Islamic designs, architecture & calligraphy

The last entry on Andalusia is about Islamic designs and calligraphy.

My fascination with the Middle East began when I was kid, thanks to the Japanese cartoon: ‘The adventures of Sinbad’. Over the years, I have traveled to several Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa; although the experiences varied each time, my interest in the Islamic arts, designs and architecture has not diminished. This was one of the reasons for choosing Andalusia as my holiday destination; besides, with the unstable situation in the Middle East, Spain seemed like a safer option.


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Top main: The Great Mosque, Cordoba; 2nd row right, 3rd row & last row right: Real Alcazar, Seville; Last row left: Cathedral, Seville


Islamic art and design is based on its religious belief, values, culture and its advance knowledge on mathematics. Due to religious reasons, humans or animals are prohibited in religious art and design, thus ornament became its central theme. Almost opposite to the minimalist style, Islamic designs are often colourful, complex and made up of repetitive patterns. Geometric patterns, vegetal patterns (i.e. arabesque) and calligraphy are the three non-figural types of decoration in Islamic art and design. These decorative arts and designs are often accompanied by traditional craftsmanship; and in Andalusia, the best examples can be seen at the Real Alcazar in Seville, The Great Mosque in Cordoba and The Alhambra in Granada.


Tiles, mosaics, arches (esp. horseshoe), columns and domes are common features in Islamic architecture. But since the use of costly materials is discouraged in the religion, brick, brass, clay, stucco, stone, and wood are used skillfully to create exquisite features and design in Islamic architecture. The architectural motifs are often octagonal or star-shaped and they can be seen on floors, roofs, walls and fountains.



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Main & 2nd row left: Palacio de Pilatos, Seville; 2nd row right & 3rd row middle & right: Real Alacazar, Seville; 3rd row left: Alhambra, Granada; 4th row: Palacio de la Madraza; Last row left: Great Mosque, Cordoba; Last row right: Arab bath, Granada


The use of the symmetrical and geometric systems create harmony in Islamic designs and architecture, which is consistent with the Islamic belief that all creation is harmoniously interrelated. And this is most evident in the designs of doors and windows, where balance and symmetry is an important feature.

Doors and windows:


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Since I started learning Arabic calligraphy about 18 months ago, I became more aware of the use of calligraphy in Islamic art, design and architecture. There are many types of scripts, I started with the simple Ruqʿah, then moved onto the more cursive and elegant Diwani, and will be learning Naskh next. However, I am most interested in Kufic, a more constructed and squarish/ geometric style that is often used and seen in mosques and palaces. Most of these scripts are quotations from the Koran ( something I have been practising lately), and they are so well incorporated into the overall designs that they seldom would look out of place.


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Arabic calligraphy books are hard to find in the U.K., and the ones on sale are usually fairly basic. In Andalusia, I was quite glad to see many books on the topic, though they are mostly written in French. However, I was still excited to see calligraphy widely used in architecture and displayed in Muslim institutions.

When I started learning calligraphy, I appreciated it as an art form and as a meditative activity; now I realised the importance of understanding the religion, language and culture behind this artistic expression. I doubt I will ever get a grasp of the language, but I hope to continue to learn more and practise this beautiful art form.


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Top row: beautiful contemporary Arabic calligraphy work inside an Islamic centre in Granada; Bottom left: Calligraphy on tiles inside the Cathedral in Seville; Bottom right: Books on Arabic calligraphy


Street art in Seville & Granada

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Seville’s riverbanks are the most popular canvases for graffiti artists


Seville is a beautiful city full of historical architecture and sites, yet beyond the tourists attractions, the city is also full of cool, creative and colourful street art and graffiti. I was not aware of the street art scene in Seville before my trip and so I was quite pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

The subculture of graffiti has evolved over the past few decades and now it is part of the urban landscape in cities around the world. Graffiti artists use their cities as their canvases and gallery space to express themselves, whilst gaining fans and followers around the world. In my opinion, the urban art represent the city more than what is displayed inside galleries or museums. And with the economic downturn and high unemployment rate in Spain, the streets are probably the best outlets for frustrated youths or artists.


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In Seville, the riverbanks are the best graffiti and street art gallery in the city, and the long stretch of collection is very impressive. Elsewhere in the city, random art work can also be seen, notably on garage entrances and shop gates/shutters, though the style is more ‘polished’ and decorative. I think using art to decorate a boring garage entrance or shopfront is a wonderful idea, it also reflects the artistic and aesthetics value of the city.


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Decorative art work painted on garage entrances and shop gates in Seville


Interestingly, graffiti in Granada has a slightly different style (from the ones I saw), usually less ‘polished’ and with comics influence.


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Graffiti in Granada is unique and often humourous


The two well-know graffiti/ street artists working in Seville and Granada are Lahe ( a female artists based in Seville) and Raúl Ruiz ( based in Granada), and I will try and seek out their work when I visit the two cities next time.


Flamenco in Andalusia


Street artists performing in Granada


Flamenco is originated from the Romani people ( also known as Gitanos) living in Andalusia centuries ago, with influences from the Moors, the Jews, and the Mozarabic. Many foreigners do not realise that the essence of flamenco is not the dance itself, but rather the cante (song), one of the four components of flamenco, along with toque (playing the guitar), baile (dance) and Jaleo (handclapping, foot stomping and shouts etc). And out of the different cante styles, cante jondo (deep song) is considered to be the oldest and the most distinctive.

Not surprisingly, flamenco has become a ‘key attraction’ in the region. Flamenco performances take place daily from the streets to cafes, bars, museums and various music venues. Some are tourists traps and the standards may not be up to scratch, so it is important to get some recommendations beforehand.

As a fan of different dance forms and music styles, I frequently watch performances at Sadlers Wells and its Flamenco festival is one of my favourites because it always feature world-renowned flamenco dancers and musicians. Hence, I was keen to see an authentic show in the birthplace of flamenco.


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Casa de la Guitarra in Seville


Luckily, I was not disappointed… while I was in Seville, I saw a passionate and mesmerising performance at Casa de la Guitarra, featuring an award-winning Cuban dancer, Yasaray Rodríguez, Manuel Romero (singer) and Javier Gómez (Guitarist). And I could tell by the audience’s reaction afterwards that every person in the room was touched by the heartfelt performance. The three performers all played equal parts, and non over-shadowed the other throughout the show.

