April 9 - Cordoba: History – layer upon layer – piles up on top of itself in Cordoba, this ravishing city where the Catholics built a cathedral in the centre of the mosque and surrounded the muslim minaret with a belltower.
I’m sitting in the courtyard outside the mosque, intoxicated by the scent of orange trees overhead and the music of the fountain, where I sit on the wall and write these lines to myself. We have been blessed and surrounded by wonders on this magical history tour, the beautiful backstreets of Cordoba opening their arms, enfolding us in the scents of the Jewish ghetto. Narrow high-sided lanes opening into courtyards where musicians play and orange blossoms twirl down onto the table tops and sparrows dart happily between the chairs.
Last night we ended up – blown like cotton blossom – back up from the old Roman bridge, through an archway and the ghetto – in a little square where a pavement cafe advertised five tapas for ten Euro. We took a seat and waited for service. Our waiter was a dark-faced, jet-haired man, who rolled as he walked between the tables with the stiff, powerful gait of an old boxer or a bullfighter gone to seed. He never smiled, rarely made eye contact, labouring up and down the slope of the cafe terrace with the orders or the bills or the change, cleaning tables as he went. We found out later he was from Ecuador.
Over our heads from the beautiful pulpit windows overlooking the terrace we could hear a piano starting and stopping. Young dancers arrived – it was a ballet school – as the piano trilled above us. At one point, the owner of the cafe came out onto the terrace. A bicycle entered the plaza and the rider sounded his bell. The owner leaned to see below the fringes of the parasols and waved to the cyclist as he rattled across the cobbles and disappeared down a narrow street. It was like a scene from an Andalucian tourism advertisement.
Later that evening we stopped for more food at Los Palcos – a neighbourhood bar with a pretty covered courtyard restaurant. There we had more tapas and some superb Rioja – and heard the sound of music from the front bar. We tipped our young waiter and he brought us three shot glasses full of a honey-coloured drink. We took a sip and were immediately caught off guard by the combination of fantastic sweetness and alcoholic kick. ‘Que es?’ Andrea asked him, pointing to the glasses. He showed his gums in a proud smile: ‘Vodka caramel!’
Outside in the bar, two teenage boys were loosening their vocal cords with beer, one strumming furiously on a cheap Spanish guitar, both singing with stirring, Middle Eastern fluency. They sang in tight harmony, their melody swooping, diving, swimming around corners at amazing speed. It reminded me of a sight we had seen earlier – swifts darting in and out through the arches of the Roman bridge. People were hammering the bar in rhythm. The waiter brought us more vodka caramel.
Another customer came into the bar and the guitar was handed to him. He began to play a furious, complicated flamenco tune. Without hesitation, the youngest singer picked up the melody and joined in, singing with supple abandon. I had the impression, watching them lock eyes on each other, that whatever key the guitarist would choose, this youngster would reach the note, and nail it like a quivering flag on a peak.
April 10, Cordoba - Today we saw the mosque and the cathedral. It’s a soul-stirring, neck-stretching, eye-widening, spectacle of a place. One that is almost not worth describing, like the Alhambra. For how can you capture in words the swooping, rising majesty of stone, light, colour, glass and religious fervour? I have taken many pictures and could take a thousand more. The place was packed with pilgrims, modern pilgrims who have no connection whatever to the religious iconography and muslim splendour they’re witnessing.
They are here for the spectacle, and since there is little to be said in the face of such beauty, they gobble it up with their lenses, photographing and filming in their thousands, so they can believe some time in the future that once upon a time they stood face to face with a thousand years of history and a million ton of stone, plaster, glass and paint, arranged in such a shape that could stop the heart, could prevent the tongue from speaking in wonder.