Travels in Spain before Covid: Granada Day 6

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November 1st 2020
Published: November 1st 2020
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GRANADA 10/25/19

Our bus left the hotel in Seville at 9am and we were on our way to Granada. On the bus, Vera passed out dark chocolate covered figs to tease us about the upcoming sweets at our next stop. She told us that bus drivers, by law, must stop at least every 2 hours. Therefore we had frequent bathroom and refreshment breaks. We stopped at an Autogrill in a pleasantly rural farmland region where Vera suggested we purchase lunch to bring with us to eat in Granada. We bought the recommended and locally famous Pionono sweet treat to eat later and a ham and cheese and ovo sandwich for a walking lunch later in Granada. When we arrived in Granada I saw advertisements for the Piononos everywhere. (I soon found out they were way too “no no” sweet for me).

Spain and its Olives: Region does not dictate the quality of olives so much as how olives are treated. As they do in Greece, farmers bang on olive trees and after the olives fall either they are machine harvested or hand picked. Hand picking requires a great deal of labor putting the olives on mats, layering with more olives until rocks are put on top and then donkeys pull the mats to the press. The best system for oil production is to use a centrifugal force system that has no loss of juice and no air or light exposure to impair the quality of the oil. But the centrifugal process is more expensive and you can’t always know for sure if the olive oil you buy is made this way unless it says early harvest organic extra virgin on the bottle. The “Bassilipo” brand does this. Extra virgin means there is no defect in smell or taste. Both virgin and extra virgin are not heated so, in this way, there is no loss of vitamins, which is the best.

Olives that are harvested in early September have the best quality but the olives are still small in size and there is limited quantity and not many companies do an early harvest. The longer you wait to harvest, the more liquid you will get; harvests in November and December yield 20-25%!m(MISSING)ore liquid but some of the olives may be too ripe and can spoil the taste. You will pay about $10 for an organic bottle of OVO in Spain. Black olives are just ripe green olives but there are many different varieties. In addition to olive groves, we passed acres of farmland lined with poplar trees, where tobacco was previously growing, now asparagus is the popular crop. I found it interesting that corn is grown for animals and not so much for human consumption.

Vera gave us a little history of the Iberian peninsula in Andalusia which is full of conspiracies, conquests and medieval harems. The Arabs who came from Syria in 711 were welcomed because they would fight Spain’s ancient Visigoth rulers who had controlled Spain for 200 years following the Roman occupation. The Jewish community then facilitated the Islamic takeover as they banded with the Muslims to overthrow the Visigoth rulers. The Arabic kingdom of Granada was founded in the early 13th century beginning the glorious Islamic period when Granada started to flourish, becoming one of the richest and most dynamic cities of medieval Spain, blossoming with traders, artisans, educators and scientists.

This wonderful period of enrichment ended in 1492 after Isabella and Fernando began their takeover of Spain. The Arabs, attempting to escape, moved south to Granada, the last stronghold before the Arabs were forced out of Spain. As a result, Granada was Spain’s last moorish kingdom. Yet some Muslims chose to stay. The Mariscos Muslims who chose to stay had to become Christians and were taxed for that. A rebellion started to stop paying taxes and that ended up bankrupting the country.

Soon after the Arabs left, Isabella and Ferdinand threw out all the remaining non-believing Jews, bringing a force of Catholicism to Granada and southern Spain. Yet the “non-believing Jews” left their mark in Granada. It was from the Jewish community living at the foot of Alhambra hill in an area called Granata al Jahud that we get the city’s name Granada, which in Spanish means pomegranate. You can see this fruit represented on the city’s coat of arms. Isabella and Ferdinand stayed in Granada making it their headquarters, where they signed the Santa Fe treaty granting Columbus one tenth of all the riches he obtained from his voyages.

After former Fascist dictator Franco’s death in 1975, controls were loosened all over Spain. This coincided with Granada’s university boom in the 1970s, totally changing the face of Granada. Today Granada hosts a vibrant multicultural community with a large influx of university students. As a result, Granada is more casual than Seville, with a large population of hippies (called “black feet” because of their dirty bare feet), who have helped to create this relaxed vibe.

Environmental awareness is present here, most likely due to the university population. An example of this was bins placed on the sidewalks for recycling used cooking oil that can be used for making soap or biodiesel, avoiding clogged pipes and environmental issues. Vera told us it is cheaper to live in Granada, than the other large cities in Spain, but on the down side, there is high unemployment. She lives in the former Arab neighborhood of Calle Elvira which is alive with that hippy vibe. The IT industry is beginning to take hold here and there is a trend now to call Granada the Spanish Silicon Valley. Today Granada is home to nearly 300,000 citizens, many of whom live in apartments in the city, although some live in houses built into the mountains nearby where the temperature can be more comfortably maintained, especially in the nearby caves!

