Step into a secret garden.
In the Spanish town of Córdoba, a 45-minute train ride from Seville, an ancient Roman bridge leads to the historic center where the main attraction is the Mezquita. The massive mosque-turned-cathedral is a wonder of Islamic architecture: marble, jasper and porphyry columns and horseshoe arches with peppermint-striped voussoirs. The mihrab, or prayer niche, glows with golden mosaics of verses from the Koran.
But in May, during the Fiesta de los Patios — an annual event and competition — it’s Córdoba’s courtyards that draw the crowds. For two weeks, residents open their enclosed, normally private patios to the public, revealing seas of fluorescent flowers, forests of fragrant fruit trees and mountains of tradition.
Just steps from the Mezquita, in the historic Jewish quarter (where the philosopher Maimonides was born), you can smell the gardens before you can see them. The heady scents of jasmine and orange blossom emanate from behind the whitewashed walls that line the tangled streets. Duck into Calleja de las Flores, a narrow alley bedazzled with flower-filled baskets, asparagus ferns and lavender leaves that dangle from wrought-iron windows, then follow your nose to Encarnación 11 (it smells like lemons here).
In the courtyard of this 16th-century home, clouds of bougainvillea ooze from the portico like slow-moving fog. Artfully arranged petunias evoke the intricate patterns of the Moorish tiles that line the walls. A mound of punch-pink petals floats in a scalloped fountain.
From there, stroll southeast to the San Basilio neighborhood, where you’ll find some of the prettiest patios in Córdoba. In their home at Martín de Roa 2, Araceli López and her daughters, Ara and Meritxell, tend to more than 60 varieties of flowering plants: purple pennycresses, creamy hydrangeas and trumpet-shaped calla lilies. Bright-red begonias and hot-pink fuchsias burst from 500 planters strategically attached to the surrounding walls.
“The patios remind us of where we come from,” Araceli said, in Spanish, “our ancestors, how they lived, and our roots.”
The first Fiesta de los Patios was organized in 1918. In an illustrated poster from that year, two alluring women, one draped in a black-lace mantilla and the other in a floral flamenco-style gown, beckon visitors to Córdoba. But the courtyards can be traced back to Al-Andalus: From 711 to 1236, Córdoba was under Muslim rule, and it became the “finest, most cultured, most glittering metropolis of Europe,” author Elizabeth Nash wrote in her 2005 book “Seville, Córdoba, and Granada.”
It was during this period that complex irrigation systems were built, ushering water into public baths and private gardens. The courtyards, once practical respites from the scorching sun, became oases.
“In floral ornamentation they had no superiors,” American scholar Samuel Parsons Scott wrote in 1904 in “History of the Moorish Empire in Europe.” “They contrived labyrinths, artificial grottoes, concealed fountains. They traced texts and inscriptions by means of gorgeous blossoms on a ground of living emerald.”
In modern Córdoba, the courtyards are equally lush: The walls at Martín de Roa 9 are so speckled with brilliantly hued petals that they look like Berber-made Boucherouite rugs. At nearby San Basilio 44, the patio calls to mind the Hanging Gardens of Babylon: vibrant blossoms explode from mounted pots. Climbing ivy and miniature roses twist their way around a disused well. Notes of thyme and honeysuckle perfume the air. Look for carnivorous pitcher plants, and a statue of San Rafael, the patron saint of Córdoba, shrouded in sword ferns.
Once you’ve had your fill of flowers, head to Noor to taste Al-Andalus (10 courses, €70; 15 courses, €90; 20 courses, €130). In this Michelin-starred restaurant chef Paco Morales only uses ingredients that were available in 10th-century Spain, then he exalts them: Glistening steamed hake with fluffy piles of roe and blackened cauliflower in a turmeric broth; plump oysters in puddles of pesto and fermented butter are dusted with rosemary sprigs and lemon-yellow petals.
“I wanted to create an Al-Andalus menu because of the history of my city,” Paco said. “As a Cordobesian and Andalusian chef, I felt the responsibility of giving light to our cultural and gastronomic legacy."
Then, back in the historic center, spend the night at the Patio de la Costurera, a casa-patio with four quaint rooms to rent (doubles from $168; if you plan to visit in April or May, book five months in advance). This courtyard, which also belongs to Araceli López, is overflowing with plants — tropical hibiscuses, coleuses with sangria-colored leaves and a glorious rainbow of geraniums.
“I would always like to live here,” Araceli said of Córdoba.
In bed, with the scent of night-blooming jasmine drifting through the open window, you might think the same.