The center was founded by the well-known flamenco guitarist José Luis Postigo from Seville whose career spans over 45 years and has made over 60 albums with famous flamenco artists. Although the venue is quite small, it houses an amazing flamenco guitar collections dating back to the 19th century, and it features an original 12th century archway (see above) which was part of a traditional Arab bath. This venue is truly one of the best in the city.

For other authentic performances, it is also worth checking out Seville’s working class district of Triana, the supposed birthplace of flamenco. Whether this is the truth or not is hard to tell but it is certainly the birthplace for many famous flamenco singers and musicians and they are commemorated by the ceramic tile plaques in the area.




Middle: Flamenco festival posters; Right: Lina’s exhibition at Seville Musuem of Arts and Traditions


Besides music venues, traditional flamenco fashion and accessories can be seen at Seville Musuem of Arts and Traditions. During my visit, I saw an exhibition of the well-known flamenco fashion designer, Marcelina Fernandez, also known as Lina. Since 1960, Lina has been creating flamboyant and exquisite flamenco ‘couture’ dresses and wedding gowns, and it was eye-opening as I did not realise that there was a couture market for flamenco fashion!


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Top left & right: Plaques made of ceramic tiles in Triana commemorating flamenco dancers and musicians; Bottom: flamenco bars in Seville


Most cities in Andalusia also have a flamenco museum, but I think the best way to try and understand the music and dance style is to watch the performances or listen to the music and ‘feel’ the emotions and passion esp. for those of us who do not understand the lyrics. After all, these two elements are the common language shared between humans regardless of the race, age, gender and culture. Perhaps the music or dance style may evolve in the future, but hopefully, the flamenco spirit will live on.


The art of Andalusian azulejos

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Top: Plaza de España; 2nd row left: Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo; 2nd row middle, right & 3rd row: Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija; Bottom left: Hospital de los Venerables; Bottom right: Alhambra.


I have always love azulejos/ ceramic tiles, and I was especially escatic when I was in Portugal because there is beautiful tilework everywhere. The traditional art form was introduced by the Moors about 6 centuries ago, besides Portugal, Seville’s Hispano-Moresque tile industry also flourished by adopting old techniques like cuerda seca (‘dry string’) and cuenca.

Seville’s Triana district was once the ceramic centre but like many traditional arts and crafts around the world, this is a dying art form and only a few azulejos shops remain today. However, inside the former ceramic factory, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), there is still some interesting tile work that can be seen as a backdrop for the contemporary art display.

Although the demise of the ceramic tile industry is inevitable, the footprints of its glory days are still visible everywhere in Andalusia today. Aside from different palacios and historical sites, they are used as signs for shops and restaurants, street advertising, and simply as decorations ( or as cooling system) for churches and houses. The themes of the tile work vary, but two particularly interesting themes include scenes with the cities’ landmarks as the backdrop and scenes that depict cities’ past/ traditional way of life.

City landmarks

The Giralda bell tower and Torre del Oro ( The Gold Tower) are often used in Seville, while the tower at the Mezquita de Córdoba is used in Cordoba as the backdrop of the art work.




History, traditional life and bullfighting

The cities’ history ( including lives under the Roman and Moorish rules) and the traditional way of living are common themes for these tile work. And not surprisingly, scenes of bullfighting are often depicted too.


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With so many monasteries, convents and churches in the region, tile work with religious themes can also be found at these sanctuaries. However, unlike the Portuguese who often cover the entire facade with amazing azulejos, Andalusians are more low-key and would create smaller plaques.




Bars and cafes

Beautiful tile work outside of restaurants and cafes can attract passerby’s attention, so it can be a good marketing strategy…


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The same rule applies to shops, esp. ceramic artisans ( obviously) and even pharmacies!


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Last but not least, tiles used on the facades of architecture can also enhance the aesthetics of the buildings and streets. And interestingly, every building’s tile work is unique, so it is a joy and visual feast for passerby. When you next visit Andalusia, don’t forget to admire the traditional and beautiful street art.


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The joy of (window) shopping in Andalusia

The reason why I don’t write much about shopping in London is partly because I don’t enjoy it these days and do most of my shopping online. I avoid Oxford street and Tottenham Court Road like the plague, and I find shopping in central London extremely uninspiring. Specialists and independent shops are hard to find and even areas like Notting Hill and Islington are becoming more mainstream, and so we are left with Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Stoke Newington, Brixton, Dalston or Lamb Conduit Street for something different.

High streets in London or Britain are now dominated by chains (with a few exceptions), they are becoming homogeneous with no distinctive characters nor individuality. And we wonder why the British high streets are dying whilst e-commerce is booming? A friend from abroad visited London last summer and we went to Richmond for the day… I was horrified by its high street because despite the historical facade, the shops are no different from the ones in Westfield or Tunbridge Wells. Do the public want the same shops in every city and town? I doubt it.



Top left: Ale hop shop; Top right: Design in Andalusia products; Bottom left: Maspapeles stationery shop: Bottom right: Camden shop in Seville


In Andalusia, however, I was thrilled to see traditional and specialist shops next to secondhand or trendy designer boutiques. Yes, there are some chained shops and touristy souvenirs but they are not in every corner, independent/specialists shops co-exist with chained ones and the balance is just right. There are shops selling flamenco outfits, fans, fabrics, crafts, hair accessories, hats and ceramics etc. Also, the art of visual merchandising is celebrated here, even a hardware store would take the time to make their window display ‘appealing’ to passerby. If only shops in the U.K. could understand the impact of display aesthetics on their shops, then perhaps our high streets could still be ‘saved’.


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Top left and midde: La Libelula; Top right and 2nd row right: Maria Gavira; Bottom left: A shopping street in Granada; Bottom right: A espadrille/ shoe shop in Cordoba


Here are some shops that I stumbled upon during my trip, as a bigger city, Seville offers a lot more in terms of shopping but the other two cities also offer some traditional and specialists shops:


La Libelula (Calle Cuna, 45, Alfalfa) – A multi-storey fashion and home furnishings shop with an airy courtyard, florist, exhibition area and cafe. The shop stocks from many new/ up and coming Spanish designers, so it is a good place to check out the names from the local fashion scene.

