Travel Report: Granada, Spain.
March 2017. It was yet another sunny, Spanish weekend. Once again, I was on a bus speeding out of Malaga for some exploring around Andalusia. Just the latest trip in my quest to see as much of southern Spain as I could before I departed for China.
My decision to include Granada on this farewell tour centred around The Alhambra, a stunning palace fortress to rival any other. However, to say the city is merely a one trick pony would be doing it a great disservice. In fact, as I was soon to find out, there are plenty of other reasons to make Granada a must-see city.
Unlike previous expeditions, I was able to do Granada as an overnight stay. Suddenly, my busy schedule cleared and I thought what the heck, I’ll take the time to do things at my own pace. I found lodgings at the excellent Alhambra Zoom, a quiet hostel in the city centre.
Moreover, it was just a six minute walk from Granada Cathedral. In addition to dirt cheap dorm beds, they also offer private rooms. Hence I grabbed one for a reasonable 20 Euros.
After freshening up, I wasted no time in heading out to investigate. Scores of tourists flock to The Alhambra daily, thus it’s necessary to pre-book your ticket online. I’d scheduled my visit for the next day, which meant I had the rest of the afternoon to stroll around as I pleased.
Happily, Granada’s laid-back vibe washed over me the moment I exited the hostel onto the charming, cafe-lined Plaza de la Trinidad.
Peaceful, green and pedestrianised, the square got its name from an old monastery that once stood here, Trinitarios Calzados Convent.
The Spanish government ordered its closure in 1836 as part of its nationwide expulsion of monasteries and convents. Unfortunately, even the building itself got pulled down in 1889.
From the square I found myself meandering onto Calle Marqués de Gerona, a narrow street crammed with cafes, restaurants, tapas bars and craft stores. It also serves as a dramatic approach to Granada Cathedral and its large square, Plaza de las Pasiegas.
When it comes to gorgeous, towering cathedrals, I’d been spoilt for choice during my travels across Andalusia. And yet, even in such fine company, Granada Cathedral is an extraordinary structure.
Not that Isabella got to see her grand creation. She passed away in 1504, long before workers laid down the first stone in 1523.
A number of architects came and went during the cathedral’s construction, resulting in a wondrous mishmash of styles including gothic, baroque and renaissance.
At the main door I paid my five Euros and entered, delighted that it was just myself and a lone, orange-jacketed woman sat in prayer at one of the pews. What’s more, it was every bit as beautiful as I’d expected. And no wonder when you consider it took nearly two hundred years to finish.
As a result, there was a huge amount to take in as I wandered through the chipped, black-and-white tiled aisles, hallways and chapels. From the milky, half fluted columns and sparkling stained glass windows to its priceless paintings and Alonso Cano‘s sculpted dome.
Meanwhile, the remarkable Hall of Mirrors gives off a wonderfully quirky Alice in Wonderland vibe. It houses a fascinating collection of treasures, including statues of biblical figures and a sculpted Christ on the cross. And of course, the stunning, symmetrical, gold-plated mirrors themselves.
In The Royal Chapel, one can pay their respects to the tombs of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. You’ll also discover a handful of personal items such as jewellery, clothing and a sword!
Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed, while the presence of several eagle-eyed security men stopped even crafty old me from getting a sneaky shot.
On my way out, I came across this painter hidden away in a discreet corner. He was in the midst of replicating the main nave, ponderously suspending his paintbrush in mid air right at the precise moment I took my shot.
Santo Domingo Church.
You could come to Granada and spend an entire day seeking out churches. One that particularly caught my eye was the sixteenth century Santo Domingo Church. Immediately, I knew I had to stop for a drink at Bar Santo Domingo, with its tables and chairs set in front of the facade. The statue stands in tribute to Fray Luis de Granada, a Dominican writer, preacher and theologian.
Ordering a beer, I sat soaking up the church’s marvellous facade. It features a stone portico with three arches on its Doric columns, along with the shield of Isabella and Ferdinand.
The architect however remains a mystery according to historians, as is the building’s precise date of completion. Some claim the Tribune of The Spanish Inquisition most likely held some of its sessions here in the mid 1500s.
Granada is also a great market city. As I moved from street to street, it seemed I was never far from a collection of stalls. Of these, the most famous is The Alcaicería, the city’s so-called Grand Bazaar.
It dates back to the 15th century, when over two hundred stores stood here. But in the mid 1900s a huge fire all but destroyed the place. The cause of the blaze? A workshop selling Granada’s first brand of cardboard matches, which ironically caught fire.
Today visitors can browse through a more modest collection of stalls and stores. The market specialises in Arabic arts and crafts, painted ceramics, wooden furniture and stained glass lamps.
For a more detailed rundown of Granada’s vibrant market scene, take a look at this article from Culture Trip.
Park Paseo Del Salón.
For the most part Granada isn’t as green as other major Andalusian cities. But it does have Park Paseo Del Salón, a peaceful boulevard peppered with trees, bushes, benches and a couple of grand fountains.
Running alongside a narrow stretch of The Genil River, its history as a public garden began in 1810 when the French invaded the city.
They even built a botanical garden here, though no trace of it remains. Nevertheless, I knew the park would be good for some sittin’ doin’ nothin’ shots. And so it proved, with this one being just about my pick of the bunch. A penny for his thoughts.
