There is so much more than the Alhambra and in this, the third in the series of our road trip around the south of Spain we set out to discover Granada. (click to catch up and read part 1 and part 2)
Granada is like any other modern city in the world with all of the shops that you could want, but the older areas of the town win hands down.
And there are several of these historic areas just waiting to be discovered – each with its own distinct identity.
We began by taking a free walking tour with Feel the City Tours which gave us a great insight into Granada. We also ventured up into the Albaicin – the Old Arab Quarter. As you know, I love a free walking tour – they are nearly always led by enthusiastic guides who give you insider information that you don’t often find in the run of the mill guide books – you can read about some free walking tours that I took previously in this article.
Here in Granada we met Alberto our guide and the rest of our group and we learnt about Spain’s diverse cultural mix and how it came about with conquering Romans, Barbarians, Moors, Visigoths and Christians all taking a turn and then the corruption and bribes which greased the palms of officials who turned a blind eye to inappropriate building works.
We saw the old building which once housed the silk traders from India and we wandered around the narrow streets of the Alcaiceria market with the colourful items for sale from Morocco and India and further afield. We paused in the square where bonfires of books from the Arabic University and the largest library in Spain were burn during the Spanish Inquisition and we learnt how (allegedly) Queen Isabel refused to shower for 4 years – because daily showers were something that Muslin women did!
As we circled the cathedral which contains the bodies of Queen Isabella and King Fernando, Alberto told us that the painted graffiti that we were looking at were in fact seventeenth century advertisements for prominent lawyers etc from the rich families – who used a permanent ink to write their signs.
The cathedral is the 4th biggest in the world although it only has a short tower. This is because to have built any taller would have caused the tower to lean or collapse due to the soft ground near the river.
We stopped by the church of San Gregorio. This church was once sold and for a while housed a brothel but now you can go inside and see some of the 12 nuns who permanently live there and who permanently pray around the clock in relay teams.
Albaicin – the Arab Old Quarter
Although our free guided walk took us up into the Albaicin area, Debbie and myself explored it extensively during our three days in Granada. Quiet cobbled streets wind around the hillside, disorientating and confusing with large villas and tiny cottages mostly hid mysteriously behind high walls and ornamental gates
My favourite area of Granada was Sacromonte– famous for its caves and cave houses, gitanos (gypsies) and flamenco.
Although it was a bit of an uphill climb we found ourselves drawn up here again and again. We found an enterprising local family who had put a couple of plastic tables and chairs in the street outside their home and where you could buy beer or sangria. Sat in the street, we were the only tourists on any of our visits here, we had to have the best view of the Alhambra – and without the crowds all vying for the best shot over at the Mirador San Nicolas.
We stopped to rest and to chat to an old local guy who lives in one of the cave houses on a bench and who told us that locals always pause to drink from a small fountain every time they pass it. We witnessed teenage girls and local men on their way home from all work stooping to catch some water to their lips. We climbed high up to the little church of San Miguel Alto (I had been here on my last visit several years previously). We sat on the low wall as the sun fell low in the sky and we saw the cluster of mail boxes for some of the people up here who live in the caves.
Historically, the caves cut into the hillside have housed the poor, often the gypsies and more lately hippies and squatters who are largely unbothered by government rules and regulations. On our way back down to the main residential area of the Sacromonte we accidentally took a wrong turning and found ourselves walking through the back gardens of some of the more salubrious residents muttering our apologies. I remembered our guide on my last visit warning us not to come to close to these properties and here we were stumbling through their barbeque party. We were lucky tonight – they were smiley and invited us to join them!
Flamenco – dance and song of the gypsies.
Granada is a fantastic city and its prize jewel is without a doubt the Alhambra but for both me and Debbie the absolute highlight was the privilege of being immersed in electrifying flamenco.
Debs has been taking flamenco lessons so was particularly keen to see a show – but neither of us wanted to pay thirty plus euros for a sterile show just for the tourists.
We found ourselves drawn over and over again to a tiny little place, Le Chien Andalou which only charged ten euros. Worried that you probably get what you pay for, we grabbed our front seats seats and settled down. Sometimes flamenco music could to unaccustomed ears sound tuneless and the dancing could look staged but tonight’s show blew our mind.
It blew more than our minds. At the end of the show even the macho Spanish men in the audience had tears in their eyes. I have never seen a Spanish guitar played with such speed or skill, the voice of the singer cut right into the deepest depths of your soul and the dancing was fabulous.
Lost in their own little world but still very much working as a team, the three stomped, clapped and clicked. We were so close that Beatriz’s skirt was flicking our knees and the sweat poured down her face and neck, her eyes closed and her face a mask of concentration, sadness and passion.
After three nights in Granada we got back on the road and continued south to the mountain town of Ronda. This small town was such a contrast to Granada – the main attraction is its old stone bridge which connects the two sides of the town high over a gorge which is 120 metres deep.
It was raining when we arrived but we didn’t let that spoil our fun and we managed to get out and walk and see the bridge from every angle – including from right underneath it after clambering over a barrier and balancing down a precarious narrow path.
Ronda is one of Spain’s most ancient cities and all around there is evidence of old stone walls,medieval gates, fortifications and of course, the amazing bridges (there are 3).
The town sits on a plateau where the land seems to roll on and on for ever. At night, there were plenty of bars and restaurants open and on the Saturday lunchtime it seemed as if every one of the town’s citizens was out eating lunch in the restaurants.
There is a very imposing looking bullring (most Spanish towns have a bullring) but the jewel in the crown of Ronda is undoubtedly the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) over the gorge that was built between 1751 and 1793.
Where we stayed and insider information.
Granada – the Alhambra, Albaicin, Sacromonte and Flamenco – Ronda
In Granada we camped at Camping/Motel Sierra Nevada. You can read about that and about secretly charging our mobile phones which we wrapped in plastic bags and buried in the hedges while we pilfered the energy from the banned electric points – in my previous article: Road Trip Spain #2
We ran out of time but I am very sorry that we missed the Museum for the Caves of Sacromonte. I would have liked to have learnt more about this fascinating area with its unique culture.
Always check the adverts on your city maps which you pick up from the tourist offices. You will often find special offers or discounts. We had a very decent free glass of wine and a tapas each at El Corte Ingles department store in Granada.
Climate: Granada enjoys over three thousand hours of sunshine a year and average temperatures of 22 degrees. In its position in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada it has hard, cold winters and extremely hot summers.
In Ronda we stayed in a small room at the Pension Rondasol. We shared a bathroom but the wifi was good and we were lucky to find free on-street parking very close to the hotel. If you want to save yourself the hassle of driving around Ronda searching for a place to stay, check out the Rondasol here
Whilst we didn’t visit, we could see people on the other side of the river in Ronda climbing down the steps to the Secret Mine and the Arab Fortress and the Forestier’s Hanging Gardens surrrounding the Palace of the Moorish King.
If you want to know more about Spain and especially Andalucia, you can get your Lonely Planet Guide here: Buy Now!
The other articles in the series can be found here:
- Stage 1: Alicante to San Jose, via Cartagena, Bolnuevo & Mazarron
- Stage 2: Cabo de Gato, the Sierra Nevada & Granada
- Stage 3: This article
- Stage 4: Cadiz & Jerez
- Stage 5: Seville
- Stage 6: Cordoba, Cuenca & Teruel
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