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

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.

Darro1

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. 

Sacroalham

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. 

Sacro3

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

Sacro2

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

Sacro1

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.”

Sacromir

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.

Granada – The Alhambra

Al 18 Alview

When I was thirteen, I picked up the flamenco guitar and dreamt of Spain. The intricacies eluded me, but within my head the music sang loud and true. I was a better painter than musician, and here too a fantastical world formed, inspired by Salvador Dali’s visions, mindscape merging with landscape. Crowning this dreamworld was an ancient palace of a vanished kingdom: the Alhambra. Someday I would go there, blend with its mystery in the shimmering heat of southern Spain. Almost fifty years later it comes to pass.

It’s my second day in the high city of Granada. Man, it’s cold. I had intended taking the bus to the main entrance but wandered instead down winding alleys from Plaza De Campos to Plaza Nueva close to the high western edge of the Alhambra. Beyond Plaza Nueva the city of Granada begins to shimmer and fade, blending into the landscape and replaced by a chimera of imagination and folk memory centred on the Alhambra, red bastion rising on its green and rugged plinth.

Al 16 AlcaAlhambra signifies the Red Castle, from the blood toned colour of its stone. The Moors had built a fortress here in the ninth century but the existing complex dates to 1333 when Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, established his royal palace. It was to be the last bastion of the Moor in Spain, In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, completed the Reconquista when they defeated the Emirate of Granada. The two monarchs entered Granada clad symbolically as Moslems, promising friendship and tolerance of religion. It was short lived. The Moors rebelled in 1500 and the treaty lapsed. Moslem and Jew were required to convert or leave. The institution of the Spanish Inquisition was set up to police this law.

1492 was also the year when Italian explorer Christopher Columbus came here to receive the support of the Monarchs in his ambition to sail to the New World. This is when the Western World was born. An early history of Columbus was written by an Alhambra resident in the 1820s. Washington Irving, joker that he was, is responsible for perpetuating the myth that, pre Columbus, Europeans thought the earth was flat.

Al gate

The entrance is through the Puerta de las Granadas, or Pomegranates, which gives the city its name. Inside the grounds the Alhambra reveals itself, tantalisingly peeking above the trees. With the gathering pilgrims, I push uphill. A fountain sprouts. The Pillar of Charles V dates from 1554. The ubiquitous Carlos V was a mere Carlos I until his elevation to Holy Roman Emperor. He didn’t even speak Spanish, to begin with, but his subjects warmed to him as he learned.

Al 2 Irving

I rest on a bench. A quaintly dressed man stands nearby. He gestures to the glories spread above and wonders is it possible to capture the beauty and intensity of the place. I show him my camera and the shots I’ve taken, which he finds interesting, perplexing too. It’s words he means. How unworthy is my scribbling of the place, he says, and tells me of his Tales of the Alhambra, a history woven with imagined tales the walls must hold. What a great idea that is! Unfortunately the man must return to his home in America, but vows to come back to this most picturesque and beautiful city. I hope he does. I would wish to also, in warmer days. Again there is that faint shimmer in the air, and I find myself fading upwards along the path, past the statue of a writer I feel I must know.

Al 3.Jstgatejpg

I enter through Puerta de la Justicia, imposing russet tower with its distinctly Moorish horseshoe arch. The procession of pilgrims has melted away and I am left alone. From the ramparts, I see Granada tumble from the hillsides across the plain, the Sierra Nevada shining white across the horizon. When the Moor last looked out here, the Alhambra was entirely a construct springing from the Islamic culture of northern Africa. Within a couple of decades there was a notable intrusion of European style. The Palace of Carlos V was built by order of the Emperor in 1527 in the Renaissance style. Newly confidant Europe had rediscovered the glories of Greco-Roman antiquity and honed it into the distinctly modern style of the merging continent. The entrance patio is a startling homage to Classicism, with its two story colonnade holding us in its entrancing circle.

