HEADING TO Spain for the summer? If you fancy a break from the familiar Spanish Costas, why not visit a city that has a rich cultural heritage, feels refreshingly foreign and knows how to throw a fine fiesta? With its heady mix of Spanish and Moorish heritage, the southern Spanish region of Andalusia is, perhaps, the least European part of western Europe and, during the period of Muslim domination of Spain, Granada was undisputedly the finest city on the peninsula. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the city has enjoyed a unique history that has left behind an enchanting mix of Moorish palaces, Christian treasures and modern amenities.
Back in 711, the Moors crossed the strait of Gibraltar and settled in what was then a small town perched on top of the Alhambra hill. It was in the ninth century that Granada rose to importance after the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba, and perhaps the most splendid era was reached in 1238, when Mohammed ben Nasar founded the Nasrid dynasty, and the kingdom of Granada stretched from Gibraltar to Murcia. This dynasty was finally surrendered to the Catholic monarchs in 1492, but the three centuries of rich Islamic culture that flourished Granada left the city with architectural marvels, such as the Alhambra, the Generalife and the Albaicín.
The day to day life of the city was originally shaped by the surrounding hills, where the old districts in the Albaicín and the Alhambra were founded, characterised by their steep, narrow streets, hidden nooks and crannies and marvellous views. The new part of the city is sited on the flat plains, criss-crossed by the large arteries of Gran Vía de Colón and Calle de los Reyes Católicos.
Moorish magic and
One of the city’s main visitor attractions, the 11th century Alhambra, is the stuff of fairy tales. From outside, its red fortress towers and walls appear plain, if imposing, rising from woods of cypress and elm, with the Sierra Nevada forming a magnificent backdrop. Inside, you will find the stunningly decorated Emirs Palace, the Palacio Nazaríes, the Generalife gardens and the Alcazaba (Citadel). Also within its walls are the Palacio de Carlos V, the Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Alhambra, two hotels and lots of lovely gardens.
Christian art and architecture are represented in the city by the cavernous Gothic-Renaissance cathedral, construction of which begun in 1521, although work was not completed until the 18th century. Alonso Cano designed the main façade on Plaza de las Pasiegas, with four heavy buttresses forming three great arched bays, in the 17th century.
The Capilla Real is Granada’s other outstanding Christian building. Built in elaborate Isabelline Gothic style, it was commissioned by the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando as their mausoleum, but not completed until 1521 – hence their temporary interment in the Convento de San Francisco. The sacristy contains a small but impressive museum with Fernando’s sword and Isabel’s sceptre, silver crown and personal art collection, which is mainly Flemish, but does include Botticelli’s Prayer in the Garden of Olives.
Granadinian gastronomic delights
All those museums can be thirsty and hungry work and, of course, a visit to any Spanish city is not complete without sampling the local cuisine – and Granada is no exception. Below the Alhambra, at the Paseo de los Tristes, you will find some of the city’s best tapas bars. This is especially true during the warm season, when all the summer terraces are open. This is exactly the right place to begin a long Granadinian night, or to relax before a visit to one of the many concerts held in the magical Alhambra gardens.
For a less touristy feel, visit the Albaicín or Campo del Príncipe quarters, where you will find numerous popular local bars. In this newer area of the town, between the streets of Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and Martinez de la Rosa, the Pedro Antonio de Alarcón quarter attracts a younger, more boisterous crowd.
Fling yourself into a fiesta
After eating, why not take a trip to Las Cuevas del Sacromonte, the caves of the gypsies in the mountain of Sacromonte, where you will find “Zambra” (Arabian language for a spontaneous celebration of dance and music, which lasts all night long). The local gypsies have revived this tradition for the city’s many pleasure-seeking visitors.
Granada also offers a wide gamut of contemporary cultural attractions, starting with the city’s annual International Festival of Music and Dance, with concerts and recitals staged in the Alhambra, the Palacio de Carlos V and the gardens of the Generalife. Other annual festival events in Granada are devoted to jazz, theatre and the tango. Add to this the stable offerings of Granada’s museums, art galleries, public exhibition halls, theatres and auditoria, and you have one of Europe’s most evocative and best endowed destinations for cultural tourism.
With a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Granada is sure to impress you whether you are an architecture buff, tapas lover, culture vulture or simply fancy dancing the night away in a gypsy fiesta.