Córdoba is the first port of call in Andalucía. It's famous for what would have been the world's largest mosque (the Christians buggered that up), and for a smooth gazpacho. It is absolutely crawling with tourists. A pleasant place to visit and, perhaps, to eat.
In the centre of a labyrinth of narrow streets rises an enormous rectangular building. Through the grand wooden doors, framed by ornate stucco, one comes to an orange garden. The ground is laid with pebbles, making attractive patterns. The garden feels uninviting. Under the arcade queue tourists, seeking tickets to the Mezquita.
In front of us are two elderly Spanish couples. Like an organism, we find their number multiplying as the two couples become a gaggle of pensioners swapping money to pay for tickets. "Buy two for us." "We need three." "Five of us here." When the original queuers reach the booth, they have a daunting wad of cash to hand over. As out turn approaches, a northern European tourist somehow overlooks the 50 metres of queuing visitors and barges straight up to the booth.
The Mezquita is breathtaking. A forest of narrow columns would once have formed the greatest unbroken prayer space in the Muslim world. Now, plonked in the middle, is the Christian element which makes it a cathedral rather than a mosque. A strange setting. At least no-one destroyed the Mezquita completely!
Our pension (hostal) is modest, but located close to the Mezquita and the Guadalquivir River. The old man at the reception speaks no English. Our room is small and the emailed request for two beds has morphed into a short double bed. Ho-hum. The bathroom is tiny and although the towels are plush, they absorb nothing. Curious.
I drag out my list of restaurants, compiled from guidebooks and the wise people at eGullet. I go down to reception and attempt to ascertain locations from the new elderly man. He speaks no English. His Spanish is fast, local, barely intelligible. X marks the spot, I think. It's mid-afternoon. Time to eat, Spanish time. We wander. Our first option is too daunting. Curtained windows, closed doors, loud voices. I'm a bar-nelly at the best of times, so a tapas place which does nothing to invite entry is not working for me. Fellow traveller Harry isn't much better. The next destination looks slightly more inviting (the door is open, the menu is long and interesting), but it's rather full. Let's look for the extra special tip I found on eGullet. Taberna la Lechuga. X marks the spot. We get lost. We re-find ourselves. X marks a building being gutted. La Lechuga is no more.
We head back to the second place. Any chance of a table (the bar is packed)? No, says the waiter. We wander aimlessly. Hunger makes us unusually bold (or was the door now open?) and we venture into the first place we had considered. At Casa PePe de la Judería, we queue to request a table. An hour's wait. Okay. We'll have a beer in the bar. It's small, with standing room for perhaps fifteen people (comfortably). We're stuck at the pointy end of the bar. At least we can escape quickly. Five blokes next to us are ordering food. The plates arrive. Some tapas, some medias raciones (half serves, larger than a tapa).
Hunger is getting to us and we decide to eat in the bar rather than waiting for the restaurant. We order salmorejo (a thick puréed tomato/garlic/bread/oil gazpacho, local dish), a flamenquín de solomillo (rolled pork sirloin, filled with jamón, crumbed and fried), berenjenas fritas con salsa de miel (battered, fried pieces of eggplant, with a honey sauce), and croquetas caseras (potato-cheese croquettes). All are delicious, except the salmorejo. I had made this dish in the weeks leading up to departure and had a reasonable idea of what it would be like. Alas, this one is unexpectedly bitter and not something I can eat for enjoyment. Spaniards in the bar don't seem to mind. A friend later suggests the oil used in making it may have caused the bitterness.
Córdoba is, quite literally, jam-packed with tourists. It ranks with Carcassonne or Mont Saint Michel in France as one of those places where reality is suspended for the tourist income. The only difference from the familiar hordes of Americans, Germans, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish elsewhere is that the majority of tourists here are actually Spanish.
Strangely, finding the tourist office is not easy. There are no helpful signs on street corners, pointing you to a familiar green or blue 'i'. My guidebook map shows two offices. One is long-defunct, the other is quite simply unlocatable. We should have gone to the branch at the train station, Córdoba Central (which is misleadingly peripheral).
In the winding streets of the old centre you find cafés, restaurants, bars, hotels, tourist junk shops and, rarely, normal offices. No bakeries. No supermarket. No shops for normal people. Wander northwards and you eventually burst the tourist bubble, finding shopping streets, eateries, offices and normal life. Wonderful. We trek eastwards along the river to a shopping mall we can see in the distance. Harry goes nuts in the menswear shops (Spain has a better boy-girl balance in the clothing branch). Teenagers stare at us. We buy lemon granizadas in a simple café. People stare. We venture into the hypermarket. The staff look at us furtively, perhaps praying we don't ask for directions.
We dine earlier the next day. El Churrasco is one of the most renowned restaurants in Córdoba. The menu is long on grilled meat and fish. At the front is a dark bar area for eating tapas and enjoying a drink. Behind this is a series of bright dining rooms, many bathed in natural light. Most guests are well dressed and Spanish, though a few foreigners lunch here too. I suspect more appear for dinner. The type of establishment also means a higher likelihood that someone, anyone, might speak a little English. Indeed, our waiter in his late 50s speaks enough English to make ordering simple when we can't manage the Spanish. We order some fried eggplant again (if Casa PePe's was great, El Churrasco's should be stunning, no?). Harry orders calamares (he's a rubber-ring addict) and duck fillet in a Pedro Ximenez sauce. I'm interested in salted Ibérico (ie, the meat of the pata negra (black foot) pig), but the waiter thinks I should go for grilled Ibérico shoulder instead. Okay. I also order a gazpacho blanco (white gazpacho, made with pine-nuts).
The calamares are okay, though less consistently good than the simple place in Madrid. The gazpacho is delicious, light, refreshing. The eggplant is presented in large slices, some still firm and all distinctly bland. We'd overlooked the lack of sauce in the description.
The duck was delicious, while the pork was, well, grilled perfectly. I'd hoped for something more to say. It was slices of excellent, tender, well cooked meat. Understanding a dish and what to expect for a given price is a cultural thing. I'm not there yet for Spain.
I order dessert. 'Gin tonic jelly with lemon sorbet.' Great. Firm pieces of gin-flavoured jelly with some thin liquid. Tuiles of caramel. A few juniper berries. A delightful lemon sorbet anchored, unfortunately, on a blob of sweet, thick, UHT whipped cream.
Our dining area is shared with two elderly Spanish couples, dressed well, with pearls and gold prominent. One of the ladies attacks a chunk of salmon. It fills her plate. The other lady looks on as her husband orders more food. They were already eating when we arrived and are still ordering as we prepare to leave. A platter of rabo de toro (oxtail stew) arrives. She shakes her head gently. He serves her a piece of oxtail. She tuts. He removes the piece and finds her something smaller. They both tuck in. I need to write about Iberian appetite another time.
Spain: knowledge of English is still very thin on the ground. Many restaurants in tourist areas have a translated menu, but don't expect any English to be spoken by waiters except, more often, in upmarket establishments. The same applies to hotels. Our accommodation (Hostal Almanzor), listed in a number of common travel guides, had no-one with more than the odd item of English vocabulary. All email correspondence for reservation was in Spanish, even though we enquired and wrote in English. Have a phrasebook. Read it before travelling.
Córdoba: the bus and train stations are adjacent to each other, in the northwest of the city, approx 40 mins by foot from the Mezquita. Local buses are easy to use, but the routes are sometimes confusing. For more normal life, venture north beyond the Juderia area (where the Mezquita is). It's easy to spend about two full days in Córdoba, but I would avoid weekends (crowds, and closed shops in the normal town).