I did the right thing by starting my tour of the Andalusia region of Spain with Seville, then Córdoba, then Granada. That’s because Granada is different.
At first it’s hard to define what makes it different; it seems to be something in the air. Perhaps the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada looming over the city – a dramatic view by the end of January? Or the alluring presence of the Alhambra, the Moorish palace built when Muslims ruled Al-Andalus (Andalusia), a constant reminder of the centuries when Granada was an Islamic stronghold in Europe?
Why go to Granada:
- The Alhambra
- The Generalife
- The Royal Chapel
- The Moorish legacy
- The cuisine
- The architecture
- The culture
- The shopping
- The low prices
There’s no doubt that the spirit of Al-Andalus and that of Muslim Spain are stronger here. Granada has gravitas; underneath the hustle and bustle of a modern and elegant city – one of the most beautiful in Spain – there’s a melancholic, enigmatic mood. Does Granada miss its golden Islamic age, when it was the center of the most brilliant civilization of medieval Europe? Or the centuries when the Alhambra Palace was the most luxurious in the known world? Is it perhaps nostalgic of the decades when it was the focus of attention of Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel – buried in Granada – who had vowed to expel the Moors from the city and from Spain?
Granada does have a reputation. American writer Washinton Irving (1783-1859) first visited it in 1829, and in his book The Alhambra, he speaks of “that Arabian spice that pervades everything in Spain.” Famous guitarist Andres Segovia (1893-1987) called Granada, “…a place of dreams, where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.” Local poet Frederico Garcia Lorca, Spain’s most renowned poet and dramatist (1898-1936) said that, “Being from Granada gives me a sympathetic understanding of those who are persecuted. Of the Gypsy, the black, the Jew . . . of the Moor, whom all Granadinos carry within us.” The word ‘granada‘ in Spanish means pomegranate, and Lorca wrote: “The fruit is hard and skull-like on the outside, but on the inside it contains the blood of the wounded earth.” By the way, Lorca’s once summer home, La Huerta de San Vicente, near his beloved Granada, is now a museum run by his niece.
It was my first visit to Granada, and from the bus from Córdoba I could see the terrain outside getting hillier and the mountains getting taller, until the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada became visible. When the bus left the highway and turned towards the city, it became clear that Granada sits on a valley between three hills, one of them occupied by the majestic Alhambra, shining under the intense Andalusian sun and imposing against the mountain backdrop. It was a beautiful view, not bad for a city that celebrated its one-thousandth anniversary as a kingdom, in 2013.
Our hotel was in a charming old building in the historic center, close to everything. It was the end of the day but still light out, the time when the Spanish dress up and go out to meet friends, a ritual called paseo. The bars were crowded, some had live music. The shops on Calle Reyes Católicos (Catholic Kings Street), a lively main drag, were all full of people chatting in animated groups. The streets were clean and the buildings solid and ornate, not a modern construction or graffiti in sight. Groups of students in uniform passed by us laughing and joking with each other, and elegant ladies carrying shopping bags strolled the streets slowly, stopping at every shop. Being a big fan of Spanish boutiques (they have the best lingerie), I spent some time in those of my favorite brands, before returning to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
It turned out to be a great dinner – and cheap: less than $30 for two people, with one glass of wine each. Granada cuisine is known for being very down to earth, and is as varied as its terrain: seafood is fresh, given the city’s proximity to the Mediterranean; its famous Trevelez ham is a staple; tapas, an institution in Andalusia, are served free with drinks, and bar hopping is an intrinsic part of life here. The tortilla del Sacromonte, a specialty of Granada (omelette with brains or kidney), is a delicious dish that shouldn’t be bypassed. And fans of Moroccan cuisine will be delighted – Granada excels in it.
The restaurant was still crowded when we left, around 10 pm. The Spanish dine late; for them eating out is a communal event, something they do in lively groups of family or friends, and they are never in a hurry to leave.
When we got outside it was a bit cold, being January, but not enough to require a heavy coat. On our way back to the hotel we could see the illuminated Alhambra, high on a hill and crowning Granada. It had a mysterious, eerie quality to it.
