In my opinion, the best way to experience a city is to just wander its streets, both avenues and alleyways. The old city of Granada is a wanderer’s paradise. Yet, there are a few places that are entirely unique to the city which I think all who pass through Granada must visit.
After walking through narrow alleyways, up steep roads, and crossing through a few squares, it would appear that I was lost in the ancient neighborhood of Granada, the Albaycin. However, you can never be too lost, because after taking two left turns, maybe a right, and another left, you somehow always turn up where you needed to be, even if its against all laws of physics. This is not from magic, as I formerly had suspected, but it is because the Albaycin was constructed like a maze so that it was easier to defend from attack.
Granada is a city where both the Arab-Islamic Empire and the Christian Catholic forces have spilled blood. Function had more consequence than form in a city such as Granada that is built ready for the defense. Yet, the bleached zinc walls, and oblique alleys are as alluring as they are effective in bewildering a wandering stranger. In modern times, the white houses remain in tranquility, stacked upon their hill, smiling across the river basin to face the Alhambra Palace on the adjacent hill, as they have for hundreds of years.
These days, I don’t mind getting a little lost. The houses are built very close together so that the thin streets and alleyways have plenty of shade to minimize the effects of the hot, southern sun. Cats lazily sleep in the stray patches of sun that filter through small openings in a fence or veranda. The steep hills and uneven road make me feel like a mountain goat traversing a stony hillside. One wrong footing and you roll an ankle like a big Guiri, tourist, who can’t handle cobblestone. The Arab-Islamic culture is still in the air, a reminder with every waft of incense and hookah smoke that billows from the side streets at the base of the Albaycin. There are a multitude of teterías, or teashops, with sweet rolls and Arabic food, but also cafés with tapas, sangria pitchers, and cañas of beer. No matter where you wander in the Albaycín, there will always be a patio to sit at, observe the passing people or at least the views of the city.
The Mirador San Nicolas:
In the heart of the Albaycín, the Mirador San Nicolas is the largest of the miradors, or large patios and look out points, where tourists and locals alike are able to relish the view of the Alhambra, the grand palace that had housed Moorish sultans before the Spanish Reconquista. Even though there is always an abundance of fellow ex-patriots and tourists at the mirador, I can’t blame them for also wanting to witness the entirety of the red giant fortress either. Often there is a gypsy fellow who will strum the flamenco guitar, but then again I have also witnessed a flash mob of locals in costumes dancing and drinking there on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The day hosts a wide range of visitors, but even at night there will be young people looking on at the palace while it is lit up in an orange, fiery glow against the dark, starry sky. The mirador is eerily beautiful in the moonlight, but sit on the edge of the mirador and the lights of the city below make an ocean of warm lights below your feet. Rumor has it that it is even Bill Clinton’s favorite place in the world, so you know it’s a place the romantics are attracted to.
Enough of just staring at the Alhambra from afar. One must never enter Granada and decline to peruse the inner fortress. Walking into the Alhambra, something millions of tourists do each year, transports one out of present day Spanish culture and into a palace straight out of the tales of the Arabian Nights. The culmination of the intricate stone carvings in the archways, columns, walls, ceilings and windows, combined with the colorful mosaics, fountains, and fruit orchards creates a lush paradise and an oasis on earth amidst the dry, arid plains of Spain.
The Alhambra is perhaps the largest, both physically and influentially, reminder of the decades of Arab rule in the Iberian Peninsula. I have even seen the Fountain of Lions and the architectural style inspire the design of an outside mall in Irvine, California. The influence continues to reach over 5,000 miles away and over a thousand years later. If you really want to learn about how magical the Alhambra is, read any number of chapters from Washington Irving’s Tale of the Alhambra, and you’ll understand why the present day palace still houses ghostly reminders of genies, buried treasures, concubines, and grandeur that once was alive before the Christian rule.
Jardín del Carmen de Los Mártires:
At the foot of the Alhambra are trees! Now this may not be a remarkable comment to make, but in Southern Spain, the only forests I have beheld are olive tree orchards and botanical gardens. These trees, however, were planted as a defensive measure against enemies, like the winding labyrinth of streets of the Albaycín. And also like the narrow streets, the trees provide shade and calming beauty.
The Garden del Carmen de Los Mártires is located at the base of the Alhambra. The tall trees, short hedge mazes, fountains, and grottoes create a smaller, more accessible, and much less crowded oasis than the Alhambra, not to mention it is free. Packs of feral cats run through the bushes and a small flock of peacocks stalk past them, unamused. Whether you’re feeling like you need a good stroll or a quiet place to read or think, the garden is open most hours of the day to visitors.