september 30th - october 11th, 2014
Throwing the sensibility of Catalan seny to the gypsy winds, come the first of October we braved a torrential rainstorm to board an overnight train to Granada in search of what Catalans call rauxa, or 'madness', and Andalucians revere as el duende- 'soul power'.
Still sodden and strung out from our night of travel made sleepless by a screaming pobrecito, we arrived in dire need of a refreshing breakfast.
After regaining our strength we set off on a walk to Sacromonte, a neighborhood of cave houses. The bright white stucco revetments at the bottom left of this photo are recently constructed roofs covering houses dug into the mountainside, added in order to prevent water from seeping through the soil above and undermining the structure of the home. The buildings that look more like typical houses are additions to underlying suites of hollowed out tunnels and chambers. The residents of this neighborhood won the money for such renovations largely by inviting tourists to experience the novelty of watching flamenco in a cave- for a small fee. Above this area lies a cluster of caves more closely resembling those of decades past in their lack of both electricity and running water. The stalwart inhabitants are generally not native Andalucians, but foreigners in search of a quiter life.
One of the neighborhood's greatest assets is the view offered of the Alhambra across the Darro valley. Like the pyramids in Giza, the Alhambra is so utterly awesome as to dominate in reputation and stature Granada's considerable wealth of monuments.
Sacromonte is often overshadowed by the UNESCO-listed neighboring neighborhood, Albaícin. Be that as it may, the lingering roughness and ad hoc embellishment has an appeal all its own.
The caves of Sacromonte are the birthplace of a style of flamenco called la zambra. The Romani gypsies that built these caves are of Indian origin, and like many immigrant groups synthesized the traditions of their native lands with aspects of their adopted culture to create entirely new, and doubly rich, forms of expression. The current Romani of Granada are rightfully proud of their artistic accomplishments, so much so their assertions occassionally slip into the realm of conspiracy. An exhibit at the gypsy museum in Sacromonte decries the Romani ancestry of Charlie Chaplin, generally accepted, Elvis Presley, not too hard to believe, and JFK, slightly more difficult to swallow. We expect they'll claim Tupac next.
Every private garden, or as they are titled only in Granada, carmen, has at least one of the major historic regional cash crops- figs, almonds, pomegranates or mulberry trees (for farming silk worms). Granada also happens to be Spanish for pomegranate, giving rise to the folk tale that the fruit is the namesake of the city. In truth, the name of the fruit stems from the Latin grãnãtum, meaning 'seeded' (the 'pome' likewise hails from the Latin põmum meaning 'apple'), whereas the name of the city is derived from the suburb called Gharnáta by the Arabs, possibly translating to 'hill of strangers'. All in all a much more enigmatic handle than 'seedy apple'.
Along the riverside street Carrera del Darro rest the remains of the Arabic bathhouse, or hammam, referred to in Spanish as el Banuelo. Like many of Granada's most renowned monuments, this structure dates from the Moorish occupation of Spain. Chelsea lurks in the shadows of the hararet, the main room, which would have been kept steaming hot by furnaces below the marble floor. To bring water to such baths the Moors engineered aqueducts carrying flows from the Alpujarra mountains into the city. This hydration, coupled with the cool air blowing in from the Sierra Nevada, led Granada to become a mild oasis in the midst of the blistering Iberian heat.
Polished marble flooring and intricately carved capitals give insight as to how opulent these baths must have been in their prime. Most hammams of this era were destroyed by the reconquering Christians, who felt bathing so often was excessively decadent and emasculating. Luckily they spared el Banuelo to evidence the heathenism of their vanquished foes. It would be about another century before germ theory vindicated the Moors.
A handful of Granadas historic poets wrote odes to the architectural beauty and healthfulness of el Banuelo. Upon seeing the quality of the interior light for ourselves we weren't at all surprised.
