From Ubeda Spain, we moved on to Granada Spain. This entailed a bus ride of more than 2.5 hours through miles and miles and miles of olive tree groves, interspersed by occasional towns, one city (Jain) an scenic hills.
When we arrived, we found a pleasant combination of modern and historic places with some pleasant touches including numerous squares (often lined with restaurants) and water fountains; pretty, modern sculpture streetlights; and quaint alleys and stairways paved with white pebble backgrounds and intricate black pebble designs including floral patterns or Arabic religious symbols (including the symbols for the square roots of 2, 3 and 5, which are supposed to suggest closeness to god).
Granada is an ancient city with a 2500 year history. It began as a Celtic settlement before becoming a colony of Greece and then Rome–which was the period during which it began developing an urban infrastructure. Then, as with other Andalusian cities, it was taken over by the Visigoths, the Byzantines and then the Muslim Moors, during which time it became a major commercial town and regional capital. It was during this period that the city’s primary and most splendid landmark was built—the fortress/royal palace known as the Alhambra. Then, in the late 15th century, the Christians sieged and reconquered the city and soon thereafter persecuted Muslims and Jews under the Inquisition.
It began converting and replacing Muslim symbols and landmarks including mosques with a cathedral and churches and built a Christian palace inside the walls of the Alhambra. While many of the city’s historic medieval buildings have long-since been demolished, a number still remain in the city’s Old Town.
We focused our attention on some primarily historic areas of the city:
- Central, the downtown area which, while primarily modern, still has some important historic Christian religious sites around the Cathedral;
- Albaicin, the old Muslim area;
- Alhambra, the city’s primary historical sight is a combination fortress/palace/government center/garden whose origins date from the 9th century; and
- Sacromonte, a traditional Gypsy abode that also had a number of cave dwellings.
And, since we were, both lucky and unlucky enough to be in a popular city like Granada for Spain’s National Day (celebration of the day that Columbus discovered the Americas and of Spain’s continuing relationship with Latin American countries), we got to experience the crowds that flocked to the city and also some of the festivities.
Oriented around the intersection of Gran Via de Colon and Calle Reyes Catolicos, central Granada is the city’s historic center with narrow cobblestone and brick alleys and plazas. It was, however, much more historic until a 19th-century fire in the Arab bazaar destroyed roughly 70% of the historic center of the city.
Although few of the historic buildings remain, many of those that do are beautiful. And some of those that were destroyed have attempted to reconstruct copies of original designs. For example, a number of buildings in the much diminished Arab Bazaar (where the fire began), sport plaster Islamic arches, Arabian mosaics and tiles and flower pots.
This being said, some very important historic buildings do remain. These include:
- Cathedral of Granada, a spectacular 16th-century cathedral that was begun right after the Reconquista to consolidate the power of the new Christian order took 180 years to complete. It combines a mix of Renaissance and Gothic styles with Baroque design elements. While the cathedral is huge (the second largest in Spain, after that in Seville), it looks much smaller from the outside. This is partially because the structure was crowded into an established square, rather than being given its own huge plaza. Another reason is that its bell towers, originally planned to be 94 meters tall, were reduced to 53 meters due to their weight.
But what the cathedral may lack on the outside, it more than makes up on the inside. Its extensive use of bright white marble and paint provide some of the best illumination of any of the grand cathedrals. Its high walls are divided into two levels, each filled with paintings, sculptures and stained glass windows and topped with a beautiful domed ceiling. The lower level also contains elaborate chapels, such as the Capilla Mayor and St. Miquel (with its blue marble columns, white marble carvings and blue fresco ceiling). It also has a lovely silver and marble Tabernacle, beautifully illustrated 16th-century hymnbooks and has a museum with such precious works as the 17th-century sculpture of the Virgin of Antiqua.
- Royal Chapel a, separately entered Gothic-style building, holds the elaborate Renaissance-style marble tombs of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I plus its own museum.
- Madraza Palace, a 14th-century Islamic university that is painted to look like stone, still retains its lovely Mihrab (prayer area). Unfortunately, after the Recoquista, the bishops felt that the palace’s collection of 2,000 precious books could provide more value by being burned in the public square than they could be being studied.
