As a schoolboy I had seen a picture of the glorious red castle of Alhambra surrounded by hills. And often I wondered how it would be to walk through the courts of the Kings of Granada. So when we made the trip to Spain, we took the five hour bus ride from Madrid to Granada passing through pretty Spanish houses.
Granada at southern Spain is a charming little town sprawling around the foot of the Alhambra castle. It has many small cafes with a sprinkling of North African cuisine. The town has a relaxed atmosphere where we found grandmothers sitting over hours for late evening coffee.
Granada was the last bastion of the Moors in Spain. The houses of Catalana (Barca) & Castilla were joined with the matrimony of King Ferdinand & Queen Isabel. Strengthened they forayed into Alhambra and in 1492 sent the last Moor King Boabdil into exile. As the crestfallen Boabdil rode off in the hills he looked back one last time at Alhambra, which gave birth to the phrase “the last sigh of the Moor”.
The Alhambra, meaning red soil in Arabic is divided into three parts – Alcazaba the citadel housing the armed garrison, Palacios Nazaries, the luxurious palace of the Nazareth Kings and Generalife consisting of the gardens and the summer palace.
The Alcazaba represents the muscle power of Alhambra with its watch towers overlooking the city of Granada below. But the music of Alhambra is within the Palacios Nazaries. Beautiful crafted halls with underground rivulets and gardens. One fascinating hall holds a visual representation of the heavens which a good Moor would reach. The palace oozes with worship of Arabic culture.
Alhambra’s rediscovery is another story. In 18th century Washington Irving an American diplomat and writer, heard tales of the Alhambra while based in Sevilla. He rode forth with his friend a Russian diplomat to explore the palace which was in ruins. He stayed for many months in the palace with the local governor’s permission and recounted its tales. The romantics in Spain picked up his call and then began the process to restore one of Spain’s most cherished sites. The audio guides today are in the words of Washington Irvine.
Walk through the mazy Albaicin:
The Albaicin quarters are located at the foot of the Alhambra. Armed with a map we decided to do a half day walk to feel the old world charm. We walked through the quiet cobbled lanes and old houses. It’s from here one gets fabulous external views of the Alhambra.
Somewhere in the alleys a musician was playing the guitar. I borrowed his instrument and played him some of my notes. He seemed please and though he spoke Spanish, we shook hands and parted. It was a special moment in our Granada trip.
In the little village square at Albaicin we found some lovely curios for ourselves and friends back home. Spain is known for ceramics. It was a bit like Janpath, sans the crowd. We finished our half day walk at café Kasbah for a Moroccan meal of Bitwas (spinach & cheese crepe), Gazzapo (cold tomato soup), and Kino washed down with mint tea. Divine. Folks usually smiled widely when they found us coming from Mumbai to see their beloved Alhambra.
Flamenco at Sacremento:
Its 9:30pm when the gypsy arrives at Hotel Juan Miguel to pick us up. We are headed to La Roche at the Sacremento quarters in Granada where the gypsies reside. The gypsy and I apologize for I don’t recollect his name is delighted to know we are from India. He touches my arm and then points to his and says in ‘you and me same blood, we came 300 years from back from India’. The gypsies firmly believe that their ancestors originated from India, rather Rajasthan.
The La Roche gypsy cavern is adorned with pictures and colorful lanterns and we are seated with other visitors in a U shape. It is foot tapping dance with beautiful hand and eye movements. The grand finale is a rendition by a middle aged gypsy woman who is dreamy eyed with sensuous movements. It is backed a mustached man on a thundering guitar and a throaty voice.
After the show I thanked the mustached man. “I have a poor voice”, he said modestly and pointed to the moon, “When I sing, it is the gods who sing”. I mentioned to him that coming from India the performance was unique for us. He looked deeply at me and put his palm on his heart, “India is in my heart”.
Granada is about 5 ½ hours by bus (www.alsa.es) from Madrid and 80 minutes by flight (www.vueling.com) from Barcelona.
We recommend Hotel Juan Miguel (www.hoteljuanmiguel.com)
Things to do:
– The Alhambra: Regular mini buses operate from Gran Via (Central Square) to Alhambra. Book early via internet as passes to Alhambra are limited.
– Flamenco shows: Southern Spain is rich in Flamenco tradition (2 hours, 10:00pm – midnight) and Granada has some of the finest performers.
Walk through Albaicin quarters: enjoy the local flavor, the food and the shopping.