Granada, renowned for the Alhambra, El Albaicin, flamenco and Plaza de Bib-Rambla in Andalucia, Spain
Looking up to the cathedral
Most accounts of Granada concentrate on the Alhambra and Generalife but, magnificent as they are, we don't want to do that. We want to show you the real city and the best way to do that is on foot. There are plenty of good hotels in or near the city centre, and the bus service is excellent, charging a standard price for each journey no matter how far you travel. Before embarking on the tour make sure you have two maps, one showing the street plan of the city and the other showing the bus routes. Both are available at the hotels and any Tourist Information office.
The Alhambra from the Albaicin district
Granada is a vibrant city. It bursts with life both during the day and in the evening. Its citizens are cheerful and friendly and include a healthy dose of students for Granada is a university town. The students here are the same as elsewhere, hard up and always interested in finding good value cafés, bars and restaurants. In Granada, there is no shortage of places to eat.
Calle del Zacatan Granada
For those wanting to sample the authentic culinary delights of the area then the streets leading off the south-east corner of the Plaza del Carmen are filled with bars where, when you purchase a drink, a tapas is automatically put in front of you. These are not the tapas with which you are familiar. The competition is so fierce that the bar owners seem to be engaged in a tapas war, each one trying to outdo the other, which benefits the customer. You can expect a tapas of sweet morcilla, four huge gambas a la plancha, a large chunk of melon served with succulent Jamon or meatballs in a saffron and almond sauce, all for the price of a couple of beers. Not surprisingly these bars are packed daily from noon to 4 pm when everybody in Granada takes a siesta before starting again about 8 pm. For those who prefer a more tourist atmosphere then there is the main city square, Plaza de Bib-Rambla, near the cathedral where we will be finishing our tour.
Puerto Real Granada
Our tour starts at the Puerto Real, right at the heart of this city. In 1624 a gate was built here to commemorate the visit to the city by Philip IV. From here we walk up one of the main shopping thoroughfares, Reyes Católicos, to the Plaza del Carmen and the imposing façade of the town hall, previously the Convent of Carmelitas Calzados.
A City of hidden squares and fountains
Leave the Plaza via Calle Mariana which runs parallel to Calle de Los Reyes Católicos, after a hundred metres; you will see one of Granada's hidden surprises, the Corral del Carbon. This 14th-century building, incredibly still intact, was an inn and warehouse for merchants visiting the city. Entering through the ornately decorated main gate, you find yourself in a square. This was where the merchants gathered to haggle and barter. Surrounding the square is a covered patio with stables and storerooms behind. On the upper floors were the inns and sleeping accommodation. The building is still used for a variety of commercial concerns.
El Banuelo Granada
Return to the Calle de Los Reyes Católicos and turn right. You soon enter the Plaza de Isabel la Católica where you will see a monument. This sculpture, in stone and bronze, is the work of Mariano Benlliure and was erected in 1872. It depicts Columbus showing the queen his maps and charts.
Further along, you will come to Plaza Nueva. Here you will see one of the most outstanding palaces in Granada. It dates from 1530 and is now the seat of Andalucia's High Court. Adjoining the square is the Church of Santa Ana. Designed in 1537 it sits on the site of an older mosque and has a slender brick tower decorated with glazed tiles. It is said to be one of the loveliest churches in Granada.
Passing the church, you enter the Carrera del Darro. In Moorish times there was a wall parallel to the river with bridges connecting the Alhambra, that rears up on your right, with the Albaicin district of the city, then the most important and wealthiest area. In the 16th century, the wall was demolished to make way for a new street with churches and aristocratic houses. One of the original Moorish buildings to survive is El Banuelo, or public baths, built in the 11th century. A vestibule leads to some rooms that had cold, warm or hot water. The cold water room is the largest whilst the hot water room is the smallest. Beneath this room, with its extra thick walls to retain the heat, is the oven that heated the water. The capitals that support the portico in the main room are a mixture of Roman, Visigothic and Caliphal, clearly showing this building's origins and continued use through the ages. A Moorish innovation was the star-shaped holes in the arched ceiling. They were initially covered with coloured alabaster to allow a rainbow of light to illuminate the interior. The whole atmosphere was enhanced by aromatic smoke from the perfume holders on the walls.
Opposite the baths, you will see the remains of the Puente del Cadi - a bridge built by King Badis that was the main communication route between the Albaicin behind you and the Alhambra ahead.