Wabi Sabi shop and gallery (Viriato, 9, La Macarena) – Located north of the city centre, although the shop uses the Japanese term, ‘wabi sabi’ ( aesthetics or beauty that is imperfect or impermanent), its shop theme is not actually Japanese. It is a lifestyle shop that specialises in contemporary art and design, covering fashion, home furnishings, recycled antique furniture, books, art and crafts, and it also has an online shop, gallery and workshop space for various events to take place.

Maria Gavira (Calle Mateos Gago 29, Santa Cruz) – I came across this small fashion/ accessories shop in Santa Cruz and was greeted by the lovely owner, Maria. She doesn’t speak much English, but we ended up communicating in French ( it turns out that my rustic French can be useful in certain circumstances). Maria uses textiles to create beautiful fashion accessories and home furnishings ( you can see her handmade shower caps and decorations in the photos above), but she also stocks an interesting range from other craftsmen and fashion brands. After making my purchase, Maria was keen to recommend some tapas and flamenco places and she marked them all down for me on my map! Her hospitality really touched me, but best of all, she is a passionate designer/maker and I felt like we bonded very quickly. This proves that language and culture is never a barrier when you share similar values and passion.



Top left, right and 2nd row middle: Galerias Madrid; 2nd row left: Raquel Terán; 3rd row: Ashop near Plaza de Jesús de la Pasión selling hair accessories for Catholics; 4th row right: Traditional fans at Dizal; Last row right: Enrique Sanchis


Galerias Madrid (Calle Cuna, 42, Alfalfa) – If you love fabric, you will love this multi-storey store that sells fabrics and textiles for upholstery and apparel including all the trimmings for a flamenco dress!

Raquel Terán (Calle Francos, 6, Alfalfa) – if you are looking for flamboyant, vintage-like and feminine flamenco fashion, you will it here! The style is rich, colourful and full of trimmings, and they even have a children’s collection.

Dizal (Calle Sierpes 48, Alfalfa) – Traditional fans can be found here and at Diza (no.75) at affordable prices.

Maspapeles (Calle Zaragoza, 17) – A stationery shop that sells a range of quality notebooks, pens, wrapping paper and boxes etc.

Enrique Sanchis (Calle Sierpes 19, Alfalfa) – It’s hard to miss this century-old watchmaker’s shop front ( see photo above), it is especially known for its array of antique timepieces.


Ceramics and tiles

The district of Triana has been producing azulejos (ceramic tiles) since Roman times and it is named after the Roman Emperor Trajanus. The area was once full of ceramic workshops and potteries, unfortunately as the trade diminishes, workshops are now hard to find, and only a handful of ceramic or souvenir shops are left. However, a new Centro Ceramica Triana (ceramic musuem) is due to open soon after much delay.


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Main: Ceramica Santa Ana; 2nd row left: Ceramica La Aliaza; 2nd row middle: Emilio García Ortiz; Second row right and bottom row: Populart


Ceramica Santa Ana (Calle San Jorge, 31, Triana) – Sadly, I just found out that this famous ceramic shop has closed its doors ( I thought it was just closed on the day I visited), but the impressive facade is still worth the time if you happen to be in the area.

Populart ( Pasaje de Vila 4, Santa Cruz) – this wonderful Andalusian ceramic and tile shop is close to the Cathedral and sells a wide range of antique and contemporary tiles and potteries suitable for all budgets. A must-stop for all tile lovers!


Artisans and specialists


One of the most interesting and unique sight in Andalusia is that many craftsmen and artisans are happy to ‘show-off’ their skills and expertise publicly. Passerby can watch or peek into their open studio or workshop to see the artisans at work, which I think is a great ( and free) way to market themselves!

Ceramica Elhumo ( C/ Corregidor Luis de la Cerda 68) – Two local artists, Valle Sillero and Jesús Rey run a small studio/shop that allows passerby to admire their sculpting skills. They use a special Raku technique to make clocks, lamps, pots, human and animal figures, home decorations and paintings that are inspired by the local culture.

Sala El Potro (13 Plaza del Potro) – this small art gallery in the famous Plaza del Potro sells limited edition prints and original artwork by emerging and established Andalucian artists. The gallery also has an online shop for those who want your art to be delivered to your door without going all the way to Cordoba!


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Top row: Sombrerería Herederos de J Rusi; Bottom left: An artisan at work in his studio in Cordoba; Bottom middle: Ceramica elhumo


Sombrerería Herederos de J Rusi (Calle Conde de Cardenas 1) – Originally from Cordoba, the famous and award-winning Spanish hat-maker has a small and charming shop that keeps its family traditions and craftsmanship alive. Opened since 1903, it feels like little has changed over the years, I just love the rows of circular hat boxes neatly stacked on the shelves! Although I did not buy any hats, I felt good knowing that traditional and quality craftsmanship is still being appreciated in our disposable culture today.


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Daniel Gil de Avalle 



Daniel Gil de Avalle (Plaza del Realejo, 15) – A chance to see the guitarrero (guitar maker) at work through its large window at this longstanding music shop that specialises in handmade classical and flamenco guitars.


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Top left and middle: Artesano manuel morillo in Granada; Top right: a Marquetry shop inside the Alhambra; 2nd row left: traditional toys sold at the Palacio de Viana shop in Cordoba. Main: a local craft shop at Plaza de la Corredera in Cordoba.


Artesano Manuel Morillo (Calle Ánimas, 1) – Tarecea (marquetry) is a traditional craft originated from the Moors and is unique to Granada in Spain. Manuel Morillo Castillo is a craftsman who makes marquetry boxes, objects and chess sets, and you can watch him at work in his shop near Plaza Nueva. I bought a few boxes (under €10) as souvenir for friends and family and they all love the design and craftsmanship, and they look more expensive than what I paid for!


Vintage and collectibles

Throughout my trip I came across many vintage, retro and collectible shops which I didn’t expect before the trip. From vintage stamps to dolls, toys and books, Andalusia is great for those who love everything nostalgic!


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3rd row left: Cuevas Juguetería Técnica; 4th row right: Le Secret de Carmen in Seville; 4th row left, middle and 5th row: El Laberino in Cordoba.



