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Around 700km northwest of Buenos Aires , the bustling, modern metropolis of Córdoba sits 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 1.3 million Cordobeses take refuge from the valley’s sweltering heat during summer. Because it lacks the dynamism and style of Rosario, its rival for the title of Argentina’s second city, many people spend only an hour or two here before sprinting off to the nearby resorts. But Córdoba has a wide range of services, and its excellent location makes it an ideal base for exploring the region, while the colonial architecture at its heart remains an attraction in its own right. Moreover, the city is reputed nationwide for its hospitable, elegant population and its caustically ironic sense of humour, something you’ll come to appreciate the longer you stay.
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 Perú 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 crisis 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 economic 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.
Córdoba has several good hostels and some boutique hotels, but the majority of accommodation options in the city are functional at best, with the more expensive places catering mainly to business travellers.
For many years interesting restaurants and cafés were disappointingly thin on the ground; thanks to the burgeoning development of Barrio Güemes; however, this is changing. The city also cranks up a gear during university term time. With a couple of notable exceptions, the city centre has little to offer in the evenings, even becoming rather seedy. Nueva Córdoba and Cerro de las Rosas feel safer and have a number of restaurants, but can also be rather colourless. All in all, lively Güemes is the best bet for atmosphere and inventive cuisine.
Most of the nightlife is concentrated in two outlying areas: El Abasto, a revitalized former warehouse district close to the centre on the northern banks of the Río Suquía that buzzes with club and music venues, many along Blvd Las Heras, and the even trendier Chateau Carreras area, just south of Cerro de las Rosas, which has a number of flash clubs. The city is also a hub for cuarteto music. Unless you’re after a dance, though, the best place for a drink is the trendy – and rapidly developing – Güemes neighbourhood, which is awash with cool bars, many of them perched on rooftops or tucked away in arcades. As well as those mentioned below, many cafés and restaurants double up as bars in the evening. Locals are famous throughout Argentina for their passionate love of Fernet and Coke.
Güemes has an array of shops and boutiques selling clothes (often by local designers), antiques, artworks and much more, with more opening up all the time. The neighbourhood’s weekend market is a particularly good hunting ground for souvenirs. There are plenty of bookshops in the centre, many of them selling a selection of English-language titles.
The city’s compact 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 buildings, which form the Manzana Jesuítica (“Jesuits’ Block”). East of the Plaza San Martín, the eighteenth-century home of Governor Sobremonte (the city’s oldest standing residential building) is now 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 is less appealing after dark, when it has a bit of an edge. Originally used for military parades, the shady square was granted its recreational role in the 1870s when the Italianate marble fountains were installed and semitropical 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, 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 a narrow passageway just off the plaza, between the cabildo and the cathedral, the Museo de la Memoria is housed in a former secret detention centre – known as D2 – used during the brutal military dictatorship. Between 1971 and 1982 around 20,000 people were detained, tortured and (in most cases) killed here by the police. Today it is a moving, upsetting and – when you learn about the ongoing fight for justice by relatives of victims – inspiring museum. Some of the cells and offices have been left as they were found; others feature photos and possessions of victims – a medal from a school sports day, a guitar – and testimony from survivors and relatives. There is a library of books banned under the dictatorship and a film about those forced into exile. One of the most powerful exhibits is a first-hand account from a survivor: hooded during his detention, he only realized where he was when he heard cathedral bells chiming, barely 20m away from his cell.
Two blocks west and south of Plaza San Martín is the Manzana Jesuítica, a whole block, or manzana, apportioned to the Society of Jesus a decade after Córdoba was founded. The complex is home to the main offices of the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, the oldest in the country, dating from 1610. Most of the students are now based elsewhere in the city, and much of the campus has been turned into the Museo Histórico de la Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. Beyond the harmonious cream- and biscuit-coloured facade are shady patios, ablaze with bougainvillaea for much of the year. The libraries contain a priceless collection of maps, religious works and late fifteenth-century artefacts, while a ceiling fresco in the Salon de Grados shows naked students reaching out to the Muses. Fittingly, this was where applicants for doctorates were quizzed for eight hours a day for three days by their seniors – one wrong answer and they were out.
