Córdoba—The Morning After
We stagger into the 14th-century building that houses El Churrasco restaurant, unable even to look at food.
The previous day—our first in Córdoba—began with a tourist routine as perfectly choreographed as a paso doble. An obligatory morning visit to La Mezquita (the Great Mosque); an afternoon stroll through the ancient Jewish quarter, La Judería; and a meal of historic Moorish cuisine at El Caballo Rojo, the best white-tablecloth restaurant in town. So how did we end up at a seedy café in the Córdoba fish market, the only place open at 5 a.m., dancing sevillanas?
Let's take it back to midnight. At the invitation of our friend María Luisa, we walk into a little taberna called Bacalá and stumble upon the soul of Andalusia. An informal get-together is about to begin. The lights go off.
A flamenco singer called Séneca begins a brooding chant, massaging the sound out of his chest. The guitarist picks up. An old man in a checkered shirt starts to sing in a high-pitched voice, twisting the melody like a rope, guiding his voice with his hands. The women dance.
Before we know it, the barrel of montilla (light Córdoba sherry) is empty. Séneca proposes a penúltima—when it comes to copas, the word last is a bad omen in Andalusia—and the fish market seems just the place for it.
So here we are at lunchtime, guzzling diet Cokes at El Churrasco. Coke does wonders for a hangover. Our surroundings slowly come into focus: a lovely ivy-covered Córdoba courtyard. Pretty ceramics on the walls. Delicious aromas of meat wafting from El Churrasco's anteroom grill. All around us, waiters rushing maniacally: delivering three-inch chops and steaks to businessmen in Ray-Bans, plying lunching ladies with tinto de verano (Andalusian wine cooler).
Looking at them, we recover the will to lunch.
There are many outstanding dishes at El Churrasco. The thick salmorejo (gazpacho), as smooth as velvet, acts like a sauce for the greaseless fried eggplant. Japuta en adobo (chunks of marinated fried fish) are pleasingly spicy and tangy. And the rabos de toro, a rich oxtail stew, is a Córdoba specialty.
But the grill is the thing. The giant chuletón de buey (an ox chop) or the churrasco of tender pork fillet would give even the best Buenos Aires steak house a run for its money. Fade-out: a frothy, refreshing sorbete de limón.
I am staring at a Holy Week poster that adorns the bars and tabernas in Seville: a gaudy, idealized image of the Virgin, whose doll-like face, fringed by a cascade of white lace, looks so theatrically pious that it makes the Madonna resemble a vampish performer. Meet Seville the actress: a Moorish princess, a grandmother in black, a trendy club girl in six-inch heels.
Seville the cook can throw a party as nobody else can, and the best way to experience the drama of local dining is by joining the sevillanos for an all-night tapeo. If your feet give out, the most comfortable chairs in town are yours at Egaña Oriza, a glamorous restaurant in the center of town. Egaña's dramatic postmodern interior, a cross between a gazebo and a Philippe Starck hotel, offers a breezy respite from the folksy clutter of local tabernas. The kitchen occasionally flirts with Andalusia, but its real roots are in the Basque country, Spain's center for nueva cocina.
The ajo blanco (Andalusian white gazpacho) is almondy and refreshing, the partridge in escabeche of aged Jerez vinegar is a delight. The whole leg of baby lamb with roast potatoes and the stuffed baby squid in its ink are rendered with skill and finesse.
We spend the night at the Alfonso XIII Hotel, a fin de siècle neo-Moorish extravaganza replete with gorgeously tiled public spaces, a buzzing bar scene, and somberly pompous guest rooms, fit for some grand inquisitor.
After a day of sightseeing, we visit a few of Seville's many wonderful tapas bars on our own gran tapeo.