The Other Córdoba
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The Other Córdoba

One of my former professors of Spanish literature used to say he was from “the other Córdoba,” since that name evokes, for many people, a city in Andalusia, Spain.

The other Córdoba is a little-known but lovely city in the heart of Argentina — little known to Americans, that is, but a favorite with many Argentines, along with a growing number of foreign students who prefer the lively inland metropolis to sprawling Buenos Aires.

Córdoba’s frilly colonial towers rise like a mirage out of the surrounding sierra, a rugged land of mountains, rivers and vast, hilly plains. But while gauchos ply the pampas, lively city streets hum with the activity of students who flock to the continent’s second-oldest university. For a lot of Argentines, Córdoba connotes youthful pleasures, a spirit embodied in its bohemian neighborhoods, late-night patio bars and leafy plazas.

For the rest of us, Córdoba is well worth a side trip from Buenos Aires. Its youthful exuberance and manageable scale offer a pleasant contrast to the capital; nearly all the major sights lie within a short walk of the Suquía River, though farther-flung districts have their charms, and a series of colonial estancias (country estates and vineyards) are popular day trips. And several recent additions to an already sophisticated arts scene have turned the city into a cultural destination for the Southern Cone.

Córdoba’s Jewish community is deeply entwined with its academic one. Jews are heavily represented among professors and students, though the fluid nature of university life means travelers impressed by the dynamism and breadth of Jewish life (and kosher dining) in Buenos Aires may find less to explore here.

The Israelite Union Center, also known as the Kehila Córdoba, is proudly celebrating 100 years serving the diverse community. As elsewhere in Argentina, Córdoba’s original community was a mix of Jewish gauchos originally from Russia, Ashkenazic European immigrants and Sephardim from the Mediterranean rim. Today the Center sponsors myriad educational and social institutions, maintains the historic cemetery, hosts communal festivities, and welcomes travelers.

Many of those travelers also find their way to Jabad (as Chabad is spelled in Spanish), which operates a busy center in downtown Córdoba. Shabbats bring a reliable influx of backpacking Israelis, who join local university students for prayer and dinner in a mix of Hebrew, Spanish, and English.

But it’s the Jesuits, not the Jews, who left the heaviest religious imprint on Córdoba. The Catholic order known for education — and whose historical role in Latin American intellectual life is difficult to overstate — founded the National University of Córdoba, which together with several 17th-century colonial buildings comprises the so-called Jesuit Block, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This picturesque tableau — “Manzana Jesuítica” in the local tongue — lies a few streets south of Córdoba’s 1500s landmark, the elegant Plaza San Martín, a vibrant urban nexus where past and present meet.

Those ornate façades may represent Catholic tradition — but another tradition at National University is protest: This energetic student town has been at the heart of Argentina’s political turmoil for generations, with a libertine current evident in left-wing flyers and late-night café chatter. Even Córdoba’s eclectic architecture seems to meld reverence for the old and fervor for the new, as modern, white high-rises blend seamlessly with colonial gems and buildings from the early-1900s immigrant boom.

One such edifice is the Evita Fine Arts Museum, named for South America’s most iconic first lady. This collection of Picasso, Goya, Courbet and other European masters would be enjoyable anywhere, as would its beautifully renovated fin-de-siècle mansion, designed by a noted French architect; the combination has proved to be one of Córdoba’s winning attractions since opening in 2007.

The same year saw the unveiling of Paseo del Buen Pastor, a repurposed monastery and former women’s prison that is now one of Córdoba’s favorite spots to hear the local “cuarteto” pop genre, grab a drink or just hang out on the lawn. An attractive pastiche of modernist and vintage architecture, the Paseo offers patio cafés, glassed-in art exhibits, sculpture gardens and boutiques, along with a nightly magic fountain spectacle. It’s hard to say exactly what the Paseo is – but it’s definitely a happening scene in a city where neighborhoods evolve with organic regularity.

One of those neighborhoods is Güemes, a low-scale, cobblestoned barrio of candy-colored buildings and jungly greenery that lies north of the city center. Dotted with sidewalk bars and open-air markets, Güemes’ bohemian feel has earned it comparisons to San Telmo, the artsy, vintage neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

Like the capital, Córdoba is a collection of beguiling and ever-changing barrios and a magnet for intellectuals. But Córdoba wears its cosmopolitanism lightly. Whereas Buenos Aires is weighted down by a complicated past, Córdoba is full of young people planning their futures amid monuments to Jesuit forefathers. It’s a cocktail that — like the bittersweet local drink, Fernet and Coke — can be hard to resist.

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