Getting tickets to the Alhambra was not as easy as it could be. Buying them online proved to be a dead end – the website I had seen before leaving home is very old-fashioned, hard to navigate, and the amount of information requested is staggering. Bureaucracy is still a problem in Spain, a country slow to modernize. Fortunately, it more than compensates for it in other ways.
I had opted for buying ticket once in Granada, but the address I had, Tienda Librería de la Alhambra, no longer sells them. Someone there explained – in Spanish – how to get to the new selling place. I rushed to the address I was given, a courtyard nearby, where in a small room with a vending machine – and a young woman who could barely speak English at the desk – I finally got my tickets. Thank God I can speak Spanish, I thought. Not everybody speaks English in Spain.
We took local bus number 32 to get to the Alhambra – using public transportation is my favorite way to mingle with locals and to learn about their city. Going upwards on a hill we passed Realejo, once a Jewish quarter, and when we got to the top – with great views of the city – it was time to join the 11 am group visit we had booked.
The lines to enter the fortress were already long; the Alhambra is Spain’s most popular monument, some 3 million people visit it every year! Most tourists waiting to get in were Chinese wearing masks. Someone explained that it was the Chinese New Year, and that a great number of them travelled to Europe. Why the masks? A deadly virus called coronavirus had started to spread in China and elsewhere, we were told.
But we soon forgot about it – it’s hard to think of anything else when you are in the Alhambra. This sprawling palace-fortress, composed of royal residential quarters, court chambers, baths and gardens – surrounded by defense towers and massive walls – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its breathtaking architecture is now respected as a masterpiece. It wasn’t always so (more later).
We started our visit by the central palace, the Palace of the Nasrids (Palacio Nazaríes), named after the Muslim dynasty (1238-1492) that planned the Alhambra as a military fort, in the 9th century. But it was when one of the Nasrids sultans chose it as his royal residence that it reached its period of greatest splendor.
For centuries the Alhambra was the envy of the world. But in 1492, when king Fernando and queen Isabel (Ferdinand and Isabella, in English) conquered the kingdom of Granada from the Moors -an important event called the Reconquest (Reconquista) – the palace suffered considerable changes to accommodate the new court, and not all good. In their old age, the monarchs handed the Alhambra over to a warden, for safekeeping. Over the following centuries it fell into disrepair, suffered pillage and decay, even an attempt by Napoleon’s troops to blow it up. Fortunately, the restorations that began in the 19th century are now a permanent effort by the Spanish government, which owns the Alhambra.
It is said that the Alhambra, as a historical monument, will never be surpassed. Its Palacio Nazaríes is a magical use of space, light, water and elaborate wall decorations, a sensual piece of architecture. It was created as an Arab idea of paradise on Earth, and the craftsmanship displayed in its many buildings is breathtaking. There are pools and fountains everywhere (water signifies purity in Islam), and the atmosphere is serene and elegant. Tile mosaics widely used as wall adornments have such an exuberance of colors that I felt transported to a scene of Arabian Nights.
That sensation grew once I – and dozens of other people – entered the Ambassador’s Hall (Salon de los Embajadores). A domed marquetry ceiling with more than 8000 cedar pieces creates an intricate star pattern representing the seven heavens of the Muslim cosmos. The next patio, Courtyard of the Lions (Patio de los Leones), took things to yet another level: built in the second part of the 14th century, its centerpiece is a fountain that channels water through the mouths of 12 marble lions that are white as snow. The stucco work and lacelike details on the walls – decorated with Arab poetry and lines from the Koran – form the pinnacle of luxury in the Alhambra, a short contrast with the severe brick walls surrounding the Alhambra. The place is so intriguing that back home in the USA I am reading Tales of the Alhambra, which Irving wrote while living in one of its rooms. If you have time for only one thing in Granada, make it the Palacio Nazaríes. It changes whatever stereotypes you may have of Muslims and Islam.
The Generalife Palace
From the Arabic, Yannat al-Arif, or ‘garden of lofty paradise,’ the Generalife Palace in the Alhambra – with incomparable views of Granada below – was built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries as a retreat for the sultans of the Nasrid dynasty. It was where they escaped to from the palace intrigues to enjoy some peace and tranquility.
The Generalife has many graceful and harmonious pathways, patios, pools, fountains, tall trees and flowers. The vegetable garden was being tended to by local gardeners, when we passed by. Particularly interesting is the Escalera del Agua (water stairway), where water flows along a shaded staircase, an ingenious display of the skilled garden and irrigation engineering of the original builders.
