Of course, there are other independent local festivals that are thronged with people as well. This year, I visited a festival in the old Andalusian city of Córdoba celebrating the height of spring. The festival, known as La Fiesta de los Patios de Córdoba (Cordoba Courtyard Festival) was listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012.
Patio is the Spanish word for “courtyard”, a bright, breezy space built in the center of homes and open to the sky. I think the Spanish had the right idea when they decided to build homes encircling gardens. I guess they’re not completely unlike the inner gardens you see in traditional Kyoto machiya homes, but the design concept is totally different. Whereas Japan—the easternmost country in Asia—is known for its wabi-sabi aesthetic of weathered understatement, Spain—at the westernmost part of the traditional West—is a country known for its passion and contrasts of light and shadow. Naturally, the Spanish taste in gardens is as starkly different from Japan as kayaku rice is from paella. It’s completely obvious from the photo, right? There’s no point even comparing the two.
The city of Córdoba has a long history stretching back before Roman times. Like other parts of southern Spain, it was an Arab kingdom where Islamic culture flourished between the 8th and 13th centuries. Religion was such a cornerstone of life that it was once known as the Mecca of the West. In accordance with Islamic tradition, the buildings here are also designed with simple exteriors so as not to arouse envy in others. Interiors are meant to be comfortable living spaces—the Alhambra in Granada being the most classic example of the style. Modestly keeping all this beauty inside reminds me of the ancient Japanese saying hisureba hana-nari—"the flower is what is hidden”.
The Fiesta de los Patios de Córdoba has a contest every year for the best courtyard, and they’re typically owned by private individuals. While their exteriors are often plain, they hide a gorgeous space inside. But keeping that much beauty to yourself has got to feel awkward after a while, and the contests probably gives the owners a chance to enjoy a little healthy time in the spotlight to satisfy that hidden desire for recognition. There were fifty entrants who opened their doors during this year’s festival. Several of the homes were jointly managed, while one was the former site of an aristocratic mansion and had twelve courtyards. In any case, people were invited into spaces that typically would be closed off to everyone but relatives and friends.
It’s difficult to care for all the flowers and plants decorating the courtyards, and pots are hung on white-painted limestone to reflect the harsh summer sun. You can’t simply spray them with a water hose, so a simple watering tool made with a reused empty can on the end of a pole is used to carefully water each one. It’s really a charming sight.
Interestingly, the older courtyards are frequently paved with pebbles rather than expensive marble. It’s a genius setup for everyday living, since the uneven surface over a wide area has natural cooling properties that can be enhanced by dousing the pebbles in water during the hot afternoon sun and taking advantage of the evaporative cooling effect. The residents of the house can enjoy a pleasant siesta surrounded by flowers in the shade of the courtyard, while the cool space after watering the pebbles is a way of showing hospitality to arriving guests. Kind omotenashi gestures like these certainly transcend East and West.