“Nothing in life can be more cruel than to be blind in Granada” – I think it was Francisco Icaza who said this, although I know many quote this as a motto from the Alhambra Palace itself.
Granada is the dream city for many travellers to Andalucia and for good reasons. It has the magic and a secretive aura around it and is the kind of place romantics want to visit. We come here to read secret stories told by every stone in this sprawling city.
I return just six years after my last visit, this time alone. Being here without small children gives me time to walk for hours listening to the whispers of medieval buildings; old buildings have souls and they tell us things we would never guess.
To understand Granada, we must study the history of the spot where it grew from- the Albayzin. I am staying here, in the intriguing part of the city where facing my medieval fascination is pure joy. The streets are still narrow (could not be any other way) and the houses hold their secrets behind their main doors. They have been like this for centuries as the hill of Albayzin offered the golden opportunity for work to many wanting to settle for their dreams. This land once held around 500 established job titles- from basket weavers to millers and muleteers, artisans, from bakers to tile makers carrying on with the traditions of arabesque geometry. The area was built up gradually from the 11th century. The Berber Zirid tribe, and in particular its king made a smart decision to start forming a neighbourhood here. But his best decision was to bring the water, guarded here from a spring called Anyadamar and collected in twenty eight cisterns called aljibes. Another king, Badis started to build different barrios on the hill and they all inherited beautiful names: The Barros of the Caves, Potters, Delights, Solitary Worshippers, and one stuck on the place- the Barrio of the Falconers- al rabad al bayyzin- hence it is called the Albayzin. The area grew into a rambunctious diversity and I read old documents with delight to see how similar this is to the story of Cordoba.The most fascinating part of these descriptions is the way people used to dress. They were fashion icons of the medieval times, some words are still part of the playful to the tongue Spanish vocabulario, such as almalafa (a full-length robe made of wool or silk), zaraguelles (wide pleated breeches) and pantufla, a coloured slipper made of soft materials). I look out from my tiny bathroom that offers view of the Alhambra, much smaller than the bathhouses medieval Albayzin offered to its citizens. The bathhouses were a delectable invention when most of Europe stank and itched from nits. Bermudez de Pedreza writes: “There houses were delightful, embellished with damascened work, with courtyards and orchards, beautified with pools and fountain basin with running water…”
The city has a rich history, of which the most outstanding is the Alhambra. You can read about it here:
The Alhambra served as an example for many inventions after it. Today every tourist spot makes it a focal point, be it beer, printed scarves or tiny souvenir items dotted around the city, all the same look and cheap quality. One thing, however, is a worthy invention to mention- and it is the carmen, many of which are scattered around the city- one of which serves the best almond tart I ever tasted . This unassuming place can be easily missed but you will be poorer if you do. The Carmen De La Victoria is part of the University of Granada accommodation and it is my favourite place in Granada. I buzzed in and the repectionista let me wonder for as long as I needed. If it was up to me, I would have never left, but that is another story for another day. Granada is famous for its carmenes, these little dots of oasis, in the middle of the city. They are miniature Alhambras, with fountains to rest by, shades to enjoy and their function was to provide sustenance to their owners. Fruits, vegetables and herbs are your companions here.
Opposite this carmen is the Casa De La Chapiz, the current site for the Arabic Studies for the University. Its main activity is to preserve and restore the manuscripts from the time of Al Andalus. The building itself holds its original structure and similar to the madrasas of Fez.
The romantics have sung their songs of Granada and the Alhambra. I am more interested in remembering the rich history of the Muslims who created power, architecture and a way of life that laid the foundation for modern Europe. A confidence was instilled in people of all faith and none as they launched their ideas into the world that shaped Spain as much as it shaped the many generations who followed.