Granada, once capital of the Little Kingdom, had numerous mulberry trees that hosted silk worms. During the 11th century, raw silk was processed in the Realejo area making Granada famous for its silk products, popular with the Moors. This industry went into decline after the Arab expulsion. Now, with the restoration of Granada’s Islamic heritage, Granada’s main industry is tourism and there is big competition for tourists between Seville and Granada (Granada has access to beaches and mountains but Seville does not). So when the high speed train was developed a controversy began about train stops and routes which resulted in the train being stopped for about 3 years because of the political pressure. Interestingly, Vera tells us, at this time, the high speed train is not so fast and you pay more than twice the money for the train as the bus and only gain an hour.

We began our group exploration of Granada walking to Plaza Nueva not far from the Calle Elvira neighborhood, although I never got that far. I took my sandwich and left our group to sit in the plaza and relax in the sun near the beautiful fountains. Joining some of our group I shared a bite of their pizza at one of the local restaurants on the plaza. Although that was delightful and relaxing I think I would have enjoyed touring Calle Elvira.

On to the Alhambra! We were instructed to bring a paper photocopy of our passport or a driver license that, due to high security, could be needed to get into the Alhambra, although we never did need it, it may because we were with a group. We arrived around 12:30pm and ended up leaving when it grew dark, and yet we could have spent much more time here to see and understand it all. Our guide Jennifer began with a brief lecture before bringing us into the monumental complex that is Alhambra.

The Alhambra was built in 889AD on rocky Sabika Hill along the banks of the river Darro. It was to be an enclosed city with walls and towers. Protected by mountains and forest and located high above a river, it was spread out over the hilltop with views of the surrounding villages, it was a site perfect for a castle. Alhambra was first built as a military fortress by the Nasrites, and later was turned into a palace by the Nasrid Dynasty. The imposing castle is the most important surviving remnant of the Islamic Golden Age, the last Islamic kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula.

The name Alhambra is from an Arabic word meaning “red castle or vermilion” that may have come from the color it gave during construction when it looked red under the light of torches. Life was not as rosy as it seems for at the summit of Monte Mauror is the Martyrs’ Villa commemorating the Christian slaves who were forced to build the Alhambra and were confined in subterranean cells when not at work.

Combined with the Alhambra, the Generalife Gardens, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We began our tour of Alhambra complex in the famous Generalife Gardens, the summer palace and country estate of the Nasrid rulers. The gardens were built on the slopes of the Hill of the Sun and offered spectacular views of the Alcazaba, or fortress, the white houses of the city of Granada below and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance. There are many palaces within this enormous complex including a later edition, the royal family house, where Isabella and Ferdinand conducted their government.

We walked up to the Generalife Gardens passing through green arbors of cedar, and metal pergolas that were covered with oleander and wisteria, which must have been spectacular when in bloom, however at this time color came from below in the form of blooming orange zinnias and pink roses along the tall columnar green hedges. The colorful lush green gardens, fountains, water channels, colonnades and pavilions, and most especially the Courtyard of the Cypress, surrounded by myrtle hedges, were created for expectations and surprises. These individual areas would also connect to the various outdoor “rooms” providing a paradise for the Sultans to enjoy. The elevated site was chosen to provide cooling breezes in the summer heat.

Generalife means architects paradise in this Sultan country house. For over 250 years, 24 sultans made this their home. With its amazing views and pools for lounging I am sure it once was a paradise, but over the years, repairs and restorations to the palaces consisted of plastering over the delicate lacework, covering much of the once fairytale like architecture. Now the previously open lacework of the walls creates enclosed corridors that I am sure, block some of those intended breezes to pass through the once delicate walls.

The Nasrid rulers utilized the peacefulness of sight, sound, and the cooling qualities of water integral in the design of the Alhambra. Rills of water, funneled from gravity, flow through aqueducts into the Patio de la Acequia and medieval fountains, serving many uses at the Alhambra below. The Alhambra’s impressive Court of the Myrtles and the Partal Palace were two such important features benefitting from this water. The reflecting pool in the Partal Palace with the spectacular mirrored image of the Tower of Comares, created a look of a floating palace which served to impress political visitors. A passage in the Koran that reads “…gardens, underneath which running waters flow…” gives more meaning to the importance of water for Muslims. The fountain complex in the Palace of the Lions, Sultans Harem, or family home, was under repair.

