09.12.2011 - 11.12.2011 10 °C
The period during which the Moors (los Moros) reigned over southern Spain is known as Al-Andalus, hence the name of Spain’s southernmost – and most Moorish – province, Andalucia.
While the legacy of the Arabs can be found throughout this region, the city of Granada has beautifully preserved some of this history. Indeed, when visiting the Al-Hambra, one journeys to a time where Sultans sat in gilded rooms whose carved marble walls resemble the finest lace; where dark haired beauties sought to escape the scalding southern sun amidst the flowering pomegranate trees of perfectly geometrical gardens; where birdsong intermingled with the song of countless fountains to soothe the soul and freshen the body…
It is difficult to capture just how beautiful the palaces and the gardens (known as the Generalife) truly are – and we visited the later in winter, when very few flowers were left to adorn them. The intricate plaster carvings that cover nearly every wall inside the palaces are particularly striking. When you superimpose images of how this might have felt when the rooms where inhabited – colours, tastes, smells, fabrics, music to please all the senses – you are immediately transported to tales of the 1001 nights.
From the top of the military fortress that dominates one end of the complex, we also had a beautiful birds’ eye view of the Albayzin – the quarters that lie at the feet of the Al-Hambra, where the poorest Muslims built their houses when the Spaniards were attacking the region. It is an absolute maze of whitewashed, red roofed houses that cling to a hill facing the Al-Hambra. Most of it is pedestrian and, as we found out, when it has rained the night before, you should tread carefully on its cobblestone streets! Today, the Albayzin is the most popular tourist destination within Grenada and where we were fortunate enough to find a fantastic (and very affordable!) apartment… Actually, it was practically a house, complete with a foyer tiled with azulejos and a rooftop terrace with an unobstructed view of the Al-Hambra! Our view was so good, we did not even feel the need to trek to the Mirador San Nicholas, where everyone else goes to catch site of the fortress in its entirety!
Not to mention that we were just a 5 minute walk from the Cuesta San Gregorio, otherwise known as “la calle de las teterias”. When I visited here 20 years ago, this was a small quiet street where one could go for tea – Arab style – in a moorish-inspired décor. Today, it is THE destination in the Albayzin and its tea houses alternate with shops that sell a variety of would-be Arab goods (many of the tags actually say “Made in Pakistan”!). Notwithstanding its “touristy” nature, it remains a wonderful experience to wander up and down the hill and enjoy a cup of Al-Hambra special tea… We had two evenings in Granada, and we went for tea twice! On our first night, we also went crazy in the “souk” (the Arab shops), treating the girls to a round of Christmas presents –which we then squirreled away for them to open in the Ecuadorian backcountry.
But Granada’s appeal lies not only in its past: when you leave the Albayzin, you walk right into a modern and dynamic city. It has a thriving university and its pleasant pedestrian shopping district is lined with elegant boutiques. Its enormous Cathedral, along with Christmas markets and lights, made for a beautiful cityscape (note on the Christmas market: bonus points for the two wooden, man-powered merry-go-rounds!). We were also lucky enough to catch a small but excellent exhibit of Escher’s work while visiting the Al-Hambra.
We only had two nights in Grenada and this is perhaps the place where we most wished we had more time… but we made the most of it, simply by wandering its streets and enjoying our pied-à-terre in the Albayzin. And we topped it all off by a visit to the banos arabes on the morning of our departure (thanks to Jen for the tip!). We had booked the first time slot, 10am on a Sunday morning, and ended up having the place all to ourselves – I’ve been told that at time, half of the Spaniards are at mess, while the other are asleep! The banos, located on a non-descript street, replicate ancient Arab bathhouses, complete with dim lighting, Arab music, mint tea, and Moorish arches. There are six warm baths and a cold one, and for 90 min, you are free to alternate between them – and you get a 15 minute massage (I confess, I paid extra for 30 min)! It was a lovely way to wrap up our great European adventure and to rest our weary shoulders prior to donning our heavy packs once again.
From Granada, we took the bus to Malaga and went straight to the Airport Holliday Inn Express for a night of expensive Internet connection, bad Chinese food, and well-deserved rest… and then it was of to Rome.