With its bars, cafés and artisan shops the Carrera del Darro is a good place from which to explore the small alleys across the tiny pedestrian-only bridges. These narrow streets, nestled at the foot of the Alhambra, contain some of the nicest, and oldest, stores in the city. At the end of Carrera de Darro, just before it becomes Paseo del Padro Manjon, on the left is the Granada Archaeological Museum.
Continue on Carrera del Darro that soon changes its name to Paseo del Majon popularly known as Paseo de los Tristes (Passage of the Mourners) since this was the route taken by funeral corteges. You will enter an open space with the river on your right; there are fine views of the Alhambra above and a few cafes. From here you can admire the small houses clinging to the side of the Alhambra hill, nestled under the walls for protection, each with its vegetable plot, still inhabited as they have been for the last six hundred years before we go to an area of the city less frequently visited by tourists.
At the end of the Paseo de Padre Majon, a bridge over the river leads to two paths, one of which is a steep winding climb to the Alhambra. Take the Cuesta del Chapiz to your left, a steep street leading into the northern part of the Albaicin. A couple of hundred metres up this street, on your right, you will see the Granada School of Arabic Studies that comprises two Morisco dwellings with later Christian style additions, a typical example of the architectural style employed immediately after the reconquest. You will then enter the Plaza del Paso de la Harina with, on your right the Camino del Sacromonte. At the entrance to this road is a statue, a Monument to a Gypsy, for this narrow, winding street leads to the barrio famed for its gipsy cave houses. You soon find yourself in an area of dilapidated dwellings that merge with the rock behind.
Chimneys protrude from the solid rock above and narrow, twisting alleys lead to flamenco taverns. The Sacromonte gipsies are credited with the creation of the Zambra or flamenco fiesta and the house of the flamenco dancer; Maria la Canastera is open to the public to celebrate the event. One of the cave dwellings has also been opened as a museum and shows a sanitised, romanticised, version of how these people lived. It is hard to imagine the poverty, filth and disease that must have been endemic in this area so close to the opulent Albaicin. Many of the cave dwellings are still inhabited, and you are given a unique opportunity to glimpse life as it must have been in Mediaeval times. You are given the impression, probably totally erroneously, that this is not an area in which to linger and it will only be the most adventurous who venture back here at night to sample the Zambra.
Retrace your steps to the Monument to a Gypsy.
Turn right onto Cuesta del Chapiz. This road leads up into El Albaicin, the former Alcazaba district that was clustered around a fortress built by the Ziri monarchs. The hill on which this district sits is the site of the original Iberian and Roman settlements although nothing now remains of that period, or the fortress. El Albaicin is however packed with wonderful examples of Moorish and Christian architecture. Time does seem to have stood still in these narrow, winding streets. A notable feature of El Albaicin is the aljibes or cisterns. These were used to collect rainwater and protect it from evaporation giving the residents a source of fresh water. Many are still in use. El Albaicin is a warren of narrow, winding streets constructed over the ages with no thought for town planning.
The first plaza encountered, after a few minutes walking, is Plaza del Salvador. At one side of this square is the Casa de Yabquas, a Morisco house with Nasrite, Gothic and Renaissance decoration. Opposite is the Aljibe de Polo and on the third side, dominating the square, the church of El Salvador. The church was built in the 16th century on the site of the main mosque. At the time of the reconquest, the Albaicin had a total of twenty-six mosques.
Leave Plaza del Salvador by heading down the left-hand side of the church into Plaza del Abad where you will see a very elaborate aljibe known as Bib-al-Bunud. Keep left down the Calleja de las Tomasas and then right as you go around the Convento de las Tomasas and into Cuesta de las Cabras.
Go straight ahead until you reach the Mirador San Nicolas and be amazed by possibly the most exceptional views of the Alhambra, the city and in the distance the Sierra Nevadas. Behind you, as you look out over the city, is the Church of San Nicolas.
Walk up the left-hand side of the church into Callejon de San Cecilio. You will see the Chapel of San Cecilio that was built on the gate to the former Alcazaba Cadima; the Ziri built fortress of the 11th century. The Puerta Nueva with the typical turret and defensive zig zag design of Moorish gates replaced the original gate. The Puerta Nueva leads into Plaza Large. It is usually full of colourful market stalls and surrounded by cafes and bars, still performing its function as the busiest thoroughfare in the district.
