Across Andalucia: The Alcazar and Caliph Baths – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me from Venice to Florence, Genoa, and Istanbul. In 2012 it brought me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule, and my recollections of Cordoba.

I finish the lunch that was chosen for my by the wait-staff, and spend my next few hours at the Alcazar, the castle of King Alfonso X, known as The Learned, King of Castile, Toledo, Leon, Seville, and Cordoba.

King Alfonso X ruled from 1252 until his death in 1284 and spent nearly two decades in what would become a failed pursuit to become the Emperor of Christian Europe. In spite of draining his treasury by remaining in a state of near constant war, Alfonso also promoted a blossoming in the arts, sciences, and law. He is commemorated in the US House of Representatives as one of the world’s most influential lawgivers.

King Alfonso also recognized Spanish as a formal language of government, breaking Latin’s hold and accelerating Spanish as one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. Castilian became the common language as well, helping to unify a people who had been conducting business and general life in Arabic, Berber, Hebrew, Basque, Portuguese and a host of other languages and dialects.

The Alcazar was built in 1328 as a military fortification, and was later extended to include gardens, transforming int a residence for the Catholic monarchs after the Reconquista. Christopher Columbus was received here by Ferdinand and Isabella. After the surrender of Granada, it was used by the church until the Inquisition was banned in 1821, after which point it was used as a prison until 1951.

The area outside the wall is a public park / plaza. I was surprised to find plazas of hard packed yellow clay more often than plazas of grass.

Unlike the other ‘castles’ here which were actually manor houses, the Alcazar feels like a fortification. I admire a lion torchiere just before encountering a life-size statue of King Alfonso X near the entrance. There is also an ornate door knocker of a style that I would see years later in Morocco.

There are artifacts in display cases in the hallways of this building, but not much else to see. I find only one furnished room — a council chamber, perhaps used as a war room or a Council Privy.

I climb a stone staircase to the roof where the view between the crenelations is far superior to that from the tower at the Roman Bridge. The photo at lower left shows the Alcazar gardens, on the other side of the wall from the common area of the city. The waterway shown at lower right is the color of split pea soup.

The highlight of the Alcazar is its garden in the back of the building. Terraced pools run down the center and are filled with foot-long fish that I expect are hand-fed. There are mosaic pools in Romanesque themes situated towards the back corner. The garden also features formal box hedges, and topiary in the shape of amphora.

I cross the wide, brick paved Roman Bridge to the Museum of Three Cultures. There are buskers and a few craftsmen stationed along the bridge, and a statue of Saint Raphael (lower right), guardian angel of Cordoba since the 16th century, when he appeared to a clergyman, proclaiming that the city was in his possession. The view from the tower at the end of the bridge (lower left) is well worth the walk, and offers a nice photo op of the Alcazar and the Mezquita. The tower houses a museum, which begins with a ‘talking wax statues’ presentation, which, although interesting, was a little tedious. The rest of the museum is mostly panoramas of various aspects of Islamic life. Frankly, the view is more interesting than the static and dated museum.

Across the street from the Alcazar are the Almohade Baths (the Caliph’s Baths), a partially restored ruin of royal baths. You enter a Reception Hall, built in the 10th century, when the Alcazar became the governor’s seat.  There are traces of carved plaster in this room, with foiled arches, inscriptions, plant motifs, geometric decoration and mythological animals.  In the center of this room there was once a fountain with a spout and basin, which may have been used as a reception hall or a ceremonial space by the governor of Cordoba between the 11th-14th centuries.  It was also used by the kings of Castille.

The informational placards (of which there are many) will tell you that the Baths had a perfect design, from the changing room where you would leave your clothes, to the Cold Room, where you would perform ablutions at the tiled fountain, and use the latrine.  It is here that you would receive a cloth to wrap around your waist, and ‘alcorques’ – a pair of cork-soled sandals that would help you to avoid slipping or scalding your feet on the super-heated floor.  Your next stop would be the Warm Room, a domed room where you would bathe. The original marble slab flooring is exposed.

You would then progress to the Hot Room, another domed room divided into three spaces, two had pools, one of which was installed by Christians during the 13th century. A bronze furnace between the two pools supplied heat to the pools and the hypocaust – spaces under the marble flooring through which heat passed from the furnace to the chimneys.  Ceramic pipes distributed heated water to the pools and also heated the marble floors. The furnace was made of refractory brick and was kept lit at all times to prevent the deterioration of the boiler. It was only extinguished to change its position or for repairs.

The floor plan for the Caliph’s Baths

In the outer courtyard there is a garden which has fallen into disrepair.  It was originally divided into four parts by two channels, in the center of which was either a pavilion or a fountain.  (I would see this style of garden at the Court of Lions in Granada, and would learn that it reflected the ideal of Paradise in Islamic architecture). The garden was laid out in front of the baths at a lower level than the floor of the portico, so the tree tops were at the same height as the people.  The garden may have contained orange and lemon trees, myrtle and aromatic plants, making it a pleasure for the senses. 

The Andalusies developed a sophisticated hydraulic engineering and irrigation system which transported water via an aqueduct that followed the top of the city walls, and discharged into reservoirs near the baths.  A brick cistern in the baths was also used for irrigation.

Dinner is, at last, tapas! A small plate of marinated shellfish, and another plate of potato and pepper salad, followed by a flamenco show at the Tablao Cardenal later that evening.  On the stage, the women are spirited in step and very serious in facial expression, in high contrast to the men, whose broad grins were so contagious that even the women were smiling by the end of the first hour.

I am shown to a table at the corner of the stage, where I am seated separately and singularly from the rest of the audience who are seated at the other end of the room. During a break in the performance, one of the lead singers sits down at my table and tries to strike up a conversation, ending every sentence with “Si?” and a prompt for me to answer in kind. My Spanish is inadequate to fully understand what he is asking, but given the seating arrangement and his insistence to get a “Si” from me, I sense that intentions might be leading elsewhere, and I depart shortly after he returns to the stage for the second half of the show.

Aside from that minor end note, my experience in Cordoba has been one of pure delight. I would go back in a heartbeat, perhaps during their famous horse festival, and definitely with a better command of Spanish.

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