Granada… home of flamenco, home of the beloved poet Frederico Garcia Lorca, the Andalusian city is situated at the foot of Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s proud and vibrant, bohemian but loud, like a wild and shy Moorish princess.
The best way to see the city is by exploring it on foot. Grab a map and start from the city center. Granada will reveal itself slowly without any effort in all its splendor.
Day 1: Cathedral of Granada, Moorish Market, Albaicin and Sacromonte
1. Cathedral of Granada
The massive Catholic cathedral was built in the 16th century after the kingdom of Granada was recovered from the Muslim rulers. It is very impressive to see it from to outside as well from the inside: paintings, sculptures, biblical scenes hand-carved in the columns and colored glass windows. Being constructed by 2 architects, it has a unique style: Gothic blends with Renaissance elements.
The cathedral has 3 doors: Ecce Homo, San Jerónimo and El Perdón and they’re known and appreciated for the level of details of the ornaments. A true delight for an architecture passionate! So take your time and explore each one of them!
Next, to the cathedral, there is the Royal Chapel, where rest Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and a couple of other members of their family. It’s definitely worth a visit only by thinking what important role Queen Isabella had in the history of Europe. I have always been interested in the queen’s character because she can be held accountable for at least two significant events: the discovery of the American continent by Christopher Columbus and the Inquisition.
Fee: €5 for adults
2. Moorish market – Alcaiceria
Alcaiceria is the Spanish name for the Moorish Bazaar, one of the few Moorish traditions that survived the Christian conquest. The original Alcaiceria was built in the 15th century and lasted until the 19th century when a fire destroyed it.
Nowadays you can find it on Calle Alcaceira, but the shops don’t sell silk, as they used to, instead they offer souvenirs to buy: Arabic craftwork (painted ceramics), typical stained-glass lamps (farolas), colorful dresses and bandanas, handmade jewelry (earrings, necklaces).
Don’t miss the food stall though because it’s the best out there: olives with chili, olives with lemon and coriander, olives with manchego cheese, almonds and other delicious nibbles. Mmmm.. and those olives were indeeed delicious!
If you’re into handmade, quirky earrings like I am, definitely head for the shops displaying colorful scarfs and dresses. You’ll be faced with a hard decision on which jewelry or clothing to buy.
3. Albaicin neighborhood
Albaicin takes you back in time when the Arabs resettled in Granada in the 13th century. The beauty of the Moorish world stands out through the narrow streets that go up and down, the vivid and colored houses, the carefully handcrafted ceramic plates decorating the exterior walls.
In my opinion, the “must see” of this quarter would be the church Saint Nicholas, Carrera del Darro, Mirador de San Cristobal and the Arab baths.
Depending on how you choose to explore this neighborhood you can stumble first on the Mirador of San Cristobal and then the views of the Alhambra and Sierra Nevada surrounding Saint Nicholas Church.
The view from Mirador de San Cristobal is impressive because you can capture basically the whole of Granada, and God! it looks beautiful!
Then get lost on the narrow streets …
… but don’t get too lost! Be careful not to miss the hidden tapas bars where you can take a break and refresh yourself with homemade tinto de verano and sangria.
Here is where I first tried “migas” (Shepard’s breadcrumbs in English), they are cooked with garlic and olive oil, anise and bacon. It was delicious! Especially after a long day of walking. Try “albondigas” (meatball in a yummy tomato sauce), “patatas bravas” (fried potatoes with garlic), “montaditos” (small sandwiches with meat or vegetarian fillings), or even some seafood and fish tapas: “bacalao” (cod), “chipirones” (squid).
In this tapas bar, it was the first time I had homemade sangria and not the touristy fake drink that is sold in the city center.
After all this salty food, a sweet is in order. “Flan” is so similar to a Romanian dessert that my grandmother used to make. It’s sweet and with a gelatinous consistency; and the caramel sauce… oh the caramel, you just can’t resist it!
With new strength and a full stomach, I am off to admire the view from Mirador San Nicolas! If you have a good camera, you could recreate the postcards that are selling at every street corner. Alhambra doesn’t need any introduction… and there are few words which can describe such a splendid construction.
The Arab baths or “hammam” is one of the most important symbols of the Muslim world and it proves the richness of the Muslim heritage in Granada. As we will see below (exploring Alhambra), water means purity, it’s the element most present in the paradise afterlife described in the Qoran. Hammam is a steam bath and it is made up of different baths each at different temperatures in several rooms. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the pleasure to take a bath in this wonderful setting, but I highly recommend it if you’re staying more days in the city. Who is in for a massage?
4. The caves of Sacromonte
Sacromonte has been created along with the arrival of the Gypsies in Granada in the 18th century. This neighborhood preserves the vibrancy, vitality, and creativity of the nomadic people. Due to the soft stone of the hill, the gypsies were able to carve caves and transform them into their home. And I can see why: they are very refreshing and cool during the fiery summer. I must admit that I was pretty knocked out at this point from the heat, but I resisted and walked the steep road to the Caves museum. To be honest, after reading a lot of material on Granada online, I was expecting a lot of homeless hippies singing and smoking under the sun. I was disappointed, but maybe I wasn’t there on the right day.
There you can find samples of how the caves looked like a few centuries ago, how they used to sew, cook, tools for working the field. There’s also a cave dedicated to the poet Lorca because he took his time in studying this world and writing about its troubles and joys.
