Moorish Palaces and Gypsy Grottos in Granada

Moorish Palaces and Gypsy Grottos in Granada

While the region surrounding Granada is known to have has been populated from at least the eighth century B.C., the present-day city wasn’t founded until the early eleventh century, recently by the standards of the Mediterranean basin. Three centuries into the Moors rule of the area, a civil war ended the Umayyad Caliphate. Victorious Berber general Ziri ibn Manad established an independent kingdom for himself. However, the local capital (Elvira) was located on a low plain, which as he had himself demonstrated made it difficult to protect from attacks. So the newly minted Zirid ruler decided to transport his quarters to higher grounds.

Taking to the hills

Andalusia - The Albacin Moorish neighborhood of Granada.

Albacin is the ancient Moorish medina of Granada.

The hilltop hamlet of Gárnata (altitude 738 meters) seemed a better bet. Especially since it came with an ancient military fortress (or Alcazaba) already in the neighborhood. In short order the site was transformed into one of the most important cities of Al-Andalus, as the Iberian Peninsula was then called. By the end of the eleventh century, the Alhambra had become a walled military citadel. The city itself had spread across the Darro River to include the Albaicín, a steep labyrinth of narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and secluded inner gardens (or cármenes). It is this ancient Moorish medina that I choose to call home for my visit to Granada.

The Alhambra.

The Alhambra seen from my window at La Casa del Aljarife.

The taxi from the train station in the lower, contemporary part of the city drops me off at the bottom of the hill on Plaza Nova. It’s on foot after that, an ankle-twisting noisy walk rolling my luggage uphill over cobblestones that randomly morph into stairs. Ten sweaty minutes later, I arrive at La Casa del Aljarife and feel instantly rewarded for the climb. This tiny Bed and Breakfast is perched high on the hill, a typical narrow multi-level seventeenth century house in the far corner of the handkerchief-size Placeta de Cruz Verde. My host, Christian Most, takes over the luggage-hauling up the steep, centuries-worn stairs all the way to the fourth floor. La Casa del Aljarife has only four guest rooms. Mine is a light-filled retreat at the very top of the house, with an eye-level view of the Alhambra.

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The patio of our Albacin home is filled with trees in full blooms.

In the morning, Christian dishes out hearty Anglo-Saxon breakfasts in the inner courtyard filled with fruit trees in blooms and bird songs. It wouldn’t take much convincing to get me to linger in the serene cármen, but the vibrant andalusian world is calling. It’s uphill again to the highest point of the Albaicín, the Plaza de San Nicolas famous for its panoramic view of the Alhambra against the snowy backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.

Fabulous Flamenco

Andalusia - Granada Flamenco Dancers.

Granada Flamenco Dancer.

The Albaicín is a neighborhood perfect for getting lost. I follow narrow lanes lined with hole-in-the-wall bazaar shops and eateries sending out cooking smells that speak of North African souks. My wanderings invariably lead to some tiny placeta, where I can rest my cobblestone-weary feet over sweet mint tea. This is how I come across the Jardines de Zoraya. I step in for tea in the shaded garden one afternoon, and return the next evening for great local food and even better Flamenco.

Granada has a long Flamenco tradition, in the Albaicín and even more so in Sacromonte, the historic home of the city’s thriving Roma community (often called Gypsies, or Ginatos). They settled in the Sacromonte neighborhood of Valaparaiso Hill to the north of the Alhambra in the fifteenth century, after the combined forces of Aragon and Castile finally tossed out the Moors. Sacromonte is famous for its many whitewashed caves cut into the rock, some still used as residences today. It is the home of Zambra, a Flamenco variation with a distinct oriental feel.

A pearl set in emeralds

Andalusia - Alhambra Nasrid Patio.

Patio in a Nastrid Palace in the Alhambra.

This is how Moorish poets saw the Alhambra. After days of admiring it from afar, I finally get to set foot into this sublime masterpiece of European Islamic art. The Alhambra is first of all a fortress with heavily fortified peach colored brick walls that snake around the crest of al Shabika hill. Over the centuries, succeeding dynasties expended it until it became a city onto itself, and the seat of power of the Nasrid Emirs.

The palaces that once housed the rulers and their court are deep within the walls, surrounded by a small town that was home to lesser nobility and common people, and a military area with the barracks of the royal guard. The sheer size and complexity of the site are overwhelming. After a day spent exploring every corner, awed at every turn by architectural grandeur and stunning artistic details, it is a relief to escape to the Generalife Palace.