Le Secret de Carmen (Candilejo 8) – a small shop dedicated to Carmen! They sell antiquities, vintage articles, books, posters, CD and records around Carmen and Seville.

F. Cuevas Jugueteria tecnica (Plaza de San Francisco, 16) – this is no ordinary toy shop, it sells cars, trains and plane models, figurines, dolls and accessories, kitchenettes etc from all eras and for all ages. You can find antique and collectible toys that are geared towards adults who have a nostalgic streak, and unfortunately they also come with rather high price tags.


El Laberino (Ronda de Isasa 4) – I love secondhand bookshops, and so I was excited when I saw this spacious riverside bookshop. Apart from many Spanish classics, there are also vintage children’s books, magazines, printed matters and books in other languages.



Eat, drink and be merry in Andalusia


Dining out in Andalusia is a social activity with friends or with your local bartenders and neighbours


For some reason, Spanish cuisine is not as popular and as ‘recognised’ internationally as Italian cuisine. Perhaps it has something to do with its cooking varying a great deal from region to region, and that authentic Spanish restaurants outside of Spain were hard to come by until a few years ago. The rise of Michelin star restaurants like elBulli ( due to reopen as a creative centre in 2016) finally brought the spotlight back to Spanish cuisine again. And in cosmopolitan cities like London, New York and Hong Kong, a sudden surge of contemporary tapas bars and restaurants are also changing people’s perception of Spanish cuisine esp. on tapas. The ‘makeover’ seems to be working as tapas bars are now becoming more popular than ever outside of Spain.

I love the concept of tapas, humble food served in small portions shared among friends paired with wine ( or sherry in Spain) is my ideal night out. I did a cooking holiday in Italy 2 1/2 years ago, and although the food was fresh and delicious, after a week of cheese, pasta and multi-course meals, I felt rather bloated and it was reflected on my weighing scale back home!


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Main: Bar El Comercio; Bottom middle: Bar Manolo


This trip though, I tried out many dishes at each meal and yet I didn’t put on any weight afterwards. OK, it wasn’t a cooking holiday but overall I found the food less heavy and the portion sizes more acceptable. I was eager to try as many different dishes as possible, but by the end of the trip, I still had many that I wanted to try but didn’t quite manage…

I was equally impressed by the quality of wine (and the prices), the house wines are usually excellent ( which doesn’t always happen in other countries) and even for a red wine lover like myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the few occasions when I ordered white.

Food and wine aside, ambience is a key part of dining out in Andalusia and it is more of a social activity as you often see people hanging inside and outside of popular tapas bars with friends drinking and nibbling in late afternoons or evenings. I rarely saw fast-food or coffee shop chains, people there love their local restaurants and bars, which is a far cry from the chain-dominated London! When I travel, I try to look for authentic restaurants that the locals love, these places I believe reflect the local culture and they are the best for people-watching.


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Top left: deep-fried aubergine; top middle: artichokes; top right: cod ceviche with peppers with crispy artichokes (surprisingly yummy); bottom left: Pimientons de Padron (one of my favourite tapas dishes); bottom right: paella and grilled tuna with roasted vegetables (tapas portions!)


Here are some of the places that I tried during my trip, some are recommended by locals, some via the internet and the rest… simply by chance…



Casa Morales (Calle García de Vinuesa, 11) – Founded in 1850, this bodega located near the Cathedral is often recommended in guidebooks. Yet it was packed with only locals when I was there, could it be partly due to their Spanish-only menu ( which I often view as a positive sign)?

I love the old-style and rustic decorations here, the front room is bar area and the seated area is located in the back, which is filled with enormous tinajas (stoneware sherry/wine barrels). The prices here are reasonable and the food/wine quality is good, but it is the vibe/ambience makes this place charming and unique.

El Rinconcillo (Calle Gerona, 40) is the oldest tapas bar in Seville (since 1670), but due to its location ( away from the touristy Santa Cruz), it is more of a local than a tourist attraction! Like Casa Morales, this place feels authentic and even more rustic with service that is slightly abrupt ( but not rude). It was fun to eat standing and sharing a small table with a local, sometimes it is not the food that matters the most but the experience ( luckily, the food here is not too bad either)…


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Top, 2nd row left and middle: Casa morales; 2nd row right, third and last row: El Rinconcillo



After trying out the traditional places, it was time to try the contemporary restaurants to see how the cuisine has evolved, and one of the most highly rated place is La Azotea, which has several branches in the city.

La Azotea (C/ Mateos Gago, 8) – although this branch is located on a street full of touristy restaurants right off the Cathedral, it is not that touristy and the standard is a cut above the rest. The dishes are creative and beautifully presented, yet the prices are surprisingly reasonable for what you get. The vibe is relaxing and not overly trendy, I certainly would have returned to try out more dishes if I had the time.

Los Palillos (Calle Huelva 22, esq. Plaza de la Pescaderia) – I stumbled upon this small sushi/ jamon bar while looking for food in the area, the minimal and contemporary decor is rather inviting. I was curious to try some Spanish/ Japanese fusion cuisine, and the waiter was friendly and eager to help me with their menu. After trying a few dishes, I felt that some worked better than others, and the fusion was not as obvious ( which may not be a bad thing). However, the ingredients are fresh and the dishes are well cooked and presented, so it was a pleasant discovery ( as I later discovered that the restaurant is very popular with the locals because it filled up within 1/2 hour after my arrival).


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 Top left, right and main: La Azotea; Bottom left and right: Los Palillos


Breakfast, dulces and helados

I am not a morning person and I don’t usually eat a lot for breakfast either, but coffee is essential to me, so café con leche (coffee with milk) became my staple in Andalusia.

When I travel, I tend to get up earlier and would have breakfasts before setting off. The problem I discovered in Andalusia was that not many cafes would open before 10am, so I had to wander the streets to search for my morning staple. And by chance, I discovered a cafe in Seville’s Santa Cruz which offers buffet breakfast with coffee and fresh orange juice for only €2, what a bargain! But my favourite breakfast is some good coffee with a simple but delicious tostada con tomate ( toast with tomato), which I thought was the best way to start my day.

