Our family was blown away by the exquisite city of Granada and even more by El Alhambra, the incredible ancient jewel which overlooks it. For folks who enjoy history and context, I've written a more thoughtful piece about the creation of this fortress compound and its symbolism. It's posted at the end of our road trip photos. Others may prefer just to enjoy the photos, so I'm placing those first!
In all, we spent two days touring this impressive architectural wonder. Visitors to El Alhambra monument purchase tickets that give you a limited four hour block of time during which you can tour all of the gardens and fortress (Alcazaba) by foot. The blocks fall twice a day - once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. We missed "El Alhambra By Night" which several friends have told us is spectacular, but only takes place on weekends with reservations. (Something to return for one day!)
One of the two palaces (Nasrid) can only be visited for 90 minutes at a specific time printed on your ticket... and since that palace is the main attraction of the entire monument, we stayed in Granada an extra day just to see it. So, between the hours of 14:00 and 18:00 (2 - 6pm) on Monday and Tuesday, we walked and walked, admired, reflected and took a million photos.
During the other hours of our three days in Granada we explored the old Albaicin neighborhood, discovered a delicious hilltop restaurant specializing in fallafel and tagines, gazed into a lot of store windows and did a very tiny bit of shopping. Señor Aventura took a magnificent bike ride up to the very top of the Sierra Nevada mountain range ("a dream come true!") and the children played Granada Trivial Pursuit for two hours (yes, it's a real game). The Scientist researched and found us a tiny Italian restaurant with the best pasta outside of Italy... and on our last night we stumbled with blind luck into what may be the second-best paella on Earth (first of course being the one Señor Aventura cooks in our kitchen)!
My husband also explained to us that Granada is famous for its handmade guitars, so we looked around for some while admiring other local artisanal crafts and Moroccan pottery... and Señor briefly strummed an 800 euro acoustic for the children (perhaps to the chagrin of the shopkeeper!!!). While walking home we gazed in wonder at the brilliant Christmas lights and negotiated our way around the swelling crowds of families celebrating Spain's Constitution Day.
Granada was a tremendous city that we agree we would all love to return to. We'd recommend it to families on vacation, couples looking for a romantic getaway, and anyone who loves history and truly great food!
We ourselves could not stop saying, "Wow!"
My favorite moment in Granada was when our eleven year old son The Scientist exhaled while looking down on the Albaicin neighborhood from the top of El Alhambra monument and exclaimed, very spontaneously, "Mom, it was all worth it. This place... it makes the whole drive south and everything else completely worth it!"
Obviously, I couldn't agree more.
Without further ado, we present un-retouched snapshots from three days in Granada complete with food, holiday lights, world famous architecture and Aventura-style fun! (If you're interested in history, continue reading below the photos.)
Perhaps because I grew up in a country that predominantly self-identifies as Judeo-Christian, I never learned much about Islam or Islamic culture. I don't know enough about its rich and lengthy history, or its deeply held beliefs. I do know and truly understand that fanatical jihadists do not represent Islam... just as fanatical Christians don't represent all of Christianity.
Spending this week in Southern Spain... Granada, Sevilla and Córdoba has been a spectacular experience, and quite eye opening for our family!
Spain is still a strongly Roman Catholic country, but it is clear as we travel through the south of the country that its relationship with Islam and also Judaism are nuanced. The history of Spain itself is complex and deeply textured with Moorish and Jewish history. You can REALLY feel this in the south. Many buildings in the historical quarters of cities, including the Alhambra, are still decorated with Arabic lettering or six pointed stars. Salesmen of African heritage on the street are greeted warmly by their Spanish friends, frequently exchanging the equivalent of a verbal high-five in passing. Hordes of Spanish tourists and families visit mosques and temples, in addition to ancient cathedrals. Local restaurants offer Sephardic, Lebanese and Persian food next to tapas bars and paella. Spain may have been the land of the Inquisition... but before that, it was a cultural and religious melting pot where people of different faiths and ethnicities co-existed peacefully for many hundreds of years. This continues, to some degree.
There is no possible way to tell the story of Spain without including the eight centuries of Islamic rule on this Iberian peninsula. Much crucial Muslim history took place in Granada (a.k.a. Gharna-tah in Arabic, which some say means "Hill of Strangers").
Granada has had people living in its area in one form or another since 5500 BCE. Both Romans and Visigoths held power at different times. In AD 711 a civil war between Visigoths raged and one side invited assistance from Muslim armies. This was the beginning of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania, and soon much of Iberia fell under Muslim rule. The caliphate of Al-Andalus was established, and that is where this Spanish state now draws its name - Andalusia.
It didn't take long until Gharna-tah was one of the most populated and important cities in Al-Andalus. Many different leaders ruled the territory over the next five hundred years, and the society that grew in its midst was amazingly tolerant, integrated and peaceful even by modern standards. Spanish Muslims lived side by side with Christians and Jews, along with Arab and Berber immigrants. Intermarriage between all of them was common.
In 1228, Ibn al-Ahmar established his dynasty, the Nasrids. He based himself in Gharna-Tah and commisioned El Alhambra, the Nasrid "palace city". El Alhambra has become one of the most famous monuments in the entire world, widely known for its exquisite architecture and sculpture along with its sophisticated and advanced engineering systems.
The compound consists of two royal residential palaces, multiple gardens and agricultural zones and a defensive area called the Alcazaba which is more like a fortress. All of this sits on a smallish plateau overlooking a vast valley, set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The smaller, lesser known palace (Generalife) is very welcoming and secluded, with arguably the best views and gardens. It was the place where the royal family could go to relax with some privacy from the rest of the compound.
Spanish Christians pushed out the Moors violently during the Reconquista... but the physical building of the Alhambra continued to have great importance throughout Spanish history. In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ejected the last Moors from Granada and officially took over El Alhambra. One interesting fact for Americans, it was here at El Alhambra that Christopher Columbus visited Ferdinand and Isabella to ask for money to pursue his new route to the Indies (which led to his 'discovery' of the Americas)!
To this day, El Alhambra stands as a symbol of great strength and beauty. It is emblematic of a rich Spanish history that continues to integrate Muslim, Christian and Jewish heritage in a way that is deeply and inextricably entwined.
There is a closeness between the cultures that I could not have imagined... and a warmer camaraderie here between African and Middle Eastern immigrants and Spanish locals here than I'd understood. Just as San Diego and Tijuana are two sides of a very thin line, so are Gibraltar and Tangiers
Our family saw and felt this in every city we visited in Southern Spain. You never really forget in the south that you are just an hour's drive and a very short ferry ride from northern Africa. Tangiers and Morocco are virtually just a breath away... in the hot summers, one might almost be able to smell spices in the wind.
Spain and Africa have been resting side by side for millenia... ancient roommates sharing the same edge of the Atlantic. I know now that there is a tangible essence to this. While walking slowly through the exquisite grounds of El Alhambra, you can truly sense the shared destiny that once bound these varied cultures and peoples so closely.
The monument itself remains poetic and powerful, even after a thousand years.