Granada – Sacromonte 2



Floating back down to Granada, down to the Darro River, the sky hardens, then turns brittle in the waning light, and falls whitely on the city. I seek sanctuary from the cold. Bar La Riviera is hidden down an alley east of the Gran Via, not far from the Cathedral of the Incarnation. It is crowded at the bar and I feel I am in a normal pub. The man serving, according to house custom, asks which complementary tapas I want. Distracted, I say no gracias. A terrible hush falls over the bar, easing into some scornful laughter and pointing. The mystified barman evaporates, while I try to make myself invisible at the corner of the counter.

La Riviera

I get into a conversation with an English woman, well travelled and canny enough to have lost her husband in a nearby hotel. She wonders if I, as a Catholic – me being Irish and all – can explain the local cult of the Virgin. I wonder don’t they have virgins in England, but address the question all the same. I was at a Holy Week parade in Malaga, part of the crowd sucked in by its hypnotic magnetism. The solemn thump of the music leads us on step by step as the Brotherhood carry their towering floats, or tronos, from the port through the city centre to the Plaza before Teatro Cervantes. One tronos is of the Christ and the other, typically more exuberant, is of the Virgin. In part it brought me back to distant days as a child participating in the May Day procession, one of a multitude of child brides and grooms carrying the colours of the Virgin, the blue and white matching the brisk sky and streaming blossoms of Spring. The plain streets of Walkinstown sang and all roads led to the red brick monolith of Our Lady of the Assumption, all in the glass bubble of a perfect day. 

Oh Mary we crown you with blossoms so gay

Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May


Holy Week, Malaga.

But this Andalusian devotion is a stronger manifestation of the spiritual flame; adult and profoundly solemn, yet infusing everyone with a communal joy.  If we didn’t have this, we would need to invent it. Caught in the austerity of a Free State, we might have sacrificed something in the public manifestation of shared spirituality. Passion is also a tender flame. 

The Teatro Cervantes recalls another ancient, or early modern devotion. Cervantes is well commemorated throughout Andalusia. In Granada a barrio to the south of the city centre is named for him. His writing pervades the entire Spanish consciousness. As with Shakespeare and English, he is central to Spanish.


Teatro Cervantes, Malaga

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in 1547 near Madrid, where he died in 1616. But he had a peripatetic life, his boyhood spent wandering Spain with his family, the father Rodrigo being a barber surgeon.Exiled from Castile, in his early twenties he travelled to Italy where he absorbed the art of the Italian Renaissance.

In 1570 he enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Navy and served at the Battle of Lepanto, where the Holy League inflicted defeat on the Ottoman empire. Returning to Spain, he was captured by pirates when bound for Barcelona and spent five years as a slave in Algiers from 1875. Back in Spain, he worked as an accountant and tax collector to support his writing. A bankruptcy in Andalusia saw him wind up in jail in Seville for a few months. He put the imprisonment to good use. It was there that he conceived of Don Quixote-which was published in 1605.

Don Quixote is regarded as the first novel in the modern sense, and has become, after the Bible, the most translated book in the world. Its influence is immense and global. The human character is carved from the words, Don Quixote, hopeless and heroic against the backdrop of hostile reality. Meanwhile his long suffering squire, Sancho Panza, can speckle the red soil with spitfulls of caustic wit. It seems so modern because humanity is so permanent. Cervantes embodied his own maxim, that the pen is the language of the soul


Granada by night.

Meanwhile, our musicians and writers have not been so remembered in Irish street names. Though in Walkinstown, where I grew up, some fame is secured for the creative heart. In the Melodies estate, with nineteen streets named for musicians and composers, one street there is named for Michael Balfe, whose fame owes something to Cervantes. Michael William Balfe (1808-1870) was born in Dublin, son of a violinist and dancing master. When his father died he took his precocious musical talent to London. Deciding to pursue the career of an opera singer he travelled to Italy for tuition between 1825 and 1835. He returned to London and quickly achieved success as a composer. In 1843 he wrote The Bohemian Girl based on a Cervantes story, La Gitanella, from Novellas Ejemplares, the Exemplary Novels. 

