It’s September 2020 and I’m sure I’m having a very different travel experience in Córdoba than most in the past few decades. Different in that I find myself with entire streets all to myself, and monuments, and vistas also. I’ve been able to roam freely in silence around the city’s labyrinth-like narrow and winding alleyways and have not had to manoeuvre my way inelegantly through masses of other tourists and local touts. I’ve had the pleasure of not hearing English being spoken as the default language on the streets of a Spanish town, and the joy also of being able to capture some really rather remarkable images of buildings in situ, minus the typical human interlopers.
I woke up this morning in what was a bit of a hot and flustered stupor. I imagined that it was late, being about 8:30am, and that I’d already wasted half the morning on sleep. But, of course, that’s entirely early in the Spanish scheme of things and I was missing nothing of the day at all. I headed out onto the streets just as the sun was making its way up and over the rooftops of the town, casting a really rather remarkable glow over everything.
I found myself at the Mezquita-Cathedral of Córdoba quite by accident, not having a specific destination in mind. But I guess that as the centre of a cities religious life it would make sense for all roads to lead there eventually. I had the streets around it all to myself as I arrived, as well as much of the courtyard within. I’d booked a time to visit the space properly later on in the afternoon but I was so enthralled by the incredible light on the creamy yellow stone that I wanted to stay and wander about anyway for an initial appreciation. I got some wonderful images of light on stone, and shadow, and light reflected off of copper doors, appearing like gold in the early morning sun. The dense blue of the sky in the background was not only the perfect backdrop to the structures around me but the perfect contrast to the yellowy stones of the cathedral’s exterior.
The Roman bridge of Córdoba was right there beneath the cathedral, and so I meandered down to it next, interrupted only by the occasional jogger or cyclist. I say occasional, but there were actually plenty of them zipping along the river’s edge and making the most of their reclamation of it’s tranquil setting. They were all entirely local fitness enthusiasts though, and once more, as in Barcelona, I found myself alone as a tourist, slightly self conscious of the camera dangling around my neck.
Again, I was very aware of the unique experience I was having. When did Córdoba last have so few interloping foreigners traipsing about inside its confines. When was it last so silent and lacking in human energy throughout its long, long history. When had so few feet trodden across the stones of the Roman bridge in its two millennia history? Barcelona had given me such a distinct snapshot of the here and now regarding where Spanish tourism is at in Covid stricken 2020. And I’m certain that Seville will offer up something similar in the days to come. There is an immediate joy to being the only tourist in a space, especially a space that would otherwise be crammed fully with fellow gawkers. It’s an entirely selfish pleasure, one that insinuates I’m experiencing something akin to the Grand Tour of old. It’s the 17th century and I’ve come of age with sufficient family money behind me to fund my travels and found myself in one of Europe’s many ancient hotspots to explore its esoteric antiquities. Perhaps, other than during the Civil War, that was the last time so few feet had tread their path across the Roman bridge.
My Grand Tour fantasy was revised once more later on in the afternoon when I made my way into the cathedral itself. Except in this instance my ticket was scanned from a smartphone, I carried a selfie-stick and had an SLR camera swung around my neck, my face was masked and there were hand sanitiser stations strewn about the place for a quick (mandatory) rub down of your hands. Other than those strikingly contemporary fixtures there was still a sense that I had stepped back into a long forgotten century, with limited tourist numbers to match.
The space within was exceptional. Well of course it is. It attracts over 1.5 million tourists each year, and for very good reasons. There is nothing else like it on the planet. It’s history and it’s architecture are really quite singular in that respect. But the more striking chord for me was the relative silence inside the space, disturbed only by the occasional mutterings and footfall of no more than a few dozen fellow admirers. The acoustics were entirely muted, as you might have expected them to be in days past, before the advent of mass tourism to Spain. Before our penchant for social media posts, top ten lists, TripAdvisor ratings and travel blogs. Before our love of Lonely Planet even… Who else remembers those heady days of old, staring longingly at the spines of Lonely Planet publications, with fantasies spinning about in our ecstatic minds?
Suffice to say there was an added joy to the experience. A sensation that I was one of only a handful to know of such a wondrous space. A fallacy, of course, but a quiet little fantasy that sustained itself throughout the course of the visit nonetheless. It reminded me of why I travel in the first place – to discover spaces I could never have imagined as a child, even with my very fervent imagination in play. And I’ve honoured that for the better part as an adult traveller, naysaying the top ten lists et el. But it is hard to measure your wonder at a space with hundreds of others crammed about you, phones ringing and clicking, children griping and parents bickering. It’s hard to hold onto that wonder when so many other faces around you seem nonchalant and all too ready to sit down somewhere and enjoy their next air conditioned Starbucks.
So I count myself incredibly fortunate that I have this strange moment in time to travel through Spain and explore its many wonderful delights. I count myself fortunate that I can momentarily believe my little fantasy that I’m the first of many to arrive at an undiscovered ancient monument. The economic reality of the situation means something else entirely for the local population who long ago adapted their livelihoods to the never-ending stream of tourists. My good fortune and joy certainly comes off the back of their own misfortune. But as I sat amongst the local population for my dinner later in the evening there was not an empty seat on the street, and so I want to imagine that there’s a unique local joy also at having one’s city all to oneself again. I hope that that’s the case.