ronda to cordoba / cordoba / zuheros

We left Ronda very early: we had to ring a bell at the desk and get the hotel manager out of bed to settle our bill. Poor guy shuffled out in his slippers, completely confused. We had to remind him we needed our parking validated, then remind him we needed to pay! Funny.

I had been up late blogging the night before, then woke up crazy early - a theme on this trip. I spent the wee hours of the morning getting directions and booking a hotel in Madrid, before it was even a halfway decent hour to wake up Allan.

As you might imagine, as we left Ronda, our main goal was to go around the mountains rather than over them. I navigate with a combination of Google Map directions, our own map, and a careful reading of the options at each roundabout and intersection. This seems to be the only way. The Google Map directions never completely correspond with reality. (Was that the fork where you bear left? Is this unmarked calle the street we need? And so on.) We seemed to be driving through the valley, but every time the road took a slight incline I was worried! Finally we could see that the mountains were safely in the distance, and could breathe easy.

We stopped at a gas station so I could get coffee (from a machine, with something like 8 possible choices of espresso, double espresso, cafe con leche, etc., but no tea), then later saw a big roadside cafe-restaurant with plenty of cars outside, and pulled in. It was La Meson de Diego! Having been to La Tala tapas a few nights ago, this was perfect. We took a picture of the sign on our way out.

Inside, it was lively and noisy, a bit of a shock! The place was hopping. We couldn't figure out if people were still partying from the night before or were up early for breakfast. Given that everyone eats dinner at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., could they possibly be having breakfast at 8:30 or 9:00? Even groups of 20-somethings? But it seemed very late to be ending Saturday night. There were men ordering wine and beer! This mystery went unsolved.

The only thing available for breakfast in this area is coffee or tea and tostados (a long piece of baguette, toasted) and your choice of whatever on that. You can get butter and jam, or aciete (olive oil) or tomate (crushed tomatoes that you dip the bread into), or the ubiquitous jamon. There was no menu, we just had to guess what might be available.

Shortly after our breakfast stop, we connected with one of the larger roads, which soon brought us to the highway, and we were on our way to Cordoba. Getting into Coroba, everything was very clearly marked, and we easily found a parking lot right near the historic district.

* * * *

One reason we left Ronda so early is that one of the things we wanted to see in Cordoba - an old synagogue - was only open in the morning. So we set out to find this right away. We were walking through beautiful, empty, narrow streets, whitewashed buildings on both sides, flowers spilling out of window boxes. Then we'd turn a corner and there would suddenly be an enormous crowd of people! This happened a few times before I realized that this was the reason we couldn't find a hotel room in Cordoba - a patio flower festival. It was an open house festival - people had maps with house numbers and were touring patios - the interior courtyards in Spanish houses - with spectacular flowers. The old streets are rabbit warrens, and although we asked several people where la sinogoga was, we couldn't find it.

We saw two older policemen who were wandering around, presumably doing security for this house festival. One started to describe where to walk, then asked his partner, Do you mind if I take the seƱora to la sinagoga? (In Spanish, of course.) And he walked us there! He asked if I spoke French - it seems to be a very common second language here, many people have asked us that when trying to communicate. Our police friend was frustrated because he wanted to tell me about Cordoba. So I said, "Esta bien, puedo comprender" (That's ok, I can understand), and he was off to the races. Cordoba has the best food in Andalucia, Cordoba is the most beautiful historic town in all of Spain, Cordoba is where the beautiful horses come from and the spectacular riders who are unparalleled in the world... It was very funny. We passed the Alcazar, a fortress that apparently was Party Central for The Inquisition. Our friend said, "You know 'The Inquisition'"? I found that kind of amusing. Uh yeah, I've heard of that. I said, "Si, yo soy judia".

He walked us through the whole lower historic district into the main touristy area, chattering in rapid-fire Spanish the entire time. We thanked him and shook his hand. As it turns out, La Sinagoga is only a small room that you can see in a few minutes. It's one of only three surviving medieval synagogues in Spain and the only one in the region of Andalucia. The only section is a small room with shards of Hebrew writing on the wall. It's near the Plaza de Maimonides, named for the famous Jewish scholar who was born in Cordoba in 1135. When Cordoba was under Islamic rule, there was a thriving Jewish community, but the Catholics put an end to that.

The main attraction in Cordoba is La Mezquita, called the Great Mosque of Cordoba, or the Cathedral of Cordoba, or the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Tellingly, all the tourist information in the town itself reads: "the Cathedral (the former mosque)". (Incidentally, I'm spelling the word Cordoba incorrectly, without the accent mark over the first o. It's pronounced Cordoba, not Cordoba.)

We entered the courtyard filled with orange trees, where people were milling about. The Mezquita was closed, but we saw guards directing people to queue up at a side entrance, so we waited there, too. After a while, a wedding party emerged, many men and at least one woman in military dress, and the other women decked out in wedding-party clothes. When they had all exited, everyone rushed in - and ran to sit down in a chapel! We had been waiting in line for a mass! Guards were directing everyone to seats and saying, "No photo, no video" - in case tourists were trying to use the mass to get back-door admission to the site. What a hoot. I didn't want to sentado for the mass, so they made us leave.

