Off the Walls

Ortiz is a Malibu-based freelance writer

"The Guadalquivir skips from orange trees to olive groves, but the rivers in Granada flow from snow to wheat."

He's a Gypsy and looks like Willie Nelson, if Willie had jet-black hair and coal eyes, and he's reciting the poem in that melodious Spanish gypsy measure that sounds more like Arabic than Castilian. Three German girls--students no doubt-- are all aflutter at hearing the deep voice of the Gypsy sending the words of Federico Garcia Lorca echoing off the walls of this city where the poet lived.

This is Garcia Lorca country. He was born in a village on the outskirts and 38 years later was stood against a wall outside the city and shot during the Spanish Civil War, along with two bullfighters and countless others considered subversives by Francisco Franco's Loyalists.

The Gypsy Willie Nelson is reciting Garcia Lorca's "The Ballad of the Three Rivers." The girls are throwing pesetas in a box at his feet.

It's so typically Spanish, I think as I continue my walk to Albaicin Hill.

It's a long, steep haul. In a few minutes I'm hopelessly lost in the perplexing streets in the oldest quarter of this ancient city.

The confusing web of narrow, cobblestoned streets seem eerily deserted, and the whitewashed houses are all locked. Flowers spill from window boxes, and once in a while the faint smells of rosemary and myrtle drift from small well-tended gardens. The whole place looks like an heirloom. And it is.

The Spanish crown has proclaimed Granada a national treasure in a nation full of treasures, as it should be. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is in the heart of Andalusia, the region where everything you think of as Spanish began: bullfights, flamenco music--even the guitar was given its modern shape here.

Sure, Granada lacks the sangfroid of Seville, the bustle of Madrid and the cosmopolitan panache of Barcelona, but it is the very soul of Spain.

Walking up Albaicin Hill from San Juan de los Reyes, the wide avenue where I stopped to watch the gypsy minstrel banter with German students, I found it difficult to pinpoint why I like Granada so much.

It's not pretty. As a matter of fact, the city sprawls amid the Vega de Granada, a dusty plain that could easily be transported to Southern California's Imperial Valley and not seem out of place. It's old, very old, and there isn't much to do, except walk around the remnants of a culture that disappeared centuries ago. But there's something about it that makes you suspect that there might be a grain of truth behind the Spanish proverb that holds that there's no greater sadness than to be blind in Granada.

Take the Albaicin, for example. It's a quaint district where antiquity stuns the senses. For centuries it's been home to a long list of cultures and races. Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Arabs, all lived here at one time or another.


The Romans set up a fortress on the crest. Then came the Jews, followed by the Moors, who stayed six centuries before being driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella, whose bodies are down there in the cathedral, near where the poetry-loving Gypsy hangs out.

Traces of those cultures are everywhere. At the top of the hill, you'll know the climb has been worth it when you come up on a panoramic view of the magnificent Alhambra from the plaza in front of San Nicolas, a rather drab church built on top of a mosque by the Spanish when they captured Granada from the Moors in 1492; the mosque, in turn, was built on the rubble of the Roman fortress. When the weather is right, florists and jugglers, singers and clowns, snack vendors and balloon makers, sometimes even knife sharpeners, set up shop here and turn the place into a maddening street fair. It's better to go alone during a midweek afternoon to catch the sights without being hassled.

The climb up and down the Albaicin is sure to make you feel ravenous, and the hungrier you get the more tantalizing the smells gliding out of quaint bodegas at the bottom of the hill will be. The menus will confuse those who learned their Spanish on this side of the Atlantic.

Although I speak Spanish, the nuances of the mother tongue as spoken in Spain can be a problem. When in Spain, I am linguistically challenged. I feel like a rapper in Windsor Castle.

The first time I visited the Albaicin, I stopped at a bodega and ordered something called the "tortilla Sacromonte." I knew that in Spain tortilla means omelet and that Sacromonte is the Gypsy quarter a few blocks away. So far so good. It was a delicious feast, Granada's regional dish, I was told, and I enjoyed it tremendously. When I asked for the recipe, I found out that the omelet's main ingredients are shredded bull's testicles and beef brain mixed with vegetables.

This time, in a different bodega, I ordered gazpacho and didn't ask what was in it. Some things are better left unknown.

Unless you have a keen interest in history, a two- or three-day stay in Granada should give you an ample taste of this fascinating town where Catholicism cloaks a Muslim heritage and exposes the simultaneously sad and happy countenance of the Andalusians.

If you know the city only through the writings of Washington Irving, you will be disappointed. Much has changed, and that change is nowhere as evident as in the Alhambra, the delicate Moorish palace that looks like it was made from fine lace and filigree.

I went there early one morning hoping to catch the ambience of centuries ago, before tourist buses began bringing mobs to trample in the rose gardens and throw coins in the fountains.

I met a woman named Rebeca waiting at the employee's entrance. She's an archeological architect employed by the Spanish government and, although I tried to cajole her into letting me in, she wouldn't hear of it. She gave me a good account of the Alhambra, though. According to her, there are almost 150 masons, sculptors, plumbers, gardeners and architects working full-time to sustain the palace's glory.

She said that is a difficult job complicated by the fact that it was built from the worse possible materials. It's all clay bricks and wood, she said, and wasn't built to last.

