Granada: Monuments and Moments

Because I travel so much for work, I’ve picked up a few helpful habits along the way. Not only can I now book a trip (transportation, hotel, and all) in under 5 minutes, but I figured out that traveling is much more comfortable when a hotel feels more like an apartment. You can spread out, put things in the fridge, make coffee in the morning, etc. So in both Barcelona and Granada I booked these sorts of hotels. I tell you, being able to make my own breakfast in the morning and have my 2… or 3… or 4 cups of coffee makes all the difference in the world. It makes me feel less like a tourist and more like an invited guest, you know?

And so we began our Saturday in Granada leisurely, with much coffee and the bread we had bought the night before. Then we headed out to the cathedral, which dates from 1523. It’s very impressive inside but photos were not allowed, so this one of the outside wil have to suffice.
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Afterwards we began the difficult hunt for a take-away lunch that we could eat before joining our tour of the Alhambra at 1. The difficult thing about food in Spain for Americans is that take-away is not terribly common. And, even if it is available, it is likely not until noon or 1. AND, even if you do manage to find something around noon that you CAN take away, it is likely a sandwich or fried, and contains very little veg, which, as you may recall from my previous post, I was sorely missing. Somehow we found a kebab place that was a) open at noon, b) offered take away and c) offered a falafel salad to satisfy my veg craving.

In the afternoon we toured Granada’s most famous attraction, and the most visited monument in all of Spain – the Alhambra. The Alhambra was firstbuilt on Roman ruins in AD889, and was expanded under successive Moorish emirs and sultans. In 1492, it became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella (where Columbus received royal approval for his trip), and more Christian elements and rooms were added. It was actually its own self-contained village, and encompasses several palaces and impressive gardens. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. I took sooooo many pictures… so I’m putting them in a gallery below.

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One of the most interesting things to me about Spain is how clearly you can see the layers of history, religion, and culture. When a new group or religion took over, they didn’t necessarily demolish everything that belonged to the previous group – you can see muslim architecture encased by Christian architecture, Arabic writing next to Latin. I’m sure many things were destroyed, of course, (including the central mosque in town, which was torn down for the cathedral above) but the fact that the conquerors could appreciate the mastery and beauty of some artifacts of the former group, instead of categorically dismissing and destroying them, is comforting to me, somehow.

"The Alhambra is an open book. Its story is written on the walls." (From our tour guide.)
“The Alhambra is an open book. Its story is written on the walls.” (From our tour guide.)

In our group, we were 4 Americans (+ 1 baby) and 2 French people, and the French folks were pleased to discover I spoke French. By the end of the tour I’m afraid I had stopped paying attention to the guide, and was engaged in a conversation about Trump, the rise of the right in Europe and the rest of the world, and the importance of language in understanding those different from ourselves. The French couple, who spoke a little English, so appreciated that I could speak with them, and I was reminded that our conversation would not have been possible had so many other factors not fallen into place in my life:

  1. That I had a parent who thought it was important that I learn another langauge.
  2. That I had a public school system and excellent teachers who supported me in doing so.
  3.  That I attended a private liberal arts college which
    1. gave me enough financial aid to attend
    2. believed that language learning was important and
    3. let me use my financial aid to study abroad for a year so that I could truly become fluent in this language, learn about and immerse myself in another culture, and feed a curiosity that continues to this day
  4. That I somehow maintained some level of fluency in the 10 years since studying abroad, through continued contact with my host families and what I can only assume is some sort of cerebral luck that my brain still works in French. Admittedly, not as well as it used to (why do I forget the word for seagull but remember the word for chestnut?) and I make an obscene amount of errors, but I can still speak and understand quickly.

Thanks to this uncommon collection of factors, I can connect with people and gain access to information that would otherwise have been closed to me. This was evident in Morocco as well, where my language gave me and my traveling companions a wonderful freedom to question, gain information, and make connections. The unfortunate thing, though, is that this only works for me in French, and I have realized just how valuable the gift of language is here in Spain. While I can understand a fair amount, I cannot always make myself understood. I fear being rude, or misunderstanding a direction, and communication with locals is stilted and tinged with the inevitable fact that I am a tourist who can only barely speak Spanish.

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It is for this reason that I am increasingly grateful for my local colleagues and friends who have welcomed us in Spain, and given us occasionaly insight into a side of Spain thatwould otherwise have remained invisible. Cesar with the calcots in Barcelona, my students with their thoughtful recommendations, and the most memorable of these moments with my colleague Javier in Granada. After our Alhambra visit, we met Javier at the border of the Albaicin and Sacromonte neighborhoods, and began to hike upwards.

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When I had traveled with Javier in the US over a year ago, one of the many things he had told me about Granada that convinced me that I had to visit was that his favorite bar was in a cave in Sacromonte. Yes, a cave.

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Sacromonte is a traditionally gypsy (and increasingly hippie) neighborhood in Granada, public land full of caves where people have made their homes for generations. If a family has another child, they simply dig out another room in the cave. Some of the caves are really nice, painted, insulated, with electricity and water. Others have flooded or fallen into disrepair. There is a small cave hotel (5 rooms) and one of our students even lives in a cave ! As Javier says, “Oh, she loves her cave.” (As would I! Oh, that I could study abroad in Granada and live in a cave!) Some of the caves have apartments built out from them; some have gardens, chickens, and we even saw a goat.

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view of the alhambra from sacromonte

But our destination was Javier’s favorite bar, on the winding rocky path around the mountain, with a beautiful view of the Alhambra. The owner is a character, an oft-grumpy old man who takes pride in his dress and hat, and in the unusual decoration of his cave. Javier showed us around with the owner’s blessing, turning on the lights and pointing out the eclectic decorations – old records, dolls, copper pans, ceramic plates, random jewelry, photos of the owner’s mother.

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Javier in his cave bar

As we arrived, the owner was engaged in a debate with a patron, who had the audacity to ask for mint tea and something sweet to eat. The owner grumped around in the kitchen and seemed to be aquiescing to the request for tea, but not the sweets. The patron thought Javier worked there, and asked if she could also have something sweet to eat. Javier let her know that firstly, he did not work there; and secondly, he wouldn’t risk asking for something sweet – just take the tea and be grateful. As for us, Javier suggested bottles of the local beer, Alhambra Especial, which is what he normally drank, so we did too. We sipped our beers as the sun set behind the Alhambra, and it was one of those vivid moments that I know I will always remember when I think back on this trip to Spain.

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