So we went back to waiting in the patio area. On Sunday La Mezquita is only open to the public in the morning, then after 3:00 in the afternoon. There are a few other little things to see in town, including a small archeology museum, but the narrow streets are choked with people, it's very difficult to find anything and very easy to get lost, and we had the feeling it could take an hour to find something that would then take 10 minutes to see. After we waited a while, I suggested we go get something to eat.

* * * *

There are zillions of touristy eating places among the zillions of schlock souvenir stores, so we went off the main drag and found a tiny place with a handful of tables and a few men standing at the bar. There were no free tables, but an older man offered to drink his wine at the bar so we could sit down. He did this like it was no big deal, like he wasn't supposed to be sitting anyway.

We ordered a bunch of tapas and wine, and while we were eating, people started piling into the restaurant, speaking Spanish very loudly and jockeying for an inch of space at the bar. We thought it was crowded when we walked in! There were one or two other tables with tourists, but mostly the place was packed with locals.

These places are all lovely - very small, usually painted a dark blue or purple, with mosaic plates on the wall, posters of bullfighting or flamenco events, with tiny tables and little stools to sit on. Usually one person is behind the bar and one friendly server runs around like a maniac. We had olives, really good chorizos, little medallions of grilled beef in sizzling garlic oil, and garlickly potatoes that we couldn't even finish. Plus wine, of course. And I immediately wanted to go sleep. It all caught up with me and I was ready for bed. But it was time to see the Mezquita.

* * * *

The Mezquita was an ancient mosque that was taken over by the Catholics, who built a church right in the middle of the mosque, converting the minaret to a bell tower and plopping a cathedral nave at one end. Our guidebook pointedly mentions that the site was originally Christian, and that the Catholic takeover was re-establishing the church, but that is a bit disingenuous. There was a foundation of an early Christian church on the site, but that church was no longer in use when the mosque was built.

The famous and most defining feature of the building is the red-and-white terracotta arches - all 856 of them - a forest of arches that echo each other through the cavernous space (see here). But in smack in the middle of this beautiful space is a hulking altar complete with gory crucifixions, clumsy paintings of saints, and all manner of Catholic iconography. Around the perimeter of the space there are dozens of small chapels, all very gaudy and inelegant, in my opinion.

Besides the beautiful arches, the highlight of the space is the mihrab, a prayer niche facing Mecca, dating from the 10th century, with all or most of the Islamic decoration intact. Like what we saw at the Alhambra, there is stonework so intricate that it almost looks like lace, and elegant Arabic script used decoratively. Islam, like orthodox Judaism, takes seriously the "thou shalt have no graven image" commandment, so there are no representations of saints, no biblical scenes, no people - just words, shapes, and designs. In this space, the contrast could not be more obvious - every time you see people (saints, biblical characters), you know you're in the church.

I find it significant that all the official information refers to La Mezquita as a cathedral only. Spanish Muslims have repeatedly petitioned the Vatican to be allowed to worship again in the building, but the Church refuses. Some people act as if The Mezquita is a monument to coexistence, as if the mosque and the church share a space. But clearly, it is anything but. To me it feels like a desecration, and it's very sad. The space is beautiful, though, and very interesting.

* * * *

We drove out of Cordoba, back to the same sort of country we had seen in the morning - vast areas of rolling hills planted with orchards, as far as you can see, with a mountain range in the far distance. Every once in a while, you see a town nestled in a valley between two hills, or on a hilltop - white buildings with red roofs. We passed by several of these towns until we found our turnoff, and followed some windy roads up, up, up onto one of the hills, to the little village of Zuheros.

Zuheros' striking feature is a castle - actually a piece of a castle, all that's left of an Moorish stronghold from the 10th century, rebuilt by the Christians in the 14th - built directly into the rock. Behind it is a tiny white town, including several restaurants with views and at least one hotel. We drove up into the town on impossible narrow streets - much to Allan's dismay - and found the hotel. The desk person spoke so beautifully slowly in Spanish that I could understand every word. I wish everyone did that!

We walked around the little town a bit, mostly looking at the incredible view. It's obvious why a castle was built there. Now it overlooks mostly farmland and a few towns. In the near distance below, we could see goats being herded.

We had dinner at the hotel's restaurant. I was looking forward to a non-tapas dinner; as it turned out, this went in the complete opposite direction. For starters, Allan ordered a "selection of local goat's cheeses," that turned out to be a meal's worth of cheese, generous portions of six different varieties. I ordered a "local salad" - a composed salad of oranges, tuna, figs, salt cod, and some other strange things - that was also a meal. Then our main courses arrived: the sea bass I ordered turned out to be an entire fish, and I could eat only a few bites. It was kind of amusing, although I wish I could have taken it with me to eat as leftovers. Alas, no fridge or cooler.

The restaurant starts serving dinner at 8:00, and I think we got there at 8:45 or so. But of course, because at 3:00 or 4:00 everyone is eating tapas or having coffee and pastries. So by the time dinner ends, we're both tired and I'm completely collapsing from lack of sleep. Tomorrow is a driving, relaxing, and taking care of business-y things day.

Photos of Cordoba are here.

Photos of Zuheros are here.

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