Leave Plaza Large via Calle de Agua until you reach Calle de Pagés. You may now walk up Calle de San Gregorio Alto until you reach the outer city walls and the Puerta de Fajalauza. This gate has an impressive minaret and barrel vault and was the start of the road to Guadix. You should then retrace your steps to the top of Calle de Agua and down Calle de Pagés until you enter Plaza de San Bartolome that contains, inevitably, another church that was built on the site of an older mosque. The Church of San Bartolome boasts a beautiful Mudejar tower.
Take Callejon del Matadero into Brujones and so to the Mirador and Church of San Cristobal. You are now at the highest point in the Albaicin with the city and its walls spread out at your feet.
At the foot of the Mirador you will see the beginning of steeply descending streets on which, if you count them, you go down over 120 steps into the Cuesta de Alhabaca where you turn right and continue descending until you arrive at the Elvira Gate, at one time the principle gate into the city.
About halfway down Cuesta de Alhabaca look out for Carril de la Lona off to your left. A diversion down here takes you to the Puerta Monaita, once another entrance to the Alcazaba Cadima. Stay on the twisting Carril de la Lona and in a few minutes you will arrive at the Convent of Santa Isabel la Real with an ornate and elaborately carved Isabelline entrance and just beyond that the Palace of Dar Al Horra.
In the 15th century, this palace was built on the site of the Ziri Alcazaba and housed the Sultana Aixa, mother of Boabdil after she was disowned by her husband who then married a beautiful Christian woman, Isabel de Salis.
Return to the Cuesta de Alhabaca and turn left on your original route. You will now have time to consider some of the explicitly descriptive street names used in the Albaicin to describe the activities found there. Calle Ladron del Agua (Water Thief Street), Calle Arremangadas (Rolled Up Street), Calle del Horno de Vidriol (Glass Oven Street), Placeta del Mentidero (Gossip Square), Peso de la Harina (Weight of Flour), and Calle Oidores (Judges Street), all very useful for the first time visitor in the 15th century.
The arch that survives dates back to the 9th century. From there take the Calle de Elvira back to the centre of the city. This street, although dilapidated now, was once the main road separating the Albaicin area from the administrative and commercial centre during the Moorish period. For those who prefer a modern street with shops and restaurants, the Gran via de Colon runs parallel about 50 metres to the right.
Either way, you will find the Cathedral, the Royal Chapel of Granada and the most colourful street in the entire city, Calle del Zacatin.
During the Nasrite era, the area around the cathedral was the primary administrative and commercial centre of the city as well as being the site of the main mosque. Today we can only experience a small part of what must have been the most colourful and vibrant area on Calle del Zacatan, just east of the cathedral.
Calle del Zacatan was Granada's main thoroughfare until the 19th century. The name El Zacatan is Arabic for old clothes dealer and halfway up the narrow, bustling street, you will come across the Alcaiceria or Moorish silk market. Originally the Alcaiceria was much more extensive and functioned as an independent 'village'. Access to it was closed at night and the district had its own baths, exchange, House of Justice, mosque and customs house as well as a souk where exotic goods from all over the Moorish world were bought and sold. Even today, mixed in with all the tourist glitz, you will come across real silk garments, products from North Africa and genuine jewellery from the Near East.
Even narrower streets lead from Calle del Zacatan into Plaza de Bib-Rambla. This square is the hub of social life in Granada and the site of the fish and meat market. In the centre of the square is the enormous 17th-century statue, Fountain of Los Gigantones, dedicated to Neptune and made in Elvira stone.
The Plaza de Bib-Rambla is the hub of the fiestas and celebrations that are part of this city's life. Restaurants of every sort and nationality bound the square. They tend to be tourist traps so check to make sure the tapas put before you is gratis and that IVA is included in the prices. The competition is fierce, so the food is good. Keep your eyes open for the Heladerias in one corner of the plaza. Each tub of ice cream displayed is a work of art and the perfect way to cool down after all that walking.
Rising above the modern lower town, the Alhambra and the Albaycín [sic], situated on two adjacent hills, form the medieval part of Granada. To the east of the Alhambra fortress and residence are the magnificent gardens of the Generalife, the former rural residence of the emirs who ruled this part of Spain in the 13th and 14th centuries. The residential district of the Albaycín is a rich repository of Moorish vernacular architecture, into which the traditional Andalusian architecture blends harmoniously.
The Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín were inscribed in 1984 and extended in 1994.
Granada is one of the five hottest cities in Spain during July and August. The other four are Seville and Córdoba, both in Andalucia, Badajoz in Extremadura and Murcia. The best times to visit Granada are from October through until June.