La Mezquita in Cordoba, I wrote in a recent post, is a Christian cathedral emerging from the ribs of a Moorish mosque – and it is precisely this amalgam and emergence, this blending and superceding, that I find so infinitely absorbing and rewarding, such fertile soil for the kind of historical imagining and understanding that we need so badly in an age that seems, at least in its politics, so partisan and diminished, so limited and narrow.
In these images, Moorish arches frame and reveal Christian figures and motifs; different ages and tastes are overlaid; a place of worship becomes a human record.
And they interest me, these photographs, not merely as records, but as meditations of a sort. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
La Mezquita simply takes possession of old Cordoba: vast, sprawling, the Christian cathedral emerging from the ribs of the Moorish Mosque, its bulk and presence are unignorable.
It’s a good idea to circumnavigate before you enter: wander the surrounding streets, catch glimpses of the spire from narrow alleyways or see it from up high, from the old stone towers of the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, to get a physical sense of its mass and antiquity – and then go in, to a fantasy world of pink and white columns, horseshoe arches, chapels and pulpits, tiles and paintings, silver and gold, light and shade, a timeless and yet particular blending of cultures, faiths, visions and religions.
To give you a sense (I hope) of place, of time and locality, here are some exteriors.
The gardens of the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, in Cordoba, Spain – set within the medieval walls and towers of a palace that the Catholic monarch Alfonso XI built in the 15th century upon the site of Visigoth and Moorish forts – have that ‘Cordoba quality’ I mentioned in an earlier post: a sense of peace, of warmth, of open skies, an easy and comfortable humanity. The gardens may not be as grand as those of the Alhambra, in Granada, but they welcome you in.
Mind you, you are met at the entrance to the palace by a rather formidable gentleman, with his bible and sword (the sword being more prominent) before you descend into the garden itself.
From the entrance you walk down wide stone steps to blue-green pools dappled with fish; there are more pools below, and formal gardens, a lushness and ornamentation that is always absorbing, but never overpowers.
Speaking of formidable gentlemen, though, one of those you will find in the gardens, standing before the king and his queen, is the stony figure (yes, this is a play on words, but it is also a comment on what is a pretty humourless and po-faced trio) of Christopher Columbus.
When you are done, there is one more thing you should do, and that is climb to the top of the towers, and look out over the gardens, and the town, with its silvery green palm trees and look to your right: there you will see the steeple of La Mezquita – the topic of my next blog.
This portfolio of black and white images of Cordoba includes one image in colour – a quiet corner, two buildings intersecting, and a tree and its shadow intermingled. And then there is that splash of red, like blood…. I could have done it in monochrome, but suffused as it is with the afternoon light it just wouldn’t let me. And that dramatic splatter of red, of course, would have been lost.
The other images, when seen in colour, are essentially representation – ‘this is what it looks like’ – whereas the monochrome, to my eye at least, allows for interpretation and expression.
I hope you enjoy them – both the black and white and the colour. See what you think.
I think our first evening in Cordoba pretty much did it for us.
We had driven up from Granada, in our hired baby Mercedes, taking a road less travelled through miles upon miles of hills and olive groves, and dropped off the car, and found our hotel – a still oasis in the soporific heat – and wandered down towards dusk to the Puente Romano, the old stone bridge from Roman times spanning the Guadalquivir River.
The light was soft and warm, the heat had melted away, the air was an easy embrace, and at the foot of the bridge – with medieval columns as backdrop – a bride and groom were posing for photographs.
Gone were the crowds and bustle of Granada and Sevilla, and in their place, down by the Guadalquivir, there was amplitude and calm, a quietude, a touch of romance that was effortless, unhurried, a folding of ourselves into the world and this place that was subtle and unforgettable.
Cordoba was the last of the towns that we visited, in Andalucia, but I’d venture to say it was the town we loved most, and the first we would go back to.
Here we are, Rob and I – at dusk, by the Guadalquivir, with the Puente Romano behind us.
Small-town Andalucia – those slightly run-down settlements you find on the road from Granada to Cordoba, for instance, places that are not on the tourist route, that are a little hard-scrabble, impoverished – still surprise, with their Moorish keeps, their sense of history. But it is a pre-democracy Spain you sense here – the Spain of Franco, perhaps – yet to be dragged into modernity.
