Why is Granada so special?
Ok so the title is highly subjective.
But I am now about to tell you all about Spain’s most magical, North African feeling city.
I can defend the title a little though by the amount of times I’ve heard both Spanish and non-Spanish people alike referring to it as their favourite city in Spain.
Córdobes people are fiercely proud of their homeland but many of them have also conceded that Granada just has something ambient and exotic like nowhere else in the country.
I have visited Granada twice now and would love all of my loved ones to visit it at least once in their lives, just for the sheer beauty and bohemian vibe of the place.
Think- a golden glow cast over everything, the scent of incense emanating from shops and homes alike, locals playing guitar and the looming omnipresence of the grand Alhambra Palace.
Granada is the land of travellers and folk who take life easy, busking in the streets, hair twisted into dreads (know as rastas in Spanish) and let’s be honest here- smoking a certain substance which can be detected from near and afar. The atmosphere is peaceful and joyous with an unspoken yet palpable appreciation of beauty and good but affordable living.
Why does Granada have a North African feel?
Granada was the last city to be reclaimed from the Moors by the Christian Kings in 1492, over 200 years after the rest of al-Andalus was won back in the reconquest.
Those 200 hundred years of being the final foothold of Moorish Spain must have had quite the long-lasting impact as it is still etched into the art, architecture and infrastructure of the streets and walls.
I visited Marrakech last year and was enchanted by the intricate silver and metalware, woven tapestries, seemingly flying carpets and glittering lanterns hung all along the medina.
There were times in Granada when I felt like I was straight back there and had to momentarily remind myself that I was not in Africa but in Europe. The similarities in decor and buildings are evident to see to anyone who has visited both places but it has to be noted that being in Spain, general facilities and standard of living are much higher due to the obvious fact of there being more money.
“The atmosphere is peaceful and joyous with an unspoken yet palpable appreciation of beauty and good but affordable living..”
Take a look at these photos of one market stall in Granada and one in Marrakech and you will see what I mean:
So what is there to do other than the Alhambra?
There are the typical Andalusian attractions such as Flamenco shows and for many first time visitors to Andalusia, it is charming just to walk around and take in what many call ‘real Spain’. In this sense they mean away from the beaches however Granada is arguably not the most Spanish city you can visit due to its Moroccan-Spanish fusion.
Is it true they give free tapas with each drink in Granada?
In short- yes.
Pull up a stool at most (but not all!) bars or tabernas and order a soft drink, beer or wine and the waiter will bring over a tapa free of charge to accompany your drink. Most of the bars I went to just brought something out of their choice, sometimes to share between the three of us (my parents and I).
Being the fussy eater I am, I had to pass up any marisco (seafood) based tapas to the benefit of my mum and dad. There were a few great tapas of fried cod, mini paella dishes and ensaladilla rusa (a sort of potato salad with tuna).
Do you know the history behind tapas and how it came to exist?
Tapa means lid or cover in Spanish and originated as a mini plate with a small portion of food to cover the top of a drink, ostensibly to keep it cool from the strong rays of the sun and perhaps to keep flies and mosquitoes out. This is a bit like the story of why ‘Corona’ is served with a slice of lime- the citric scent kept flies away from people’s beers in Mexico.
Today, many bars in Andalusia still serve up a free tapa with a drink but it is only so prevalent in Granada. Most bars provide the standard plate of olives, crisps or frutos secos (a mix of dried fruit and nuts) which is always welcomed as we don’t get anything at all with our over-priced drinks in England! (I still wince at paying £7 for a glass of wine on my visits back to the UK when I am accustomed to paying 2 euros for a great glass in Spain.)
This is the most famous and central district of Granada which retains its Moorish structuring of winding, cobbled streets. It resembles in parts a much more orderly and calmer version of the Marrakech Medina.
You will meander round endless markets selling the lamps you see in the photos further up, ornaments, incense sticks, purses, lighters, wooden flutes, mini drums, photo frames and all of the other touristic paraphernalia emblazoned with ‘Granada’ or ‘España’ on them.
There are countless bars and restaurants all inviting you in to try their offers with constant reminders that their food is the freshest in town. Avoid the menus del día as they are generally of low quality and bland taste.
