As a lifelong lover of Spain, few cities are as deeply intertwined in my image of this singular country as this singular city at the foot of Andalusia’s Sierra Nevada mountains, an hour from the Costa del Sol. That title is slightly misleading, actually – I’ve been under Granada’s spell ever since my first long-ago visit, but it’s a line from the English version of a reknowned, flamboyant song written in Spanish in the 1930s (ironically, by a Mexican) and covered by Frank Sinatra and Frankie Laine. It’s just one more example of the mythic pull this city has had in Spain and well beyond for centuries. The century before last, it was American writer Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra that caught the educated world’s fascination and introduced it to Granada.
What all the fuss is about becomes clear once you roll into town, for looming above it, set majestically against the mountains, all is one of the glories of Europe: the palace-fortress complex that from the 11th to 15th century was the seat of the Nasrid Moorish rulers of the kingdom of Granada. With its elegant arches, columns, courtyard, stalactites, tracery, tilework, calligraphy, and lots of fountains, pools, and greenery, the Alhambra and adjacent Generalife palace complex come as close as any site on earth to the 1,001 Nights fairytale come to life. I can still remember staying in the parador (one of a chain of picturesque state-owned inns) right within the complex and roaming these courtyards and rooms slack-jawed for the first time.
There’s been a settlement on this spot for more than two millennia, including colonies of ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium, but it was after the Moors conquered this area in 711 that Granada took the shape whose remnants we still see today – an era brought to an end by the Reconquest in 1492 under Ferdinand and Isabella. Those other remnants include the Alcaicería, the a warren of alleyways that was once a silk market (what you see now is a reconstruction filled with tourist shops, but it still manages convey a good bit of atmosphere); the Madraza Palace, an Islamic school now part of the University of Granada; the 14th-century Corral de Carbón, originally a lodging house for merchants; and the Albaicín (also spelled Albayzín), the hillside district facing the Alhambra, also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of Archaeological Museum of Granada (though this is closed for the time being) and the remains of a Moorish bath complex called El Bañuelo. You can also get a taste of what it might’ve been like back in the day at a recreated version called Hammam Al Andalus, where you can soak in pools, get a massage, even be entertained by belly dancers.
Then of course there’s plenty to see and do in this city dating from the centuries since, beginning with monuments connected to Ferdinand and Isabella such as the Baroque/Renaissance cathedral, finished in 1704, and adjoining 16th-century Royal Chapel, site of their tombs. The city’s other main Catholic landmark is La Cartuja, an elaborate Baroque monastery and church in the north part of the city built in the 16th and 17th centuries. And culture vultures might want to pay homage to a pair of the greats of 20th-century Spanish music and letters, respectively, at the museum-house of composer Manuel de Falla and the summer home of poet Federico García Lorca.
You’ll want, of course to head uphill to the Sacromonte, the traditional gypsy neighbourhood, famous for dwellings hewn out of the soft hillside rock; there’s a Sacromonte Caves Museum which tells the history of the district and its denizens. Now many of these caves are bars, restaurants, and tablaos (flamenco clubs).
Speaking of which, there’s no shortage of brilliant spots in this town to eat, drink, and be merry. Particularly recommendable are the teterías (Arab-style tearooms), particularly authentic and atmospheric since many are run by North Africans whose population has been making a major comeback here in recent years. Granada is also known for its amazing tapas (and by the way is one of the few places left where you can order a drink in a bar and be given a free tapa); in fact, just yesterday on Twitter Spain there was quite an animated discussion going under #MejorCiudaddeTapas (Best City for Tapas), and Granada was popping up more than any single other name. Finally, you shouldn’t miss a meal in a carmen – a traditional walled Albaicín compound with a house, garden, and dreamy view of the Alhambra.
And while you’re sitting there, staring out, the purple prose of that old chestnut suddenly doesn’t seem so purple after all:
If you could speak, what a fascinating tale you would tell…
Of an age the world has long forgotten,
Of an age that weaves a silent magic in Granada today.
Granada has 238,000 inhabitants and its key areas are very easily walkable.
The climate is reasonably mild, dry, and sunny; summers can be warm (but it is, as they say, a dry heat), while it can get chilly in winter but rarely snows. Temperatures in winter range from 3° to 14° Celsius (37-57° Fahrenheit) and summer 14-34° C (57-93°F).
The currency is the euro.
image | M. Kreuschitz