A PRESIDENT of the Amigos de los Patios association once said, ‘the Festival of the Patios is to Cordoba what San Fermin is to Pamplona’.
Cordoba’s annual festival sees property owners and groups of neighbours open their flower-filled patios to the public for 12 days at the start of May – this year, that’s May 2-14. It’s a tradition that started just over a century ago, and which rightly has UNESCO Cultural Heritage status.
As far as Spain’s cultural heritage goes, for most tourists, flowers beat bulls.
The historic white-walled houses with the blue pots of red geraniums have to be the most photographed properties in Andalucia. You’ll have seen them on postcards and – if you haven’t visited Cordoba – you may think you know what to expect, but prepare for a wallop of sensory overload as well as slowly ambling selfie-taking crowds, and getting lost.
The patio heartland lies between the Alcazar and San Basilio, although some of the highlights lie around the Santa Marina district, as well as the church of San Lorenzo. Once you are in the labyrinth of patios, feel free to nose about and photograph each one, but as they are privately-owned spaces and the result of years of care and imagination, do make an effort to tip.
A patio route map from the Tourist Office is a help, but there are also several companies that offer guided and semi-guided tours.
De Patios, run by young locals, has a route that takes in a manageable five patios – all of which, they promise, are among the most emblematic and awarded in town. The pots per patio rate is certainly very high. After buying a ticket at the first property (Calle San Basilio, 14: 16th century, perfectly preserved, 600 pots), visitors are given a map and are able to wander at their own pace. The owners at each of the patios on the route provide a mini-tour and point visitors in the right direction for the next. Their route includes a property on Calle Duartas, famed for the variety of its flowers and aromatic plants.
There’s more here than geraniums. Actually, aside from the floral displays, the architecture itself is part of the attraction, and both are taken into consideration when the two prizes for best of the best patio is awarded.
Make sure to include the 14th century Viana Palace in the Santa Marina barrio, which is beautiful inside and out. There are twelve spectacular patios including the Patio del Archivo with its fountain and box hedges, and the Gardeners’ Patio with its tumbling blue plumbago, as well as a huge garden full of the scent of orange blossom, flowers and herbs.
The palace belonged to a succession of aristocrats (and was leased for a decade from 1939 to the department of Foreign Affairs), but it was the Marquess of Viana who got the idea to create a palace-museum in the early 20th century, and his daughter-in-law, Sophia of Lancaster, who is credited with making it shipshape and fascinating.
A trek through the numerous rooms provides a little shade and the chance to gawp in awe at the collections they amassed of baroque paintings, tapestries, books, firearms and dinner sets. The room off the Patio de Archivos houses a priceless hoard of historic paperwork.
Though effort is made to ensure the patio displays are in their prime as thousands descend in early May, many remain open beyond the peak period – and the Viana Palace is open to visitors year round.
And if you find yourself in the historic centre of Cordoba on April 30th, expect to see women in flamenco dresses showering the crowds in petals as they pass by in carts and wagons. This, the Battle of the Flowers, marks the start of all the floral events.
All photos Cordon Press unless otherwise stated
The Trueque Cuatro Visitors’ Centre for the Courtyards Festival is usually a source of information on the lifestyle centred round a domestic courtyard shared by neighbours, and an interesting building in itself. It is ‘temporarily closed’ at the time of going to press, but check the website for updates.
Visit the Cordoba Tourism website for a list of companies offering private tours, and general information, including (pertinently) parking parking
If you can, let the train take the strain – It takes 50 minutes to get to Cordoba from Malaga; 40 minutes from Sevilla; and only one hour and 40 minutes from Madrid. See www.renfe.com for details.