As Cordoba declined, Granada grew, and for a time Granada was the grandest city in Spain – and ultimately the last city in Spain under Muslim rule. The Alhambra fortress, the last stronghold of the Moorish kingdom in Spain, finally fell to the Reconquista in 1492. Until then it was the greatest Moorish palace, highlighting the splendor of a Moorish civilization that nowhere else shone as brightly.
Today Granada and suburbs have a population approaching half a million; it’s a modern city, as shown to the left, but the historical center is absolutely a world apart. It dates back a thousand years, and as one of Europe’s top sights, draws up to 8,000 visitors a day (!), mostly to see the Alhambra. However, Granada offers many more antiquities to see, among them a beautiful cathedral and the Albayzín, the best-preserved Moorish quarter in Spain. The Albayzín flows down a steep hill across the river from the hill on which the Alhambra was built. It’s a picturesque place, and strikingly different from the rest of Grenada! That picture of modern Grenada shown above was taken from the Albayzín; you stand in a Moorish world from the 1400’s, and look through a time warp into a modern, bustling city.
THE HISTORIC CITY CENTER
Let me start by showing you this historic center, home of a grand cathedral, the burial chapel of kings, the old silk market, Moorish baths, and a surviving caravanserai (a roadside inn for merchant travelers and their camels). Although the modern city has infiltrated and surrounded these landmarks, the shops and plentiful restaurants absorb both the locals and hordes of tourists remarkably well. Also doing well are the street performers, who are quite good, as shown below.
Some of the city’s North African heritage can still be seen in the open-air market for spices and herbs, and the many open-storefront grocery shops that abound.
THE HISTORIC CITY CENTER – THE CATHEDRAL AND THE ROYAL CHAPEL
Granada was under Muslim rule for 700 years, the last 200 seeing it grow as the Reconquista slowly drove refugees here. By 1400 Granada held 120,000 people, very large for Europe at that time. The plazas here were bustling with the city’s main (and rich) markets. Later, under Catholic rule, this area became the Moorish ghetto. Then, with the Inquisition (1500), thousands of Arabic books were burned, the mosques razed, Muslims evicted or forced to convert, and the Cathedral built on top of the old mosque. And oh my, a statement was made with the Cathedral! It’s the 2nd largest in Spain after Sevilla’s (post of July 11, “Sevilla and its Cathedral”). It was built in Spanish Renaissance style, and finished 181 years later with Baroque decoration. It’s hard to get a picture of the Cathedral from the outside, since it’s surrounded by other buildings, but it practically screams “Triumph!”. A picture of the impressive exterior, and pictures of the equally impressive interior, are shown below.
The Cathedral houses a collection of illustrated music sheets, mostly Gregorian chants from the 1500’s. The artwork in these miniatures is amazingly beautiful!!
At about the same time as the Cathedral was being built, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel decreed they wanted to be buried in the city of their final Reconquista triumph and ordered a Royal Chapel be built for that purpose. 500 years ago, this was the finest that money could buy – they spent 1/4th of their wealth on it. It was completed in just 15 years. The style is Plateresque Gothic – Gothic simplicity combined with Mudejar decoration. Externally there is not much to see, since 3 sides are connected to other buildings (including the Cathedral). Pictures were not permitted inside; the marble figures of the king and queen in repose are impressive – carved in Italy.
THE HISTORIC CITY CENTER – THE ALCAICERÍA
Originally this was an important Moorish silk market with 200 shops (sufficiently important that all of it’s 10 gates had armed guards ). Destroyed by fire in 1850, it was rebuilt later that century for the tourist trade. Today it has (unmanned) gates, a series of interconnecting narrow walkways, and marble columns defining the many very touristy shops.
THE HISTORIC CITY CENTER – CORRAL DEL CARBÓN
The name “carbon” comes from the earlier use of this building as a coal storage facility(!). This is the only survivor of Granda’s original 14 “caravanserai”. Here, just a block away from the Alcaicería, merchants could rest their camels, get a bite to eat, and get a good night’s sleep. It was built in the 1300’s and has a pretty fancy Moorish door for your roadside inn, as shown below. Inside it’s plain but elegant, with surviving architecture and
brickwork . The 1300’s! Doesn’t the inside look an awful lot like today’s motels? You park your camel instead of your car. It’s always amazing how the basic things we need really don’t change that much through time. Even 2000-year-old houses that we saw in Pompei, Italy looked very livable and inviting!
THE HISTORIC CITY CENTER – MOORISH PUBLIC BATHS
Public baths were a big part of Muslim community life, not only for cleansing but as a place to socialize or do business. After the Reconquista, the Christians assumed that conspiracies might also be hatched there, so few survived. Below is a survivor from the 1000’s, with the traditional cold room, warm room and hot room, and the heating below the floor. It’s all very Roman, except the Romans had pools; the Muslims just doused.
THE HISTORIC CITY CENTER – THE OLD MADRASSA
Just across from the Royal Chapel is the Muslim madrassa or school, which became Christian Granada’s City Hall. Today the outside has a strange paint job – those mortar joints are not real (picture, left)! But inside, there is a lot of true 1400’s Muslim decoration (not Mudejar), and it is outstandingly beautiful.