Andalusia - Granada Generalife Patio.

Alhambra Generalife Patio.

A five-minute walk over a bridge outside the fortifications, I enter the legendary Generalife gardens. Built on the south slope of the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the Sun), the gardens and orchards were originally created to supply food for the Alhambra. The palace was added the fourteenth century as a summer retreat and country estate for the then Nasrid monarch, Muhammad III. Generalife is one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens anywhere.

Today, the exactingly restored Alhambra and Generalife are considered a pinnacle of Moorish art and Andalusian history. They are, along with the Albaicín classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Good to know

When planning to visit the Alhambra:

  • It is prudent to purchase well tickets ahead as visitors are strictly limited to 6,600 per day. Only one-third of these tickets are set aside for day-of-visit purchase, This may seem like a lot until confronted with the endless lines at the box office.
  • Tickets are only valid for the pre-assigned day and time of visit and are not refundable
  • Only 300 visitors are allowed every half-hour by pre-determined schedule into the Nasrid Palaces.
  • Tickets may be purchased ahead at:
    • In Granada – The Alhambra shop (Tienda de la Alhambra)at 40 Calle Reyes Catolicos
    • Any ATM of La Caixa Bank
    • By phone in Spain: 902 88 80 01
    • By phone aborad: +34 958 926 031
    • They may also be purchased by internet ticketmaster.es . However Ticketmaster only has access to a limited number of tickets that are often sold out one week or more ahead of time.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The essence of Andalusia – From Arcos to Ronda and Cordoba

The essence of Andalusia – From Arcos to Ronda and Cordoba

Andalusia - Arcos della Frontera.

della Frontera overlook the Guadalate River Valley.

After a week of enjoying the urban charms of Seville, a two-hour southward bus ride takes me to Arcos de la Frontera, the pearl of famous White Villages, for a taste of timeless Spanish culture. The old village clings to the very top of a narrow limestone ridge, a tangled maze of cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed medieval houses and ancient churches. From my room atop one of these historic homes, the view plunges abruptly down to the fertile valley of the Guadalate River and the rolling plain beyond. The whole place is a photographer’s paradise.

Ronda

Andalusia -Ronda and the El Tajo Gorge.

The Rio Guadalvin runs through the center of Ronda.

Another three-hour bus ride west, and I am in Ronda. I am a fan of Spanish busses. Comfortable, punctual and inexpensive, they are a great way to get from one small town to the next. Ronda is an eagle’s nest of a town famous for dramatic views and the 150 meter (500 foot) deep El Tajo gorge of the Rio Guadalvin that runs through its center. Celts, Phoenicians, Romans and Moors habited the area in turn before it was conquered by the Catholic Kings. Most left interesting marks of their presence.

Ronda and the local Romero family played a major role in the development of Spanish bullfighting as it is known today. While definitely not a supporter of the sport myself, I enjoy visiting the spectacular eighteen century Plaza de Toros. The vast bullring, 66 meter (217 foot) in diameter is surrounded by a stone passage and two layers of raised covered seating. The roof circular roof if supported by 136 pillars that hold 68 arches. The complex also houses a small museum dedicated to the sport.

Cordoba

Andalusia - Cordoba viewed from the Alcazar.

The Alcazar offers a fine view of La Mezquita and the Cordoba skyline.

The last stop of this journey is Cordoba where I can’t get enough of La Mezquita, the Great Mosque turned cathedral in the center of the historic town, considered one the most significant monuments of Moorish and Renaissance architecture. In its original mosque incarnation, it was the hub of Islamic community life in Al-Andalus for three centuries, serving as a teaching center as well as courthouse and place of worship. The building is constructed with 865 soaring columns of granite, marble, jasper and onyx, made from pieces of the Roman temple that previously occupied the site and other repurposed nearby Roman monuments. The sanctuary also has elaborately carved and gilded prayer alcoves. After Ferdinand III conquered Cordoba in 1236, the mosque was turned into a catholic church. A number of chapels were inserted over time within the expansive structure, most notably the colossal Renaissance cathedral nave.

Andalusia - Cordoba's gardens of the Alcazar.

Cordoba’s Alcazar Gardens.

