The facinating story behind Córdoba's secret courtyards

Patios de Córdoba competition winter christmas Spain – Getty

Tapas trails are so passé, patio perambulations Córdoba-style are surely the best way to become immersed in this Andalucian city. The renowned Patios de Córdoba competition has long happened in May – now a rather special Christmas version is taking place from December 19 to mid-January, with seven designated patio routes in particular quarters of Córdoba, once the Caliphate capital of Al-Andalus, Moorish Spain.

Some of the best names in flamenco will be performing besides carol singers and the patio owners will be offering festive food and drink. This year the flamboyant flower-filled courtyards, the most tangible manifestation of the different ages of Cordobese culture, will be more popular than ever, with outdoor tours and celebrations the best way to explore.

The beauty of Moorish architecture lies not in its impressive facades, instead it focuses on the patio, the heart of the home in the warm South where summer temperatures reach more than 40C and can hover around 14-16C even in winter. Most buildings, from the extraordinary Mesquita to tiny hidden spots, whether medieval or newer, are centered around a shady, decoratively tiled or whitewashed courtyard with a fountain in the middle whose trickling sound permeates through the rooms.

Over the years, patio decoration took on a life all its own. Córdoba City Hall, realising that these hidden wonders were too good to be kept tucked away and could foster greater pride and community, founded the official competition in 1918, which continues to be judged by architects and botanists as well as the public.

cordoba patios decorated for festival – Getty

Our guide Angel Lucena Garcia (00 34 635 86 42 11; angellucena5@gmail.com) explained that points are given for architectural elements including arches, columns, stairs and fountains as well as plants. It is a matriarch tradition with only two men among the more than 60 patio owners. What’s striking is that the tradition of maintaining the patios is transferred from generation to generation, and is an idiosyncratic way of preserving individual family histories.

Several of my favourite patios in the San Basilio area (Isabel’s patio at Duartas 2, for example) are full of culinary antiques, vintage rocking chairs and other domestic treasures. There’s plenty of inspiration for vertical gardening on a dizzyingly abundant scale even in very small spaces, too.

Endearingly, it is a ritual enjoyed among locals – including families with young children – as well as tourists, and there can be queues of more than an hour to visit the most popular patios. Purchasing an online pass (€5/£4) is recommended, especially at weekends. During the Christmas competition, entry is free, otherwise many patios are open all year, albeit at specific hours allowing for sprucing up the patios and a long afternoon siesta. There’s also Viana Palace, a 14th-century building known as the Patio Museum with 12 patios of its own, while peeping through the grilles of courtyards, not officially open, is perfectly acceptable.

Over the Christmas period, most courtyards will be decorated predominantly with cyclamen, azalea, kalanchoe, geraniums, chillies, herbs and most of all poinsettia, indigenous to Mexico and Central America. There’s been a long history of plant dispersal as well as ingredients between the New World and the old.

patios cordoba decorations – Getty

For an extra, ravishing visual feast, book ahead to dine at Noor (noorrestaurant.es), chef-patron Paco Morales’, trail-blazing restaurant (which won two Michelin stars within three years) and is now a destination on the world contemporary culinary map. The entire concept of Noor is a deep dive into how the food culture of Al-Andalus still permeates Andalusian cuisine. The newest menu explores how discovering the New World and its ingredients from tomatoes to chillies and chickpeas, corn to cacao opened up gastronomy interpreted with thrilling yet accessible originality in dishes presented on specially designed Moorish tableware. It is like eating history.

Mesmerising dishes from the tasting menu include tomatoes, anchovies with pickled mandarin, monkfish in brine and tamarind; white prawn marinated in carob and Cascabel chili; vegetable stew, corn spread, black mole and an exceptional squab pigeon with 70% cacao, persimmon and labne.

The interior is designed like a serene internal courtyard, with decorative Arabic motifs inspired by Medina Azahara, the ruins of an Arab Muslim medieval palace on the outskirts of Córdoba, and makes for tranquil gastronomic escapism as your reflect on this delightful city and its traditions.

Oway Tours (00 34 688 376 581; owaytours.com) offers a two-hour guided tour of the patios, priced at €17 per person, while rooms at Patio del Posadero (00 34 957 941 733; patiodelposadero.com) are priced from £59 per night.

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