Córdoba, City of Doctors

By Rob Packer

While I was in Argentina last month, I took some time out from Buenos Aires to visit Córdoba and Mendoza, the second and fourth-largest cities of this enormous country.

The centre of Córdoba: Plaza San Martín

The ornate interior of Córdoba's cathedral.

Springtime in Córdoba

One of Argentina’s oldest cities and nicknamed La Docta (The Learned One), Córdoba is home to the country’s oldest university (founded 1613) and today has evolved into a centre of arts festivals, especially for theatre. The friends I stayed with, Victoria and Manuel took me to a unique experience: the opening of the Festival Clandestino de Teatro Independiente. As the name suggests, the venue was secret (phone to find out), on a semi-residential street and basically a bedroom. We sat on stools in the corner, along the walls, or on the floor, and the actresses reached between audience members to get clothes out of a wardrobe. For a play about the intimate secrets of two sisters, the space was incredibly effective, and this aesthetic set-up is apparently common in the city.

Like so many other historic cities in Latin America, a lot of Córdoba’s colonial buildings have been replaced in the name of progress, but what remains (almost entirely church property) is spectacular. And everything became all the more so, after by chance I met Pedro and Deanna, an architecture professor and his wife visiting from Australia; and local architects and town planners, David, Jorge and Sara. It was thanks to them that daytime Córdoba turned out to be so fascinating.

The centrepiece of Córdoba’s status as a World Heritage Site is the Manzana Jesuítica, a block of 17th-century churches and the university’s original quadrangle. I tagged along and we went onto roof and into cupola of one of the churches to see its strange boat-like form; I was told later that they were built by shipwrights using an innovative technique for the era, using short planks of wood, barely 40 years after its first use in Europe. The university, meanwhile, has centuries of books and maps, including the multiple tomes of a polyglot bible—side-by-side texts in seven languages so Jesuits could do their hermeneutics correctly (fascinatingly, they are Hebrew, Samaritan Aramaic, Chaldean Aramaic, Syriac, Greek, Latin and Arabic).

The church of La Compañía in the Manzana Jesuítica.

The view from the top of the dome of La Compañía.

The next day, we headed to Alta Gracia, a town south of Córdoba at the foot of the Sierras de Córdoba that was home to Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, and ‘Che’ Guevara, as well as a Jesuit estancia: good going for a small town. The estancia almost looks like something out of a Western with its dome, bell tower and cloister; its actual history, however, is less picturesque as shown by a huge bellows that was worked by the estancia’s African slaves. In their memory, there was a small photo exhibition of African-influenced festivals, but were mostly in Brazil or Uruguay (according to our guide, their descendants are no longer a distinct group, having been absorbed into the local population).

The Jesuit estancia of Alta Gracia.

The dome of the estancia in Alta Gracia.

In Argentina, Córdoba is also known for its sierras, a pretty mountain range visible from the city, which I didn’t get a chance to visit. And compared with Buenos Aires, a city nearly several times its size, Córdoba is understandably more understated and provincial, but its history for learning makes it a surprisingly interesting place and its arts scene feels pretty innovative. Maybe, you need someone to show you around though.

The view of the Sierras de Córdoba from Alta Gracia.

The ship-like vaulting of a Córdoba church.

Pictures of Córdoba's Disappeared on a street in the centre of town. Just some of the up to 30,000 people who were disappeared during Argentina's military dictatorship.

The façade of Santa Teresa part of a city centre convent.

The church dome of Alta Gracia's estancia.

This ball of cotton is the fruit (and seeds) of the palo borracho, a type of ceiba.

The trunk of the palo borracho. The tree got its name (drunk stick) because its trunk swells up with water in the wet season: it's also normally covered in thorns.

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