After spending almost all of Thursday driving through Consuegra’s windmills and visiting the mosque of Córdoba, we finally arrived in the city we’d be sleeping for the next two nights: Granada. We didn’t get there until around 8:00pm, so we wouldn’t be doing much that day apart from chilling out, eating dinner, and sleeping. When we all crowded at the front desk for check in, the receptionist instinctively moved the WiFi password sign to the middle where we could all see it. He knew what we all really wanted.
Though a beautiful city on its own, Granada gains most of its fame and importance from being the final holdout in the Spanish reconquista whose fall marked the end to the Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus. You can still see evidence of how much the city was influenced by Islam today by the mudéjar and Muslim architecture, colorful houses, Middle Eastern restaurants, and the tight, open-air markets that reminded me a lot of Marrakesh with their mounds of spices and tea and pashmina scarves. This was our first time in Spain’s southern region of Andalucía, so we were expecting some warm temperatures. However, because the city is located at the bottom of the Sierra Nevada mountains (yup, they have a mountain range with the same name as ours), it was actually pretty chilly.
We got up on Friday morning ready to experience what Granada is really known for: la Alhambra, the huge Moorish fortress and palace that sits above the city. In actuality, la Alhambra is a huge a complex of many different palaces, with a new set of connecting rooms created with every new ruler, that really show the beauty of Muslim architecture and the power and prestige of the ancient kingdom. The structure is built to represent the paradise, with colors, gardens, fountains, and fruit trees that are really meant to appeal to all five of the senses. As Paco explained, the Muslims that arrived in Granada really viewed Spain as their earthly paradise and taste of what heaven would look like because of what a departure the green landscape with unlimited mountain water was from the North African desert from where they had come.
We spent quite a few hours in the complex seeing the former Muslim palaces, the bell tower to commemorate the conquest of the city (that is rung on January 2 by Granada’s unmarried women who want to find a husband that year), and the Generalife that acted as the summer palace of the Muslim kings right outside the wall. There was even a Renaissance-style palace built by Carlos V after Granada had be reconquered that features a square exterior surrounding an inner circle. We were very used to the Christian Spanish kings repurposing Muslim buildings for their own purposes, so we weren’t surprised to see Carlos’s palace there. What was surprising, though, was hearing that la Alhambra was eventually abandoned and forgotten at some point after which it was taken over by gypsies and vagabonds until an American author, Washington Irving, stayed there and wrote Tales of the Alhambra. It was only after his book was written and made popular that there was renewed interest in restoring what is now Granada’s most famous tourist attraction.
After shopping for a little and grabbing lunch, we made our way to the city’s cathedral and the attached Royal Chapel. By this point in the trip, we feel like we’ve seen enough cathedrals to last a lifetime, but this one special in that it is done in the style of Renaissance. Because it was not built until after Granada was conquered in 1492, it does not feature as much Gothic architecture as the ones we’ve already seen and represents a significant change. The attached royal chapel is the real reason that the cathedral is a must-see when visiting Granada though, as it is actually a mausoleum within which the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, as well as their daughter Juana la Loca and her husband Felipe I. The Catholic Monarchs were two of Spain’s most important rulers, because they were the two who actually took the first steps towards unifying Spain into the singular state that we know it as today. Through Isabel and Fernando’s marriage, two of the largest kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula, Castilla and Aragón, were unified. Though the two kingdoms were not officially united under one leader until the heir to both their thrones, Juana la Loca, took over, they are still viewed as the main creators of modern-day Spain. As we learned when we visited it on our trip to Toledo, Isabel and Fernando were originally supposed to be buried in the Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes. Because of the significance of their reconquering Granada for the new kingdom of Spain, they instead chose to be buried in the royal chapel. Interestingly enough, the royal chapel is even more special in that almost every other Spanish ruler after them, has been buried in the same exact place, El Escorial. Despite us not wanting to see yet another church, this one certainly has a lot of significance to Spanish history and culture.
There was still more to come with our long day in Granada: after dinner, we went to see a flamenco show in a cave in the mountains! Andalucía is the home to flamenco, with Granada and Sevilla actually fighting over which city started the dance style. We took two small buses through the narrow winding streets to the gitano neighborhood of Sacramonte, which sits on a hill overlooking la Alhambra. At this rate we are definitely becoming experts on flamenco, having already seen one in Madrid and even taken a dance class, but the experience was still worthwhile. I really love the style of dance and, even if the place we went was definitely directed at tourists, the fact that it was performed in a cave by actual Romani people who live in the area has to mean something. Oh, and it turned out that Michelle Obama had been there before too, so great minds must think alike. 🙂
After we left the flamenco show, we took some quick picture of la Alhambra lit up at night, and then hurried home. It was almost midnight by the time we got back and we had to get up early to head to Sevilla the next day!