Imagine a palace on a hill, surrounded by a fortress of trees that preserves its beauty. Castle-like pillars and towers poke their ridged roof tops through the greenery. A steeple with a cross tops a bell tower, and a long wall of chambers hides a Romanesque coliseum. One’s imagination could go only so far beyond the reddish brick that builds this palace. Mystical and unreal, and - when illuminated by the moon - it offers up an image reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. This is the Alhambra, one of Europe's most visited attractions, steeped in history and heavily wrapped in amazing. It is an icon that heralds an important part of Spain's great history and serves as the backdrop for the ever-amazing Granada, in the heart of Andalucia and at the foothills of the illustrious Sierra Nevada Mountains, an amazing vacation destination in its own right.
Without a doubt, Granada captures and provides an authentic Spanish experience. Together with Seville, Granada is one of the home cities of the Flamenco and that helps give the city a very indigenous feel. The cobblestone streets are ridged and jagged, with every step taking you back to the early periods of Spanish history. It’s been said they made the paths this way to keep the foreigners out and to preserve its integrity. Rustic looking buildings lean on each other, while people enter and exit with a lazy, careless swagger. The aura is free and happy, contradicting its oppressed history and the fight they’ve endured. Every moment of every day provides the perfect time to sit back with a fresh baked loaf of bread and a bottle of Rioja, as time seems to stand still. When the sky is dark, the vendors light up the narrow paths with homemade accessories and imported souvenirs. Intertwined with hookah bars and restaurants, Granada offers a diverse nightlife. Whether you desire a night of Flamenco dancing and drinking a bucket of sangria, a romantic sunset with a bottle of vino, a modest night hidden in a tapas bar with friends or an all night extravaganza at the discotecha, Granada will appease your nightly entertainment needs.
Granada is divided into two districts, Old and New, with each offering unique qualities. New Granada is more developed and progressive, covered in paved streets and modern businesses. This complements nicely the Arabic and Moorish influences found throughout Old Granada. The districts are formed by divisions that further highlight the city's historic diversity. The Realejo, once populated by the Jewish immigrants, is now flooded with Andalusian villas and gardens, while the Cartuja, which features a gothic and baroque style monastery of the same name, is close to the Universidad and the Hospital San Juan De Dios, the heart of New Granada.
The Bib-Rambla epitomizes olden-day Spain, made up of narrow pathways with rustic buildings and flowered terraces. It is also home to a number of restaurants, giving the opportunity for visitors to sit on a covered patio, enjoy a tortilla and a café con lech while looking up towards the Sacromonte, which is located on the hill of Albaicín, along the Darro River. Its nickname, Valparaiso, means 'Valley of Paradise'. Here, along with great hiking and views of the river, you can find a plethora of other sights and activities, including inhabited cave houses dug into the hillsides. There is a precarious path that leads to the unique caves, but it is not advised for tourists climb. Sacromonte is also the center for Flamenco song and dance clubs, many of which are often held in caves and typically feature a family style of flamenco called the Zambra. The Venta El Gallo, one of the many clubs along the Camino Del Sacromonte, is one of oldest and most popular Flamenco spots. If you hike up a little further you’ll enter the Albayzin district, an ancient Moorish quarter of the city where you can catch a stunning view of Alhambra, set against the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset from the Plaza De San Nicolas. The Zaidin district, mostly derived of neighborhoods and houses traditionally populated by Gypsies, features a large outdoor market every weekend with fresh produce and handmade goods.
On the topic of comida, Granada’s ethnic melting pot lends for some of the best and most diverse food in the country. Its Middle Eastern and West Asian influences translate into some delicious authentic food. Indian cuisine, such as lamb or chicken curry are always on the menu, but if you want something simpler and more 'on the go', stop into the Kebab King to grab a cheap and filling chicken or pork Shawarma. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the American Kebab, served on a roll with French fries. The tapas here are similar to those you’ll find all around central and southern Spain, including small bites such as tortillas (Spanish omelette), bocadillos or bocatas (Spanish sandwiches usually filled with jamon or tortilla), Spanish olives or croquettes (a fried bread-roll typically filled with mashed potatoes or béchamel, and jamon or chicken). If you’re going out for a nice dinner, take advantage of the gastronomical cuisine that epitomizes Granada. They use many fresh vegetables creating mouth watering gazpachos and stews. You must be ambitious, however, as they use all parts of most animals. Start with the Olla de San Antón, a hearty stew made up of lima beans, pig's ear or head, bacon and blood sausage. Incidentally, you must try blood sausage in Spain, there is no exception. If you’re a vegetarian, stick with the Ajo Blanco, a cold Almond based soup. Indulge in some Plato Alpujarreño, made of Fried potatoes, fried egg, cured ham and spicy sausage, or Espetones or fried sardines, while you wait for your main entrée, the Cazuela de Pescado Frito, a fried fish casserole. Wash it all down with some Vino Tinto or Blanco, Sangria, or the popular Tinto De Verano, a combination of red wine and lemonade or Sprite. For dessert relax at a hookah bar and try a decadent and light chocolate crepe or some baklava.