In general, I find Spanish pastries slightly too sweet, a friend recommended polvoron to me before my trip, so I bought some from the famous and historical Confiteria La Campana (since 1885) but was not fond of the strong cinnamon taste. Later though, I discovered that the most authentic and fun way to buy dulces ( pastries/ cookies/ sweets) is from local convents via a rotating tray/lazy Susan from some invisible nuns! The sweets are usually made by the convent’s nuns from traditional recipes, unfortunately, with fewer nuns and convents these days, the trade is slowly disappearing… I managed to buy a box of almond polvoron from Convento de Santa Ana in Cordoba with the help of someone working there. Although the experience was delightful, I would find it too daunting to do it without help due to my limited Spanish vocabulary!


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Top right and 2nd row left: A €2 buffet breakfast in central Seville; 2nd row middle: my favourite breakfast: tostada with tomato at Gaudi Juda Levi in Cordoba; 2nd right: buying dulce at Convento de Santa Ana in Cordoba; Main and bottom right: Confiteria La Campana in Seville; bottom left: Tejas Dulces de Sevilla


Tejas Dulces de Sevilla (Plaza de Jesús de la Pasión 13, Seville) – I walked past this small shop in the city centre and was offered to sample their homemade and natural almond biscuits. These crunchy biscuits are delicious and not too sweet, so I bought a small pack and asked the shop lady about the beautiful blue glassware on the shelves. Apparently, the hand-blown glassware were produced by Crystals La Trinidad, a traditional glass factory that started in 1900 but ceased production in 1999, and these were the remnants from their former factory ( see above).

Helados (ice cream) is popular in Seville, and there are several famous ice cream parlours here. However, being in January meant that many were closed, yet I managed to try a few scoops from Helados La Abuela (Calle Larana, 10) and 1929. The ice cream at 1929 was a bit too sweet for me, the latter was better though not particularly outstanding, I guess it had something to do with the season too.



Left: 1929; Right: Helados La Abuela



With many reputable restaurants closed during my stay in Cordoba, I was left with some overpriced and touristy choices, but thanks to the recommendation of my hotel’s concierge, I visited El Mercado Victoria ( Paseo de La Victoria), an indoor gourmet market housed inside a 19th century building just outside of the old town. There are about 30 stalls selling tapas, seafood, wine, olives, and other cuisines like Japanese and Italian. This is not fine dining, it’s more like an upmarket food court, but it is fun, relaxing, clean and it attracts mainly locals. If you want to get away from the touristy restaurants in the old town, this place is definitely worth visiting.

With the limited cafe choices for breakfast in old town, it was a relief when I found Gaudi Juda Levi ( Plaza Juda Levi s/n), a contemporary cafe that offers good coffee, breakfast, relaxing atmosphere and friendly service.

While I was walking around the town, I came across an artisan bakery ( since 1880), Horno de la Cruz ( Gongora, 2)with a short queue of locals outside, so I decided to join and try it out… Although their pies looked very tempting, I went for some bread and almond cake instead, the bread that I had was ok but the cake was moist and soft, and tasted even better than I imagined, so it was a pleasant surprise.

After eating Spanish/tapas for days, all I wanted was some salad and something slightly different… I noticed that salads in tapas bars seem to be pricier and ‘fancier’ ( with not much green), so I opted for the Moroccan tea house near my hotel, Salón de Té ( Buen Pastor, 13). The place is decorated in Moorish style with a lovely courtyard, and it was almost empty when I was there. I had a mixed salad with pita bread and mint tea, it was what I wanted, so I left the place fairly satisfied.


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Top left, right, 2nd row middle, 3rd row right: El Mercado Victoria; 2nd row left: Horno de la Cruz; 2nd row right: The bar at Círculo de la Amistad; Third row left: Gaudi Juda Levi; Bottom left and right: Salón de Té



Two of my favourite eateries during my trip happen to locate in Granada, and one of them is only a cafe hidden in Albayzin. Although I was staying in a hotel nearby, it still took me a while to find Café 4 Gatos ( Placeta Cruz Verde, 6), but it was definitely worth it! Since there aren’t many cafes for breakfasts in the area, this cafe already has its advantage, but it offers much more than that. I love the relaxing and friendly vibe here, the clientele is mainly local and seem to know the owner well. Their coffee is great and they offer a wide variety of tostadas, though the downside is that since it is rather small ( basically a L-shaped bar with some outdoor tables and seating), you can’t linger for too long as it gets busier after 11am. I was so charmed by it that I went back the next day before heading off to the airport, and the owner was able to recall what I had the day before, which was rather impressive. This is not a fancy or trendy cafe, it is friendly, down-to-earth, reasonably priced and utterly charming.

Tapas used to be served free with alcoholic drinks, like in Italy, drinking on an empty stomach is not encouraged ( I wish the Brits would understand this). But these days, not many places would offer this, I was served free tapas about 4/5 times during the entire trip, and this occurred mostly in Granada than in Seville. One of the bars that served free tapas is a wine bar hidden in an alley near the Cathedral, Taberna Más que vinos (Calle Tundidores, 10). The quality of food and wine here is good, but it’s probably best for a drink and nibble than a proper dinner.

With the strong Moorish influences and ties, I was eager to try some Moroccan food while I was in Granada. There are plenty of them in the city, but I picked a small, non-touristy family-run restaurant, Tagine Elvira (Calle Elvira). Not only did I almost missed it from the street, I hesitated slightly before walking in as it was completely empty on the night. The meal was cheap and tasty, but I did find it more on the salty side. Perhaps the chef was having a day ‘off’ as I was the only customer, meanwhile, I also felt like I was eating at someone’s front room because the TV in front of me was broadcasting some American soap with the chef/owner sitting on one side playing with her phone. The experience was definitely an ‘authentic’ one.


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Top left, right & 2nd row left: Cafe 4 Getos; 2nd row midde & last row left: Tagines Elvira; 2nd & last row right: Mas que Vinos.


