It’s 9 p.m. in Granada train station. The prospect of spending 11 hours on a night train up to Barcelona is daunting – this is epic by my standards – I get bored on the way to Cork.
Ill-prepared as always when I went to book a ticket at the last minute all the sleepers were taken so I’m stuck with this less than comfortable set up.
Worse still a bunch of students have just flooded in with bags, noise and booze. There’s little chance of sleep anytime soon.
Facing an over-night train journey like this makes me feel like I should be listening to Willie Nelson’s “The City of New Orleans” but all I have is a brutal 90s collection saved on spotify. First up is that iconically awful mix of ‘cotton-eye joe’ to get the journey off to a fairly dubious start. Is there such a thing as train rage?
One positive outcome is that this time has given me a chance to write up the last few days I’ve spent in Granada, and in particular medieval Granada.
1492 is a good year to start. Granada’s history was altered drastically and irrevocably in that year. Having been largely built by muslim Kings and Caliphs whose ancestors had invaded Iberia in the 8th century, it was the last Islamic outpost in Spain. As Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castille, forced the muslims to abandon Granada.
You can read more about the conquest of Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) in last weeks article on Ronda.
I arrived here from another much smaller beautiful muslim town -Ronda and initially I wasn’t impressed.
Granada like so many Spanish cities, is uninspiring when approached by road. The modern suburbs, dominated by urban sprawl, tower blocks and industrial estates, are not very pretty. However in the case of Granada all is forgiven when you reach the city centre.
About 900 years ago the Muslim rulers of this city began building what forms the core of Granada today. To say they got it right is an understatement.
The core of Granada still takes the form of a medieval town. On a ridge overlooking the Darro river is a massive fortification and palatial complex (the Alhambra).
On lower ground to its east is what was the settlement itself known today as the Albaicín.
This neighbourhood is one of the many things that make Granada exceptional. The Albaicín is still quintessentially medieval – a maze of impossibly narrow streets and white washed houses. It gives a great insight into how cramped medieval life was. In some streets you can literally lean out your window and touch the building opposite.
Having been fascinated by medieval violence for years it’s easy to see how the medieval predicliction toward violent behaviour thrived in such narrow winding streets.
At night a walk through this labyrinth, takes you to the Mirador de San Nicolas where you get an amazing view of the city and in particular the Alhambra.
Perhaps fittingly it was to this area where many Muslims returned centuries after their Andalusian ancestors departed for Morocco in 1492.
While the Albaicín gives you a sense of what medieval life was like nothing can prepare you for the Alhambra, the palatial complex built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the city.
To write this I’d ideally have some decent music to listen to but now this playlist is mocking me with Alanis Morosette and “Ironic”. Why don’t I turn it off you say? Because the drunken rumblings of a teen a few rows back trying to impress a girl is worse.
Trying to ignore the strip lighting, the uncomfortable chair, the now drunk students and this awful music I’ll stick with the writing and avoid a pointless attempt to sleep.
While the Albaicín is beautiful the Alhambra is exquisite – It’s impossible to do justice to it in either words or pictures. During my visit I almost put my camera away so I could drink up the amazing atmosphere uninterrupted; I didn’t, but as I say I cant write or capture in pictures the mesmerising impact this building has on visitors.
The Alhambra is not just one castle but a royal complex which included its own town, military fortress and luxurious palaces – all contained in a walled complex in the north western corner of Granada.
On the Southern extreme of the complex, dominating the view from the city is the Alcazaba. This military fortification is the least impressive structure within the Alhambra’s walls. It was clearly designed as an imposing structure; an illustration of power as well as military prowess.
In its triangular courtyard a footprint of a small town where soldiers were quartered survives.
Despite the Alcazaba’s austere stone appearance compared to the rest of the Alhambra, this luxurious garden below was added in the 17th century. A century after the Christian conquest the fortress was merely a barracks and no longer in danger if attack. One commander filled in what was moat between two defensive walls constructing this beautiful garden.
Ok it’s nearly 1 a.m. the students have run out of booze, the light has finally been turned off and Scatman John has come on. I can’t take anymore I’m gonna try and sleep.
It’s the afternoon of the following day and I’m in Barcelona. I’ve just been on an excellent tour of Spanish civil war sights (there will be separate post on this later in the week).I have to finish writing up the Alhambra, talking about the Alcazaba and finishing there is like having a starter in a great restaurant and walking out.
When you leave the Alcazaba you pass through what is known as the wine gate.
You leave the militaristic architecture behind and move towards what is the essence of luxury, opulence and beauty – the Nazarene palace.
The Nazarene Palace
This palace must be the zenith of medieval achievement in Western Europe. No doubt those visiting the rulers of Granada who held court here were suitably impressed. Unsurprisingly it’s the busiest tourist attraction in Spain. It’s almost impossible to get photographs, but still the serenity of the building is nonetheless all pervasive inspite of the squabble to get photos.
On entering this complex any visitor unfamiliar with Muslim architecture is immediately struck by the abstract art covering the walls.
This cultural expression does not attempt to imitate natural forms which were seen as creations of their God.
The palace is several rooms chambers and courts of which I found this the most impressive.
That said you next move to this.
One annex off the courtyard above has this incredible roof, which contains an optical illusion that makes you think the roof is rotating.
While the Alcazaba and the Nazarene palace complex are contained within these robust curtain walls
so too was a medina, a small town where artisans attached to the royal court lived and worked. While this took up one of the largest spaces in the complex, as is usually the case with ordinary people, less survives of their lives.
In the 14th century the Alhambra complex was extended when another palace called the Generalife was built to the north of the Alhambra.
While it occupied higher land than the Alhambra, undefended it was clearly just a luxury mansion. Beautiful as it is, it’s nowhere near as impressive as the Nazarene palace.
The Alhambra, does contain post-Muslim buildings but I have to say they pale into insignificance when compared to the buildings mentioned above. Indeed in my opinion the Christian conquest of Granada appears to have had little positive influence on the city.
The story of this Muslim bath in medieval Granada illustrates one aspect of this. Similarly to Ronda for centuries the population of Granada cleaned themselves in what were state of the art baths. These were abandoned in the decades after the Christian takeover.
The social impact of the conquest was far more immediate, severe and devastating. In the footsteps of the Christian armies came the infamous Spanish inquisition. All Jews and Muslims who remained were forced to convert. Those who did – Moriscos and Conversos faced centuries of repression being accused of not being genuine Christians.