Away from the hustle and bustle of all this, there are more peaceful zones along the way to the Alhambra’s vast site. We stayed in a hotel very near to the Alhambra, 3 minutes walking distance which was situated in a calm, leafy street which captured the sun up on its roof terrace with decent pool:
The above photo is of where we would walk daily to get from our hotel opposite the Alhambra to the Albaicín. A pleasant decline but steep and punishing incline later was our daily route into the centre. We were rewarded however with glorious, golden sunset light across the walls whenever we would turn to look behind us.
“This is the most famous and central district of Granada which retains its Moorish structuring of winding, cobbled streets. It resembles in parts a much more orderly and calmer version of the Marrakech Medina…”
This is a classic example of the golden, almost sepia light that seems to glow over Granada at all times. The colour palette of the city is generally white, brown and green which makes it feel again, quite different to other Andalusian cities which are often whitewashed or with yellow trimmings around building edges.
Literature lovers will of course be aware that Granada’s most famous son is Federico García Lorca, who channelled his love for his home city into his beautiful poetry and plays.
Born in 1898 and killed during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 when he was only 38, he lived on the avant-garde of a burgeoning Spanish scene in music, poetry and theatre, exploring themes of surrealism and symbolism.
His most famous collection of poetry is Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads) which tells folkloric tales of love, longing, sexual identity and a deep love for Andalusian land with plenty of celestial imagery.
I was lucky to receive a copy of this from my former A-level English teacher and later Head of English when I worked as a teacher in England, when I made my move to Andalucía. Reading this in those initial weeks really helped me with learning Spanish and it also captured my excitement at the beauty of living here:
My first A-level English Literature student also kindly gifted me a copy of Poeta en Nueva York when she completed the course and fortunately I was able to read the Spanish much better by this point:
So imagine my delight when I stumbled across this plaque on a wall framed by leaves with an extract from García Lorca’s poem ‘Casida del Herido por El Agua‘:
I have tried to loosely translate this and it doesn’t sound as good like this but here is my best effort:
‘I want to go down the well
I want to climb the walls of Granada
To see the heart of the past
Through the darkest point of the waters…’
(I wish I knew how to get certain parts of text into single spacing, if you know how please let me know!)
On our last night we went to a restaurant on the above street which, food-wise was ok, quite average, but the ambience and entertainment was great. It is quite rustic with plates and blue plant pots hung up on the walls, with a very homely feel due to the family-run restaurants and bars. Imagine mothers and grandmothers sat outside in deck chairs heckling people on the street to come in and try their best octopus. You cannot say no, they are very forceful in a friendly way!
Granada Cathedral is impressive from the outside; it took 181 years to build and it is easy to see how with all of its intricate detail.
From the front it appears to be formed from three columns with arches. It is said that the architecture reflects Italian ideas of circularity being perfection.
Inside, for me as a non-Catholic, I have to say that some of the imagery, statues and effigies are quite grim and macabre. I know they tell the story of the passion and they are moving but there are decapitated heads and all sorts of disturbing sights inside.
No blog entry on Granada would be complete without a mention of the Alhambra, the crown that is situated on top of the city, visible from all over and always felt somehow.
In brief, the Alhambra means ‘the red one’; a Moorish palace constructed in 889 as a much smaller and simpler fortress. It was then vastly expanded into a grand palace in 1333 along with its sprawling, impressive gardens.
A general entry ticket costs 14 euros but there are concessions for pensioners and students and nocturnal visits cost a bit less too.
The site is split into the Alcazaba, the Palacios Nazaríes, and the Generalife.
Inside you will find unbelievable stucco designed carved marble, arched doorways, fountains in the grand patios, orange trees and a plethora of flora and fauna with a particular presence of roses.
I am torn between whether I prefer the breath taking palaces indoors or the beautiful, enchanting gardens which take me back to being a young girl reading ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett! The best approach is just to enjoy the whole enveloping sensory experience from start to finish.
Enjoy a selection of my numerous photos taken at the Alhambra on both daytime and nocturnal visits:
In the name of not making this blog entry go on for too long, and the fact that Granada has way much more than this which would warrant a 5000 word post, I will leave my tale of Granada here for now.
My full post on the Alhambra will be here soon!
So, what did you make of Granada? Is it your favourite Spanish city too? (Mine is still Córdoba but Granada is a veryyy close second).
Let me know what you thought about Granada below!