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In this Spanish city, the great outdoors may be just a few steps from the front door.

Ana de Austria has one plea, and she makes it daily: “Please grow.”

The request comes as she waters the vibrant red, pink, coral, and white geraniums that trail from the hundreds of clay pots mounted on the courtyard walls of her home in Córdoba, Spain.
“It takes three or four hours a day to water and brush all the flowers,” she says matter-of-factly, betraying none of the competitive zeal that drives her and her husband to replant every fall, protect the plants from winter frost, whitewash the patio walls, repaint the window trim, and nurture every bud with sweet talk.

The payoff for all the hard work comes every May during the 11-day Festival of the Patios, when 50 families compete for awards and allow the public to visit their sweet-scented patios — some of Córdoba’s best and most colorful surprises. With roots in the Roman and Arab civilizations that once ruled here, Cordoban courtyards are flower-filled outdoor living spaces for gathering, celebrating, and reflecting.

“From the nineteenth century through the 1960s, working-class homes typically were shared by as many as 10 families. Each had only two rooms for their exclusive use, while the kitchen, bathroom, laundry basins, and courtyard were communal,” explains Leonor Camorra Pérez, president of Claveles y Gitanillas, the patio owners association. “As you can imagine, people spent most of their time in the patio — cooling off under an awning in summer; children playing with water from the fountains; and families sharing dinner, chatting, and dancing until bedtime.”
During the Córdoba Festival of the Patios, visitors are invited inside the courtyard walls to sample the history and beauty within. “Without a doubt, it’s the city’s most important festival,” says Camorra Pérez, whose patio won an award in 1998. “It’s the only time when people open their homes to share this culture with everyone.”