On the bus journey from Malaga I’d read that Granada has some fantastic street art. The most interesting murals lie outside the historical centre, so off I went up a series of ascending streets.
The further I progressed, the quieter everything became. Take Calle Virgen Del Rosario, for example, where everything was already shuttered up for the day.
I loved how Granada’s artists have used the city as their canvas, brightening up the streets with colourful, striking murals.
One of the most prolific artists is Raúl Ruiz, aka El Niño de las Pinturas. He’s been covering the city walls since the 1990s, often doing his work at night in order to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
I saw some of his work on Cuesta Escoriaza, a steep hill street with crumbling buildings set around an equally dilapidated courtyard.
Art experts say Ruiz has done over two thousand murals. What’s more, his reputation is such that he now gets regular invites to paint city walls all over Europe and beyond.
Nearby, Santo Domingo School proudly displays local art that spans the entire entrance wall. Some of it is from the hands of the students themselves, while up and coming local artists have added extra images over the years. As I passed, I saw a woman touching up a section of the wall with a bucket and paintbrush.
The next day I headed out to the elevated neighbourhood of Sacromonte for lunch. Set across the hills above the city centre, the district is home to cobbled streets, whitewashed cave houses and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.
Known locally as The Gypsy Quarter, Sacromonte is where locals and visitors alike come for after dark dinner, drinks and Flamenco dancing. On that spring afternoon the streets were largely deserted and indeed only one or two tapas bars had opened their doors.
I settled down at one of them and ordered an Alhambra beer, which arrived with a complimentary plate of tapas. The bill came to just 2 Euros. How is this profitable? I mused, nibbling on some chorizo.
Finally, it was time for me to make my way towards The Alhambra. Heading downhill from Sacromonte, its formidable form soon came into view through the mist as the path brought me into the heart of Albaicín, The Muslim Quarter.
Initially built as a military base in 889, it was the Nasrid ruler Yusuf I of Granada who transformed the fortress into a lavish royal palace in the 13th century. Its name comes from the Arabic term al-qal’a al-hamra, which means red fort.
In the 15th century, following The Christian Reconquista, Isabella and Ferdinand made The Alhambra their royal court. Furthermore, it was within these walls that they endorsed Christopher Columbus’ proposed 1492 voyage to The East Indies. Although his expedition ultimately led to the discovery of The American continent. Now, that’s some history.
What remains of the palace interior is truly spectacular. But I can’t say I enjoyed the experience much. No matter where I turned, there was someone blocking my path, a raised cell phone obscuring the view, an elbow in my rib. People generally making lots of noise, as if the place were their own private playground.
It was particularly distasteful in Patio de los Arrayanes, The Court of The Myrtles. Named so due to the myrtles bushes that grow on either side of the central pond. Back in the day, a number of residential chambers ran across the court, including one for the queen and king.
I had to draw upon previously unrealised levels of patience to grab a half decent photograph. And not to tell people what I really thought of them.
At some point, I opted to simply force myself into a tight corner and grab a selfie. I think this sublime, semicircular arch with mosaic tiles and sculpted Arabic inscriptions sums up the opulent vibe nicely. The general sentiment of the inscription? God is great!
The Palace Gardens.
Happily, I found respite from the braying masses in the Palace Gardens. Vast and grand, The Alhambra’s outdoor section is a work of art in itself, drawing inspiration from the region’s Moorish, Christian and Jewish influences.
This was definitely my favourite part of the tour. There are pathways and hidden courtyards set between cypress trees, box hedges, climbing ivy, rosemary, sage, lavender, laurel and thyme.
Look out for a few surviving elm trees, planted by none other than the English military hero The Duke of Wellington in 1812. The duke had a plantation laid here during The Peninsula War, which he used as cover for a soldiers’ barracks.
If you’ve got the time, there are additional historical buildings set around The Alhambra. Of these, I’d say The Palace of Charles V is not to be missed. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V commanded its construction after he fell in love with Granada on his honeymoon in 1526.
Basically, he fancied having a crib next to The Alhambra and envisioned an equally palatial residence befitting an emperor.
Palace of Charles V.
The following year he appointed the architect Pedro Machuca with orders to “build me something to symbolise the triumph of Christianity over Islam”. Despite these grand intentions, the project was riddled with delays and funding problems.
In 1550 Machuca died, after which his son Luis took over. He was largely responsible for the giant, circular inner patio and its Roman columns. In 1558 Charles V himself passed away, although construction continued to rumble on at a painfully slow pace.
In 1568 progress halted for fifteen years owing to the rebellion of The Moors. While things eventually picked up again, the roofless palace was abandoned altogether in 1637.
It wasn’t until 1957 that… at last… the building was covered and today it houses The Fine Arts Museum. Entry to the ruined palace is free, while it’s €1.50 to get into the museum.
It was now late afternoon as I stood on the second floor gazing down at the patio. I was thinking how, regretfully, I should probably start heading back to the bus station. Quite suddenly, a bride and groom came striding into the centre of the patio with a photographer in tow.
Under the photographer’s direction, Mr. swept Mrs. up in his arms, tilted her back and held the pose. Click, click, click went the photographer. As I turned to leave, I gave them a wave and silently wished them better luck than the palace had.
Like this? Why not check out my other pieces from around Andalusia.
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