Most prominent among the decidely not Moorish monuments in the city is, of course, the cathedral. However, it is sited on the foundations of the prior mosque representing the Christian conquest. Unlike most cathedrals in Spain, the construction of this edifice couldn't begin until after the capture of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada from its Moorish rulers in 1492. Thus, though the original plans were Gothic in style, by the time of the groundbreaking Renaissance ideals had gained sway and significantly altered the character of the eventual building over the nearly two hundred year course of its construction. The final style is best described as Plateresque, meaning 'in the manner of the silversmith'. If you've never heard of this style don't worry, as it was isolated to Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries, the one notable exception being Spain's American colonies.
Hungover Barbie loves octopus. Granada is one of very few cities left in Spain to maintain the honorable tradition of serving free tapas, small portions of food, with every drink ordered. Tapar means literally 'to cover', and tapas evolved from the slices of bread or meat Andalusian taverns used to cover glasses between sips, thereby blocking fruit flies from drowning themselves in the sweet sherry. The meat was typically jamón or chorizo, both very salty cured pork products which piqued the customers' thirst, leading to increased barsales. With the introduction of olives by the Romans, almonds, citrus and spices by the Moors, and tomatoes, potatos, corn and peppers from the Americas, tapas developed into a nuanced fare complimenting the beverages they originally were merely meant to protect. Nowadays most are served on plates not covering a glass, still it's customary the patron order wine or beer to receive a free snack. Although tapas aren't really intended to comprise an entire meal, for budget travelers like ourselves the opportunity of eating for only the price of a few drinks was too valuable to pass up, and Granadiños make great wine. Consequently, we ended up drinking a lot more than usual. We learned quickly it is possible to order tapas a la carte and they often cost the same or less than alcohol, but where's the fun in that? The establishment pictured above became our favorite 'morning after' destination because they offered gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup, rather than booze as entitlement to a complimentary tapa. The fare was particularly suited to absorbing last night's overindulgence as well; highlights included marinated and fried dogfish, ratatoullie with squid, and manitas de cerdo, pigs feet fried and slathered in a nutty gravy.
Another remarkable staple of Granada's tapas culture is caracoles, also known by the much less appetizing English name of snails. We didn't find them especially enjoyable, but have to admit eating the pests seems a more elegant solution to infestation than dousing crops with poison.
Being at the heart of Andalucia, the machismo of bull fighting, la corrida de los toros, holds a special place in the hearts of many Granadiños. Our stay didn't overlap with festival season, so witnessing a corrida wasn't an option. We visited the arena all the same, the lower levels of which are packed with the city's most elite tapas bars. We didn't choose to eat here, and could claim righteous reasons such as a moral aversion to the violence of the associated sport, or a cultural aversion to the misguided notion of sophisticated tapas (akin to peddling a hot dog as high-class). More truthfully, our motivations were budgetary.
The Mirador de San Nicolás, a plaza in the Albaicín neighborhood with a breathtaking view, is the vantage from which Bill Clinton boasts to have seen "the most beautiful sunset in the world". We hiked up to take this photo at dawn rather than dusk.
This barbican, or fortified gate, is dubbed el Torre de la Justicia, the Tower of Justice, for the trials held beneath it under the Nazarid dynasty. It was Moorish protocol to judge alleged perpetrators of petty offenses immediately after the crime, not withstanding any such populist nonsense as the right to an attorney. This door still serves as the main entrance to the Alhambra. Legend has it when the carved key pictured here is reunited with the carved hand in its place on the other side of the arch, the entire complex will crumble and finally reveal its countless secrets.
To this day, architects and artists are continually inspired by the Alhambra. The drawer in front looked to be a bit flustered with the complexity of her subject.
From the 9th through the 11th century when the first palace was installed, the Alhambra was first and foremost a citadel, or alcazaba. Far from the sumptuous halls of the sultans, this maze of cells housed an entire military. The commander's unit was marked by a fronting courtyard with a small pool, otherwise it was indistinguishable from the mass of minute cubes.
