The Best Books to Read Before Visiting Granada and the Sierra Nevada

Albaicin, Granada's old Moorish quarter, as seen from the Alhambra
Albaicin, Granada's old Moorish quarter, as seen from the Alhambra | © Simon Harrod / Flickr
Photo of Mark Nayler
20 August 2018

The spectacular Sierra Nevada natural park – Spain’s largest – lies just half an hour’s drive outside the enchanting city of Granada. Below, we bring together the best books to read before you visit these two unforgettable destinations, from practical guides to classics of modern travel writing.

South from Granada (Gerald Brenan, 1957)

In 1919, after being demobbed from the British Army, aspiring English writer Gerald Brenan travelled to Spain. After an epic trek from the country’s north coast – via Madrid and Granada – he arrived in the tiny village of Yegen, in the cluster of settlements known as the Alpujarras on the Sierra Nevada’s southern edge. A beautiful writer about Spain, especially Andalusia, Brenan immersed himself in Yegen’s rural way of life for several years, taking succour from its tight-knit community and the spectacular scenery of the Alpujarras. South from Granada is the fascinating result.

Driving Over Lemons (and sequels; Chris Stewart, 1999-2014)

Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons has become a modern classic of the ‘Brit-moves-to-Spain’ genre, documenting the former Genesis drummer’s renovation of a crumbling farmhouse in the Alpujarras. In humorous and light prose, Stewart describes the joys and hardships of converting to a rural way of life that has barely changed for centuries, from making drystone walls to finding water sources. The first book was so successful it spawned three sequels, all about life in this gloriously unspoilt part of Andalusia.

The stunning Alpujarra region of the Sierra Nevada | © Mark Chinnick / Flickr

Granada: Light of Andalusia (Steven Nightingale, 2015)

American writer Steven Nightingale was ensnared by Granada’s incomparable charms when he visited with his family in 2002. He promptly bought a house in Albaicin, the city’s old Moorish quarter, with a carmen – romantic, walled gardens that are typical of the neighbourhood. Light of Andalusia is the luxuriously-written account of his love affair with Granada’s oldest barrio, containing a detailed study of its singular beauty and turbulent history. Nightingale is also superb on Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain between 711 and 1492) and the cultural and scientific advances made by its pioneers.

Tales of The Alhambra (Irving Washington, 1832)

Irving Washington arrived in Granada in 1828, ostensibly to finish writing a book on the final years of Al-Andaluz. But the American writer was so captured by the Alhambra – then in a dilapidated state after years of neglect – that he moved in and started creating this magical work (available from most kiosks and bookshops in central Granada). A collection of invented stories, biographical sketches and historical accounts, it makes a trip around Andalusia’s greatest monument even more unforgettable if read beforehand. The author is remembered by a plaque within the fortress and a statue on the hill up towards it.

Granada's mighty Alhambra fortress | © ddouk / Pixabay

Duende (Jason Webster, 2003)

“Often we end up doing what we almost want to do because we lack the courage to do what we really want to do”. This is the arresting opening line of Jason Webster’s account of moving to Spain, as a young graduate, to learn flamenco guitar and search for duende – the art’s elusive essence (for which there is no comparable word in English). His quest takes him from Alicante to Granada – via a wild, coke-fuelled stint in Madrid – and deep into an all-consuming flamenco lifestyle. Engrossing reading for anyone intrigued by Andalusia and its most iconic music.

A Rose for Winter (Laurie Lee, 1955)

A peerless romanticiser of Andalusia, English poet and novelist Laurie Lee fled Granada’s Costa Tropical when the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1939 (he’d been living in the fishing village of Almuñécar). He returned to Spain in the early 1950s with his wife Katti and made a tour of Andalusia, taking in Algeciras, Seville, Almuñécar, Écija and Granada and recording his experiences in A Rose for Winter. Lee writes lyrically about Granada, which he saw as “the most haunting and beautiful of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow”.

A typical street in Granada's old Moorish neighbourhood | © Jocelyn Erskine-Kellie / Flickr

Granada and the Sierra Nevada (Footprint Handbook; Andy Symington, 2015)

Full of practical information (where to stay, eat, drink etc) and background detail, this is a good book to have handy before and during your exploration of Granada and the Sierra Nevada (it will easily fit in your day bag). Symington is an engaging writer and his chapters on Sacromonte and Albaicin – Granada’s gypsy and Moorish barrios, respectively – and the Alpujarras are particularly good. There’s also a foodie glossary, which will prove invaluable in helping you navigate Granada’s famous tapas scene.

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