The gardens of the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos are a delight. The Christian King Alfonso XI built the fortress palace in 1328. It is undeniably impressive and the royal Moorish bathhouse, the Banos-Califales, is worth seeing. However, it is the exterior grounds which are, in my opinion, a must see. All 55.000 square metres of them.
Although they originate from the Christian era, these gardens are typically Moorish in design with ponds, fountains and aromatic plants vying for your attention. It is an exceedingly relaxing place to walk through and peaceful place to sit. Inevitably, at the height of tourist season, this can be difficult to do. One advantage of visiting these gardens in May is that the flower aficionados are busy elsewhere in town and the gardens are much quieter.
The gardens boast one of the largest variety of plants in Spain. Palm trees are prominent along with the statuesque cypresses. In the oldest section of the gardens orange and lemon trees are plentiful. The box-edged beds are home to Clivia, Zantedeschia and – my own personal favourite – the Agapanthus. Perfumed jasmine grows on the walls alongside blue Plumbago. Nearby various roses ensure that the harem garden smells wonderful for much of the year.
The gardens alongside the much photographed long pool were laid out as recently as the 1950’s. Here formal beds with box plants sit happily with pansies and petunias. The lay out of the garden is distinctive and statues of Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella – who lived here for eight years – keep a watching eye on proceedings. As with the Generalife in Granada, these gardens play host to performances of music, theatre and dance. The water in the garden was originally brought in by an aqueduct from the Sierra Morena and the great Albolafia waterwheel in the Guadalquivir, the river that runs through the province of Cordoba. The larger ponds were added in the 19th century.
Close to the gardens you will come across the Royal Stables, which extend to encompass the Gardens of the Campo Santo de los Márties. Adjacent to the most visited site in Cordoba, La Mezquita, is the Patio de los Naranjos. This is believed to be the oldest living garden in Europe. Today where pomegranates and palms once dominated there is now little decoration. Today the water comes from three stunning Renaissance fountains and the water channels cut through the cobbles for irrigation. The fountains date from the 16th century. While inside La Mezquita it is the ancient columns that dominate, outside 98 mop-head orange trees planted in straight rows are equally impressive.
The Patio de los Naranjos is small at only 120 by 60 metres but it is magnificent. It is proof positive of how much the Arabs who created it knew about gardening. They loved their gardens. Islamic gardens, with their cultivated garden beds and water channels, are traditionally regarded as an early reflection of paradise. They learned all about how best to use water in gardens from the Persian world. The water starved Spain of today would benefit from their knowledge.
The founder of the Omiad Dynasty in Spain, Abd-ur-Rahman I, brought plants from Syria, most notably the Palm tree. Like the ruler himself the palm had previously been a stranger in the West. Abd-ur-Rahman I had been exiled for many years and wrote poems describing his longing to be back in Spain and, in one poem, his love of the palm tree:-
Oh lovely Palm, a stranger thou,
Like me in foreign land,
Here in the West dost languish now,
Far from thy native strand.
The Viana Palace in Cordoba boasts truly delightful gardens and the odd patio. Guide books disagree about how many patios there are in this remarkable palace. Some say 11, others say 14. Frankly once you are engrossed in the beauty of the interconnected patios, any attempt to keep count will fail. The Palace is home to many works of art but for a keen gardener and lover of patios it is not the paintings or collection of leatherwork that excites.
The "Patio del Archivo" which is decorated in a baroque style. A fountain, tiled pond, square flowerbeds lined with box hedges and several mandarin trees are on show. Violets, a popular ground cover in Roman times, are used as groundcover. Proceed to the chapel patio and you will witness Seville orange trees that are over 100 years old.
In the so called Gardeners’ patio you can see the bright blue plumbago that covers the long wall and smell the basil that surrounds you. Whatever you do make sure you sample Patio de la Madama, or Madame’s courtyard. The garden is named after the statue of a woman holding a water jug. Here, and in the Patio de las Rejas, it is possible to view the contents of each through wrought iron grilles from the street nearby but that would be akin to seeing your favourite bar of chocolate through the glass door of a closed sweet shop!
At the end of this journey of the Viana Palace you will be in a courtyard that reproduces the traditional Andalucian patio with many flower filled pots. The centrepiece of the gardens cover an area of 1200 metres. A fountain sits in the centre and is accompanied by climbing rose bushes, arums, gorgeous lilies and citric fruit trees. Two vast date palms, a Washingtonia and a Holm Oak, are magnificent.
Enjoying the gardens of Cordoba is very easy. Be sure to take plenty of time as you tour the various locations. Breathe in the sensuous smells and sit a while. Listen to the relaxing sound of running water. Enjoy the array of plants and trees that have the "wow" factor on a monumental scale. There is no need to look at Cordoba through rose coloured spectacles. It is certain that we owe a debt to those who originally created these gardens, but those who tend the areas today are to be applauded in equal measure.
In life some things are black and white and one of those is that the gardens of Cordoba are there for you to enjoy in glorious colour.