Al 6 CVpatio

The temperature has dropped and I have forty five minutes before my appointment at Nazaries. A sign for coffee and services is misleading. This leads to a modernist concrete shack, cold and crowded, with one scabby machine offering hot beverages. The instructions are less than helpful. Yes, it takes money and credit cards, but how much? None of mine, for sure. I buy water and Doritos off a nearby Gypsy. The queue for the Nazaries is long but not long enough and when I reach the head ten minutes early I must stand to the side. I’m frozen blue, four degrees and falling. Global warming my ass!

Al 7 Qnaz

The Nazaries unfolds on entering, a stone flower opening into more spaces than anticipated from the outside. Stone becomes fire and flickers to intricate tracery; water turns to glass and beckons to a perfect nether world. What paradise this must be in heat; water stone and plants working to scent and quieten the air. This cold emphasises its abandonment and defeat; its very existence a time capsule of a vanished age.

Al 10 Nazpool

There are three palaces within the complex. First, the public area dealing with justice and administration. Then the Camares Palace which was the royal residence. Finally, the Palace of the Lions, a harbinger of heaven where the harem was located. A magnificent centrepiece is the Court of the Lions with its sculptured lions forming a circle within magnificent, delicately rendered cloisters. There is an abiding sense of harmony between the ancient Islamic order and the newly flowering Christian Renaissance. You could float on this river forever and ever.

Al 11 Nazlion

Having exited inadvertently I slip back in. A female guard calls after me. However, she is hugging a heater in her sentry post, and indisposed to follow me. In truth, I’m prone to quitting. The absence of a decent cafe, or any place of warmth erodes my will. I come across the American Hotel and find a seat in its tiny tearoom. A sturdy Tuna Sandwich and two hot Americanos later and I’m suitably fortified. A friend had recommended a visit to the terrace at the Parador Hotel with splendid views of the Alhambra. But it’s not a patio day and the interior has that lowrise furniture peculiar to hotels and innimmicable to relaxation.

Al 15

The Alcazaba is the fortress at the business end of the Alhambra, its towers giving the most majestic views over Grenada. I find myself earwigging a conversation between a Gypsy and two Americans. The Gypsy gives a brief account of their origin, relating the reasonable alternatives. Origination was somewhere in the near east, or refugees from the margins of the crumbling Roman empire. Some say we came from Egypt to wander the margins of empire. If people asked from whence we came, the answer was Egypt, which half heard, sounds like Gypsy.

Al 14 CV

From here, I take the path that fades down towards the entrance through beautiful gardens. The first blooms are appearing but t’s not quite come to life just yet. Across a ravine and climbing the next hill takes us to the Generalife, the Gardens of the Architect. Beautiful gardens surmounted by an elegant villa provided a retreat for the Royal Household from the travails of the Alhambra. And provides glorious views of it too.

Al 20 Bar

On exit, I put into the first available bar. Below the walls of the western Alhambra, there is shelter and sufficient warmth from the sun to allow me bask outside with a beer and tapas. I walk back downhill past the northern walls alongside a rapid stream. I emerge onto the banks of the Darro river which heads back towards Plaza Nueva.

AL 22 AlcaThis area overlooking the Darro is the Albaicin, dating back to the 13th century and rich in Moorish heritage. The streets meander past high walled villas, dazzling white washed walls and towering palms and pines. Becoming impossibly narrow so you feel you must turn back, then widening unexpectedly into sparsely imposing squares. Quiet and weird; at times I feel I’ve strayed into a Dali scenario; Outskirts of the Paranoiac, perhaps.

AL 21

Stranger still, lounging by the riverside cafe terrace with another beer and tapas, soaking in the first true warmth of the day, the waiter hurries by, imploring us to retreat under the canopy. It had certainly darkened off to the west, and a smudge of rain was sensed. Then it came upon us. The sky scowled and snow fell in curtains across the backdrop of the Alhambra.

Al 20