Directly across the Darro River ravine, from the Alhambra, this ancient Moorish neighborhood is composed of mostly old, dilapidated white houses and narrow, cobblestoned streets going up a hill. Founded in 1228 by Moors who had fled the town of Baeza, when Christians from the north kingdoms invaded, it was the Arab neighborhood in Granada for centuries. It still guards some of its charm, despite the fact that its 30 mosques were converted into Catholic churches, after the Reconquista.
Today’s Albayzin is far from the bustling place it once was, but it retains a peculiar air. The streets exhale a certain mystery, and they are best way explored by foot – the hills are steep at some points, and driving is not recommended. But don’t leave Granada without going all the way to the top of the neighborhood: the plaza in front of the church of San Nicolas – Mirador de San Nicolas – has the most stunning views of the Alhambra and of Granada. With the dramatic peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background, this sight is most magical at night, when the Alhambra is floodlit and looks as if it were suspended in the air. It did look like an ideal place for an alchemists’ meeting…
Occultism and alchemy
It’s known that the Moors of Andalusia were famous for their study of magic and alchemy, although little is known about their methods. That’s because after the Reconquista the subject was forbidden by the Catholic church, which had always been against the so-called ‘occult’ arts. The Inquisition of 1478 sentenced to death many people accused of practicing black magic, and most were Moors -no other ethnic group had been so dedicated to esoteric studies. Most of their knowledge was erased, when around one million books in Arabic were burned. Today those curious about the subject must resort to few fragments left from the original books in contemporary European and Arabic literature.
The Moorish alchemists taught, among other things, that all metals are composed of varying proportions of mercury and sulphur. They looked to multiply drugs out of the various mixtures and reactions of the few chemicals at their disposal, and believed in the transmutation of metals. In Granada, they even had a school of alchemy for artisans and experimentalists.
The Realejo was already the Jewish quarter in Granada when the Moors arrived in the city in the year 711 AD. Located right in the town’s center, it was a bustling community at the time of Nasrid rule, so important that Granada was called, ‘Granada of the Jews’ (Garnatha al Yejud).
During Moorish rule, Jews lived in relative peace in Granada, but that ended after the Christian Reconquista, when they were expelled and their quarters destroyed. The neighborhood was then renamed El Realejo, today a picturesque area of quaint old houses and quiet patios. Despite the fact that there are very few Jewish people living in Granada now, there’s a museum in their memory in the Realejo – Museo Sefardi. Coincidentaly, it opened in 2013, the same year the Spanish government began offering citizenship to any Sefhardic Jew who could prove their Iberian ancestry.
The Catholic Monarchs and the last sultan
It’s difficult to understand Andalusia – and Spain – without learning a bit about king Fernando II of Aragon and queen Isabel I of Castille. The very foundation of Spain as a nation – state was laid out by these two monarchs, who married in 1469 to unite their kingdoms in military, diplomatic and religious matters.
Isabel was a devout Catholic, and her lifelong dream was to unite all the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula under her religion and her language (Castillian Spanish ). To accomplish that she had to expel the Muslims from their last stronghold in the Peninsula, Granada, the only Moorish kingdom left in all Andalusia.
The Moors were Muslim Arab and Berber tribes originally from North Africa which had ruled Andalusia since the year 711 AD. In the last century before the Reconquista, they had been weakened by internal rivalries and by a heavy tribute they had to pay to the Catholic kings to avoid being attacked. But after a siege that lasted from 1482 to 1492, they could no longer hold on to power and surrendered Granada ,on January 2nd, 1492. That day changed the history of Andalusia and that of Spain forever. It was the turning point that marked the end of the Middle Ages. It also signaled the beginning of an era of great power and abundance for Spain, thanks to the new lands discovered in America.
On that historic day, the last Moorish sultan, Boabdil, handed over the keys to Granada to Fernando and Isabel, without a fight. It’s said that he cried, when leaving the city with his family, later that day (he died in Morocco), which prompted his mother to say the famous line now in all history books: “You cry like a woman for the city you couldn’t hold as a man.”