- Corral del Carbón, is one of the few original Moorish buildings remaining in the Central district, and possibly one of the oldest buildings in the entire city. Its elaborate entryway boasts the same type of plasterwork used in the Alhambra’s Nasrid Palaces to symbolize the stalactites of the cave in which Islam was initially founded. It also has the type of latticework window used to allow women to look out, without being seen. The inner courtyard has three-story brick colonnade that was one of 18 similar buildings used as hotels, stables and warehouses for merchants who travelled to Granada to sell their goods in the nearby Alcaiceria market (see below). It was later used as theater, an apartment building (with a common patio) and to store coal.
Central also contains a number of other historic spots. Among the most important are the:
- Alcaiceria. A warren of alleyways that were originally home to a Moorish silk market. After the fire, they have been rebuilt to simulate the original architecture and now house Arab-style souvenir shops.
- Plaza de Bib-Rambla, the largest square in the city, was originally the center of the Moorish market. After the Inquisition, it was used to stage bull fights, to burn the Madraza’s books and to hang, garrot and burn infidels.
- Plaza Isabel la Catolica is a small square surrounded primarily by Neo-Classical buildings with a statue of Columbus presenting a contract with Queen Isabel. As the very good guide from PanchoTours told us, the Queen, in the midst of an expensive bid to retake Granada and to drive the Muslims out of Spain once and for all, did not have the money to undertake this venture. However, a Jewish banker, Luis de Santangle, agreed to forward the money in return for a note that would allow the Queen to repay him, at no interest, when she was able to do so. It is, however, unclear whether the Queen repaid him before she and Ferdinand began persecuting, executing and forcing Jews to leave the country.
Then, about a half-kilometer east of this downtown area is another square with even more history.
Plaza Nueva, the city’s oldest square, is located in the Darro River Valley, right between the hills of the Alhambra and the Albayzin. This strategic location next to the river and at a crossroads among the various neighborhoods led to its early settlement. It was a central focus of the Arab community (housing, for example, a bath house that can still be visited (see below) and also of the Christian community. The Christians, in fact, covered over the river, channeling it underground and built the square atop it. The square and Carrera del Darro, the street that runs through it, are now among the most popular thoroughfares in the city.
It houses many restaurants, stone bridges, the remains of Arab houses, and several historic buildings including the:
- Royal Chancellery, which housed the high courts for all of Andalusia since the 15th century;
- Church of Santa Ana, a 16th century church constructed in Mudejar style;
- Church of St Pedro and St Paulo;
- Hamman El Bañuelo, which house the ruins of one of the best preserved Arabic bath houses in Spain with virtualized images of what the various rooms looked like in the the 13th and 14th centuries.
Albayzin, another UNESCO World Heritage site, is an ancient Muslim neighborhood (from the 14th century) that consists of two primary sections. The primary section rises up a hill from Central, along packed, narrow pedestrian alleys (especially Calle Calderia Nueva and Cuesda de San Gregorio) lined with Arab crafts and souvenir shops, restaurants and tea rooms.
The fun, however, is getting off the main street—and probably getting lost–scaling very narrow street (one car and perhaps one pedestrian, if you squeeze closely to the buildings), pedestrian-only alleyways and stairways that are surrounded by densely-packed whitewashed buildings. The journey is rewarded by scores of pretty buildings, courtyards, churches and gardens.
Among the prettiest, most interesting destinations we found though our own wanderings and with the very able assistance of our Pancho Tours walking tour were:
- Casa Porras, a 16th-century Muslim home that when the owners were expelled when the home was turned over to a Christian knight who helped recapture the area and adapted it to more of a Renaissance style. The building, however, retains its austere, windowless appearance (versus the more flamboyant and open style of Christian buildings) and the type of courtyard that was characteristic of Arab mansions.
- Iglesia de San Nicolás Church and its courtyard that provide some of the best views of the Alhambra, the valley and beyond to the mountains and the sunset;
- Mosque of Granada and its gardens, built in 2003 now that Islam (which was banished from Spain during the Inquisition) is making a comeback.
- Plaza Larga, a small plaza with local shops and restaurants and the Puerta Nueva, a passage through a section of Albayzín’s wall.
- St. Gregorio Convent, home to a cloistered order of nuns who are not allowed out or to have contact with people from the outside, but still allows visitors to watch their continuous praying and singing to god.
OK, Let’s face it. The star attraction in Granada is the Alhambra. Go online and get tickets 90 days in advance. It is easy and will save you from queuing in line at 6 AM to try to score the few tickets they sell on the day of admission.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site and park was first created as a fortress in 899 and then rebuilt and dramatically and expanded by the Moors in the 11th through 15th centuries and then again by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the 16th. It was the last Moorish base in Europe and, after the Christians regained control, became a royal Christian Palace with a residence for Holy Roman Emperor.
