Tucked into a bend of its river, the Andalusian town of Cordoba has a glorious Moorish past. While its old wall evokes the history of a long-ago empire, its elegant cityscape and convivial squares show a modern pride. Typical of southern Spain, it's a people-friendly place filled with energy and colour.
Cordoba's centrepiece is its massive former mosque -- or, in Spanish, Mezquita (for pronunciation, think female mosquito). Magical in its grandeur, this huge building dominates the higgledy-piggledy old town that surrounds it. At its zenith, in the 10th century, the mosque was the centre of Western Islam and a cultural hub that rivalled Baghdad and Constantinople. A wonder of the medieval world, the mosque is remarkably well-preserved, giving visitors a chance to appreciate Islamic Cordoba and the glory days of Muslim rule.
Grand gates lead to a courtyard sheltered by orange trees. Long ago, worshippers washed here before prayer. Entering the mosque, you step into a fantastic forest of delicate columns and graceful arches that seems to recede into infinity, as if reflecting the immensity and complexity of God's creation.
During the Dark Ages, when much of Europe was barbaric and illiterate, Cordoba was a haven of enlightened thought -- famous for a remarkable spirit of religious tolerance, artistic expression, and dedication to philosophy and the sciences. Jews, Christians and Muslims had figured out how to live together more or less harmoniously.
Everyone spoke the same language, cooked the same dishes, wore the same type of clothes and shared the same public baths. It was one culture, with three religious traditions.
Cordoba has a fortress (Alcazar), a 14th-century synagogue, a Roman bridge, and the Museum of Al-Andalus Life, but most tourists leave the city having seen only the Mezquita, the trinket shops and cute medieval quarter that surround it. But Cordoba is much more than its historical self. A short walk beyond the tourist zone takes you to a zigzag of residential lanes, whitewashed and narrow. People really live here.
There are no tacky shops, and just about the only tourist is ... you.
Flowers are front and centre in Cordoba each May, when the city celebrates a series of festival events. First comes the Battle of the Flowers parade, with women tossing flowers from blossom-covered floats to eager crowds. Next, for the Festival of the Crosses, neighborhoods make 3-metre crosses festooned with flowers. Residents gather for months beforehand to prepare their crosses in secret; in an earlier era, the work parties were an excuse for young singles to meet.
Perhaps the most emblematic Cordoba event, however, is the Patio Competition, when residents open their gardens to the public in an intense contest to select to the most attractive patio.
If you have a penchant for patios, visit Palacio de Viana (a.k.a. Patio Museum) to stroll its 12 connecting patios, each with a different theme.
Cordoba is an easy day trip (it's a short train ride from Sevilla) but if you really want to know the place, spend the night.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. Readers can visit his website at ricksteves.com, email him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.