La Gitanella tells of a fifteen year old gypsy girl, Preciosa, who captures the heart of a nobleman, Don Juan, but to marry her he must spend two years as a gypsy. The story examines the nature of stereotypes, truth and lies. The twist in the tale is that Preciosa had been kidnapped by the gypsies as a child. Balfe’s version, with libretto by Alfred Bunn, is rather more melodramatic. It was hugely successful and is by far his best known work, in particular the Aria I dreamt I dwelt in Marble Halls. Here Arlene, the gypsy girl of the title, recalls her almost forgotten earlier life.

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls

With vassals and serfs at my side

And of all who assembled within those walls

That I was the hope and the pride

And I hunger and thirst enough, for company and sustenance, that I call another. The barman fixes me with a steely eye, daring me. I order skewered pork, as though it were so familiar that I had almost forgotten. I was rewarded in minutes, the steaming tapas carried aloft through the bar, the whole pig on a forest of spikes on a golden field of french fries. They don’t do things by halves. 


It is only a short sashay to the Irish Bar in the City of Grenada, where I plan to have a digestif. Hannigan’s Irish Bar is remote from the complementary tapas that are de rigueur everywhere else. Here I can sit in splendid isolation, and contemplate the sound and stories that permeate the city. In truth, there is a very good music mix, so that sometimes it seems to follow the song that has just occurred in my head.

Rain Alley

Wending my way home to Plaza de los Campos, the snow has turned to rain. The streets glisten. Assassins shimmer in the alleyways, hats aslant and opal eyed. They drift like vapour through the nightlife crowds, settle in silence in darkened doorways, watching, waiting for their time to arrive. 

Your elegy, Grenada

is spoken by the stars

which from the heavens

perforate your black heart.

 (Federico Garcia Lorca)

Granada – Sacromonte 1

AL 19 Glife

A place of dreams, where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.

(Andres Segovia)

Granada is a name so rhythmic it positively strums. Strung beneath the glistening peaks of the high Sierra Nevada, it has long balanced on the fulcrum of Europe and Africa. Here, the stones are alive, the streets and spires straddle the Medieval and the Renaissance, the Gypsy tangos and strums, the poetic knight tilts at shapeshifting windmills.

The fabulous castle overlooking it all, the Alhambra, dates from the Moslem kingdoms of the high Middle Ages. At the start of the Early Modern, the Reconquista returned the city to the Catholic faith. Before, during and after all those upheavals, Granada has been the focal point of travellers who have left their dust of cultural diversity in the stones, in the air, in the rivers of the town.Little wonder that the guitar is said to have been born here.

The weeping of the guitar begins, 

The goblets of dawn are smashed,

Useless to silence it.

(Federico Garcia Lorca)


Plaza Nueva is my base camp. It merges into the Plaza de Santa Ana. A step beyond the modern city centre, it distends with eerie vagueness into the cramped ravine of the Darro River. The winding way to the Alhambra begins near the Fontana del Toro. A drink from its waters has magical qualities. Drink once and you will return forever. I have had my day there, in the soft redness of the Alhambra, that lasted forever and never and within my formation. This day I will walk along the clefs and staves and the surging river, carried forward note by note to the Sacred Mountain.


Climbing up from the Darro River, through the bleached alleyways of Alcaibin, the houses melt into an ancient silence. The winding streets flirt with Surrealism, the hush of desertion somehow expectant. I sense the outskirts of paranoia, cross diagonally a deserted square beneath an abandoned church, pause enigmatically with a smouldering Gitanes to notice a slice of the Alhambra between the shuttered Moorish villas. At last the route regains its connection with all other routes. Footfall swells, the whine of mopeds rises and a car is glimpsed. The road meets a t junction, where I turn steeply upwards by way of Cuesta del Chapiz. 

AL 22 Alca

At the apex of a punishing climb, the road veers right at a taverna, El Rincon del Chapiz. A gnarled tree and an eccentric statue preside over the small terrace. Here, the city of Grenada abruptly ends, and morphs into an ancient hilltop village, houses scattered like pearls on the steep hillside. Across the Darro ravine, the Alhambra and Generalife shimmer in the afternoon haze, while ahead the distant Sierra are snowcapped beneath the virgin blue sky. I choose to be lost in this view: red gold palaces set in viridian, purple mountains with their sharp white summits, the blue sphere of the relentless sky. 

El Chapiz

The transition from urban to bucolic is a volte face of all the dialogue transacted this day in the city. The history, the fabric, the setting still run, but parallel, their projections and perspectives distorted. The Sierra Nevada hem the horizon which seems close enough to touch. If you sense a breath descend it may be from the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro where Granada’s last Moslem ruler, Mohammad XII, Boabdil, looked back in anguish at the Alhambra, exhaling that famous final sigh. This was the pinnacle of the Reconquista, in the year 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile took Granada and the modern idea of Spain took shape. 


