May is the big kick-off month in Cordoba when the city comes alive between its post-Easter slumber and the furnace-like temperatures of the summer. So, once again, I steered a car towards this beguiling urban labyrinth from my rustic hideaway in the Subbética. Patios were on the agenda, but what I didn’t expect was to stumble across the famous Rocio.
I love Cordoba, never tire of its sublime 8th-10th century Mezquita (mosque), its Roman walls (above), nooks and crannies, palm-studded squares, silent churches and noisy tapas bars. Luckily the latter constantly reinvent themselves; even changing the ingredients and/or presentation of homegrown salmorejo…Here’s one of the best versions, at Garum 2.1, with a glass of chilled, local Montilla. Read my post about the city’s tapas bars here – all tips are still valid.
On this visit, trusty friend in tow, I set off to re-explore the city clutching a map of some 50 competing patios. This is the Fiesta de los Patios, an annual bun-fight, or rather flower-fest, that gives visitors the privilege of snooping inside the private spaces of Cordoba’s Moorish-style houses. Normally the gate or wooden door is closed, but for two weeks every May, dozens of these houses put on their finest flowery show to win a prize. In fact sometimes the display is SO riotously packed with potted geraniums, petunias, hydrangeas et al that it’s positively kitsch.
There are two types of houses, those that are entirely owned by one family, and those that are called casas de vecinos in which several families share the courtyard space. We saw both, though were stymied by typical Andalucian opening-hours, or rather closing hours meaning that between 2pm and 6pm most patios were firmly cerrado. Siesta calls, or rather they’d rather have their patio to themselves. No problem, there are always tapas bars…
This year a good cluster of competing patios were in the San Agustin barrio and neighbouring San Lorenzo, in the north east of the city. Some was new territory for me, and I was impressed by the narrow, well maintained streets of whitewashed, two-storey houses. Less so by the popularity of the event, which meant a lot of squeezing past other aficionados into tight spaces. I snapped the pic below with about 20 garrulous Spaniards in hot pursuit.
En route to these patios, we heard the pomp of a brass band; in fact we were right beside the ruins of Cordoba’s Roman temple. Turning the corner of the City Hall, we were confronted by a heaving crowd of Cordobesas milling around men and women on horseback (immaculate in suits and gaucho hats, with equally festive-looking horses). At that moment, out of the revered church of San Pablo (which, like most monuments in Cordoba was built over Roman and Moorish structures) tottered a Virgin, or rather tottered men carrying a Virgin statue, triggering a bonanza of flashing smartphones.
Then, in the background we discovered an impressive train of seven mules attached to a carriage. There sat a plump lady in flamenco dress glued to a mobile, with a pin-up daughter on horseback beside her, and another in the back. As they were all stationary, we chatted, and learned she had come from Murcia to embark on the (in)famous Rocio, a longstanding pilgrimage that from Cordoba takes 10 days to meander west across Andalucia to Almonte, in Donaña. She had rented the mule train and driver for quite a hefty price. Other ‘pilgrims’ have a shorter ride, notably those from Seville.
The Rocio is now so popular that nearly one million Andalucians join the outing, camping along the way, some on foot, others in 4WDs, carriages or on horses. Flamenco dress or riding gear are de rigueur – this is Spain, where traditions never die. One reason for its magnetism is that this romeria (pilgrimage) is not just for religious purposes but more a protracted party of eating, drinking and general hedonism that apparently extends to some pretty wild sex. It culminates at a (hungover?) ceremony on Whit Sunday.
In Cordoba, hours later, we were recovering from our patio-trail by tucking into more tapas at a bar near the Guadalquivir river. Suddenly we heard those familiar Andalucian sounds: singing, hand-clapping and drum-beating. In a flash we gulped down our finos and rushed round the corner – and there they were! A massive procession of horse or mule-drawn carriages, tractors pulling trailers, behatted horse-riders and that same Virgin were all setting off across the Miraflores bridge on their 10-day trek towards the setting sun – and the Sanctuary of El Rocio.
You really can’t beat Andalucia!