Ten centuries ago Córdoba was the capital of Muslim Spain. With a population of 900,000, as opposed to today's population of 320,000, it was Europe's largest cultural and intellectual center. Greedy hordes sacked the city, destroying ancient buildings and carting off treasures, but Córdoba still retains distinct traces of its Moorish legacy.

Today this provincial capital is known chiefly for its mosque, the world-famous Mezquita. The old Arab and Jewish quarters are famous for their narrow streets lined full of whitewashed houses with flower-filled patios and balconies. Córdoba has recently joined the ranks of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, so you'll want to spend at least 2 days here.

From the 8th to the 11th centuries, the Umayyad caliphs brought an opulent lifestyle and great learning and culture to Córdoba while most of the rest of Europe languished in the Dark Ages. In those days, Córdoba -- not Madrid -- was the capital of Iberia. In its heyday, a pilgrimage to the Great Mezquita in Córdoba by a Muslim was said to have equaled a journey to Mecca.

Prior to the arrival of the Arabs, Córdoba had prospered in Roman times. Seneca the Elder (4 B.C.-A.D. 65), one of the greatest philosophers of the ancient world, lived here.

After the fall of the Romans, the city declined when it was taken over by the Visigoths, who in turn gave way to the more cultured Arabs. The invaders brought in scientists, scholars, and philosophers, while at the same time generating great prosperity from trade.

Córdoba became known for its pleasure palaces, including harems and luxurious baths. It also boasted a library with 400,000 hand-copied books. The city was host to the first university in Europe, and Cordovan silverwork and tooled leathers became famous around the world.

Infighting among the Muslims led to the collapse of Córdoba in 1031, at which time Seville replaced the city as the capital of Iberia.

Even in this period of decline, Córdoba saw the birth of Moisés Maimónides (1135-1204), the fabled Jewish philosopher and Talmudist. In time he was driven from the city by the Almohads and sought refuge in the Ayyubid court in Egypt.

The Reconquista, the recapturing of Muslim Andalusia by the Christians, occurred in 1236 long before Ferdinand and Isabella took back Granada in 1492. Under various Catholic monarchs, Córdoba went into a decline that lasted for centuries.

Córdoba today is a modern city with broad, tree-lined boulevards and an up-to-date business community, but you can still glimpse its former glory. Stroll the cobblestone streets of the Judería (Jewish quarter), wander through Queen Isabella's garden in the Alcázar, visit Renaissance churches and palaces, explore some of Andalusia's finest museums, and visit the excavations of Madinat Al-Zahra, a country palace and royal city built by a 10th-century caliph.