CORDOBA, Spain (Reuters) - If you enjoy combining cultural history, good food and good wine with a stroll through pretty old streets and some olive groves, then the province of Cordoba in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia offers the perfect itinerary.
There is perhaps no region of Spain as rich in cultural history and diverse in geography as Andalusia, spread across a varied topography from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts to dramatic mountain peaks and wide valleys of olive trees stretching as far as the eye can see.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to eastern Andalusia from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
The city of Cordoba is less than two hours from Madrid aboard the high-speed "Ave" train, which offers a comfortable ride with excellent waiter service. (Map: goo.gl/maps/2Dd6x)
Founded by the Romans, Cordoba sits strategically on the Guadalquivir river linking the port of Cadiz to the interior. It was the heart of the Moorish (Arab) empire that ruled Spain for 800 years until the “reconquest” by the Christian forces of King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I in 1492.
The cultural legacy of Moorish Spain is still much in evidence, even if the society around it today is emphatically Christian and westernized.
Cordoba’s Jewish Quarter is where you want to stay as it is inside the old city walls and everything is within walking distance. There are plenty of options, including the highly recommended NH Hotel Amistad that is conveniently located in the Plaza Maimonides. (www.nh-hoteles.es/)
It’s only a short walk through the narrow streets of the old city to the Cathedral/Mosque, indisputably Cordoba’s main attraction.
The 16th century cathedral is built on top of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which was erected in the 8th century by the first emir of the city.
The mosque is stunningly preserved, a forest of 850 columns of granite and marble connected by arches of red stone and red-and-white brick, typical of Cordoba’s Caliph architecture.
The two structures are so closely interlocked that only a few steps take visitors from one religion into another.
From the mosque, head towards the Palacio de Viana. Interesting sights on the way include the Plaza del Potro, mentioned in “Don Quijote”, and the museum of local painter Julio Romero, famous for his realistic portraits of women.
In May, the streets are full of flowers and houses open their patios and decorate them in a 10-day competition, the “Festival of the Patios”.
The Palacio de Viana, built in the late 15th century, was the home of the Marques of Viana who was close to King Alfonso XIII. (www.palaciodeviana.com/)
The house is built around 12 patio gardens, each with a distinct design varying from orange trees, palms and fountains to one with a huge 400-year-old Holm Oak. The rooms contain some magnificent tapestries, as well as period furniture and paintings.
To appreciate the intellectual might of Cordoba under the Moors, visit the Museum of al-Andalus in the Tower of Calahorra, on the banks of the Guadalquivir.
Also, about 15 minutes west of the city is the Medina al-Zahra palace built in the 10th century by Abd al-Rahman III. In his heyday, he impressed audiences with a room studded with diamonds and a mercury fountain that visitors thought was liquid silver.
For a tour of the city, local guides can be hired by the hour. Reuters used Juan Torres Carmona, a friendly multilingual guide with a flexible schedule. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The mosque is illuminated at night and there is a spectacular nighttime tour at 10 p.m., dubbed “The Soul of Cordoba.”
There is dancing at the Centro Cultural de Flamenco in the Posada del Potro, the former horse stables in the Plaza del Potro. Alternatively, catch a flamenco show near the mosque at El Tablao El Cardenal every night at 10:30.
If you like horses, there’s also a popular nighttime show of Andalusian thoroughbreds with flamenco music at the Royal Stables.
Cordoba offers a wide range of casual outdoor cafés to fine dining where you can sample regional dishes, some of the best in Spain.
At Casa Pepe de la Juderia at Calle Romero 1, famous local bullfighters are featured on the walls, including the legendary Manolete who died in 1955 after being gored. (www.casapepejuderia.com/)
Among the best restaurants is Bodegas Campos at Calle Los Lineros 32, where the walls are also adorned with bullfighting poster bills dating back as far as 1899. (www.bodegascampos.com/)
Prepare your palate with a glass of Torre de la Barca, a young white wine from the region, accompanied by partridge pate with a dark Pedro Ximenez sherry sauce and olive oil powder. You should try the salmorejo soup, a cream of gazpacho with egg, ham and olive oil.