A block southwest of the Colegio Nacional de Nuestra Señora de Montserrat, the austere Neoclassical Teatro del Libertador General San Martín, built in 1887, is of world-class calibre, with outstanding acoustics and an elegant, understated interior. The creaking wooden floor, normally steeply tilted for performances, can be lowered to a horizontal position and the seats removed for dances and other events.
To take in Argentine art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, head for the Museo de Bellas Artes Dr Genaro Pérez, a block west of the Legislatura Provincial. This municipal gallery is housed in a handsome, early twentieth-century building, designed in a French style for the wealthy Dr Tomás Garzón, who bequeathed it to the city in his will. Impeccably restored, and with fine iron and glass details including an intricate lift, the museum is worth a visit for its interior alone, an insight into how the city’s prosperous bourgeoisie lived a century ago. Most of the paintings on display belong to the Escuela Cordobesa, whose leading master was the museum’s namesake Genaro Pérez and which produced brooding portraits and local landscapes, some imitating the French Impressionists. Other names to watch out for are those of the so-called 1880s Generation such as Fidel Pelliza, Andrés Piñero and Emilio Caraffa, the last famous for his supervision of the paintings inside Córdoba cathedral. The 1920s Generation, markedly influenced by their European contemporaries including Matisse, Picasso and de Chirico, is represented by Francisco Vidal, Antonio Pedone and José Aguilera.
South of the historic centre and sliced diagonally by Avenida Hipólito Yrigoyen, Nueva Córdoba was laid out in the late nineteenth century. It was designed as an exclusive residential district, but many of Nueva Córdoba’s villas and mansions were taken over by bars, cafés, restaurants and offices after the prosperous middle classes moved away from the area to the northwestern suburb of Cerro de las Rosas in the 1940s and 1950s. Architectural styles here are eclectic, to say the least: neo-Gothic churches, mock-Tudor houses, Georgian facades and Second Empire mini-palaces. Today, Nueva Córdoba’s bars are frequented by the city’s large student population, though far cooler venues are found in neighbouring Güemes.
Bordering the lively commercial area of Nueva Córdoba, the gentrified barrio of Güemes has an altogether different feel. A far older part of town, it’s here that Córdoba’s mainly Italian population first settled in the 1860s, originally naming the neighbourhood Pueblo Nuevo. Today many of the old low-rise buildings still stand, although some are in desperate need of restoration work. Lined with antique shops, boutiques, trendy restaurants, and craft beer bars, plus ever-increasing numbers of art galleries, Güemes is Córdoba’s hip, bohemian neighbourhood. It is something of a cross between San Telmo and Palermo in Buenos Aires, but populated predominantly with locals rather than tourists and expats, and on a much smaller scale.
Every weekend it hosts the Paseo de las Artes (Sat, Sun & hols from around 5pm), when the streets around calles Belgrano and Archaval Rodríguez are overtaken by an excellent evening market, with handicraft stalls selling everything from mate holders to jewellery, books to leather goods. It’s the best time to visit the neighbourhood and when its bars and restaurants are at their liveliest.
The prosperous northwestern suburbs of Cerro de las Rosas and Chateau Carreras are home to many of Córdoba’s trendiest nightclubs. Avenida Figueroa Alcorta leads out of the El Abasto area, on the northern bank of the Río Suquía. It later becomes Avenida Castro Barros before eventually turning into Avenida Rafael Núñez, Cerro de las Rosas’ main street, which is lined with shops, cafés and restaurants. Otherwise, it’s a mainly residential area of shaded streets and large villas, built on the relatively cool heights of a wooded hill.
Top image: San Martin Square and Cordoba Cathedral - Cordoba, Argentina © Diego Grandi/Shutterstock