The bustling, modern metropolis of CÓRDOBA, Argentina’s second city, sits some 700km northwest of Buenos Aires, on a curve in the Río Suquía, at its confluence with the tamed La Cañada brook. The jagged silhouettes visible at the western end of its broad avenues announce that the cool heights of the sierras are not far away, and it’s here that many of the 1.25 million Cordobeses take refuge from the valley’s sweltering heat during summer.
Córdoba is reputed nationwide for its hospitable, elegant population and its caustically ironic sense of humour. These days Córdoba lacks the dynamism and style of Rosario, its Santa Fe rival for the title of Argentina’s second city, and many people spend only an hour or two here before sprinting off to the nearby resorts. But Córdoba has a wide range of services on offer, and its excellent location makes it an ideal base for exploring the area, while the colonial architecture at its heart remains an attraction in its own right.
On July 6, 1573, Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, Governor of Tucumán, declared a new city founded at the fork in the main routes from Chile and Alto Peru to Buenos Aires, calling it Córdoba la Llana de la Nueva Andalucía, after the city of his Spanish ancestors. The Monolito de la Fundación, on the north bank of the Río Suquía nearly a kilometre northeast of the Plaza San Martín, supposedly marks the precise spot where the city was founded and commands panoramic views.
Almost from the outset the Society of Jesus played a crucial role in Córdoba’s development, and King Carlos III of Spain’s order to expel the Jesuits from the Spanish empire in 1767 inevitably dealt Córdoba a serious body blow. That, plus the decision in 1776 to make Buenos Aires the headquarters of the newly created Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, might well have condemned the city to terminal decline had it not then been made the administrative centre of a huge Intendencia, or viceregal province, stretching all the way to Mendoza and La Rioja. Like so many Argentine cities, Córdoba benefited from the arrival of the railways in 1870 and a period of prosperity followed, still visible in some of the city’s lavishly decorated banks and theatres. By the close of the nineteenth century, Córdoba had begun to spread south, with European-influenced urban planning on a huge scale, including the Parque Sarmiento. This all coincided with a huge influx of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East.
In the first half of the twentieth century Córdoba emerged as one of the country’s main manufacturing centres. Sadly, the post-2001/2001 crisis economic boom that occurred in other parts of the country never reached Córdoba, and the industries that once ruled here are now shadows of their former selves. However, despite the recent global downturn, the local government has invested heavily in arts and culture in the last few years, with the opening of several new museums and cultural spaces, such as the Museo Superior de Bellas Artes Evita and the Paseo del Buen Pastor.Read More
You can see most of the sights in Córdoba’s compact centre in a couple of days. The city’s historic core, or microcentro, wrapped around leafy Plaza San Martín, contains all the major colonial buildings that sealed the city’s importance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its elegant Cabildo (colonial headquarters), now houses the city museum, which sits conveniently adjacent to the cathedral, one of the oldest in the country. Nearby, beyond a handsome Baroque convent, the Monasterio de Santa Teresa is a group of several well-preserved Jesuit buildings, including the temple and university, that form the Manzana Jesuítica (“Jesuits’ Block”). East of the Plaza San Martín, the eighteenth-century home of Governor Sobremonte (and the city’s oldest standing residential building) has been turned into the Museo Histórico Provincial, and contains some outstanding colonial paintings, while some interesting examples of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Argentine art are on display in a splendid French-style house, the Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes, a couple of blocks northwest of the plaza.
The city’s regular Hispano-American grid, centred on Plaza San Martín, is upset only by the winding La Cañada brook a few blocks west of the centre, on either side of which snakes one of the city’s main thoroughfares, acacia-lined Avenida Marcelo T. de Alvear, which becomes Avenida Figueroa Alcorta after crossing Deán Funes. Street names change and numbering begins level with the Cabildo.
The Plaza San Martín has always been the city’s focal point. The square is at its liveliest during the paseo hour in the early evening, although it becomes a less appealing place to wander after dark, when it fills with homeless people. Originally used for military parades, the shady square was granted its recreational role in the 1870s when the Italianate marble fountains were installed and semi-tropical shrubberies planted: lush palm-fronds, the prickly, bulging trunks of the palo borracho and, in the spring, blazing pink lapacho and purple jacaranda blossoms. Watching over all the activity is a monumental bronze sculpture of the Liberator himself, victorious on a splendid mount and borne aloft on a huge stone plinth, which was unveiled in 1916 to mark the centenary of the declaration of independence.
The square’s southern edge is dominated by the dowdy Banco Nación and the Teatro Real; more banks sit along the eastern edge. Wedged between shops and the modern municipal offices on the pedestrianized northern side is the diminutive Oratorio del Obispo Mercadillo, all that remains of a huge colonial residence built for Bishop Manuel Mercadillo. He had the seat of Tucumán diocese moved from Santiago del Estero to Córdoba at the beginning of the eighteenth century, before becoming the city’s first bishop.
On the traffic-free western side of the square is the Cabildo, or colonial headquarters, a sleekly elegant two-storey building whose immaculate white facade dates to the late eighteenth century. Fifteen harmoniously plain arches, enhanced at night by lighting, alleviate the otherwise sober exterior. Old-fashioned lamps hang in the Recova, a fan-vaulted colonnade held up by slender pillars, in front of a row of wooden doors alternating with windows protected by iron grilles. On the pavement in front of the Cabildo, as elsewhere in the historic centre, a clever trompe-l’oeil device of mock shadows has been incorporated into the flagstones.
The original Cabildo was built on the same spot at the end of the sixteenth century, but the present facade was added when the Marqués de Sobremonte became governor-mayor in 1784. Put to many different uses throughout its long history – law court, prison, provincial parliament, government offices and police headquarters – nowadays the building and its inner courtyards are mainly used for exhibitions and official receptions. The Recova, meanwhile, houses the tourism office and Tienda de la Ciudad (daily 8am–8pm), a shop selling books postcards and Córdoban souvenirs.