I spent my last night in Granada/ Andalusia at the paella restaurant/ bar, La Parrala ( Tendollas de Sta. Paula, 6), which was one of my favourites of the trip. An elder English couple left as I entered the restaurant and so again, I was the only customer there (a theme throughout my trip)! This restaurant has 2 branches in the city, and I picked this over the one nearer to my hotel because it has live music in the evenings. While I was wondering if the live music would take place or not, the lovely waitress ( who I later learned is the wife of the chef and are both Argentinians) assured me that she would try her best to ‘persuade’ the guitarist to perform for me! And he did… although he spoke little English, he wanted to know if I liked a certain music style and while playing, he completely immersed himself even though I (and the waitress) was the only audience.

Finally, my paella with squid ink arrived and it was delicious, it also went very well with the wine recommended to me. I then spent much of my time chatting to the friendly and warm Argentinian lady about Spain, Argentina, tango etc, and eventually leaving the restaurant extremely ecstatic and satisfied. I believe that when it comes to dining out, no matter how excellent the food and wine is, it needs to be accompanied by the ambience and service to enhance the overall experience. Without the latter factors, the meal is slightly ‘soulless’, which is a bit like cooking, i.e. fresh ingredients do not necessary make the best meals, it is the passion of the chef that is the key to elevate a good meal to an outstanding one.


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 La Parrala


Like always, when I travel abroad, I would visit local food markets, delis and supermarkets to get an idea of what the locals eat. Throughout the trip, I was attracted by the greengrocers that sell fresh and colourful fruits and vegetables, the butchers and fishmongers that sell fresh meat and fish and the delis and jamon specialists that sell jamon, olives and anchovies etc. Here are some of the specialists I found on my trip:


Flores Gourmet (restaurant/ deli/ winery) – C/ San Pablo 24 (continuacion de Reyes Catolicos)


Jamones Calixto (Jamonerias)Alfonso XIII, 6

San Nicasio is an award-winning brand from Cordoba that makes handmade crisps with extra virgin olive oil and Himalayan salt. It costs just over €1 in Cordoba for 40 g, but in the U.K., you can get 190g for £3.99 at Waitrose! Honestly, €1 is almost justifiable for a small packet of crisps, but £4 is just ridiculous and not worth it in my opinion.


Jamones Casa Diego (Jamonerias) – C/ Santa Escolastica, 13.


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1st row right: Luxurious and ‘healthy’ crisps by San Nicasio; 2nd row: Jamones Calixto in Cordoba; Third row left: Jamones Casa Diego; Third row right: Bacallao in Cordoba; Fourth and fifth row: food market in Granada. Last row: Souvenir from my trip… food for myself, friends and family!


Viva Andalusia: Granada


Main: a view of the magnificent Alhambra; bottom left: Carrera del Darro; bottom right: Paseo de los Tristes ( passage of the sad ones)


From Cordoba, I took a 2.5-hour bus ride to my last destination in Andalusia, Granada. Unlike Seville and Cordoba, my first impression of the city was rather mixed. First of all, I didn’t expect to see so many hippies there, and I didn’t feel as safe as I did in the previous cities. Yet somehow the city grew on me and on the last night before heading back to London, I had the most memorable and wonderful evening there.

After my short stay, I discovered that Granada is most beautiful and ‘spiritual’ at night especially around Albayzin ( and with the full moon). For some reason, Granada possesses some kind of spiritual quality that I did not sense in the other two cities, is this the reason why it attracts so many hippies? Does it have something to do with the position of the Alhambra, which seems to dominate and overlook the city?



Granada’s beauty is best appreciated at night especially when under a full moon


I stayed at the design/boutique-style Shine Albayzin on the Carrera del Darro, both the facade and interior is quite beautiful, however, there are a few practical problems due to the building being very old, i.e. thin walls/ floorboards that penetrate sound and plumbing and hot water issue. Its location, though, is perfect for exploring and getting lost in the maze-like Albayzin.


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Shine Albayzin



After traveling in Spain for almost a week, I wanted to do less sight-seeing, so apart from The Alhambra and a few smaller sights, I spent most of the time hiking up and down and wandering in Albayzin and the former Jewish quarter, Realejo ( I felt pretty fit after the 2 days). The Moorish influence is more evident here than the last two cities, especially on its architecture, and the best example no doubt is The Alhambra.


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Top left: Catedral de Granada; Top right and bottom right: Iglesia de San Gil y Santa Ana; Bottom left: Alcaiceria.


The Alhambra and General Life

I did not realise how much time is needed to explore the grounds of this massive Moorish palace/fortress ( which also includes Palacio de Carlos V) until I got there, and I probably didn’t leave enough time as I felt quite rushed towards the closing time. I believe at least three hours are needed to explore it properly.

It also didn’t help with the rather confusing layout ( due to the fact that it was rebuilt and expanded by different rulers over several centuries), instead of one big palace, there are several different palaces and gardens scattered all over the site. Though once inside, I was quite blown away by the Moorish/ Islamic decorations and exquisite craftsmanship. The palaces seem to evoke one’s imagination, and I felt like I was transported back in time… One could imagine how splendid the site must have looked centuries ago under the Moorish rule.

Located inside Palacio de Carlos V is the Museum of the Alhambra, which is not to be missed. The artifacts trace the history and culture of the Spanish-Islamic period between the ninth to sixteenth centuries, and showcase many ceramic art work, notably the original Vase of the Gazelles ( a copy can be seen inside the Nasrid Palace). Another highlight of the site is the garden at General Life, which I am sure would look more wonderful during spring and summer.


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The Alhambra and General Life


As I was leaving the Alhambra at its closing time, I walked past the Parador San Francisco on the way out ( located just by the entrance/exit inside the complex), and I decided to go into the cafe/bar for a coffee. It turned out that the restaurant’s terrace has a lovely garden, some remaining ruin of the former palace and a great view of General Life.

Built in the 15th century, by order of the Catholic Kings, the Parador used to be a Franciscan convent, and is situated on top of the remains of a Nasrid Palace. The menu prices at their restaurant are the most expensive I have encountered since my arrival in Andalusia, however, you can still enjoy the historical and enchanting surrounding for the price of a coffee or tea.


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Parador San Francisco


If you look on Tripadvisor for attractions in Granada, you will find that on the top of the list is not The Alhambra but the Fundacion Rodriguez Acosta! Bizarrely, this little known artist’s studio is not even listed in many guidebooks ( partly because it was only officially opened to the public in 2012), yet it beat the UNESCO world heritage site and received top rating by 41 reviewers. Well, this is the ‘flaw’ of Tripadvisor and other travel websites with a similar rating system, the fact is that 6000 people reviewed The Alhambra but not everyone gave it full marks, whereas the 41 people visited this site and gave it full marks.

