A potted history of Córdoba first
What happens when a subordinate disobeys the Viceroy’s orders?
A new city is founded. Or, at any rate, that’s what happened with Córdoba. In 1673, the Viceroy of Perú, the head of one of the administrative units of the Spanish colonies in South America, commanded Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera to travel south from Potosí (modern-day Bolivia) and found a settlement in the Salta valley (northern Argentina) to stop the threat of the Calchaquí Indians.
Cabrera had other ideas and pushed on south towards the Atlantic. He did found a town, however. Roughly halfway between Salta and the ocean, he founded Córdoba de la Nueva Andalucía on the banks of the Suquía River.
With Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera came the first religious order to settle in the area, the Franciscan friars. Under Cabrera’s patronage, the Franciscans founded a convent in 1575, a humble adobe and thatch structure. Years later, a more permanent construction was built to house the growing community. The convent of San Francisco still stands in the city centre, on the corner of Buenos Aires and Entre Rios streets.
The convent of San Francisco
I had the chance to visit Córdoba a while ago. I did not have a list of must-see places or even a map. I simply strolled around, occasionally asking passers-by for directions. This is how I came across the convent and church of San Francisco, almost by chance. Granted, I knew about a few historic churches and buildings that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and kept an eye out for them.
The convent sits between the church and a private Catholic school. It consists of a two-story building with an unprepossessing façade. The year of its foundation is written above the door. That is what caught my attention and drew me in.
“I’m sorry but the convent is not open to the public because it’s the friars’ private residence,” said the girl at reception with a pleasant smile.
“Oh. OK then. I’d thought I’d ask. Thanks, anyway.” I was disappointed and it showed. I really wanted to see the convent. My country, Argentina, is relatively young so any construction that dates from the 16th century is considered ancient by our standards. I‘m always excited to visit those historic buildings, especially because there are precious few of them.
“I can show you the domestic chapel if you want. It’s not open to the public either, mind.” My spirits rose with her words. She led me through a massive wooden door into the cloisters. The domestic chapel was a few feet to the right.
The chapel dates back to the early 1600s. Its thick walls (3 feet deep) still show traces of the original frescoes that adorned them. Most of the floor tiles are original as well and show damage in some areas. The chapel is slowly being restored.
The most important feature of the chapel is the image of Our Lady of Copacabana sent from Alto Perú (modern-day Bolivia) in the 17th century and which rests on a piece of wood. Legend has it that this is a slice of the carob tree under whose shade the convent was founded. The thought that I was standing where local history was made four centuries earlier gave me goose bumps.
The church of San Francisco
I wanted to see the church next. I had to hurry because it was about to close. Although Córdoba is a big, modern city, it still retains some traits of a small town and observing the siesta is one of them.
The church of San Francisco was built between 1796 and 1813 to replace the crumbling earlier construction. It was designed in an Italianate Post colonial style. The building and the Franciscan community saw the change from Spanish colony to independent republic. Interestingly, the church gave sanctuary to the vanquished during the Independence and civil wars.
Córdoba is rife with history, both ancient and modern. It has played an important role in the history and economy of Argentina. But it has also an important place in my personal history. My paternal grandmother was Cordobesa and although she lived elsewhere for over 60 years, she never lost the cadence and sounds of her place of birth. She used to tell us stories of her childhood in Córdoba and cook traditional local dishes.
Her native land held a kind of fascination for me as a child but for reasons I don’t know we never visited it. I only did when my brother and his family moved there last year. My grandmother passed away two years ago and I deeply regret having taking her for granted and not having appreciated her stories and her culture more.