Now I stand on Sacromonte, the sacred mountain. This was the haven of the Gypsy, when first they came to Granada in that same year, 1492. They hollowed caves from the soft rock, out here on the periphery. The culture that flowered fed the rivers of the new Spanish identity, a step beyond the rationalist identities of western Europe. And a stepping stone, also that year, to the American continents across the pond. These first rooted in our consciousness with the expedition of Christopher Columbus, an Italian in the service of the Catholic Monarchs. The popular conception of the world was limited. After Columbus, European isolation would fade. 


The term, Gitanos, is synonymous with Gypsy, derived from Egyptian. According to popular myth, they came from Egypt but are, in fact, Romany, an Indo-Aryan group from northwest India. Romany identity has persisted through half a millennium, with its bloodline and culture, but there is much disparity between their far flung settlements. In Andalusia, Gitanos are particularly immersed in local culture, to the point that they’re seen as embodying quintessential Spanish traditions, with Flamenco to the fore. Flamenco, the form of music and dance, derives from a synthesis of Moorish and Christian influences, Jewish folk music and dance, infused with the Oriental spice of the Gitanos. Itself an illustration of a particular social and emotional stance, from Flamenco springs those rhythms of sex and seduction, sorrow and grieving, suffusing the Latin world from Valparaiso to Valencia


In Andalusia there is little to be gained by dissecting its identity. It is more than the sum of its parts, a rare blossom that could only grow in this red soil, from such scattered seeds. Yet, here is a culture that is not perplexing, not a thing to be admired within a hard carapace. It has travelled well, it is well known. Here is something we all understand, whether or not we have done it yet. Here is something we know of the human condition. We are all Gypsies, spinning like dandelion seeds through the air. I have travelled, dipped a toe in different oceans, felt the heat of the desert, the swell of mountain and the cool air of forests. Through all of that runs the constant soundtrack of the music of Christian, Moslem, Gypsy and Jew.

I heard your voice through a photograph

I thought it up it brought up the past

Once you know you can never go back

I’ve got to take it on the otherside


So I sit on a wall in sunshine cold, amidst glare of white houses and sauntering travellers and do nothing. Inside I’m spinning slowly, breathing every song I’ve ever heard. I feel I should do something, enter a museum, buy a souvenir, take out my sketch book and submerge in the quirky scenery. I think of other things, returning to that bold truth, that here was first fashioned the guitar. 

Antonio de Torres (1817-1892) was a carpenter by trade. In his twenties he came to work in  Granada where he learned the craft of guitar building. He returned to set up shop in Seville and in 1850 began to develop the guitar which we recognise today. Torres’s guitar was symmetrical, larger and lighter than previous instruments. Their distinctive sound and greatly improved volume made de Torres’s guitar the standard from which modern guitars derive.

How long, how long will I slide

Separate my side

I don’t, I don’t believe it’s bad

Slit my throat, it’s all I ever …

(Otherside, Red Hot Chilli Peppers)

In its shape the guitar is a key to unlock the secrets of sound. More suggestive still, the guitar is personified as woman. My Graphics maestro at Rathmines College in the seventies was Martin Collins. One evening our class gathered before a still-life assembled by Martin: a guitar, a wine bottle, a bowl of fruit. As we set about our task, he hovered, waiting to pounce with advice. One unfortunate was having difficulty. Martin’s voice boomed through the hush: “A guitar is like a woman. You cradle her on your lap and stroke her.”


In the Art of Spain it is a signature motif.The paintings of Picasso and Juan Gris pay homage to those curves, sinuously evoking its music and mood. With grapes and fine wine, its shape settling in city and skin, with a knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork. From Andalusia to New York, Troubadours have trooped with guitar slung rakishly over shoulders.

 Lovers, fools, thieves and pretenders, and all you’ve got to do is surrender!

(The Waterboys)


Andres Segovia, Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, Paco de Lucia, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix towering over the close of Woodstock, a beautiful ghost. The muse has manifested her reflection too: Gabriela Quintero, KT Tunstall, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde. Joan Osborne. In cherry red or ebony, sunburst finish or sultry blue, this is the emblem of our time.