We passed a number of these places along the road to Cordoba, stopping in one for a coffee, in another to use the bathroom. Here are some images: the first, which I took while Rob sipped her coffee at a little open-air cafe by the side of the road, are in colour.
The black-and-white images are from a little town quite close to Cordoba – our final destination for this trip, before we climbed on board the train back to Madrid, footsore and sunburned. But happy.
The Alhambra sits high on a hill – opposite, below, is the heart of the old Moorish city of Granada, the Albaicin. At night, you look up, and there on the ridge is the looming bulk of the great fortress and citadel – perhaps with the moon rising behind it.
A warren of steep and crooked streets and alleyways, the Albaicin is bounded, at the foot of the Alhambra, by a winding stream and the ancient, cobbled Carrera del Darro. Narrow as it is, and thronged with sightseers, pedestrians, shopkeepers, buskers, taxis and cars nose through their way through it, and even buses. You squeeze yourself up against a wall, or back to the stone parapet overlooking the river, to allow the vehicles to go by – and then the throng closes like water over the gap they have created, and the busy human world goes back to its business again.
Along the Carrera del Darro are the inevitable Moorish baths, at El Banuelo, and museums – here, in this image, is one of those geometric water features, in a quiet courtyard, that seem to me the embodiment of stillness, perfection and an almost spiritual simplicity.
Start your exploration of Albaicin, I’d suggest, by following the winding path of the Carrera del Darro, then turn up the hill and follow your instincts.
The Alhambra in Granada is both fortress and palace – and, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a custodian of memory, Spain’s rich history and the history of civilisations physically embodied in tiles and script, archways and gardens, the quiet flow of water and ceilings that mirror the star-studded sky. It is magnificent.
No matter that parts of it are crumbling, that the historic site has been witness over the centuries to a few ill-judged renovations and repairs, that the flow of tourists is endless and unstoppable. The Alhambra is one of those living monuments – poised imposingly above the town, with elevated views that must have uplifted sultans and kings – that you simply have to see, at least once in your lifetime.
A photographer’s Alhambra
The Alhambra, also, is a photographer’s nightmare and dream. A nightmare, because there is simply so much of it to see, to learn about, to interpret and photograph, so many rooms, gardens, structures, passageways, arches, hallways, histories, legends – and because getting a clear view is almost impossible in the endlessly milling throng. A dream, because the Alhambra manages somehow to be both magnificent and poetic, delicate and monumental, brutal and sensitive, all at the same time.
This first series of images shows something of the monumental side – if you will, Alhambra The Fortress.
Water to cool and delight
Much as you will enjoy the sheer monumentality of battlements and walls, the views over the parapets of Granada, far below, you should take time too to absorb and appreciate the smaller details – the colour and geometry of small enclosed gardens, the use of water – as in the two contrasting images below – to cool and delight, the myriad details.
Take time for the details
In this last set of images, it is the details I have focused on – pushing them, where I can, to a state almost of abstraction, of pure pattern: a creative impulse, I’d like to think, that the sultans would understand.
Ode to Spain
If you’ve enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of my other posts on our travels in Spain, including posts on Madrid, Sevilla and the pueblos blancos, not least the wonderful little town of Ronda, where we enjoyed an evening of the most marvellous flamenco.
In Sevilla we heard, live on stage, in a modern, airy, wood-panelled auditorium, the fabulous flamenco guitarist Paco Jarana: a wonderful masterclass that blew us both away. To see flamenco dancing, however, we went to Ronda, to the Restaurant Cinque on the Paseo Blas Infante – a small, dark stage, with three red chairs for the handclapper-singers and the guitarist and just space enough for a single flamenco dancer.
The guitarist was not the great Paco, by any stretch, but he was pretty good; the singers and hand-clappers, likewise, were not in the league of Paco’s accompanists, but what they had was the raw intensity and the enthusiasm that the performance demanded.
And the flamenco dancer – offstage, just a slight, ordinary-seeming young woman – on stage, commanded your absolute attention. Entering silently, down a darkened staircase, she stepped out into the light, and from then until the show ended had us utterly entranced – no, not just entranced, completely riveted.
I chose on this occasion to take the Leica D-Lux, not the Nikon, as the Nikon would have been too large and intrusive. I asked if it was okay to take photographs and was told yes, so long as I didn’t use flash.