Federico García Lorca once wrote “The colour is silver and dark green, and the Sierra, bathed by the moon, is a huge turquoise. The cypress trees are awake and their languid movements fill the atmosphere with incense, while the wind turns Granada into an organ, the narrow streets its pipes. Granada was a dream of sound and colours.” And a famous and ancient saying runs: “There is nothing in the world like the pain of being blind in Granada.” These sentiments were, and are, well founded as Granada is as diverse and beautiful as it is unique.
Situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, 32 kilometres from the ski resort of Solynieve in the village of Pradollano and 126 kilometres from Malaga, it is one of the most important cultural centres in Andalucía, and indeed Spain. The city, resting between the mountains and the plains of the region is crossed by the Daro and Genil rivers, making Granada a place of geographical as well as cultural contrasts.
What to see
It is home of the Alhambra – one of the world’s finest examples of medieval Islamic architecture and the most visited monument on the Iberian peninsular – which bears testimony to the fact that Granada has been through many changes in its history. The city was probably Roman in origin before becoming the capital of the Nasrid kingdom and the last major outpost of the Moors in Spain. It was reconquered in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs and became one of the brightest jewels in the Crown of Castile.
The ancient fortress that is the Alhambra stands on a beautiful hillside and a whole day should be taken to see it (a single morning is a bit of a rush, but it can be done). The most popular way to reach the ancient fortress is via the Puerta de la Justicia. The Alhambra is actually three palaces joined together. There is the Mexaur Palace, the Cuarto Dorado and the magnificent Comares Palace, which contained the throne room of the Nasrid kings, with its enchanting light that filters down from lamps in the ceiling. From here you can find your way to the Patio de los Leones, a golden courtyard with a fountain at its centre on the backs of a dozen carved lions. The gardens of the Alhambra are filled with fountains and pools which both calm and stimulate with their cool reflections and their sparkling streams. The joyous sounds of water fill the air of the entire Alhambra and create the magical and dreamlike atmosphere evoked in “The 1,001 nights”.
The Alhambra is not the only architectural sight in Granada. Right next to it stands the building that used to be the Nasrid kings’ summer residence, the Generalife Palace. It is a combination of fountains and gardens, and includes the Patio de la Acequía and the charming Water Steps. Nearby stands the palace built on the orders of King Charles V. It is an important renaissance building and now houses several museums: The Hispano-Musulman, the Provincial Fine Arts, the Archives and the Alhambra Library. Nearby you can find the sixteenth century Iglesia de Santa María, built on the site of the old Alhambra mosque. There are also many other points of architectural interest in Granada including the grandiose Renaissance work seen in the Cathedral; the 11th century Arab baths; and the Royal Chapel, outstanding and built in a Christianised Moorish style it is also home to a collection of paintings including work by Botticelli.
The Albaicín (Arab quarter) holds much fascination for the visitor with its colourful “hustle and bustle” atmosphere. In this area you will find the Iglesia de Santa Ana, the Iglesia de San Pedro and the Paseo de los Tristes apparently so called because this was traditionally the place from whence funeral processions commenced.
There is no end to the sights in Granada, but if you want to enjoy a panoramic view, the best place is the Mirador de San Nicolás. Then there is the famous Sacramonte mountain, characterised by the white-washed house-caves cut into the mountain itself. These are mostly unoccupied now, but in the past were lived in by gypsies who took over the area from the Christianised Moors who were finally expelled during the 17th century. The new occupants of these strange but charming dwelling places developed traditional crafts such as fortune telling and metalworking, particularly with copper. Indeed copper is a major feature of these ancient abodes and gives a warmth to their interiors, many of which are now restaurants and bars where you can sip your wine and eat traditional tapas whilst enjoying a genuine flamenco show and soaking up the culture of the people that live in Granada.
The visitor who is fit enough should make a point of getting from A to B on foot – for several reasons. The main one is that if you don’t, you will miss many of Granada’s most enchanting spots. The city is small and compact, and distances are short, so it is far better to cut through the back streets than get into a car or taxi which will have to drive round in circles to reach the same point. There is also a strong likelihood of getting stuck in a traffic jam, which is no fun at all, particularly in the terrifically hot summer months. If you can, walk up to the Alhambra too – the hill is quite steep but the gardens make it worthwhile and the alternative route by car or coach takes a very devious route missing out the best bits.
Granada is known abroad for the Alhambra and its other monuments, and for the annual Music and Dance Festival. In Spain, it is known also for its huge university, which populates the city with students during term time. Some bars and restaurants even close when the students leave for the long summer vacation. The preponderance of students means that there are plenty of cheap and cheerful places to eat and drink – some even offer free “tapas” with every drink (a custom which is sadly dying out elsewhere) and a night life for the young which is surely second to none.
How to get there
By car: just follow the signs! Granada is easily accessible from the coast via Malaga (take the Antequera turn off the city ring road), or further east from Motril. There is also a frequent bus service from Malaga, and plenty of organized coach trips – ask in any travel agency. Granada has its own small airport, mainly for domestic flights.
When to go:
In winter, to combine tourism with skiing in the Sierra Nevada, but don’t expect coastal temperatures. Like other inland destinations, Granada can be very cold in winter, and very hot in summer. In spring or autumn (term time to see the city at its liveliest). Early summer for the Music Festival.