Marbella, Andalusia, Spain Saturday, March 7, 2009
We were sad to leave the Orgiva campsite, with its Alpine scenery and interesting inhabitants, but we'd been told that the Moorish architecture in Cordoba was even more impressive than Granada. As we travelled away from the mountains the
countryside became more monotonous, a vast rolling plain covered with regimented rows of olive trees as far as the eye could see. Our destination, Camping Albolafia at Villafranca de Cordoba, was about 20 km from Cordoba itself, in the fertile agricultural
plain of the Guadalquivir river. We were surrounded by fields of young green wheat, which gave a strangely English feel to the area.
The sun shone and it was definitely warmer than the Sierra Nevada region. We spent a couple of days relaxing and generally pottering about, catching up on laundry and food shopping. The campsite was relatively new, well-maintained and very peaceful, but the plumbing arrangements left much to be desired. On our travels we've encountered all sorts of washing facilities - in fact we could write a thesis entitled "The idiosyncrasies of European campsite showers"- and our least favourite are the push-button variety. These are designed to minimise the wasting of water, and to maximise the irritation of the user. Generally speaking, you push a button and get a timed spray, usually lasting a minute or two, and then you have to push the button again for more. However, at Albolafia there were two problems - the button was incredibly hard to push and needed terrific muscle-power to operate, and the supply of water stopped the minute you took your hand off the button. This made applying soap, shampoo etc a logistical nightmare. In addition, the management had put notices in the toilets informing campers that, for greater hygiene, they had removed the toilet seats. All in all, not the most comfortable ablutions!
After a couple of days relaxing we set out to explore Cordoba. It was founded by the Romans - Seneca was born there - but was at its peak from the 10th to the 12th centuries under Moorish rule. It was one of the foremost cities in Europe, with a university founded in the 10th century, and Moorish, Jewish and Christian scholars living side by side and enriching each other intellectually and culturally - how wonderful it would be if the world was still like that! But after the Christian reconquest in the 13th century it went into decline.
The architectural jewel in the crown of Cordoba is the Mezquita, the great mosque started in the 8th century, and still the third-largest mosque in the world. More than 850 marble columns (recycled from earlier Visigoth and Roman buildings) support horseshoe arches, creating extraordinary vistas which are quite hypnotic, and produce a calm, meditative, spiritual atmosphere. Unfortunately, after the Christian reconquest, the Emperor Carlos V had a cathedral built right in the very centre of it. But he later realised his mistake, saying to the builders, "You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace."
Compared to the understated elegance of the Islamic architecture and decoration, which relied on geometrical forms as "graven images" were forbidden, the church looks garish and crass.
Outside the Mezquita is a warren of narrow streets and whitewashed houses known as the Juderia, which was the old Jewish quarter. There is a small 14th century synagogue which in its style and decoration is remarkably similar to Moorish designs. The area is now full of small craft and jewellery shops.
The Roman remains in Cordoba are few and far between, but being classicists we had to seek them out! There is a ruined temple dedicated to the cult of the Emperors, a large private tomb, and an impressive bridge over the Guadalquivir whose foundations are Roman although the superstructure has been rebuilt over the years.
Not far outside Cordoba we saw a fine Moorish palace, now in ruins, the Medina Azahara. It was built by Caliph Abd el Rahman in 936 and named after his favourite wife (there were 6,000 of them in his harem so he was spoilt for choice.) It was built on a grand scale using vast quantities of marble, ebony, ivory and jasper, but its glory was short-lived. It was sacked by Berbers in 1010 then ransacked for building materials over the centuries. Only rediscovered in 1910, it's being slowly restored, but the ruins give an idea of the wealth and luxury of the Moorish rulers of Spain at a time when the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages.
By this time we had been enjoying several weeks of warm sunshine and had decided the freak bad weather was behind us. Wrong again! The next day, Saturday, was a local holiday, Andalucia Day, and the campsite began to fill up, but so did the clouds, and it started to rain. We had intended to leave on Monday but it chucked it down all day Sunday and Monday, so we decided to see if it would be any better on Tuesday. No, it was still raining and the campsite was rapidly becoming a quagmire. For the first time in our travels we had to take the awning down in the rain and pack it away soaking wet. Also for the first time on this trip I wore my wellies! John remembered what Michael had done at Glastonbury one very wet year, and wore shorts and flip-flops, despite the chilly temperatures, because muddy legs and feet are a lot easier to clean than muddy jeans and shoes. It was a pretty miserable experience, but after a couple of hours on the road the skies began to clear and by the time we reached our destination, Camping Buganvilla near Marbella, there was warm sunshine once again. We spread the groundsheets out to dry, then put the awning up and after an hour or two everything was back to normal. It was wonderful to bask in the warm sun with the blue sea just visible through the pine trees, and put all thoughts of mud behind us!