Madrid is a hot city; temperatures regularly climb well into the 90’s and over 100 in the Spanish capital, but traveling south toward Granada is like driving into a furnace. The cities that line the Mediterranean coastline of southern Spain all are bathed in sunshine and a dry sweltering climate. Granada is not located on the coast, however, but further inland ringed by the Sierra Nevada mountains. The countryside that flowed past my window on the large coach looked like the rugged face of another planet. The mountains were bare of trees and buildings but studded with colorful and jagged rocky outcroppings. The earth was red and looked dry, hot and hard from the endless sunshine. There were very few cars on the road and I had the feeling of travelling through a waste land. The ride was long and bumpy but we arrived at last in the desert town.
When one thinks of Granada one thinks of the Alhambra, the fantastical muslim fortress built by the Moors that resisted centuries of attempts by the reconquista to capture it. The fortess became synonomous with the determination of the Moors to maintain their foothold in Spain. Granada at last fell in 1492 as the last piece of Spanish territory to be recovered by catholic Spain. The conquest, which many thought would never happen, coupled with Colombus’ discovery of North America marked the beginning of Spanish dominence in Europe. For the Spanish the Alhambra is a powerful patriotic symbol of their determination and military might. For muslims the Alhambra is no less a source of pride as its luxurious palace and stern military fortifications overlooking the town of Granada are testament to the architectural genius an creativity of Islamic culture. I made a point of including Granada in my itenerary so that I might see the Alhambra for myself.
My accomodations were small but very exotic. The hostel was oriented around an open air patio that was brightly tiled and filled with desert plants. I asked the French couple who ran the hotel what they did when it rained. They told me that in Granada it never rained more than 4-6 times per year. Although I have never been there the decor of the hostel and indeed every building that I visited in Granada was extremely reminiscent of the Middle East. The walls were all painted white with large windows open to allow the passsage of air but recessed to block the oppressive sunlight. Everyone I saw was heavily tanned and wore white loosely fitted clothing of cotton or linen. Most people drank tea or coffee and smoked heavily. I found Granada immediately exotic and irresistable.
I spent my first day in Granada exploring. Granada is an interesting blend of Spanish and Islamic culture. The city is very old with narrow streets and old medieval buildings with many balconies and windows. The vegetation of the city was very typical of desert plants with tall narrow pines and short shrubs as well the ever present cacti. Near my hostel was a large plaza surrounded by modern shops and a Cortez Inglais. Cortez Inglais is the Spanish answer to Walmart. Its many floors are filled with all modern trappings of department stores-clothes, electronics and many other sundry wares. The store also had a large, lavish supermarket and the entire place was blessedly air conditioned.
The most attractive part of Granada was the Moorish quarter Albaicin, an area of old buildings and narrow streets located across the river and in the shadow of the Alhambra. The Moorish quarter was like something out of Casablanca. Street vendors hawked various handrcafted treasures at tables, tents and small shops. There were many ornate and gorgous incense burners, tea drinking paraphanalia, embroidery and jewelry. One of my most memorable experiences in Europe was haggling over tea and jewelry with the vendors who seemed to savor the lost art. The Moorish section of town also had many tea houses, which was also a wonderful experience. My Lonely Planet guidebook recommended a few particular places among which was the appropriately named Kasbah, which I visited to get out of the heat and enjoy some arabic tea.
Kasbah is awash in ambience. The dimly lit cafe has many rooms and compartments separeted by ornate tapestries. I chose a secluded booth and lounged on cushion covered wood benches while looking over a menu that advertised more varieties of tea than I knew existed. Based on its description as sweet and spicy I chose a Tunisian variety of tea and a hookah of rasberry flavored tobacco. Smoking flavored arabic tobacco is a rich experience, even for those who don’t smoke cigarettes or cigars. The tobacco is sweet and smooth with little burning. Along with the tea (which was truly amazing) and tobacco, the atmosphere of Kasbah is the closest one can come to the luxuries of the Middle East without leaving Europe.
During my second day in Granada I determined to climb the high hill upon which the Alhambra is perched and see the historic fortress. On foot in the desert heat this turned out to be quite a task. The streets leading up the hill are narrow and windy and I lost my way several times. I brought two liters of water with me and drank about a liter and a half on the long climb. As I came closer to my destination the sides of the hill became steeper and were covered with an infinite variety of plants and man made waterfalls. At last I crested the hill and got my first look at the fortress up close.