Perched atop the southern ridge of the Darro valley, the alcazaba of the Alhambra overlooks the city and all approaches from the bounding mountains and plains of the Vega. Before the Moors recognized the preferable geography of the site of the Alhambra and shifted their court accordingly, they dwelt in a castle immediately across the river. For a while both edifices existed in harmony, until rebellious citizens thought it wise to occupy the elder. Newly invented cannons had become the imperial weapon of choice, and the sultans proved once and for all the superior positioning of the second fortress by shelling the first to pieces in a matter of days. After the revolt was crushed, the authorities saw fit to remove most every trace of the senior to avoid future risk. The uprisers were no doubt dissapointed about their failure, but in time the demolition was shown to be fortuitous as it cleared the land now hosting the priceless Abaícin.
Thanks in no small part to the unsurpassed vista afforded by the alcazaba watchtower, the citadel was never breached despite having faced centuries of agression.
The Spanish flag was first raised on the alcazaba in commemoration of Ferdinand and Isabella's victory over the Nasrids in 1492. Ferdinand wished to rule, as was typical, from Madrid; Isabella, on the other hand, was so enamored with the architecture and setting of the Alhambra that she demanded they move in. By all accounts the queen was a force to be reckoned with, and she won this argument.
In later attempts to make the Alhambra a residence fit for European royalty, the Holy Roman EmperorCarlos V arrogantly commissioned an Italian architect to build this Mannerist palace in the center of the Moorish complex. Begun in 1527, due to successive financial troubles and uprisings, the building was left without a roof and not completed until as recently as 1957. Local legend says the tribulations of the construction were caused by a Moorish curse, activated by the disrespectful siting of the structure.
"My, what knockers" you say? Actually, this isn't a knocker, but a ring for tying up a horse. Well, actually, it's niether. This ring is much bigger than necessary for tying up any living animal, and was enlarged intentionally to symbolize how Carlos V had all of Europe on a tether. The style of the palace, Mannerism, was a reaction to the measured idealism of the Renaissance and often willfully exaggerated select features.
The Royal Complex of the Alhambra consists of three palaces, from oldest to youngest the Mexuar, the Comares, and the Palace of the Lions, all distinct yet all drastically different than that of Carlos V. Of these the Mexuar is the most restrained. The outstanding decorative element is the geometric tiles characteristic of Islamic architecture. Figurative art was forbidden by dogma.
This ceiling contains the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Comares Palace. Here the sultan conducted business with foreign and domestic dignitaries. This room is also where Christoper Columbus received Ferdinand and Isabella's blessings for his voyage to the New World. To demonstrate his gratitude, he brought them back syphilis. To be fair, historians disagree as to whether or not the bacteria existed unrecognized in Europe prior to the return of the expeditions. Regardless, the superstitious of Granada unanimously believe that the suffering wrought by the disease on the psyches of the king and queen was the infliction of another Moorish curse. In case you haven't yet noticed, there are many such legends surrounding the Alhambra. Some further speculate the regents' syphilitic madness contributed to their violent anti-Semitism and Islamophpbia, institutionalized in 1478 as the Spanish Inquisition.
The Palace of the Lions contains perhaps the most famous space in the Alhambra, the Court of the Lions, named for perhaps the most famous object in the Alhambra, the Fountain of the Lions. The twelve lions adorning this fountain represent the tribes of Israel, and the courtyard itself is an allegory for paradise. Four water channels imitate the four mythic rivers, and the forest of slender columns sheltering palms. The proportions of the court are truly heavenly, though we expect paradise would be less crowded, at least until it's featured on the network television.
