|Patio de los Leones, the Alhambra|
Granada is:one of the biggest cities in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía…home to the Alhambra, a beautiful Moorish palatial complex built in the Middle Ages during the last Muslim kingdom in Spain…a center for generously-big free tapas with your drink…the burial place for the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella…a home base for going skiing in the snowy Sierra Nevada…a great place to study abroad in…the last city in Spain to be “re-conquered” from Muslim rule in the 1400s…full of interesting neighborhoods like the winding, hillside Albaicín…a popular place for the springtime Cruces de Mayo festival…and an essential stop for almost any trip to Spain.
Granada is nice and all, but…
|Tilework in the Alhambra|
And so I went back for a second visit. A short jaunt down to Málaga the first weekend in May left me with a long layover in Granada on my way back home. I took advantage of this opportunity to see the Alhambra again, this time in spring. It was still just as stunning the second time around, and I felt like I was seeing it with new eyes: the seasons had changed, I was now a seasoned traveler across Andalucía and Morocco, and it would be the last major trip I would take in the region before heading back home to America. Flowers were everywhere—purple, perfumed wisteria hung from every post and beam, roses enlivened the Generalife gardens, and the intoxicating aroma of azahar, the orange blossom, drifted from orange trees within and without the palace grounds.
|Wisteria in the Generalife gardens|
The charming atmosphere I enjoyed when I first visited was gone. Perhaps it was because stupid, slow-walking tourists had packed the Albaicín, because I had experienced what a Muslim/North African country is actually like, or because FREE TAPAS!!! were no longer restricted to just Granada, but were also served in much of the rest of the country. I soon concluded that apart from the Alhambra, Granada as a city just isn’t worth the time of day for me.
|Plasterwork in the Alhambra|
After all, I am a huge fan of the Alhambra. Show me some Moorish- or Mudéjar-style art anywhere in Spain—be it plasterwork, tilework, or woodwork—and I’ll go gaga; give me a ticket to see the Alhambra and I’ll love you forever. It’s pretty much the greatest example of Islamic art anywhere in the world, and has been amazingly preserved despite anti-Moorish sentiment after the Reconquista. The Alhambra is awesome, and I will argue with anyone who claims it shouldn’t be the Number One Tourist Destination in Spain™.
But I simply can’t stand the rest of the city, mainly for it’s supposed “Moorish” feel.
The town’s post-medieval history is anti-Moorish
Although the three cultures of Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted after the conquest, this uneasy peace didn’t last long. The Alhambra Decree, issued a few months later, forced all Jews in Spain to convert to Christianity…or get out, and most chose the latter option. And although Muslims were allowed to remain so in newly-conquered lands, increasing pressure to convert to Christianity led them to revolt in the nearby Alpujarras region in 1500. The state stamped out this rebellion and subsequently ordered all Muslims to convert or leave the country. Those who stayed and converted became known as Moriscos, but were still persecuted as “false” converts. Ultimately, by 1609 all Moriscos—whether legitimate Christians or not—were ordered to leave the country.
|Pomegranate (“granada”) car-stopper-thingies in town|
In said neighborhood, the home of many Jews and Muslims, the Church of Santa María la Mayor was built on top of the city’s main mosque, although the ablutions courtyard was spared. Around this same time the “Lead Books of Sacromonte” were found (read: forged) in the northeast of the city, books written in Arabic that gave a revisionist history of the city to persuade Muslims to convert to Christianity. The remains and relics of patron saint Caecilius—an evangelist to nearby Roman Elvira—were also happened upon, and these two “discoveries” were used to craft a new Christian identity for the city.
The Albaicín’s “Moorish-ness” is fabricated
|The Albaicín neighborhood|
But don’t think that any of this is native to Granada—it’s all been imported from Morocco over recent decades to capitalize on Alhambra tourism. There was never a tradition of tea in Granada because Moroccan/Touareg-style mint tea was introduced to North Africa only a century or two ago, and only came to southern Spain once people started to travel here for the heritage of Moorish architecture it conserves. The handful of streets in which vendors hawk their (marked-up), cliché goods are a far cry from the labyrinthine, chaotic medinas where you can find literally anything (although you’ll probably get lost in the process!). Dishes like couscous and tajine aren’t typical Granadan cooking, although couscous in Sicily is, in fact, a result of medieval Moorish influence.
Walking through the Albaicín at night is a fun experience: you get to stroll down market streets, pop in to a teahouse for irresistible mint tea, and eat a tapa or two before meandering through shadowy alleyways and moody plazas. But I’ve always thought it has the same feel that Disney World does: enchanting and exciting…but at the same time a fabrication.
Free tapas, big deal
All of eastern Andalucía—provinces like Jaén and Almería—give you free tapas with your beverage, as well as much of Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, Galicia, and Castilla y León. Yes, Granada may have a strong tradition of big, creative tapas, but it doesn’t make the city any more special than most other Spanish regions.
En fin…I feel afraid to voice how I actually feel about this beloved city at the risk of bringing down fire and brimstone from everyone else who thinks otherwise, even though I do love the Alhambra and Islamic art and architecture in general. The city just doesn’t do it for me, and I would much rather spend time in Córdoba, Sevilla, or the thousands of beautiful pueblos across the region of Andalucía.
What do you think? Do you agree that the city’s Moorish atmosphere feels fake or contrived? What is actually worth seeing and doing (and eating!) in Granada aside from the Alhambra? Join the discussion below…it’s gonna be a doozy haha