Water was also important to growing the luscious gardens and maintaining good food supplies for those who lived here. In the Generalife there were several residences, and beyond, farmland, that was used for grazing as well as terraces for cultivation of vegetables and fruit, but for the Sultans, it was all about relaxation. I might mention here that women were not allowed to be in these areas at the same time as men. In the Partal Palace, women had rooms in the Torre de las Damas, or Tower of the Ladies, where they could look down at the lovely pool from a distance. How generous.

The architecture here seemed to focus on elegance rather than grandeur. We found examples of the elaborate filagree and intricate details that escaped the repairs in some of the Nasrid Palaces. I especially enjoyed the elaborate muqarnas stalactite stonework with downward projecting stalactites on the underside of some of the arches. In the Hall of the Abencerrajes, I craned my neck up for a long time looking at the beautiful example of the archetypal Islamic muqarnas or (mocarabe), ornamented vaulted ceiling, that looked to me like a fragile honeycomb, despite the fact that it was made of stone. I later learned that some of the stalactites were hung to hide elements of construction.

Located in the Tower of Comares the Throne Room or Hall of the Ambassadors featured beautiful ‘starry ceilings’, symbolizing the seven heavens of Islamic Paradise. The diagonal lines radiating from the center represent the “four trees of life”. They are another marvel to appreciate.

Mathematically designed geometric tile patterns were repeated throughout in a variety of beautiful blues, greens, reds and yellows, all serving to please the eye but also serving to keep the walls cooler in the summer. The once astounding stained glass windows, in the 45 m. tall Torre de Comares, (comares means stained glass), were blown out by an explosion in a powder house in 1590, surely our loss today.

Islamic art is known for its elaborately detailed repetitive designs. Because the Islamic culture doesn’t accept the depiction of human or animal images in their art, instead, throughout the Alhambra complex, there are about 10,000 inscriptions in calligraphy as well as plant motifs beautifully carved in stone. Examples I was given are “Eternity is an attribute of God” and “Depart in goodness since it is God who helps”. Even without being able to understand the writing, it makes one feel like walking into an elaborate book of stories and poetry or possibly political treatises. The last inscription I saw says it all, “Nothing in life could be more cruel than to be blind in Granada”. True enough.

At the end of Islamic rule, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand briefly took occupancy of the Alhambra, followed by Charles V, who ruled Spain as Charles I. Sadly King Charles ordered the destruction of part of the complex to build a Renaissance-style palace for himself calling it the Charles V Palace. The contrast between the beautifully ornate and intricate Islamic designs with the austere and cold harsh rooms of Charles V was startling.

True to the period’s domination of Catholicism, the Santa Maria Catholic church was built on the ruins of a great mosque in the complex. It had a spire and cross that was intended to be higher than any of the Arab structures, thus dominating the Islamic setting. The Alhambra was abandoned in the 18th century. In the 19th century, after some towers were destroyed in 1812, the Alhambra underwent a series of more repairs and restorations leaving us to wonder, what did it really look like in its glory?

In 1829, Washington Irving lived at the Alhambra where he wrote a collection of essays and stories about this palatial city entitled Tales of the Alhambra. On the 100th anniversary of his death, a statue of Irving was erected in a park outside the palace to commemorate his role of introducing this
Alcazar view from Generalife, Alhambra Alcazar view from Generalife, Alhambra Alcazar view from Generalife, Alhambra

The Santa Maria Catholic church can be seen as the highest point in the distance
historical site and Spain’s Islamic history to the Western world. Despite the well intended renovations, the Alhambra remains one of the most beautiful historical sites in Spain.

After our tour I ran into the gift shop at Real de la Alhambra. It was well worth my stop. I bought one of my now favorite Christmas ornaments there. With its unique blue and white Islamic designs, it will be a lasting memory of this amazing place. Unfortunately my husband did not understand that we were having dinner across the street from the Alhambra and got lost looking for us, making the rest of our troupe anxious while we combed the streets trying to find him. Thankfully we did find him and not all was lost. He made it in time for his dinner at Jardines Alberto, across from the Alhambra where our group was serenaded by costumed traveling musicians who played and sang traditional music. I later learned that the view of the Alhambra from the terrace of St Nicolas church is magical, especially at sunset. Ah well, we had fun at dinner. Another time.

We spent the night in the Sercotel Gran Hotel Luna de Granada in a rather remote area, but happily for me, across the street from our hotel was the El Corte Ingles, my favorite department store in Spain. Was I tempted even at night? Of course I was, and I did find some great things to bring home. Breakfast was a little different here than in other locations offering chicken, turkey with onions and raisins, carrot-potato-artichoke mix, rice, eggs, and greasy churros. Culturally interesting but the breakfast in Madrid still holds the top rating in my book.

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