The huge Alhambra complex, set atop a mountain to the east of the central part of the city, consists of five primary sights, and a number of secondary ones. The primary sights are:
Alcazaba, a huge fortress, is still the most visible sight in the city. You can still walk some of the remaining walls, scale one of the towers for a commanding view of the Alhambra complex, the city of Granada and the entire valley to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You can also see the foundations and some of the remnants of a town that once housed soldiers within the complex.
- Palacios Nazaries, the former Nasrid royal palace is, by far, the most dramatic site in the Alhambra complex. Built from the 11th to 15th centuries to house the Moorish royal family, it is a showcase of Arabian architectural that boasts beautiful courtyards, elaborate stone and wood carvings, pretty ceramic tiles and elaborate plaster work. Although we were generally more impressed by Seville’s Alcazar (see our post on the Alcazar), the Nasrid Palace is indeed beautiful. The most impressive sites are the Court of the Myrtles courtyard, the Court of the Lions and its Twelve Lions statue, the domed Hall of the Two Sisters, and especially the spectacular Chamber of the Ambassadors, with its carved stone walls, carved wood and inlaid leather ceiling and the almost ethereal polychrome-covered plaster “Mocuabe” vaults.
- Partal Gardens (which is really an extension of the Palace that fades into another larger set of gardens), contain the palace gardens; a nicely landscaped set of gardens flowing water, pools and most dramatically, the Promenade of The Towers (a planted segment of the main wall, studded with towers and ending in a moat that leads to the fourth primary section of the Alhambra);
- Generalife, a huge, beautifully landscaped Moorish-style garden with colorful flowers, manicured trees, hedge rows, ponds, fountains with crossing jets of water (the Court of the Main Canal) and culminating at yet another palace (Generalife Palace); this one in striking white, set well away from the rest of the buildings was a summer retreat for the sultan and his family;
- Palace of Charles V, built in sixteenth century as a royal residence for Charles V, is a two-story Renaissance-style structure with a large, colonnaded circular courtyard. It currently houses two museums (one with a collection of Alhambra artifacts and the other a fine arts museum), neither of which was open the day we visited.
These are only the Alhambra’s primary sights. The complex also contains its own church (Santa Maria de la Alhambra), the remnant of mosque’s baths, a large convent, numerous gates, fountains and plazas, and even its own small forest. There is also a Medina, a small town, now in ruins, in which government officials, employees and servants lived, as well as a subterranean world consisting of storehouses, dungeons and kilometers of tunnels through which officials could, if necessary, escape. Then there is the Royal Channel, the tunnels, water channels and pumps that supplied all the water required not just too support those loving on the mountain, but also the hectares and hectares of gardens.
But just as dramatic as the site is, the interesting story is how a dynasty that ruled this area for 800 years, through 22 different sultans, could have collapsed without the fortress even having fallen under siege. It was apparently due to a combination of budgetary problems associated with extravagant spending and the love of a Christian woman who the sultan took as a concubine and ended up having several children. It appears that the children of the sultan’s wife entered into a power struggle with the children of the concubine. This caused dissension and an inability to act at a time when the dynasty was facing growing pressures from the Christians who had reconquered the entire Iberian Peninsula except for the area around Grenada. As a result, the Sultan agreed to surrender the fortress in return for the right for he and his court to travel freely to Morocco, where he ended up dying in disgrace as the one who gave up an empire without even fighting to retain it.
The Ahambra is certainly the most important historic and tourist sight in Granada—and probably in all of Andalucia. Even if you don’t specifically visit the huge complex, or can’t score tickets for the highly restricted number of tickets available to visit the Nasrid Palace, you can’t miss at least seeing the complex from almost any hill or tall building in Granada. An inspiring sight!
While Central is generally thought of as the Christian District (with a small Jewish Distract in its southeast Corner), and Albayzín as the Muslim District, Sacromonte, which is relatively isolated on the side of steep hill on the far eastern fringe of the city, is often referred to as the Gypsy, or Roma, Quarter. The reason is that many Roma, leaving Eastern Europe, settled in the neighborhood. While they were geographically and culturally separate from the rest of the city, even they were somewhat economically integrated through their roles as metalworkers (blacksmiths, pot and kettle makers, etc.) and animal traders. They were also known for their musical skills and Sacromonte became known as one of the city’s primary Flamenco centers.