Meat and poultry are the specialty of this region but if you’re not in the mood for a big steak, it’s common in Spain to share a series of small dishes instead of a main course.
Some popular local dishes worth trying are fried eggplant with molasses (berenjena frita en miel) and an egg and breadcrumb roll of pork loin wrapped with thinly sliced Spanish ham (flamenquin de Iberico) with homemade garlic mayonnaise.
Lunch options include outdoor tapas bars or more formal restaurants such as El Churrasco at Calle Romero 16. (www.elchurrasco.com)
Follow the menu suggestions of Pedro, the head waiter and entertaining showman. Start with a glass of Montilla-Moriles fino, a local aperitivo halfway between wine and sherry, before trying the smoked sardines on toast with guacamole and tomato jam (sardines guacamole caramel de tomate).
The kid goat or beef tenderloin (lomo de buey) goes down well with a glass of Ribero del Duero Torre de Golban (crianza). A good accompaniment could be sliced potatoes with egg and garlic (patatas a lo pobre) or white beans (habitas) in virgin olive oil with bits of ham and cooked in egg.
For dessert, the fried milk flambé with anise is a treat.
Priego de Cordoba, a 90-minute drive into the mountains southeast of Cordoba, is a picturesque town in a major olive oil region with half a dozen important mills, known as Al Masara in Arabic. (Map: goo.gl/maps/DJaPr)
Cordoba is proud of its olive oil and nowhere more so than Priego, which like wine has its own regional denomination and is considered the best in Spain.
This region of Andalusia also produces some fine white wines such as Barbarillo Castillo de San Diego.
Visits to the oil mills, as well as olive oil tastings, can be organized. The Al Masara Virgin del Carmen, owned by Manuel Montes Marin, has won a host of international awards for its oil. The most famous is Portico de la Villa, sold at gourmet stores across Europe, including Harrods in London.
The age of the olive trees varies from 40 to 200. The 16,000 trees are spread over 170 hectares (420 acres) and carefully spaced to provide enough soil to nourish each one, creating a dotted patchwork over the hillsides.
In Priego, be sure to visit the 16th century Baroque fountain pools set in a shady hollow just off the Calle Rio.
Take a walk through the Moorish old part of town, La Villa, where the walls are covered with hanging potted geraniums, or visit the Church of the Asuncion to see its Rococo chapel with a child in the middle bearing grapes and wheat.
The 15th century Church of the Virgin de la Aurora is worth seeing for its stunning altar, bathed in gold.
Zuheros, a winding 40-minute drive northwest of Priego, is one of the prettiest Spanish villages that are famous for white painted walls known as the “pueblos blancos”.
An Arab castle with a 15th century Renaissance addition dominates the entrance to a mountainous gorge and olive groves spread out as far as the eye can see in the valley below.
Outdoor lunch options in Priego include the Rio Café in the Calle del Rio. The scrambled eggs with collard greens, shrimp and ham (revuelto de collejas) are a must.
Alternatively head over to La Fuente de Zagrilla restaurant in Zagrilla Alta, a small village on the outskirts of town.
If you are lucky, you will be attended by the larger-than-life owner Francisco Rojas, who is full of stories about local food. His thin, white garlic gazpacho zagrillero with almonds and apple bits and vinegar is a speciality.
Prepare yourself for the plata zagrillero, a meat eater’s delight with sirloin steak (solomillo), chorizo and blood sausage (morcillo).
Rojas also boasts that his tasty, light cheesecake is the best in Europe - which may indeed be true. Or end the meal with a vanilla ice cream and raisin sorbet topped with Pedro Ximenez, an aged fino.
In the summer, a siesta is a good idea to get out of the sun for a while. There’s no hurry to get back outside. In the summer months, the sun doesn’t set until almost 10 p.m. and outdoor bars/cafés stay open until 2 or 3 a.m.
Have a local Alhambra beer at the Hostal Rafi, which also serves excellent Spanish ham with bread soaked in local extra virgin olive oil.
If you still have the energy, a good place to end the day is one of the local “peña” bars, where you can hear locals sing freestyle flamenco.
Editing by John O'Callaghan