Friday, September 21, 2012

Granada is splendid

Federico García Lorca

I could've written that myself. Maybe I should be a poet.

The four-and-a-half-hour train ride from Madrid starts with vast yellow farmlands and gently rolling hills. Then taller mountains and deep gorges. A football field with a little Messi trying to chip an even littler Casillas. And finally, the city of Granada nestled in the valleys of the Sierra Nevada. Granada is Spanish for pomegranate, "hard on the outside, and filled with the blood of the tortured earth," if I may borrow some more from Lorca. It's the first Spanish city I've been properly introduced to... and it is beautiful, the scene of the Moor's last sigh (it was the last city to fall to the Christians, and its capture ended the 800-year Moorish reign of Spain) and the prettiest city I've ever seen.

Where do I start? I can't claim to have seen the whole of the city, restricting myself mostly to the Gran Via de Colon and its neighbourhood; the Albayzin, the old Muslim quarter built on the hill opposite the Alhambra; and the Alhambra itself, one of the most famous monuments in Spain.

The Gran Via de Colon is the city's most central road, and the hotel I stayed in was just off it. It starts as a kink in another road and ends at a statue of Queen Isabel giving Christopher Columbus leave to find India. It gave me my first impression of Granada - and it wasn't a bad one. It has on its sides some beautiful apartments, the Governor's residence and Granada's cathedral, one of the biggest in Europe. (My attitude toward churches is not too dissimilar to young Damien's, so I didn't step inside. It is enormous, though. It's the sort that would provoke math questions as, "If it took 5000 men 200 years to build the cathedral in Granada, how long would it take them to add another wing to the south?")

Also near is a street lined with tapas bars. Tapas is not any particular type of food, but a dish served free along with every drink you order. You can't choose what you get, so for a foreigner like me, it takes a load off: you just eat what they get you. Three drinks and you're done with lunch... and walk the streets with an unsteady gait.

Then there is the Albayzin, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the hill opposite the Alhambra. If you walk down the Gran Via toward the cathedral, it rises up and above to your left. It's a maze of narrow, winding streets and houses with balconies beautifully decorated and adorned with flowers, a street lined with Moroccan shops  and restaurants - the lemonade is particularly good - and a mosque with a garden that has a wonderful view of the Alhambra. (It took them a long time to get permission to build the mosque - it was built less than a decade back. An 800-year religious war is not without after-effects.) I took a walking tour of the Albayzin  with a Texan couple - a visit to Granada made them rent an apartment in the Albayzin, and they've been there ever since, making a living off guided walking tours to English-speaking tourists.

Above the Albayzin is Sacromonte (Sacred Mountain... maybe... probably... sounds like it, anyway). It has numerous caves excavated into the hillside that are now used as houses. The main factor in the price of the caves, apparently, is not how good they are for a residence, but the quality of the view of the Alhambra. I would've loved to see one on the inside, but couldn't manage it.

And... I saw my first Flamenco performance in one of the restaurants there. For many years I'd been labouring under the idea that Flamenco is a type of dance. It isn't. It has vocals, a guitar, something like drums maybe, hand claps and, finally (and optionally (and intermittently)) the dancing. Apparently, the best performances are impromptu ones. But I had only three days in Granada and couldn't hang around indefinitely on one spot, hoping for someone to break into song and dance, so I had the very nice folks who gave me the walking tour book a table at a restaurant that featured a performance. It was worth every Euro. Flamenco is an Andalusian thing, but Lorca weighs in with his opinion that no Andalusian town has as good Flamenco as Granada:-

"Granada is made for music, for it is a city enclosed by mountain ranges, where the melody is returned and polished and blocked by walls and boulders. Music is for cities away from the coast. Seville and Malaga and Cadiz escape through their ports. But Granada’s only way out is its high natural port of stars. Granada is withdrawn, enclosed, apt for rhythm and the echo, the marrow of music."

The waiters of some of the taverns there have a little of this musical spirit inside of them, for they would sometimes burst into song while taking an order or carrying the dishes away.

But is that all, you ask? Can you give no more than disjointed recollections of a couple of places? Tell me something deeper, maybe an insight into the town's soul? The trouble is, that insight is closed to someone like me:-

"As for the caravans of noisy tourists and the lovers of cabaret and grand hotels, those frivolous parties that the people on the Albaicín call los tios turistas, to them the city’s soul is closed."

P.S. - There is also the Alhambra, of course, but that deserves a post of its own, I think.
P.P.S. - I did try taking some pictures, but they're all uniformly rubbish. Granada deserves better.

Edit: Maybe some photos are less rubbish than others. I've salvaged three, of the Albayzin, that looks presentable.

The Trip


Dream said...

There is a museum of caves above sacromonte where they have tried to preserve how they used to live in them. Should check that if you are still there.
And Mirador San Nicholas on the Albayzin gives the best view of the ALhambra at night.

Nirmalya said...

Hi Geroge,

Your blog made fantastic reading. I have said this before: I like the languid tone of your writing: it feels almost as if you really didn't want to sit down and write that long prose!

Not sure if you know but I am a big Europhile (history/culture/people/economy/food) and I have made a couple of trips to Spain, one of them to attend the marriage of a close Spanish friend of mine. I visited places near Valladolid, Zamora, Madrid and of course, Barcelona (unfortunately, not Granada yet). My advice is not to miss a session on Neuve Flamenco Guitar recital (and if you are lucky, an accompanying dance recital too) in a local tapas bar! Granada indeed is the place for these two. I am sure that you are going to leave no opportunities untried when it comes to Spanish food and wine; so, I am not going into that.

Keep writing.

Rohan said...

Thanks for the tips, Simon. Unfortunately, I've already left Granada. I think the mosque with the garden was right next door to Mirador. I could see tower of the chruch from the Alcazaba, too. It dwarfs everything around it.

Hello Nirmalya. I still remember your emails to the office folks, whenever you were lucky enough to travel. I'm now in Valencia, but I know some locals in Barcelona, and hopefully they'll be able to take me to some good performances.

Thanatos said...

I'd recommend singing praises of the French. Heard they're very popular 'round those parts