We’re staying in the Albayzín; on arriving we discover that it has a dearth of streets allowing car access; most “streets” are much too narrow, steep, and often have stairs; foot-traffic only. Read: we had to struggle up cobblestone streets with our backpacks quite some distance to reach our apartment! The streets are narrow for a purpose, so that the surrounding buildings will provide shade from the hot sun. For unknown reasons the streets are also maze-like, and even with a map you will get lost, guaranteed. Finding the apartment we’d rented was not easy! The instructions were to go to the cafe –
The 4 Gatos (you can see the patio umbrellas and awning in the first picture above) – and turn left. Well, that takes us into a closed courtyard surrounded by building walls! Eventually we discovered an alley at the very end of that courtyard that goes off to the right but was invisible from the street, (red arrow in left picture above – you’ll need to click on the picture to see it) – and eventually found the right building. Welcome to the maze! Our small apartment is on the 2nd floor of the house shown by the blue arrow in the left picture above. On the inside, picture to the right, it’s definitely Moorish; old wood timbers and columns and an interior courtyard that was the style then. The apartment isn’t much, but that courtyard is pretty cool.
The “streets” are also interesting. Down near the base of the Albayzín, just off one of the cities’ main avenues, there are small food stores, pubs, cafes, and a bit further up, a lot of
tourist shops, many of the latter sprawling into the street itself. As you climb (and climb) higher, all that falls away and its just you hemmed in by close-set buildings on narrow twisting streets/alleys, until you turn a corner and are surprised by a small stone water fountain, or colorful tiles, or a cafe with umbrellas, a view of a residential patio garden, or a delightful small shady park. Stopping at a cafe for a sangria or mojito on the hot climb is pure heaven! Let me show you examples of the streets. Notice that many of the streets are actually steps.
Examples of nice surprises.
There are 20 or so small churches here in the Albayzín, all sitting on spots that were once mosques. They are often simple, to make it easier for the (you-better-convert-or-else) ex-Muslims who were not used to worshiping among images. Below are two pictures of such a church (the alter was not so simple!), along with a picture of a picture of a convent from the 1500’s – it looked like it would be impressive, but it was closed when we came by.
There is another interesting aspect to Granada – it has a distinct gypsy population of about 50,000, and although they’ve been in Granada since the 1400’s, they remain unassimilated. Many of these gypsies live in a district directly connecting with the Albayzín, the Sacromonte. This very colorful low-rent district (cave-dwelling is common, for example) also attracts “hippies” and some of Spain’s youthful unemployed (50% unemployment for the under-25!). Many gypsies work the tourist crowds, and in general, deserved or not, they have a less-than-sterling reputation. Put it all together, and guide books voice strong concerns about being in the Albayzín after dark. Certainly Ginger had some reservations – after all, the place is nothing but dark alleys – but this is Spain, the land of the mid-day siesta producing a time-offset; restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 or 9pm, it’s cooler then, and the Alhambra seen from the Albayzín is gorgeous at night, as you can see from the picture on the left. So with a little prodding from me, off we went into the nights, and happily we had zero problems.
I really wanted to see the Sacromonte; there are tours that take tourists to bars and the gypsy Zambra dance (a flamenco variation), but we’re wary of (non-authentic) tourist shows. I decide to walk there (in daylight), but Ginger is not enthusiastic; I’m on my own. So I scale the Albayzín, and then down, and then up the Sacromonte, and it is sunny and I am hot, but it’s interesting. From where I am the Sacromonte looks normal and well kept, until I realize that it’s not quite normal; most of the buildings and houses I’m seeing are just fronts with no depth; the houses are built into the hill (or into a cave, who knows?).
It’s similar to an Italian hill town, except the town is mostly hill! Also I notice that I seem to be the only person in the world. It is siesta time, and other than an occasional car coming by, nothing but nothing is stirring. I see a sign announcing there is a restaurant/bar up this driveway, and I’m hot and thirsty, and maybe I can find me a gypsy! So up I go, up quite a steep, curving driveway, which continues up for much longer than I anticipated. And up! It’s a bloomin’ mountain! I get there, and it is closed. Drat! Learning: Gypsies take their siestas very seriously. Time to go home. On the way out, I come across a guide with a family on tour, on Segways. We’re at the top of a quite steep and long hill, looking down, and the guide is talking to a young lady on her Segway “You just release the brake and lean forward ….” Think Olympic ski jump …. After I reached the bottom, walking, the Segways were still up there.
Let me finish with a view of Granada food. It wasn’t too shabby!
Not only is the food quite good, but it often comes with a great view, particularly in the Albayzín. One of our favorite restaurants has an impressive view of the Alhambra. It’s at a popular spot, the San Nicolás viewpoint, and as you can see in the picture a lot of people hang out in the small park there to catch the sunset. Just below that gray wall (and across the street) is the restaurant – those dark bays above the white wall are the restaurant windows. In the pictures below we’re inside that restaurant looking out, and we’ll share the view of the sunset with you – oh, and maybe you’ll notice the Alhambra is part of the view ….
Next post – inside the Alhambra!