Among the many mysteries of the iconic city of Granada are three facts, considered together. First, it has the Alhambra, the celebrated, mystical Moorish palace, a World Heritage site. Second, directly across the Darro canyon from the terraces of the Alhambra, it has another World Heritage site, the Albayzín, a thousand-year old neighbourhood. Third, over three million people a year visit the Alhambra, yet very few of them visit the Albayzín. This curious state of affairs opens for the adventurous visitor many a delicious possibility.
To name one: a trip to Plaza Larga, in the upper part of the Albayzín. If you would not refuse some languorous and delighted hours, go on a Sunday morning to Bar Aixa, a café whose coffee is so strong and uplifting that I am sure it qualifies as contraband. Sit out in the sunlight with just such an elixir, complemented by freshly made orange juice, some warm churros or pastry, and a good newspaper; and there you will revel. Around you will be families and nuns and young couples, sellers of lottery tickets and guitarists, lawyers and vagrants and families, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. You will not, I wager, feel yourself to be an outsider; you will feel yourself part of the barrio, and consider moving in, just so you might have such idiosyncratic pleasure every Sunday.
It was after a meal at Bar Aixa that, in 2002, my wife Lucy, our 18-month old daughter Gabriella, and I uprooted our life in the United States and moved to the Albayzín. It’s the best decision we have ever made as a family. We bought a house, and fixed it up with the help of local craftsmen, who were idiosyncratic geniuses.
The neighbours were kind and intelligent, the celebratory spirit was irrepressible, and the beauties of the neighbourhood were intense and generous. And we adapted swiftly to the plan of the barrio: it was not designed so that cars and other machines could live noisily and conveniently. It was designed so that people could live simply and joyfully. It should not be such an uncommon offering: a place to live meant for…. men and women and children! Who would have had so outlandish notion?
The answer to that question is a long story; one might say, a book-length story. But anyone can get a flavour of the history and results of the millennia-long experiment to build such a place by wandering through the Albayzín. Such an excursion will give you a sense of another way of life, almost of another world. Take, for example, the width of the streets. The sizing seems to have been this principle: the width should accommodate a couple, with their toddler between them, making her delighted way. That wide, and no wider. It’s a human scale, and everything in the barrio – terraces, stairways, plazas, gardens – honours such a sense of scale.
Take, for instance, the small gardens: in the Albayzín, they are, playfully, both hidden and visible. Most of them are enclosed within the walls of houses called carmens, all of which, charmingly, have their own names. In the Albayzín, someone decided that a number was just not enough. But what unites them all is the way their hidden gardens stand high above enclosing walls, or overflow into the street to show some of the thriving within: palm trees, junipers, persimmons; a grape arbour, sunflowers, orange and lemon trees. Vines and flowers clamber over the walls and arc down towards the street: roses, pink trumpet flowers, ivy and white and gold jasmine, bougainvillea. At any time walking in the Albayzín, you may turn a corner and find a full current of flowers spilling onto the cobblestones. Sometimes, with the bougainvillea, more than a current – an avalanche of flowers.
In the years we lived in the barrio, the presence, fragrance, and colour of flowers filled our days; and sometimes took on the most unexpected forms. One summer morning we walked out of our dark thick door, into the slanting sunlight. On our narrow street, along the base of the high white wall of our neighbour’s carmen, we found five soft pink mounds. It took us a moment to see that each mound was composed entirely of rose petals.
All night, in the warm breeze, the rose hedges of our neighbour had showered the street with petals. And in the morning the famously handsome street-sweeper, Salvador, had gathered and arrayed the petals with his nicety of judgment into symmetrical mounds. They glowed against the white walls of our street.
Hardly a day would pass, as we walked through the neighbourhood, without some such event. Call them blooms of another sort – the flowers of idiosyncrasy.
One of the joys of writing about the Albayzín is that it is so little known. Yet it is the heart and origin of Granada. For hundreds of years, Granada was the Albayzín.
And its history has an extraordinary sweep and scope of events: the superb engineering nine centuries ago that brought clean, sparkling water to the whole of the barrio; the rambunctious markets of the Middle Ages, with their wool and gold, silk and books, leather and lovely tiles; the legendary cooking that used the meat and fruit, the spices and honey and fresh vegetables from the fertile lands just outside the city; the terrible period of violence and starvation that led to the fall of the city to Ferdinand and Isable in 1492; the subsequent expulsion of the Jews and ethnic cleansing of the Muslims, all in tandem with the rise of Christian fundamentalism; the methodical work of the Inquisition, an institution whose techniques of arrest, secret imprisonment, confiscation of wealth, and show trials gave to the world so perfected and durable a template of hatred. It is a neighbourhood with a history of extremes: prosperity and ruin, exaltation and misery, beauty and devastation.
Yet it survived, and now offers itself to us with unreserved life-giving graces. Walk through it. Take a whole day. You will hear flamenco singing – at once fierce and melodious – come from doorways and terraces. Around the next corner, you might see a dozen orange trees in full blossom in a big carmen. You will watch the light of the afternoon slant across one lane, fill another to the brim with soft heat, and fill the next with a filigree of shadow as light passes through the leaves of a grape arbour. You will see windows adorned by shutters whose openings are six-pointed stars, so that sunlight makes the walls within bright with constellations.
If you walk in late twilight, the lights of the Alhambra come on, and you will see sudden views of a golden tower upon a dark green hillside. Another few minutes, and the whole palace comes into view, curiously graceful – as if stone could float.
I have never known a place of such cumulative, idiosyncratic beauties. Just about all of us, one time or another, have been lucky enough to receive a come-hither look. The Albayzín, every day, looked out for us; and it will look for you reader, and ask you into its secrets and pleasures.
Granada, The Light of Andalucia by Steven Nightingale is out now, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £12.99.