The Hall of the Abencerrajes, off the Court of the Lions, is named after an especially gruesome tale which reads as follows: The Abencerrajes were a powerful noble family that resided within the walls of the Alhambra. Another family of nobles also resided within the Alhambra, the Zenetes, and the two were bitter rivals. In an underhanded scheme to end their opponents, the Zenetes spread rumors of a love affair between one of the Abencerrajes and a sultana. Upon hearing this gossip, the sultan was so incensed he ordered each of the 37 Abencerraje knights into this hall, one by one, where they were greeted with decapitation. According to the legend, the suspicion of the waiting knights wasn't aroused because the blood of the slain was carried off discretely by this fountain. The fact that the hall has no walls to dampen the screams one would expect to accompany a beheading, that the stream has hardly enough volume to conceal all the blood pouring from a severed head, and that the knights must have been pretty thick not to notice their brothers enter the hall but never leave are details the ancestral storytellers weren't concerned with accounting for.
The Palace of the Lions is the most lavishly decorated of the three. The primary concern of the architects was to cover every surface in elaborate inlays, moldings or frescoes. Every hall adjoining the Court of the Lions has a ceiling of astonishing intricacy. Not a bad last sight for the murdered Abencerrajes.
A detail revealing the innumerable planes of color and pattern.
The walls of the Palace of the Lions were by no means exempt from overwhelming articulation. These arabesques consist of tiles designed in such a way as to appear to join seamlessly. The Arabic inscriptions praise the greatness of Allah and the Nasrids.
Compared to the extravagance of the Nasrid palaces, the relatively understated play of shadows on brick was a welcome visual pallete cleanser.
One happy accident resulting from the generally insensitive Palace of Carlos V was the creation of this closed garden. Replacing a garden previously bordered only to the south by Nasrid rooms, the new garden gained definition to the north from the emperor's apartments and to the east and west from his galleries. The Renaissance fountain was added around a hundred years later.
This ravine separates the Alhambra from the Generalife, the summer garden palace of the Moors. Yet another legend tells of three captured Christian knights forced to labor in this trench, who found time in their work breaks to serenade the sultan's lovely daughters, cooped up in a tower like the one pictured specifically for the purpose of keeping them chaste. The Moors always seemed to be cooking up such circumstances for lusty mischief. Then again, this was long before television or radio and one supposes entertainment was sparse.
The area between the Alhambra and Generalife was once quite rural. Four vegetable gardens were tended by peasants and servants of the court to provide food for the palaces. In 1931, the decision was made to transform the low gardens south of the Generalife into this immaculately landscaped park.
Flowers of all shapes, shades and sizes thrive in the park. Chelsea developed a dire case of 'garden envy'.
Velvet treasure box flowers like this one were extraordinarly lush for the middle of fall.
The profusion of sparrows in the lower gardens was astounding. We challenge you to count as many as you're able in this image. If you total any less than a dozen, our photograph simply isn't up to the task.
Built closer in time to the Renaissance than either of the Nasrid palaces, the Generalife's high gardens were heavily influenced by European romantic humanism. Therefore, they bear more resemblance to the traditional walled gardens of Andalusian households than any Muslim farmstead. Quaintly scaled courtyards and fountains punctuate the trimmed parterres.
The Moorish Patio of the Estuary. In contrast to the modest courtyards of the high gardens, this patio is markedly more regal, notwithstanding the fact the crossing jets were only installed in the 19th century. Since, they've been copied in fountains the world over.
Windows in the west gallery of the Patio of the Estuary admit views of Sacromonte, the Albaicín, Granada, the Alhambra and the Vega. These windows are cut down to knee height, common in Nasrid architecture becasue the sultans were fond of lounging splayed on cushions, one arm draped over the sill, admiring the extent of their kingdom.
Dappled by arched bows, the Promenade of the Oleanders leads back to the lower gardens.
The lower gardens afford a panoramic perspective of the sunset which may top that of the Mirador of San Nicolás. Sorry Bill. Watching the fleeting light cast arcs of hue and shadow on the clouds, fingers stained and mouths pleasantly puckered by a stolen pomegranate, all the while immersed in an idyllic garden was so sublime an experience we feel it deserves a few photos. Bear with us.
It began something like this...
...peaked something like this...
...and settled into twilight something like this.
We left the Alhambra where we started, at the Tower of Justice, with the hope we'd be able to do the wonder of the place as much justice as a camera and words can manage.