5. Flamenco show
I didn’t want to leave Granada without seeing a proper flamenco show. “Venta de Gallo” is the place for it, it’s a restaurant inside a cave. The ticket can include food or some drinks, but I considered the show is enough in itself and I wouldn’t like to be distracted by eating. The atmosphere builds up gradually, the dancers are in the moment, living every guitar string, every hand clap. In the end, there is an explosion of passion and feeling that leaves you startled. It takes a lot of heart to put such a performance on stage!
Day 2: Alhambra
Alhambra has fascinated many personalities along the years, proof being the poem by Jorge Luis Borges standing at the entrance walls. The place dates back to the 9th century but it was from the 13th century when it started to bloom.
I visited it in the morning, and it’s my advice to you all to do the same because it’s much cooler and there are not so many people and you can have the Alhambra more for yourself. The path to the majestic construction is peaceful, walking alongside a narrow river, hearing the birds singing, the scenery prepares you for a precious history lesson. The name comes from Arabic, of course, and it means “reddish walls”. The Arabs have the custom of making things simple and modest on the outside because they don’t want to brag or to stir the envy of the people around them. So, from afar, the Alhambra looks like a giant plain fortress.
The simple ticket costs €14, but a guided tour is around €45. I opted for the guided tour of course because there is so much more information provided this way. The tour consisted of 3 parts: the palaces, the Alcazaba and the Generalife (the gardens).
Nasrid Palaces or the Royal Palaces are composed of the Mexuar (semipublic part of the palace for justice administration and State affairs); the Comares Palace (Palacio de Comares), which was the official residence of the king; and the Palace of the Lions (Palacio de Los Leones), which was the private area of the palace, where the Harem was located. El Mexuar is an audience chamber near the Comares tower at the northern edge of the complex and it was built as a throne room.
The ceiling of the throne room
The Court of the Myrtles is the most famous place for taking pictures in Alhambra. Luckily, I was there in the morning, so I avoided successfully the crowds. The 34 meters pool served as a natural air-conditioning structure for the throne room and it also acts as a mirror reflecting and magnifying the surrounding buildings. The name of the courtyard comes from the bushes of mirth placed on the sides of the pond.
Court of Myrtles
The Comares Palace has the greatest significance in the Alhambra. It was the official residence of the sultan and the place where the throne hall was located. It was built and richly decorated by Yusuf I.
The Palace of the Lions presents a great attention to detail in its decorations, showing sensibility and a fine degree of magnificence and harmony. The palace comprises a central patio surrounded by several galleries with columns, underlining the unique mix of Moorish and Christian styles. The photos don’t do justice to the place and it’s a must to see it with your own eyes!
The Court of Lions has its name because of the twelve lions that throw jets of water and which are part of the fountain in the middle of the patio. The big dodecagon-shaped basin rests on top of the marble-carved creatures around it. This white fountain is one of the most important examples of Muslim sculpture. A poem by Ibn Zamrak was carved on the border of the basin, which states, therefore, the powerful symbolistic behind the patio: “The fountain is the Sultan, which smothers with his graces all his subjects and lands, as the water wets the gardens.”
The meaning of the courtyard lies in the early Islamic teachings. It is divided into 4 parts, each one of them symbolizing one of the four parts of the world. Each part is irrigated by a water channel that symbolizes the four rivers of Paradise. This courtyard is, therefore, an architectural materialization of Paradise, where the gardens, the water, and the columns form a conceptual and physical unity. The slender column forest has been said to represent the palm trees of an oasis in the desert, deeply related with Paradise in the Nasrid imagination.
Alcazaba is a Moorish fortification, it comes from the Arabic word al-qasbah, a walled-fortification in a city. Built in the 9th century, it had military purposes. The fortress occupies a space with an almost triangular shape at the highest part of the Sabika hill, where the Alhambra is located. It is surrounded by a complex system of walls and towers that defend it and the interior represents a residential area for the guards. A tip from the guide was not to climb the towers, although I had a great itch to do it in order to get a better view. The towers are in a bad shape and they need restoration, that makes them a bit unsafe nowadays.
However, from the stone walls you can take a peek at the fabulous view of Albaicin and Sacromonte:
View of Albaicin and Sacromonte
Generalife the summer palace of the Nasrid rules was originally created in the 14th century and it is one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens. Since then, the garden experienced a lot of changes during the Christian period of Alhambra but also during its restoration. Nowadays the Generalife is formed by two groups of buildings connected by the Patio of the Irrigation Ditch (Patio de la Acequia). The abundance of flowers and plants changes with every season: orange trees, lemon trees, rosemary, African lilies, roses and delicate ivy. I had the chance to observe a blossomed pomegranate tree. Who knew that Granada means pomegranate in Spanish?!
The Cypress tree has a legend of infidelity and love. According to botanists, the tree was planted during the Moorish era and was, until it dies, the oldest tree in Alhambra. The legend says that Morayma, the wife of King Boabdil, and the handsome knight of the Abencerrajes tribe used to meet under its shade in the moonlight. They were discovered and the Arab king of Granada found out. As a punishment, the king ordered the beheading of several knights of the noble Muslim Abencerrajes tribe. According to legend, even today the iron rust stains at the bottom of the fountain of the Sala de los Abencerrajes contain the blood that was shed in revenge.
2 days weren’t enough in my opinion to discover everything there is to see in this city. I missed quite a lot: visiting the house where the poet Lorca was born, try more tapas bars and dance in reggaeton clubs! I’ll leave that to next time when I’ll explore the Sierra Nevada mountains as well!