Going into March, things were looking up. My grammar intensive was ending, so I would have much more free time during the week. Spring was peeking out on the horizon. And we were off to Granada for the second Spanish Studies Abroad program-wide excursion.
Granada is in Andalucía, the southernmost autonomous community of Spain. Andalucía is known as the birthplace of Flamenco, home of snow-covered mountains, and the part of Spain longest under Muslim rule. The name Andalucía actually comes from the Arabic name of the Muslim kingdom on the Iberian peninsula, which once covered over two-thirds of the landmass: al-Andalus.
Speaking of the mountains, did you know the Sierra Nevada was in Spain? Me neither, till someone pointed to it out the window. Doubly embarrassing because if I had thought about it, “Sierra Nevada” actually literally translates to “Snow-covered mountain range” in Spanish. Oops.
These Arab influences are still very present in the architecture and culture of Andalucía. Granada is home to la Alhambra, a palace occupied by the last sultan to rule in Spain. The surrender of the keys to the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, symbolized the end of their conquest of the Moorish (Muslim) empire on the peninsula and the unification of the lands that would become the Spain of today. They celebrated this triumph by taking the Alhambra as their own, adding it to the locations that played host to their court.
We spent our first afternoon in Granada exploring the town. First, we saw the cathedral, which is entirely white inside, and the adjoined Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) where Ferdinand, Isabella, and their grandson are buried. There was also a very cool collection of period music books.
The story of why their grandson is buried in Granada is a sad one. It starts with the history of the Catholic Monarchs. When Ferdinand and Isabella married, they united their respective kingdoms of Aragón and Castilla. Together, they conquered the rest of the peninsula still controlled by the Moors. This left the peninsula divided into only Portugal and what would eventually come to be known as Spain. It was their dream to unify these lands as well. Tho that end the power couple made incredibly good political matches for their five children who survived to adulthood. Incidentally, these matches were so effective that their bloodline runs through all the current European monarchs. However, Isabella’s most prized match was that of her oldest daughter, Isabella of Aragón, heir presumptive, whom she married to the crown prince of Portugal. A child of this union would have united the entire Iberian peninsula under one crown. Unfortunately, the crown prince of Portugal died before leaving an heir. However, there was another chance for an Iberian union when, six years later, Isabella of Aragón remarried to the new king of Portugal, Manuel I.
This yearned-for child was finally born and named Miguel de la Paz. His mother died hours after giving birth. However, the child stood to succeed to the thrones of Castilla y León from Isabella, Aragón from Ferdinand, and Portugal, from Manuel. It looked like Isabella and Ferdinand’s dream would come true.
However, tragedy struck once again. Two years later in Granada, the child took sick. He died in his grandmother’s arms. With a broken heart Isabella insisted that the child be buried in the Capilla Real in Granada. When she and her husband died, they were buried next to the child, the manifestation of a dream that they weren’t able to realize.
After the Capilla visit, we had free time to explore the city before dinner. We went to the Arabian market, which consists of a very narrow walk full of enchanting little artisan shops. A lot of them featured mosaic lamps, which I absolutely loved. If I could have fit one of those in my suitcase back to the US, I would have bought one.
When found ourselves back in front of the Cathedral, there was someone new there: a mime. I had never seen a mime before, and the only thing I knew about them were the parodies of mimes trying to escape an invisible box. They left me completely unprepared for how AWESOME this guy was. His show was like a cross between a magician and a clown. He did magic, but made it look like it was an accident, which was funny, and brought in his audience to participate a lot. He swept the confetti on the street out of the way of passerby walking into the cathedral, then swept it back. He took my friends and me by the arm and gallantly escorted us one by one to the other side of the semicircle so that we wouldn’t block traffic walking into the market. In this picture, he was (non-verbally, of course) asking us to count to three so he could toss his hat from his foot to his head. The little boy on the far side refused to say “one” and kept yelling “two” instead. The mime stopped the trick and went over there, trying various silly strategies to get the boy to say one. We stayed there watching him for at least a half hour, laughing the whole time. That was my favorite moment of the whole trip.
That night had one more cultural event in store that I had been very excited for: a flamenco show in Las Cuevas (the caves). We went to the gypsy part of town to a restaurant set in long, narrow caves. In one were simply a row of chairs with a long aisle between. The dancers paraded up and down the aisle, the musicians and singers at one end. I can’t describe it. You just have to go to understand. Here are some pictures that don’t do it justice.
The next morning we woke up early to visit Granada’s main claim to fame: the Alhambra.
The palace is undeniably majestic. The gardens feature fountains and long reflecting pools surrounded by hedges or mazes in pretty patterns.
The Alhambra is actually composed of many palaces built by different rulers. It’s built on the side of a hill in a very strategic location, which also gives it a great view.
The ones that date back to the sultans are full of intricate designs typical of Arabian architecture covering the walls, pointed arches, and beautiful keyhole-shaped doors. The designs on the walls were actually made using type of stamping technique; craftsman intricately carved molds into which the plaster was poured, then put the dry stamps on the wall, creating the incredibly precise repeated patterns that we see. So basically, 700-year old three-dimensional wall paper.
Many of the ceilings and windows are covered with beautiful, intricately carved dark wood, usually not original because wood doesn’t last that long, but imitating the original. The windows are like wooden lace, and let in light filter in ethereally.
This is the Patio of the Harem, a courtyard surrounded by bed alcoves. Each has a domed ceiling painted beautifully. The grandest, at the head of the patio of course, belonged to the sultan. Quite a bedroom.
On the point of the hill is a military installation. What looks like a maze is actually the remains of the soldier’s barracks. The view from the top is 360 degrees lovely.
After the palace, we had a few more hours to kill in the city, which we spent walking around and buying things in the little shops. I got a tapestry for laying on the beach, a skirt for my dance class and my general happiness, and some surprise little souveneirs for my nieces.
Fun fact, Granada actually means “Pomegranate”, so believe it or not, this city is named after a fruit. Apparently it’s a special, archetypal fruit though; among other things, it is associated with unity and fruitfulness. The symbolism is derived from the hundreds of seeds together inside one peel. Can’t miss out on anything, so totally out of obligation, I closed out my visit with the sweet flavor of granada in Granada. 😉