"When you go inside, after the gates open," she said, softly reminding me that there was no way she was going to let me in to explore alone, "you'll see water all over the place. Close your eyes anywhere in the palace and you'll hear the ripple of fountains. The Moors made it like this because, being desert nomads, water was an extremely precious commodity. The Koran describes Eden as a garden flowing with streams, so they patterned the Alhambra after that passage in Scripture."

An hour or so later, when I walked in with a group after paying a $2 fee, I saw why the Alhambra has captured the imagination of poets and writers.

It's a jewel, a golden palace that underlines the fact that while Europe was wallowing in the ignorance of the Dark Ages, the Arabs in Spain were making serious advances in architecture, philosophy, medicine and literature.

There are no statues of humans anywhere in the Alhambra, since Muslims believe that the reproduction of human form should be left to Allah. What you see instead is an intricate masterpiece where the words "There is no God but Allah" and "Allah alone is the victor" are written in the angular Arabic Kufic script on most of the palace walls.

According to history, Abu Abdullah was the last Muslim lord of the Alhambra. After Ferdinand and Isabella took the Moorish capital of Cordoba, they marched to lay siege to Granada, Islam's last significant stronghold in Spain. Abdullah knew that his defending force was small and that he had no military trump cards left to play. It was only a matter of time before the superior Christian forces overwhelmed the city. He passed the siege eating pomegranates (from which the city gets its name) and listening to poems, while his mother harangued him. The battle for Granada lasted three months. During his flight out of town with his many wives and pushy mother, he stopped for a last melancholic look at the Alhambra from a hill still called "El Suspiro del Moro"--the Moor's Sigh.

At the foot of Alhambra Hill, near the Plaza Nueva on the left side of the Darro, one of the rivers that Garcia Lorca wrote about, stands the cathedral.

The victorious Christians built it on the site of the Great Mosque of Granada, but nothing of its Moorish roots remains. What one sees today is a Renaissance-style church full of Flemish art, a few Botticcellis, Isabella's jewels (no, she didn't hock them to fund Columbus' trip across the sea), Ferdinand's sword--and the bodies of Isabella, Ferdinand, their insane daughter Joanna the Mad and her ambitious husband, Philip the Handsome.

A lot of Granada's history took place just a few blocks from the cathedral. I walked over a bridge to the Plaza Bibarrambla for coffee, passing the prissy Corral de Carbon, a restored merchant's inn with a marvelous courtyard, and sat in a cafe to watch the street scene in the same plaza where centuries ago Moorish knights jousted.

A few blocks north is the Alcaiceria, the legendary Arab silk market. In ancient times it stretched all the way to Alhambra Hill and was described as a rabbit's warren madhouse where merchants from all over Islam came to trade. The real Alcaceria burned down years ago, and the market has never been the same. Go at night, and stay for a drink in one of the outdoor cafes to watch the lanterns give the courtyards an eerie glow.


Another interesting place of which only the myth remains is Sacromonte, where Granada's cave-dwelling Gypsies have lived for centuries. Years ago, the place must have been something, the cradle of flamenco, where tantalizing, seductive beauties danced inside smoky caves to the strain of guitars and castanets.

Although the caves are inhabited and some are still used for flamenco shows, the whole place is a waste of time. Visitors are warned by taxi drivers and concierges to stay away. That advice, at least for me, is a come-on I can't resist. I went. I saw. And everyone was right, for a change. It's a rip-off, the quintessential tourist trap, and I've seen better flamenco in Cordoba.

On the other side of the coin is La Cartuja, the Carthusian Monastery about a mile north of Sacromonte. It is a whimsical Baroque church that, from 1506, took 300 years to build.

Back in the city, you'll find that Granada offers a wide range of good hotels. If you're lucky, or have made reservations about a year in advance, you might get a room in one of Spain's most elegant paradores. These are government-run tourist accommodations in ancient castles or monasteries, usually full of treasures and antiques.

But no matter where you stay in Granada, you'll find it a great ancient city full of life that will haunt you for years after--if cities can come back to haunt you the way dead people are said to do.



Granada Grace

Getting there: There's connecting service only LAX-Granada, the easiest route being US Airways from L.A. to Madrid (one stop, no plane change), then Iberia from Madrid to Granada. All other connections require two changes of planes. Round-trip fares begin at about $960.

Where to stay: Parador de San Francisco (Alhambra 18009; telephone 011-34-58-221-440). The San Francisco is Spain's most famous and historic parador. Reservations are extremely difficult to get. From about $180 per night.

Alhambra Palace (Pen~a Partida 2, 18009; tel. 011-34-58-221-468). Built at the turn of the century, this hotel sits on the slopes of Alhambra Hill facing the Sierra Nevada. The lobby looks like a mosque, all Arab pillars and arches, while the rooms are decorated with Moorish tiles. From about $160 per night.

Hotel Inglaterra (Cetti Meriem 4; tel. 011-34-58-221-559). Guests in this hotel that looks like something out of 1920s Spain have included Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart. It's located in the heart of the city, and the main building is a restored mansion built centuries ago. Great lobby, comfortable rooms from about $125 per night.

Where to eat: El Molino (Camino de las Fuentes, Paraje de las Islas, 18650 Durcal; local telephone 58-780-247). About 15 miles from downtown Granada, it's housed in an old mill with museum and wine-tasting room. Entrees $18-$45.

For more information: Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 956, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; tel. (213) 658-7188, fax (213) 658-1061.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World