After my visit here, I can say that although I find this place absolutely mesmerising and unique, this is not on the same level and scale as The Alhambra. A visit is conducted with a private guide, and since I was the only visitor (again), I had the opportunity to ask as many question as I possibly could…

The all-white villa is not a residence as one would expect, but the art studio of a not so well known Spanish artist, José María Rodríguez-Acosta. Designed by the artist and an architect, the el carmen was built between 1916 to 1930, and is thought to be inspired by The Alhambra ( not far from this site). Yet the style here is very eclectic with influences from the Renaissance, Gothic, Roman and Moorish. Rodríguez-Acosta was from a wealthy banking family, and so money was not an issue for the artist. He traveled extensively and collected art works from around the globe, though most sculptures in his gardens are copies rather than the original. According to my guide, the artist requested all the documents of the art work he bought to be destroyed by his death, no one understood the motive behind this act, and the origins of these art work remain a mystery.

My tour concentrated mostly on its garden, which is built over several layers and has a spectacular view of the city ( similar to the Alhambra). One of the most fascinating area of the building is the maze-like underground gallery… I asked the guide if she thought the artist used to have fun parties down here, and she answered promptly, “No doubt!”.

The tour ended at the Instituto Gómez Moreno, a new annex inside the foundation that display a range of art work and archaeological artifacts by the Granada-bornarchaeologist and historian, Manuel GómezMoreno.


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Fundacion Rodriguez Acosta 


Back in the city centre, I decided to skip the Cathedral and visited the Palacio de la Madraza next to the Cathedral instead, a sight often overlooked by tourists. The building was the location of the first Islamic university founded in 1349 and is now part of the University of Granada. The facade of the building is in Baroque style because it was turned into a palace later on, and fortunately the architects kept the sala de mihrab where the public can visit today.

The visit can only be conducted with a guide and the tour itself is short because only a few rooms are open to the public. However, it is still worth a visit because of the beautiful restored mihrab and extraordinary coffered ceiling in The Sala de los Caballeros Veinticuatro upstairs.


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Palacio de la Madraza 



Like I mentioned earlier, I love the hilly and Moorish residential district, Albayzin ( also a declared World Heritage site). Besides many historical sights and churches, there are also restaurants and shops in the area. The area has been occupied since the Roman period, and it became the quarter of Arab and Jewish craftsmen and traders in the mid 14th century.

The area offers unbeatable views of the Alhambra esp. up on the Mirador San Nicolás ( the view at night is most stunning). Other interesting sights include the Baños Árabes El Bañuelo, Museo Arqueológico de Granada ( currently closed for renovations), the 16th century Iglesia del Salvador ( built over the former Main Mosque of Albayzin), Palacio de los Córdova ( originally built in 1530 but was demolished in 1919 and rebuilt in its current location in the 1960s), Fundación Mezquita de Granada and El Monasterio de la Concepción etc. It is very easy to get lost in the area, so the tactic is to allow oneself to be lost and explore with an sense of adventure and not to do it in a hurry…


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Top left and right: Palacio de los Córdova; second and third row left: Baños Árabes El Bañuelo; third row right: El Monasterio de la Concepción; Bottom left: Fundación Mezquita de Granada



Since I didn’t do much planning before arriving at Granada, I was not awared that the Museo de Bellas Artes is located inside the Alhambra complex, and so I rushed through the museum quite quickly, which was a bit of a shame.

In the city centre, I stumbled upon the (free) contemporary art gallery, Centro Jose Guerrero near the Palacio de la Madraza. The gallery is dedicated to the the most celebrated local artist: abstract expressionist José Guerrero (1914-91), who was born in Granada but found fame in New York in the 1950s. The gallery has a permanent collection of the artist’s work on the top floor and temporary exhibitions take place on the other floors. The current exhibition is William Christenberry, an American photographer/sculptor/painter whose work is often inspired by his childhood spent in Alabama.

His photographs and architectural models of houses or buildings in his home town documented over the years are intriguing, nostalgic and poetic. Although there are personal meanings behind these photographs, the images also provide viewers a glimpse of the disappearing American south accompanied by some fascinating local stories. The “Klan room” dedicated to the Ku Klux Klan is also powerful and thought-provoking.


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Centro Jose Guerrero


My 8/9 day trip to Andalusia exceeded my expectations in many ways, aside from the historical sights, excellent food and wine, I was most touched by the hospitality of its people. Most of the people I encountered were warm, friendly and helpful whenever help is needed. This made the trip more meaningful than an average sightseeing trip, and I cannot wait to return again one day!




To be continued…

Viva Andalusia: Cordoba



I took a 45-min high-speed train ride from Seville to the historical Cordoba, and was pleasantly surprised by the conditions of the trains (and train stations). The train was clean, roomy, modern and comfortable, a huge contrast from the old and dirty trains in the U.K. ( sorry but

Although Cordoba is much smaller than Seville, there are many sights to visit, so two days are certainly not long enough. However, perhaps due to the season, many non-touristy restaurants were closed and the streets seemed rather empty ( I am sure this is not the case in the summer seasons). The Moorish influence is more evident in this city, and many streets are paved with cobblestones. Many of the main sights are within the historical centre, where streets are narrow and difficult for cars to drive through. The shopping and more residential districts are on the north and west of the city, where the vibe is quite different from the more touristy historical centre.





I have seen photographs of the UNESCO World Heritage site, The Great Mosque/ Cathedral of Córdoba before, but I was still rather gobsmacked when I entered this magnificent and incredible site. I have visited many other extraordinary religious sites like Vatican and The Blue Mosque, but this site is so unique and has a magical mesmerising effect. I have always loved Islamic/ Arabic arts and architecture, but what is so fascinating about this place is its successful fusion of Moorish and Renaissance style. Everything blends together and is in harmony, nothing is overpowering, and with only a few tour groups there, I was able to walk around freely and examine the Moorish architectural details and Kufic inscriptions up close. It is when I am inside onuments like this that makes me marvel at the human beings’ capability in creation and engineering.


