Granada: a quest for beauty. From Allah to Olé!

Granada: a quest for beauty. From Allah to Olé!

beauty /ˈbjuːti/ noun
1. a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.

After months of eyeing a trip to Granada and checking the Alhambra ticket availability every other week, we finally found some dates to suit us. Some stars aligned so nicely! We were excited to see one of the places that long stood on a ‘to be there’ list. And we were into for quite some treats!

People quest for beauty all over the world and all over the world they come up with ways of expressing it, may it be architecture, music or dance. What makes Granada interesting in this quest and its output is its history.  Won’t go too much into details, but put in some Roman and Visigothic heritage, add 700 years or so of apparently tolerant muslim rule under various emirates and caliphates, top it off with a Reconquista and expelling of muslims and jews, mix in some Romani influences here and there and what you see and hear is what you get. And mind you, Granada was the seat of the last muslim ruler to surrender control over to  Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. The year was 1492, still early, in January. Come August later that year, Christopher Columbus was setting sail for further ‘conquests’. Back to Granada though!

Tucked into the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Granada is dominated since the 13th century by the Alhambra palace and fortress, a legacy of the Nasrid dynasty. Before the scheduled visit, we had some time to spare so we spent a late morning strolling around the Generalife gardens.

Intended as a earthly paradise, the Alhambra complex was developed over the course of two centuries, in a feat of Moorish and Christian influences: the Nasrid style. After Granada was surrendered though (Muhammad XII of Granada took a last look at the Alhambra before fleeing to Fes), it suffered some centuries of neglect, vandalism, alterations, squatting and amateur restorations. Despite all that, the palaces complex still maintains the ability to induce gasps and fuel the imagination of how they must have looked ages ago. May it be on walls, ceilings, windows or doors, fountains and column arcades decorations and ornaments adorn it all, with Arabic calligraphy, tile mosaics with complex geometric patterns, arabesques, honeycomb vaults. The last showcase of Islamic Andalusian Art was more of an explosion than a blooming. And it might just be that the way the interiors abound in endless details can become heavy to the eye. Stepping outside though, in one of the connecting courts, there comes some change. Reflective pools help in resting and taking it all in, but also in preparing for the heart of the complex: the Court of the Lions.

We actually found it a bit hard to take it all in. It can really become overwhelming, in the sense that one can easily start to lose the sense of appreciation for all of it.  Even more so when you try to come to terms with the fact that, as beautiful as Alhambra is, as violent the history of its founding dynasty is. Go figure, right? At least a dozen of the descendants in the Nasrid dynasty were murdered, often by their respective sons, brothers or cousins. But they did manage to keep Alhambra in the family, that is until they got too distracted and busy plotting against each other, and making and breaking alliances with other emirates to even be bothered by the full swing of the Reconquista hailing down from Castile. Come the Catholic Monarchs and the Spanish Empire, come neglect, come romantics rediscovery of the place, and we are back to present day, when what is left is a marvel for the eyes and a big tourists magnet. Over 3.000.000 people visit the Alhambra complex every year.

After what felt like an architecture, forms and colors overdose, it was time for some rest and planning for the next day. What followed? What else is there to see here? Well, for sure, Sacromonte is calling!

We spent our second day in Granada still spellbound, mainly touring the miradors in the Albaicín (Albayzín) quarter and framing the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada as a backdrop for either a photo or a beer or an ice-cream here and there. San Nicolas in this aspect is nice, but so is Mirador de Los Carvajales – way more chill actually.

Exploring around, we found ourselves deeper and deeper up the river in Sacromonte. Here we stumbled upon Museo “Cuevas del Sacromonte”. The Museum of the Caves of Sacromonte. As the story goes, the undesired elements of the time, mainly slaves – we are back in 1492! – not all of the royal servants could afford a trip to Fes!, nor could the surrendered king afford now to take all the slaves with him – took to occupy the heights of the hill opposite the Alhambra, which was then outside of the limits of Granada. They were soon joined by other undesired elements of the time, mainly Romani people. Over time, the settlement of cave dwellings occupied the whole hill and valley Valparaíso opposing the Alhambra. The museum offers a glimpse into the simple and hard life people here had. And it is here, in these hills, where some people argue Flamenco originates. The battle in pride is on and some further argue it was the Romani people that made it happen. Others say it is just a Spanish thing. Truth is, it did not happen anywhere else in the world, and what did happen in these caves and the hills around, was a fusion: whatever Andalusians natives, Muslims, Roma, Castilians and Jews, they danced and sang together and they came up with expressing beauty in dance and song like this. And when you see it, you can tell that they still hold it close to their heart. While some of the caves were turned into the museum and others are still inhabited, some others host flocks of tourists for a taste of the local spirit. Come sunset – and what a sunset that was! – we were thirsty for some local wine and Flamenco. Olé!

By the way, the olé cheer directly comes from the word Allah. Before modern times, it was thought that artistry is a way of god expressing him(her!?)self, so in the most intense moments of frenzied creation – in this case – dancing, people would shout out an exclamation of the gods name. Following 700 years of muslim rule and almost as much of christian dominance, today’s Spanish language still holds about 4.000 words coming directly from Arab. One of them is olé, but, in time, the connection to Allah was lost.

For our Granada Flamenco experience (remember Sevilla?), we went for a show at Cueva La Rocio. They take bookings online, and a couple of drinks are included. Sure, the shows are staged mainly for tourists, and you get the feeling of the industry in place, but it’s still good fun and you still get the basics ingredients: loads of cante (singing), supportive toque (guitar playing), demanding baile (dance), loud jaleos (vocalizations and chorus clapping). And, of course, palmas (handclapping) and pitos (finger snapping), to which everyone is invited.

Come another day. One last hike, as we missed a mirador the day before – Mirador de San Cristobal. Like this we had the chance to see more of the intertwining of Arab and European flows in architecture in Albaicín. One last photo of Alhambra, one last photo of this house, one last photo of this street, one last photo of me and of you, on last photo of these people carrying around a Mary and son as a really one last photo and that was that! Olé!


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