Wandering the Art Deco streets of Córdoba in southern Spain, I'm drawn to a commotion on a square. It's almost midnight — everyone's out, savoring a cool evening. Short men with raspy tobacco voices and big bellies — called curvos felicidad (happiness curves) — jostle and bark as a dozen little school girls rattle a makeshift stage…working on their sultry. Even with cellphones, iPods, and straight teeth, Andalucía's flamenco culture survives.
Córdoba — the number-three city in Andalucía (after Granada and Sevilla) for sightseeing — is visited mostly for its Mezquita — a vast mosque with a cathedral built in its middle. That Mezquita, one of the glories of Moorish Spain, is surrounded by a touristy zone of shops and tour group-friendly restaurants. Beyond that, there are almost no crowds. And late at night there are fewer tourists yet.
Avoiding tourist crowds is important these days — especially when traveling in peak season to popular destinations like Córdoba. If you eat late and don't mind the smoke, you're surrounded only by happy locals. I've noticed that in Spain, a restaurant recommended in all the guidebooks may feel like a tourist trap — filled with Americans — at eight or nine o'clock. But by 11 p.m., the tourists head for their hotels and the locals retake their turf. Suddenly "touristy" restaurants are filled with eager diners — all local. I've also noticed that some restaurateurs are pleased to have their best eating zone be the smoking zone — the intended result: a hardy local following...with very few tourists. Any traveler willing to brave the smoke (which isn't that bad) will do well here.
And, as anywhere, just wandering the back streets gets you all alone with the town. Exploring the residential back lanes of old Córdoba you can catch an evocative whiff of the old town before the recent affluence hit. As you explore, be a keen observer.
Streets are narrow — designed to provide much appreciated shade. To keep things even cooler, walls are whitewashed and thick — providing a kind of natural air-conditioning. To counter the boring whitewash, doors and windows are colorful. Iron grills cover the windows. Historically these were more artistic, now more practical — a reminder of the persistent gap through the ages between rich and poor. Stone bumpers on corners protected buildings against reckless drivers. As you'll see, scavenged secondhand ancient Roman pillars worked well. Lanes are made of river-stone cobbles: cheap and local. They provided drains down the middle of a lane while flanked by smooth stones, which stayed dry for walking. Remnants of old towers from minarets survive, built into today's structures. Muslim Córdoba peaked in the 10th century with an estimated 400,000 people…and lots of now-mostly-gone neighborhood mosques.
In Córdoba, patios are taken very seriously. That's especially clear each May when a fiercely competitive contest is held to pick the city's most picturesque. Patios, a common feature of houses throughout Andalucía, have a long history here. The Romans used them to cool off, and the Moors added lush, decorative touches. The patio functioned as a quiet outdoor living room, an oasis from the heat. Inside elaborate ironwork gates, roses, geraniums, and jasmine spill down whitewashed walls, while fountains play and caged birds sing. Some patios are owned by individuals, some are communal courtyards for several homes, and some grace public buildings like museums or convents.
Today, homeowners take pride in these mini-paradises, and have no problem sharing them with tourists. Keep an eye out for square metal signs that indicate historic homes. As you stroll Córdoba's back streets, pop your head into any wooden door that's open. The owners (who keep their inner black iron gates locked) enjoy showing off their picture-perfect patios. A concentration of Córdoba's previous patio-contest award-winners runs along Calle San Basilio and Calle Martín Roa, just across from the Alcázar's gardens.
Well after midnight, my cultural scavenger hunt is over and the city finally seems quiet. I climb into my bed. Just as I dose off, a noisy and multigenerational parade rumbles down the cobbled lane that I thought promised a good night's sleep. Standing in my underwear and wrapped in the drapes, I peer secretively out my window. Below a band of guitars and castanets with a choir of those raspy tobacco voices funnels down my narrow alley. Grandmothers — guardians of a persistent culture — make sure the children pick up their Andalusian traditions. I feel like a Peeping Tom…until one woman looks up at me, catches my eye, and seems to nod as if satisfied that I was witnessing the persistent richness of their traditional culture.