Nowadays, Granada is a predominantly Catholic town but for eight hundred years, between the eighth and late fifteenth centuries, it was under Muslim rule. Finally conquered by the proselytising Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, it was the last Arabic stronghold of southern Spain and relics from its great Moorish epoch abound throughout the city. It’s worth doing a little reading about this fascinating period of Granada’s – and indeed Andalucia’s – history before you visit, as it will enhance your appreciation of a city and region that owes its distinctive character to a blend of two cultures and traditions.
Most emblematic of all Granada’s Moorish monuments is the mighty Alhambra fortress, which sits atop the steep, lush Darro valley against a dramatic backdrop provided by the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Originally dating from the ninth century, the fort and walls were extensively rebuilt in the 1200s by the Moorish ruler of what was then the Emirate of Granada, Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar. Audio guides are of course available for tours around the Alhambra but you might wish to acquaint yourself with some of its history before visiting.
The Alhambra, Granada, Spain + 34 958 02 79 71
Unlike Seville, its great Andalucian rival, Granada has a reputation for bohemian shabbiness, for a certain louche, down-at-heel ambience. Walk down Calle Elvira, for example, and you’ll see why. Why Granada attracts those wanting a carefree, bohemian lifestyle is still something of mystery: perhaps it’s the free tapas, perhaps it’s that the city has a slight underdog status in Andalucia (after Seville and Malaga), or perhaps it’s because, ever since the time of its great poet Federico Garcia Lorca, it’s had a special status for artists and writers.
Calle Elvira, Granada, Spain
Besides the Alhambra, Granada’s other star attraction is the Sierra Nevada mountain range and national park, which is home to Mount Mulhacen, the highest peak on the Iberian peninsula at 3,479 metres. This beautiful area is easily reachable from the city centre by bus and it is far from just a ski resort. Early spring or in the autumn, for example, are perfect times to take the bus up and explore the Sierra’s incredible hiking trails. These will take you through some of southern Spain’s most untamed landscapes and, if you’re feeling up to it, to the summits of Mulhacen and Veleta, the Sierra’s second-highest mountain.
Made famous to the English-speaking world by the writer Gerald Brenan (whose South from Granada is well worth a read before you visit), this cluster of whitewashed towns and villages on the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada is utterly unique in Andalucia. Although many of the Alpujarras are now popular tourist destinations – Pampaneira especially – their inhabitants’ way of life has remained largely unchanged since Brenan lived here in the early twentieth century. On the approach from Granada (again, there are buses) they speckle the mountainside like spots of snow; and once reached, all of these towns provide unforgettable views of the surrounding mountains.
Granadinos, as the locals are called, are known throughout Andalucia as being liable to a certain sort of melancholy or bad mood called the mala folla. Although the sense of this phrase is virtually impossible to convey in translation, merely knowing of its existence will make some encounters with Granadinos more intelligible. The poet and Hispanophile Laurie Lee writes in A Rose For Winter, his exquisite book on Andalucia, that the mala folla is owed to the fact that ‘[Granadinos] remain to inhabit an atmosphere which fills them with a kind of sad astonishment, a mixture of jealousy and pride.’ You’ll know it when you experience it.
Granada has one of the strongest flamenco heritages in all of Spain. As you might expect, therefore, venues offering performances are to be found everywhere, with the quality and type of show on offer varying. The gypsy neighbourhood of Sacromonte, for example, is home to a type of flamenco called zambra, which is traditionally danced barefoot. Down in the centre, the dancers wear thick heeled shoes that are used to beat rhythms of great complexity – and volume – called the zapateado. Flamenco is complex and can be hard to appreciate at first, so you might want to do a little listening before heading to Granada.
It will, of course, be appreciated if you speak Spanish when visiting Granada – but don’t be dispirited if at first you don’t understand the locals when they speak back to you. The Granadino accent is known throughout Spain for being spattered with regional idioms and slang and can be difficult to penetrate, even for Spaniards. You will quickly adjust though – and maybe even pick up a little of it yourself.
Granada is split up into four main neighbourhoods, all with very distinctive atmospheres. Around the cathedral, Plaza Nueva and Calle Reyes Catolicos is modern, sophisticated Granada. Here are chic shops, bars and restaurants; offices and banks housed in the austere old buildings along Gran Via and the smartest and most expensive residential districts. Up the hill is the Arabic quarter of Albaicin – a squashed maze of cobbled streets and whitewashed houses – and Sacromonte, the gypsy area of caves and flamenco. That leaves Realejo: once the Jewish neighbourhood, this is now a stylish residential area and home to many of the works of El Nino, Granada’s most famous street artist.
This might seem like an injunction to rudeness, but it’s just the local custom. In bars and restaurants the niceties that English and American visitors will be accustomed to, for example, won’t be used by the locals much. So don’t be afraid of seeming blunt: state your order firmly and leave it at that. It might seem rude – and probably would be back home – but it will in fact make you fit in a little more. Andalusians are direct and forthright and they like it if you are too.