The Reconquista brought the end of the peaceful coexistence between religions in the Iberian peninsula: Jews and Moors were forced to convert to Catholicism or be exiled. In 1526 this prohibition spread to the rest of Spain – Jews who had converted (called conversos) were accused of heresy by the Catholic church and were ‘invited’ to leave the country for good. And in 1611, all descendants of the Moors who had converted (called Mouriscos) had the same fate – all expelled from the Peninsula. Catholic Spain wanted to erase the memory of centuries of Islam rule forever.
King Fernando and his queen Isabel were officially bestowed the title of Catholic Monarchs by pope Alexander VI (born a Borgia in Valencia). She died in 1504, and her husband in 1516. Both were laid to rest – with their daughter and queen Joana la loca (Joanna the mad one), their son-in-law Felipe the Handsome, and Prince Felipe de Asturias, a son who died young – in a shrine in the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), next to Granada’s monumental cathedral. Their tomb are a masterpiece of the ornate Gothic style known in Spain as Isabelline.
The crypt containing the actual coffins of the two monarchs is located a few steps down, under the mausoleum, and its simplicity is surprising. That’s just the way Isabel chose, when she requested to be buried in Granada, the jewel in her crown. In the room next to the crypt there’s a sacristy with Fernando’s sword, Isabel’s crown and scepter, their statues and a fine collection of some of her Flemish paintings.
Flamenco and the Gypsies of Sacromonte
The Gypsy culture is yet another strong ingredient in the melting pot which is Granada. Originally from the north of India, they were already living in Andalusia by the Middle Ages. Besides contributing to the local culture with their music, the gypsies are credited with having created the flamenco, an exquisite and dramatic dance that is a mix of their Indian-influenced traditions and the Moorish culture of Andalusia.
In Granada, the Gypsies settled on the third of the city’s three hills, the Sacromonte (Sacred Mount), which rises above the Albayzin. It was once a place riddled with caverns and traditionally known as a ‘den of thieves and scam artists,’ a reputation greatly exaggerated. Sacromonte today is more like a village, and many colorful Gypsy caves have been restored as middle class homes.
The Gypsy spirit lives on, though, especially in the zambras, as the flamenco performed in those caves is called. The difference with formal flamenco is that in the zambras the dancers mingle with the audience, and often invite someone onto the floor with them. It’s possible to book these shows, ask in your hotel for information.
We looked for a zambra show in Sacromonte, but that night all were closed. We ended up in Albayzin, also renowned for good flamenco tablados (stages). The show we attended, at Jardines de Zoraya, was as inspiring as we were promised it would be by a chatting taxi driver who didn’t want to leave us alone in Sacromonte at night. Upon first impression, Jardines de Zoraya looks a bit over-touristy, as dinner is served with the show (usually a sign of a tourist trap). But the flamenco dancers were truly talented and the dance was mesmerizing.
Calle Alcaicería, formerly the center of a grand bazaar, is where silk was made and sold in Moorish-time Granada. It’s now taken up with souvenir shops, but the setting is still very reminiscent of the past, especially in the early mornings, before the tourists arrive. It’s delicious to wander from shop to shop in this lively market with low prices and colorful crafts. And once in a while, one might find a real treasure there.
My stay in Granada ended with a visit to Hammam Al Andalus, Arab baths that reopened in 1998, five centuries after the last hammam was closed in Granada. It was my second time in a hammam, after the one in Córdoba – I could easily become a regular. The Al-Andalus is set in a 13th century building at the foot of the Alhambra, behind a church that was once a mosque. It was rebuilt exactly where pools of water were found, during archeological excavations, which led to believe that it’s on the same site of ancient baths.
The interior is luxurious, decorated with mosaics with geometric designs, columns carved with arabesque motifs and arches and vaults punctuated by skylights. As you go in, there are three pools of different water temperatures, a steam room and a few private massage parlors that offer a sybaritic experience.
The reopening of Hammam Al-Andalus, and the restorations going on all over Granada, are clear indications that the city – and Spain as a country – is finally coming to terms with its Moorish past, after centuries of systematically writing it off its history books. Muslim Andalus was a rich and powerful society, progressive and intellectually curious, the envy of the known world for 800 years. It reached its peak in Cordoba and in Granada. No doubt we will all benefit from this sensuous culture being brought back to life, where it once thrived.