The Alhambra is ideally situated for defense. The hill on which it sits dominates the town and surrounding countryside, making an ascent by an attacker a daunting one exposed to cannon fire and archers. The walls of the fortress are thick, steep and smooth, offering no vulnerabilty to be scaled or penetrated. The Alhambra complex is basically composed of three elements: the military fortifications, the gardens and the palace. The military grounds are open to visitors for the whole day of visit but due to the volume of visitor’s an entry ticket to the palace is only valid for a short time during which a visitor must enter or be refused admittance. For this reason I went into the palace first.
The Alhambra’s palace is unlike any castle, palace or cathedral that I have ever seen. Strict muslim tenets forbid the portrayal of the human form in order to discourage idolatry so there are no portraits or realistic paintings in the Alhambra. For ornamentation every surface of Alhambra is instead covered with geometric patterns carved into the soft white stone. Each window and portico is lined with distinctive Moorish arches. In addition the Islamic architecture places a noted emphasis on symmetry which can be observed everytime one looks across a courtyard or down a path to see identical arches and windows. The Alhambra is filled with reflective pools, hanging gardens and balconies that overlook the mountains, gardens and the town of Granada. The palace was a very soothing and luxurious place to walk through. I found a bench in one of the many courtyards and stopped to write in my travel journal. As I scribbled my thoughts on the page the sound of water flowing from countless fountains added to the tranquility that I felt. Although its architecture and decoration are like nothing I have ever seen in Europe or America, I found the Alhambra’s palace to be one the most luxurious places that I have ever seen.
Outside of the palace one comes to the extensive gardens. The gardens are filled with flowers, fruit trees and more fountains. At one end of the garden a small waterfall collects into a pool from which a narrow channell is carved and leads downhill toward the palace in a long graceful straight line. At each stairwell leading down the water collects into another pool which in turn empties into another channell. In this way the entire palace and gardens are awash with water. After leaving the gardens I made my way to the military portion of the compound.
The Alhambra is an elaborate fortification filled with hallways, narrow stairwells and turrets. As I climbed each turrets I would stop to peer out the narrow slits which archers used to pour down punishment on attackers. Atop the turrets a strong refreshing breeze blue though the blue sky was completely unblemished by clouds. The turrets of the Alhambra offered the best vantage to view the Sierra Nevada mountains and the town of Granada. The town below looked as though it had been transplanted from the desert plains of Israel. Granada looked from afar like a honeycomb of squat white buildings and desert shrubs and surrounded by bare gray hills. On top of the highest turret flew the Spanish flag which was caught by the strong breeze and unfurled yellow and red toward the town below.
Granada is a favorite of backpackers and tourists looking to find the most exotic cultural experiences that Spain has to offer. For this reason the city has an exciting nightlife. Typically people gather early in the night at indoor-outdoor bars and wine shops to enjoy aromatic Spanish wine and plates of tapas rich in olives, cheese and seafood. I stood around just such a cafe with new friends from my hostel. Most of my roomates spoke English and came from Australia, Canada and UK and we were all brought together by the same language to seek our entertainment in the Granada nightlife. After the small bar and eatery we barhopped in the Spanish section of town, taking in the good wine and atmosphere of modern Spanish bars. Everyone danced, drank and had a good time but the best was yet to come. Everyone who knows Granada knows El Camborio.
El Camborio is not located in the modern part of town but rather on a high hill across from the Almhabra. The nightclub is built into the rock of the hill and its ground floor is actually undeground. El Camborio doesn’t open until 3 AM but everyone in Granada finishes there night there. My cadre of Anglophones and I had the dubious honor of arriving at the club first, precisely at three. We explored the subterranean passages of the nightclub, marvelling at each room and running our fingers over the cool stone. We made our way upstairs to the upperfloor. The upstairs of El Camborio is a 180 degree difference from the lower story. There is a large dancefloor and bar encased in glass an an enormous terrace for enjoying the cool night desert air and the brilliantly illuminated Alhambra. My friends and I sat down around a table with cocktails and enjoying the night. Before too long the sounds of new arrivals emanated from downstairs as people began to flock to the club. By four both floors and every dancefloor was filled with people dancing, drinking and having a great time. At a time of night when most clubs in the States would be closing up shop El Camborio was just getting started. I danced until I could see dawn lightening the sky to the East. I went home exhausted and spent a low key day relaxing and wandering around town before my departure for Barcelona the next day. I only spent three days in Granada but the experience is among the most vivid of any place that I visited that summer.