Although some Roma still live in the area, their most visible presence is now a statue of Chorrojumo in the area’s main square. Chorrojumo, also known as King of the Gypsies for his foresight, articulation and ability to mediate among different clans, was also well known outside his on community as a storyteller and popularizer of the Gypsy culture.
The community, however, also had other claims to fame. It was, for example, the center of the city’s troglodyte culture. Some residents, Gypsy and others, found it cheaper, easier and more to their taste to dig their own homes out of the hillside than to buy or build homes made of bricks or wood. Not only was this practice less expensive, it was also much cooler in the hot summers.
In fact, entire neighborhoods formed in these areas, with their own troglodyte stables and shops. Today, the remnants of some of these caves can still be seen doting the hillside. A better way to see and learn about this way of life, however, is to visit Sacromonte’s cave museum, or Museo Cuevas Sacromonte. This museum gives you the opportunity to enter a number of caves furnished as living quarters, stables and shops and provides demonstrations of neighborhood crafts (metalworking, embroidery, pottery and so forth), culture, geology and wildlife. It also explains the role and evolution of troglodyte living around the world and the centuries, including in modern times. Just be prepared to climb many steps to get to the museum.
The neighborhood also has another attraction. The main road of Camino del Sacromonte offers amazing views of the city, the surrounding mountains and also allows you to look down upon the Alhambra.
And of course, we also ate in Granada. Here are our restaurant reviews.
- Marisquria Carmela. A seafood restaurant on Pescaderia Plaza where we started dinner with an amuse bouche of baby shrimp, followed by prawn croquets (perfectly done on the outside, but almost raw batter on the inside, although still quite good), sautéed clams which were the smallest we have ever seen (about 1/3” in diameter) and a selection of fried fish (with squid, squid, prawns, baby shrimp, cuttlefish, monkfish, cod, Kingklip (a type of eel) and dogfish. Wine was a 2014 Alberino from Altos de Torona.
- Chikitos, where we started dinner with a nice black (blood) pudding, followed by a delicious baked seabass with herb cream sauce and an okay, but less satisfying grilled swordfish (so thin that it could not be fully cooked without getting dried out). Wine as a Rioja Alta Reserva 2005 from Vina Ardanza.
- Las Tinaias. We began lunch with very tasty oxtail croquettes, then had a very unusual Sevillian shellfish soup (clams, calamari, shrimp and fish in a milk-based broth flavored with mayonnaise) and stuffed artichokes with broad beans and crispy ham. Wine was a white 2012 Monopole Rioja (from Cune) made from Viura grapes.
- Marisqueria Cunini, another of the many seafood restaurants on the aptly named Plaza Pascaderia, is also one of the best. We had four different dishes for lunch, all of which were very good. We began by discovering another of our favorite shellfishes—steamed Gooseneck Barnacles (a bit challenging to extract from their leathery shells, but delicious). These were followed by baby cuttlefish sautéed in their own ink (which Tom loved, but on which Joyce was neutral due to the black ink) and clams sautéed in marinara sauce. Looking for a little more, we hit a bit of a disappointing note with a seafood cocktail that was so smothered in Louis dressing that it became hard to distinguish the various types of seafood. Overall, however`, a treat, including for the bottle of Santiago Ruiz 2014 Albarino from Rias Baixas.
- Casa Cristobal, where we started lunch with ham and melon, had a serving of fried calamari and then the main dish of a huge seafood casserole loaded with giant prawns, clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and fish in a very good tomato broth. Yum. Wine was the white from their list, 2014 Vina Esperanza Verdejo from Rued.
Our hotel was another NH Collection hotel, called Granada Victoria. The location was perfect for us. Near all of the historical sites and walkable to whatever we wanted to do. They were great at suggesting places to eat and generally helpful. While it is not the best NH Collection hotel we have stayed in, it was still very comfortable. We had upgraded our room and had windows that opened onto the street. Unfortunately, the wifi in our room was hit or miss. We often had to go out into the hallway or lobby to get a good signal–very frustrating and not expected from a hotel of this quality. Bathrobes and slippers are normal in this chain. Joyce was a little surprised when she asked for a place to get her hair done (damn those roots) and they gave her some names but never offered to make an appointment for her in spite of her identifying that she can’t speak Spanish (versus in Bangkok where the person from the hotel took her to a shop and explained to the staff what she needed). Joyce did succeed with the hair color although it came out a slightly different color than normal. Not the fault of the salon, but of her not knowing the language to communicate her needs (note to Joyce: need to learn Spanish in addition to French).