Cordoba is known for her courtyards and we were lucky enough to have our own. Sky-blue walls and plant-pots, green foliage, coloured flowers, lemons, figs and bougainvillea. Our apartment was up plant-filled steps, in the eves, crowned by peach-grey weathered tiles. At two in the afternoon, when the mercury in the thermometer went beyond forty degrees, this – and an ice-cold bottle of water – was our retreat. ‘I live here, if you need anything, just ask’, Virginia told us, in broken English. Nalla, an old retriever, lay at the foot of ‘our’ steps in a patch of triangular sunlight. ‘Casa’, Virginia told her more than once, but each time, within a minute or two she was back. Church bells chimed, a bee hovered at the base of a plant-pot and time slowed.
But we ventured out in search of lunch. Became ensnared in narrow roads that got tighter and smaller. Unfit for traffic, but still cars negotiated sharp corners and miniscule entrances. Warren-like thoroughfares weaved around white-washed houses with tiny balconies and wrought-iron railing-clad windows. There was no-one on the sunny side of the street. Locals kept to the shadow and walked slow. We did the same. None of them wore a hat. Tourists were easy to spot with their headwear and water carriers. La Crema was the first place we came to – a bar on a square with a church. Simple. It became our place of choice for breakfast, granizada, and ice-cream. In the mornings we sat under the shade of an umbrella on the terrace and ordered tostadas and coffee; watched while municipal street-cleaners wearing bright orange jackets swept and emptied bins; while women mopped floors and even older women creaked past wearing carpet slippers. The occasional tourist appeared, snapped a few pictures of the church and flower-beds, and disappeared. Mostly it was the locals, reading the paper, putting the world to rights. In the late afternoon, when the temperature fell to thirty+, the parasols were taken down, and in the evening the terrace was always full. One afternoon, walking home, we chanced upon a wedding at the church – four betassled and belled horses awaiting the bride and groom. It was just lovely. Low-key, but lovely.
And when we weren’t sitting in our square, or on our patio, we ambled from garden to courtyard to terrace. Cordoba has Arabian tradition to thank for her courtyards, which were designed as retreats. Private places for family, friends and women to gather; cooling, refreshing places to relax in a hot climate; places of beauty to satisfy all the senses, and a way to show wealth without being ostentatious. The idea of the courtyard and all it encompassed became embedded in Spanish culture. They are still used today, and the Cordobans are proud of them. So much so that every May the city runs a competition to recognise the best one of the year.
Admiring the patios was easy. Terracota pots overflowed with geraniums and petunias. Old farming tools and tradition. Pets and wells. The sound of running water. Colour and perfume. A tortoise plodded slowly over the stones to drink from a conical ceramic water-cooler. A caged bird sung. A small boy played with the two remaining kittens from a litter of thirteen. There were old kitchens and laundry rooms. Roman columns. ‘That’s nothing unusual. Everyone has something like that’, we were told. A small statue of Rafael, the city’s patron saint, sat wedged in a leafy bower. There were special plants – ‘this one smells like Coca Cola’; a special colour, a distinct form, a new scent, brings more points in the competition. ‘People like to do it, it’s a hobby’, we were told – but it seems some may not.
Keeping a patio is hard work. Some had 500 plants and each had to be watered individually. A labour of love that could take between two and three hours a day. During the two weeks of the festival itself, thousands of visitors pass through each courtyard – each home. One lady told us she would not take part again, it was too much work, too much stress. A tour guide confided: ‘It’s horrible. You cannot move. You cannot see anything. You cannot stop because people are waiting outside to get in’. The competition stipulates that owners must live in the house adjoining the patio all year round. It’s not permitted to rock up a month before to make a patio beautiful. And every patio must contain at least one plant from the previous year. The aim is to encourage tradition and the hope is that the next generation will pick up the baton and run with it.
Continuity. Commitment. A daunting thought for a nomad. But I’m glad that it takes all sorts, and that, for now at least, someone is willing to do it. The patios are glorious – but maybe best visited just after the festival, when you really have a chance to smell the roses.