Near the Mezquita is the old Jewish Ghetto, home to the Sephardic House and the Synagogue. Then at the southwestern edge of the old town there is the Alcazar de Cordoba. The palace was the seat of the independent Caliphate of Cordoba. Over time it expanded to become a large compound with baths, gardens and one of the largest libraries of the era. It was reconstructed and further expanded by the Christian Kings following the 1236 conquest.

So rich is the history of Andalusia and its architectural legacy that I feel this first visit has barely scratched the surface. I am already thinking of a return visit. Granada is next.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cordoba, spain

The essence of Andalusia – Seville

The essence of Andalusia – Seville

As is the case with many of the great historic cities of the Mediterranean basin, the origins of Seville are shrouded in legends. Hercules himself is said to have taken a break from his better-publicized great deeds to create the original settlement of what is now the capital of Andalusia, Spain’s southern-most region.

A complicated history

Andalusia - Seville's Torre del Oro tower.

The Moors’ Torre del Oror on the Guadalquivir River.

In the millennia that followed, others came to lend a hand in shaping the city as we know it today. It became Hispalis to the Romans after they evicted the Carthaginians. Rome undertook its customary construction program, a few remains of which endure to this day including the twin columns that dominate the vast La Alameda de Hércules Square on the north side of the city’s historic center. Then came the Vandals and the Visigoths successively, who left nothing but their usual devastation before being abruptly tossed out by the Moors in 711. This ushered in the Islamic Empire of Al-Andalus that was to endure for half a millennium, leaving a stunning architectural and artistic imprint throughout the region.

Andalusia - Seville's Arschbishop's Palace.

The Spanish Baroque Archbishop’s Palace.

Then in 1248, the Christian King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered the area. The Moors’ Palace (the Alcazar) became the Castilian Royal residence still used today as the local residence of the royal family and mosques morphed into churches. Enter Christopher Columbus. Upon his return from the New World in 1493, Seville managed to co-opt the monopoly on trans-oceanic trade for its port on the Guadalquivir River. Prosperity ensued and the city became a major economic and cultural center of the Baroque era. To this day it is a unique hybrid of Islamic and European architecture and traditions, and a fascinating place to start my discovery of Andalusia.

A tale of two cultures

Andalusia - Seville's Triana Bridge over the Guadalquivir.

The Triana Bridge over the Guadalquivir.

Since my first random wanderings lead me to the bank of the Guadalquivir, I board a ship for hour-long dusk cruise. In addition to offering a beautiful panorama of both sides of the city, highlights include the Torre del Oro, a polygonal medieval watchtower originally built by the Moors as parts of the city ramparts to control river access. While the golden tile facing that gave it its name have long vanished, it still a gleams in the early evening light. Further down river the Isabel II (or Triana ) Bridge, a superb example of nineteenth century iron architecture, leads to the historic working class Triana neighborhood, famous to this day for its ceramics and flamenco music.

Andalusia -Seville's Cathedral and the Giralda.

The Santa Maria del la Sede cathedral is the largest gothic cathedral in the world.

During the next few days, I explore the area around the Cathedral (Santa Maria del la Sede), the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Its fifteenth century builders used some columns and other elements from the mosque that previously stood on the grounds, including the Giralda. Once a minaret, the 300-foot bell tower, now Seville’s iconic symbol, offers a unique view of the city. Inside the cathedral, a grand mausoleum is said to holds the remains of Christopher Columbus.

 

Andalusia - Seville's Alcazar Neptune Fountain.

Neptune Fountain in the gardens of the Alcazar.

I wander in the courtyards of the Alcazar with their lacy stone and woodworks and their intricate Islamic geometric tile works. The gardens are filled with orange trees and the trickle of countless fountains. And I lose myself in the labyrinth of medieval streets of Barrio Santa Cruz, the Jewish ghetto until the Jews were driven from Spain by the 1492 edict of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

 

Andalusia - Seville's Lebrija Palace.

The interior patio of the Lebrija Palace is paved with Romain mosaics.

The Palacio de Lebrija is an ideal refuge for a rainy day. This little known museum is a typical Sevilliano family palace built around cloistered interior patios, restyled in the nineteenth century from original sixteenth century buildings by the Condesa de Lebrija. The Countess was an avid collector and the museum houses her eclectic private collection ranging from Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Persian ceramics to Louis XIV furniture and works by Van Dyck and artists of the Murillo school.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Seville, spain