly asleep.
We slept in the next morning and rose quite late for breakfast. Well-rested, we set out explore the city and its most famous sights. The Roman colony, known as ‘Corduba’ was founded in 152 BC and covered most of what is known as Andalucía today. The Muslim invaded and took control in 711 AD. It soon became the Islamic capital of the Iberian Peninsula. Abd ar-Rahman I set himself up as emir and dominated al-Andalus. It wasn’t until his grandson, Abd au-Rahman III that Cordova became the biggest city in Western Europe with artisans skilled in leather, textiles, metal and ceramic tile-making. The city blossomed with mosques, aqueducts, observatories and libraries and a university.
The court was decidedly multi-cultural with contributions being made by Christian and Jewish scholars along with their Arab counterparts. By the end of the 10th century, a powerful general took power and began to terrorize Christian Spain to the north. He made over fifty forays in less than twenty years. After his death, Berber troops from Morocco invaded Cordova and terror had come to the south of Spain as well.
In 1236, Fernando III of Castilla y Leon, a Christian King, captured the weakened Cordova and the town became a provincial backwater of little importance. This may have contributed to its preservation, as there was little incentive to destroy its buildings and monuments. Today, Cordoba is a World Heritage-listed medieval city well worth visiting.
We decided to visit the Alcazar De Los Reyes Cristianos (The Castle Of The Christian Monarchs) first, keeping the stunning Mezquita for the end of our visit. The gardens of the Alcazar are reputed to be the most beautiful in Andalucía. The Alcazar began as a palace and fort for Alonzo X in the 13th century. The Inquisition, which lasted for almost 350 years, began here in 1490. What was once a city where Jewish citizens were among the most influential contributors in Islamic daily life, became the center of religious and racial disharmony. The Jews faced conversion to Christianity or expulsion. Many converted, but were later tortured or burned at the stake as heretics.
In contrast to this violent history, the gardens of the Alcazar are today a serene and peaceful place to pass time on a warm, sunny autumn afternoon. The fountains, pools and sculptures encourage relaxation and it is easy to forget the long ago suffering that was brought upon the people of Cordoba by those who lived within these walls.
When we left the Alcazar, we passed by a tourist information office and Donna went in to pour over the brochures and pamphlets. She used to work for Tourism Alberta as part of her role as a Public Affairs officer. We tend to rely on our Lonely Planet guidebook and seldom collect information about current events in cities we visit. We were really glad Donna was as curious as she is, because she found that there was a flamenco concert being held in the gardens of the Alcazar that very evening. It promised to be an entertaining performance and the price was just a token fee.
After visiting the Mezquita in the afternoon, we ate an early meal and returned to the Alcazar’s main gate for the concert. We were surprised to see a large crowd gathering in the plaza near the gate, with everyone dressed in their finest clothes, many men were wearing tuxedos. I made my way to the ticket office to be sure we were at the right place. I felt very under-dressed for the occasion, but was happy to learn that the well-heeled crowd was gathering for a private function, and that there was another entrance for the concert. Phew!
There was a small crowd, mostly dressed casually like we were, but the performance was first-rate. We were swept away by the music of a trio of artists, a flamenco guitarist, a drummer and a female vocalist. The evening was warm and there was a gentle breeze blowing off the nearby Rio Guadalquivir. Later a troupe of flamenco dancers performed accompanied by traditional vocalists and musicians. The final performance was by a lone male singer who sang in such a haunting manner, more vocalizations than real words, and it was easy to hear the influences of the Muslim world in his singing. We left feeling we had touched on a bit of magic and our only regret was that there didn’t seem to be a CD available to help us remember the enchanting music of the guitarist who was part of the trio and also accompanied the last performer.
Three nights in Cordoba had given us two full days of enjoyment, but Seville, Granada and Malaga were beckoning and we had to tear ourselves away. No time for a second visit to the hammam. I dragged my wounded suitcase down the street to the bus stop along the river’s edge. While we waited in the morning sun, I snapped a photo of the old bridge. One of the most popular photos taken in Cordoba is from the far side of the river, the bridge in the foreground and the Mezquita in the background. There are postcards of this lovely setting all over town and on the cover of souvenir books.
I was disappointed that construction scaffolding and drapery was blocking the view; government stimulus money was again in evidence. We had seen this all over Madrid and would continue to find streets torn up and buildings draped in green netting as repairs and maintenance were being made to centuries old treasures everywhere we went. However, if care hadn’t been taken over the intervening years, these beautiful places wouldn’t exist today. I just have to accept that I can’t always get the perfect photo every time, and live with the lovely ones I do manage to take.
On to the train station, on to another super-fast train, and on to the beautiful city of Seville. Can travel be any more satisfying?