Andalucia 2012 – The Alcazar and Surrounds

After I have seen all the sites in the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba, I break for lunch. Today’s attempt at ordering tapas and a mojito for lunch are ‘corrected’ by the waiter who insists that I should more properly order a crab salad and a glass of white wine. Apparently I was trying to order bar food and I also apparently defy the meals of a stereotype female. The salad comes with a packaged loaf of bread. There is so much pre-packaged food here… Music in this restaurant is American rock from the ’50’s.

I finish the lunch that was chosen for my by the wait-staff, and spend my next few hours at the Alcazar.

  • The Alcazar was the castle of King Alfonso X, known as The Learned, King of Castile, Toledo, Leon, Seville, Cordoba and a few other cities. He ruled from 1252 until his death in 1284 and spent nearly two decades in what would become a failed pursuit to become Emperor of Christian Europe. In spite of draining his treasury by remaining in a state of near constant war, Alfonso also promoted a blossoming in the arts, sciences, and law. He is commemorated in the US House of Representatives as one of the world’s most influential lawgivers.
  • King Alfonso also recognized Spanish as a formal language of government, breaking Latin’s hold and accelerating Spanish as one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. Castilian became the common language as well, helping to unify a people who had been conducting business and general life in Arabic, Berber, Hebrew, Basque, Portuguese and a host of other languages and dialects.
  • The Alcazar was started in 1328 as a military fortification, and was later extended to include gardens, transforming int a residence for the Catholic monarchs after the Reconquista. Christopher Columbus was received here by Ferdinand and Isabella. After the surrender of Granada, it was used by the church until the Inquisition was banned in 1821, after which point it was used as a prison until 1951.

The area outside the wall is a public park / plaza. I was surprised to find plazas of hard packed yellow clay more often than plazas of grass.

Unlike the other ‘castles’ here which were actually manor houses, the Alcazar feels more like a fortification. A statue of King Alfonso stands near the entrance. There are a number of artifacts here but I only found one furnished room, a council chamber, perhaps used as a war room. A stone staircase takes you to the roof where the view between the crenelations is far superior to the view from tower I would later see at the Roman Bridge.

The highlight of this building is the gardens in back, with its terraced pools down the center, filled with foot-long fish that are probably hand fed. There are mosaic pools in Romanesque themes situated towards the back corner. The garden also features formal box hedges, and topiary in the shape of large jugs with handles.

I cross the wide, brick paved Roman Bridge to the Museum of Three Cultures. There are buskers and a few craftsmen stationed along the bridge, and a statue of Saint Raphael, guardian angel of Cordoba since the 16th century, when he appeared to a clergyman, proclaiming that the city was in his possession. This tower at the end of the bridge hosts a museum, which begins with a ‘talking wax statues’ presentation, which, although interesting, was a little tedious. The rest of the museum is mostly panoramas of various aspects of Islamic life. 

Across the street from the Alcazar are the Almohade Bath (the Caliph’s Baths), a partially restored ruin of royal baths. You enter a Reception Hall, built in the 10th century, when the Alcazar became the governor’s seat.  There are traces of carved plaster in this room, with foiled arches, inscriptions, plant motifs, geometric decoration and mythological animals.  In the center of this room there was once a fountain with a spout and basin, which may have been used as a reception hall or a ceremonial space by the governor of Cordoba between the 11th-14th centuries.  It was also used by the kings of Castille.

The informational placards (of which there are many) will tell you that the Baths had a perfect design, from the changing room where you would leave your clothes, to the Cold Room, where you would perform ablutions at the tiled fountain, and use the latrine.  It is here that you would receive a cloth and ‘alcorques’ – a cork-soled sandal that would help you to avoid slipping or scalding.  Your next stop would be the Warm Room, a domed room where you would bathe. You can see the original marble slab flooring here.

You would then progress to the Hot Room, another domed room divided into three spaces, two had pools, one of which was installed by Christians during the 13th century. A bronze furnace between the two pools supplied heat to the pools and the hypocaust – galleries under the marble flooring through which heat passed from the furnace to the chimneys.  Ceramic pipes distributed heated water to the pools and also heated the marble floors. The furnace was made of refractory brick and was kept lit at all times to prevent the deterioration of the boiler. It was only extinguished to change its position or for repairs.

There was also a garden here but it was in serious disrepair.  It originally was divided into four parts by two channels, in the center of which was either a pavilion or a fountain.  (I would later see this style of garden at the Court of Lions in Granada, and would learn that it reflected the ideal of Paradise in Islamic architecture). The garden was laid out in front of the baths at a lower level than the floor of the portico, so the tree tops were at the same height as the people.  The garden may have contained orange and lemon trees, myrtle and aromatic plants, making it a pleasure for the senses. 

  • The Andalusies developed a sophisticated hydraulic engineering and irrigation system which brought water here by an aqueduct that followed the top of the city walls, and discharged into reservoirs near the baths.  A brick cistern in the baths was used for irrigation.

I walked along the riverfront and shops, it’s ambience heightened by the number of women dressed in traditional flamenco wear, apparently for some festival.

Dinner is, at last, tapas! A small plate of marinated shellfish, and another plate of potato and pepper salad, followed by a flamenco show at the Tablao Cardenal later that evening.  I may never know why I was seated at a table by myself, at the corner of the stage, with everyone else being seated at the other end of the room. At intermission, one of the lead singers sat down at my table and tried to strike up a conversation, but my Spanish remained inadequate, and all I could say was “no habla.”

On the stage, the women are spirited in step and very serious in facial expression, in high contrast to the men, whose broad grins were so contagious that even the women were smiling by the end of the evening.

It was a great experience to end my stay in this city. See more of the Alcazar and Cordoba on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

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