While eating the day away is a great possibility in Granada, there are many other activities to enjoy as well, including cheap day trips to hot springs as proffered by many local hostels and hotels. Granada is well known for its water, being so close to the mountains. You can actually drink from many of the fountains found around the city, and though you can drink the water, you can also bathe in it. Lie in the natural reserves while fresh mountain water soothes your skin, soak up years of tradition and whiff the pungent smell of sulphur mixed with the cool Spanish air. Check out the Alhama de Granada, about 50 km outside of Granada, where the hot springs are found at the banks of the Merchan River. If you’re not feeling well and are in need of natural treatment, take a trip to Lanjaron, about 44 km outside of the city, where it is said the spa waters cure various health and digestive problems. If you want to stay local and still get a similar alternative experience, seek out Arab baths, which are also called Turkish or Hammam baths. They provide aroma therapy sessions and various rooms with different temperature baths and pools. And while you’re relaxing in the spa, letting the water rescue your body and mind, let your imagination focus on that magnificent palace on the hill.
The Alhambra, which is from the Arabic for "the red one", is a gigantic palace with elaborate reddish temples that are detailed with sketches and decorated with tiles both inside and out, while small ponds surrounded by beautiful gardens are found in its grandiose courtyards. Originally constructed in the mid-14th century by early Arab rulers, parts of the Alhambra were inhabited by Christian rulers who built additions to the fortress after the 1492 end of the Reconquista - the centuries-long campaign to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. In the 19th century the palace was abandoned, used by the homeless for shelter and bathing, but was inevitably restored and turned into one of Spain’s most visited attractions. The layout of the Alhambra doesn’t follow any particular or strategic format, as it was continuously built upon by its rulers, and therefore has a number of significant parts.
At the top is Charles V’s palace, which was added after the Reconquista by - you guessed it - King Charles V. The outside is an intricate, square renaissance style palace with a Romanesque coliseum type layout inside. It was meant to be covered by a dome, but was never finished as the King’s son Phillip II abandoned the project to build his own palace. While standing on the second story, admiring the beautiful marble pillars and its impressive design, there is a surprising feeling of seclusion. No matter how many people weave throughout its columns, or gather in the middle of the palace, it can be mesmerizing and taunting. The palace is still a venue for popular international festivals and also has an inside exhibit of artists produced or influenced by Spain, such as M.C. Escher.
The Alcazaba are the old Moorish temples and the oldest quarters of the Alhambra. While its maze-like courtyard and impressive views of the city are one to admire, it’s hard not to imagine what this place was like in its prime, the days before its destruction when the Christians invaded, the Muslims fled and Napoleon made his mark as a passerby. The Palacios Nazaries is the Moorish palace, so exquisite and elaborate that the thirty minute wait to get in is worth it and the anticipation is not felt in vain. There are buildings and rooms with intricately carved wooden ceilings, stucco and tiled walls, and ponds with bubbling fountains found in courtyards loitered with colorful flowers and plants. The Court of Myrtles is one of these courtyards, featuring a rectangular pond surrounded by hedges. Notice the reflection of the temple in the water as it slowly ripples and let it hypnotize you. These courtyards were especially important to women, whom were seldom allowed to leave the palace. In this palace there are many rooms, such as the Boat Room, which features high ceilings with intricate designs and narrow walls, and the very significant Hall of the Ambassadors, the largest in the Alhambra. It is in this room where sultans would conduct their business, and where two highly significant turning points in Spain's history would take place: it is where the Moorish king surrendered terms to the new Christian rulers that saw the completion of the Reconquista and where Isabel and Ferdinand inked the deal that in effect financed the voyage that would take Christopher Columbus' to the New World.
The Court of the Lions, with a fountain made of twelve lion statues said to resemble each of the Moorish tribes, embodies a feeling of power. Its 124 pillars in the courtyard - an impressive sight indeed - convey their limitless boundaries to embellish the palace. To the right is the Hall of the Abencerrajes, and at the end of the courtyard, is the Hall of the Kings. The Hall of the Two Sisters, with backwards tiles that influenced M.C. Escher’s infatuation with shapes, is followed by Washington Irving Room and then by a magnificent hallway leading out of the palace where you can catch a stunning view of Albayzin and Sacromonte. Follow the signs for the grand finale, the Genralife Gardens.
The Genralife is an illustrious exhibit of lush plants and gardens intertwined with fountains and ponds. A maze of vegetation, the sultans used this area to grow fresh vegetables and fruits. Trees engulf pathways, creating a shady tunnel of greenery with the sun moderately peeking through. Rustic Spanish stairways lead to different levels of plant life with fountains spraying simultaneously in ponds as if they are saluting the royalty that walked the paths. The water looks fresh enough to swim in, and fountains of giant coy fish plead you to emulate their existence. The plants seem to bring you extra life, their oxygen filling your lungs with pure botanical inspiration. When you reach the top yet another beautiful view awaits you, but this time overlooking the Alhambra and every previous monument you’ve enjoyed. When you walk down the cement steps, there is a stream of water inheriting the hollowed out hand rails. It’s relaxing, tranquil, and a perfect way to sit and digest one of the most historical attractions in the entire world.
The Alhambra, a palace that has stood the test of time to represent power, pain, sorrow and beauty in Spain's history, cannot be missed on any journey through Granada, which in turn should not be missed by anyone travelling through the country. The city and all its glories are safe for all types of travelers and offer a wide array of accommodations. Let this romantic destination captivate you, but be careful because once you’ve been, you might never leave.
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Anthony Presti grew up in Seattle, Washington. As a teen, he moved to Northern California where he has lived the past fifteen years, playing in multiple bands as a singer/songwriter. He attended the Santa Rosa Junior College, writing for their newspaper, The Oak Leaf, and acting as editor of Arts and Entertainment. He transferred to Sonoma State University and graduated with honors with a degree in Creative Writing.
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