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Mezquita–Catedral de Córdoba


The main attraction of the medieval fortified palace (and later a prison) Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos is not so much its interior but its wonderful gardens. Even in winter, it was very pleasant to walk around, where I couldn’t stop admiring the identical well-trimmed orange tress!


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Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos


Not far from the Alcazar is the Baños árabes del Alcázar Califal, a museum built over the site of the 10th century Arabian baths discovered in 1903. The baths are thought to be part of the Umayyad residence (Alcázar Omeya), which no longer exists today. The museum is informative and reconstructed the warm room for visitors to get an idea of how the baths looked like and what went on inside. I was particularly amazed by the ceramic piping and boiler used back then, again, it demonstrates the ‘genius’ of Arabic design and engineering.

Walking further up north, I visited the small but significant 14th century Synagogue in the Jewish quarter. It is very well-preserved with Mudéjar style decoration, Hebrew inscriptions. Being one of the three Synagogues left in Spain (and the only one in Andalusia) makes this a popular site with the tourists.


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Top left: Baños árabes del Alcázar Califal; Top right: The Jewish quarter; Main: The Synagogue; bottom left & right: Museo Arqueológico de Córdoba


In order to learn more about the multi-cultural history of Cordoba and Andalusia, then a visit to the Museo Arqueológico de Córdoba is a must. The museum is not very big, but it is very informative and is built on top of the ruins of a roman theatre. There are many interesting artifacts from different key historical periods and visitors can also visit the excavated ruins in the basement.


There are many beautiful squares in Andalusia, but the medieval Plaza del Potro is especially well-known because Posada del Potro ( situated on the square) was mentioned by Spanish novelist, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Don Quixote, first published in 1605. The famous and charming inn has been turned into a flamenco museum, Centro Flamenco Fosforito. I didn’t go to the flamenco museum in Seville ( I thought it looked rather touristy and the entrance fee is even more expensive than the Cathedral!), but this museum feels more authentic and I was able to enjoy my time there as I was the only visitor!

There are several rooms full of interactive display and a performance area in this museum, I especially like the first room which contains information and videos of key flamenco figures in a long row of drawers. On the first floor, there are videos and audio equipments that allow visitors to understand the rhythmic structures and the relationship between guitar, voice and dance. There is also a room dedicated to the local flamenco singer, Antonio Fernández Díaz, alsoknown as Fosforito. Though one of the most fascinating room is the last one, which traces the inn’s history, myths and architectural models that shows its transformation throughout the ages.


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Top and bottom main: Plaza del Potro; Middle left and right: Posada del Potro/ Centro Flamenco Fosforito.


Besides the Plaza del Potro, there is also the solemn Plaza de Capuchinos, where visitors can find the the statue of Christ of the Lanterns in the middle of square and convent of Santo Ángel. And for a square with a grander scale, the 17th century Plaza de la Corredera ( the site of a Roman amphitheatre) is usually packed with tourists in the summers, but virtually empty in the winter!

Not far from the square is another interesting historical site: the Roman temple ruins built at the end of the 1st century and discovered only in the 1950s. The square is in the shopping district, and fenced off from the public, but it is worth stopping by especially at night when the lights are lit up. It looks much more atmospheric than during the day.

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Main and second row left: Plaza de la Corredera; second and third row right: Roman temple. Third and bottom row left: Cuesta del Bailio; third and bottom row right: Plaza de Capuchinos.


Real Círculo de la Amistad (translated as “Real circle of friendship”) is not listed in my guidebook nor on Tripadvisor. I stumbled upon this building and I poked my head in out of curiosity ( like I have been doing throughout the trip) and was welcomed by the hospital receptionist/ doorman ( who spoke no English). He kindly showed me around the building and informed me that the paintings upstairs are done by the artist, Julio Romero de Torres. After the tour around the building, I also enjoyed a glass of wine in the ‘old-style’ bar ( serving extremely reasonably priced drinks and tapas) without any tourists.

It was only later I managed to find out that the building was built around the mid 19th century ( and originally opened as a casino), but then it became the Artistic and Literary Lyceum for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. I thought it was rather amusing that I was given an unofficial tour of this private club, I could not imagine this happening in the U.K.! And what struck me was not only the doorman’s hospitality but his pride in the building itself, I could feel his joy when was showing me around, the club is lucky to have hired such a wonderful staff!


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Real Círculo de la Amistad 



Cordoba is famous for its patios, but in the winter, the patios don’t look as attractive as they do in spring and summer. However, even without the blooming and colourful flowers, the green plants are still soothing to the eyes!


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At Plaza del Potro, there are two small art museums: Museo de Bellas Artes and Museo de Julio Romero de Torres. Both are worth visiting especially if you want to see more of Julio Romero de Torres‘ work, whose paintings often feature Cordoba women, the theme of flamenco and gypsies, and Cordoba itself.

I also stumbled upon Sala de exposiciones Vimcorsa, where I saw a wonderful photography exhibition, Peru, featuring work by two photographers from different era, Martin Chambi and Castro Prieto. I was rather moved by Chambi‘s portraits of the indigenous Peruvians and seeing vintage photos of Peru was a revelation to me.

Another accidental discovery was Casa Museo Arte sobre Piel ( leather art museum) near the Cathedral. The tradition of crafting leather is a historic craftsmanship that was developed in the Caliphate of Cordoba in the 10th century. And the master of this craft, Ramón García Romero spent the last 50 years researching and reviving this ancient crafts technique in Cordoba. At this small (and free) museum, some of the master’s stunning collection are on display and they are absolutely mind-blowing, so do not miss this!


Museo de Julio Romero de TorresJulio Romero de Torresuseum of Fine Arts, Cordoba Museum of Fine Arts, CordobaSala de exposiciones Vimcorsa

Top left and middle: Museo de Julio Romero de Torres; Top right and bottom left: Museo de Bellas Artes; Bottom right: Sala de exposiciones Vimcorsa


Although Cordoba is not as buzzling as Seville, it is extremely charming and its intriguing history also makes it rather unique. I would love to return again when the flowers are blooming so that I can fully appreciate the city’s famous patios.


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To be continued…