For the next leg of our trip we caught a train to Granada, which had something of the same feel as simple, sun-soaked Seville, but with a bit more grit. I don’t want to say ‘dichotomous’ because my #1 rule for life is ‘Try not to be a wanker’, but this tiny city contains some surprising contrasts. (Maybe not more than any other city, but brought into such stark relief because covering the city takes less time than baking Betty Crocker brownies.)
The main street – Calle Reyes Catolicos – for example, is a shiny boulevard (literally shiny – they had big sanding machines out to rough up the tiles which ballet-flatted tourists were skating around on like butter on hotcakes…) with the swanky feel of Rue St-Honoré or Rodeo Drive. As you move up towards Carre del Darro and the Albaycin (old Arab quarter), the boutiques stipple into dilapidated hostels and whitewashed houses. Cobbled streets wend up the hillside, providing a calf-aching trek for shoeless street artists and tourists alike. We saw more than a few dreadlocks — and only some belonged to other Aussie backpackers (who were wearing Bin Tang singlets and cleaning the souvenier shops out of shotglasses. What can I say…we’re a classy bunch).
The Albaycin seemed to be a hub of creative vim (maybe helped along by the rooibos-cannabis on sale at all the tea shops?). Atop the Mirador de san Nicholas we sat for a while enjoying a great jam sess. These 4 fedora-ed guys and particularly the flautist were seriously amazing (had I been able to make such magic with my flute I probably wouldn’t have quit in year 8 and relegated it to Pied Piper of Hamelin prop). It was a beautiful scene: the sun sinking below the Sierra Nevada mountains and casting its last rays on the Alhambra; a few people breaking out of the large crowd and starting to dance. Which kind of made we wish I had their social courage (at least until I realised it came from a brown paper bag).
Granada also has a lot of sweet touches. Pomegranates feature everywhere — in the churches, lining the streets, espaliered on garden arches, and on their Georgia O’Keeffe style coat of arms (seriously vaginal). They’re as ubiquitous as cherries on rockabilly dresses, bananas in slapstick comedies from the 1930s or apricots in casseroles from the 1970s. Public transport is also cute – tiny buses trundle up and down the main street like something out of a Richard Scarry cartoon (so, driven by a worm in a Tyrolean hat). Another hat doff to Granada – it’s one of the few places that still does free tapas with drinks (which can work out really well if the tapa is a mini hamburger, though less well if it’s mini pepper soup i.e.. watery hummus).
The Alhambra itself is simply breathtaking. The first palace on the site dating back to the 11th C, it was built up as a palace-fortress complex by the Nasrid emirs in the 13th and 14th Cs. It has been described as ‘Heaven on Earth’ which seems a big call, but this is no mere burger-joint puffery; the Alhambra is historical Disneyland (replete with manbuns and pants-less ducks).
The Nasrid Palaces are a symphony of chambers teeming with Arabic script and intricately patterned tiles, honeycomb niches, filigree arches and domed ceilings that seem to rise like star-spangled stalagmites to the heavens.
Exploring the Generalife gardens is not, as the name would suggest, a quotidian experience (it actually translates to ‘Muslim Garden of the Architect’), unless you generally swan about towering hedge mazes, arabesque fountains and limpid pools edged with exotic flowers. The towers of the Alcazaba offer the most spectacular views of Granada, and contain the crumbling foundations of the old citadel. The whole complex is so beautiful that I didn’t even mind the cat infestation (which, to be fair, is more gambolling kittens than mangy alley cats anyway).