The art of the courtyard garden
The best time to visit Cordoba is in spring, specifically May when the city opens its courtyards and patios for the great Cordoba Patio Festival. There’s a parade, dancing horses, flamenco, great food and plenty of wine – and there is also a hard-fought competition for the best patio in the city. This picture shows last year’s winner, Marroquies 6, in the city’s Santa Marina district. It was the second year in a row that this patio, which is shared by about 20 one and two-bedroom rental properties, took out first prize.
I visited Cordoba in December and missed all the excitement of the festival. Instead of being draped in bougainvillea I saw the city aglow with oranges. Though the private garden gates were closed, what I did see of Cordoba’s gardens and courtyards only made me want to return – in May this time!
For a start, I’d go back here, to the Alcazar gardens.
These are the gardens of the fortress/palace of the Christian monarchs of Cordoba. It was here that Ferdinand and Isabelle plotted the final assault on the Moors of Granada. And, ironically I think, the gardens here are inspired by the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra, where the Catholic couple finally routed the Muslims and proclaimed the reconquista of Spain complete in 1492. I saw the Alcazar gardens on a misty winter afternoon. Next time I’d like to see them on a sun-shiny spring day planted out with geraniums instead of marigolds. Something like this.
The gardens in competition in the Patio Festival are all residential gardens but many convents and religious buildings join in the festival without competing, as does the law department of the university and some of the hotels. Most famous of these out-of-competition patios are those of the Palacio de Viana. This 14th century palace is known at the Patio Museum and features 12 different courtyards that are open year-round.
Even a week before Christmas, the courtyards of Viana are lovely. The palace is anything but palatial from the street; this is architecture that focuses attention inwards. Partly this is the heritage of the ancient Romans, who built their houses around internal courtyards, and partly it is due to the city’s Moorish history and the Islamic idea that family life should take place in private.
So courtyard gardens have always been part of Cordoba, but the city’s patio culture really took off during the Industrial Revolution when large numbers of agricultural workers moved to the city. They made their urban lives a bit more like home by filling their patios with plants. Soon people were trying to outdo each other with patio ornamentation of not just flowers but ceramics, old agricultural tools and caged songbirds. In 1921 the city stepped in as umpire and the Patio Contest was born.
Some common themes – blue painted window frames because blue was traditionally believed to keep the mozzies away, fragrant plants like jasmine and orange blossom, brilliant swags of bougainvillea, and where possible, the sound and sight of water. This is Viana again, with dusty miller (Jacobaea maritima) in pots bordering an Alhambra-inspired pool, and resilient geraniums, blooming despite the chill.
Even in the dead of winter, the geraniums persist. In narrow alleyways like this one, pots of geraniums are hung on the walls, just waiting for some warmth to help them explode into colour.
By May the geraniums will be festooning the walls, the bougainvillea will scramble over pergolas, the orange trees will be fragrant with blossom and Cordoba will open its gates. Can the proud patio-gardeners of Marroquies 6 make it three in a row? I won’t be there to find out, but Sandra Ross will be, along with a group of Ross Garden travellers. I’ll make sure she reports back, so watch this space! If you’d like to join Sandra, check the itinerary here.