Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Al Andalus - Granada

Central Andalusia is a relatively barren, hilly country. Once Cordoba fell to the Catholics, this was the frontier zone between Christianity and the last stronghold of Islam in Western Europe, Granada. As a product of those times, towns and villages were largely built on hill tops and fortified against the opposing side. This has left a beautiful spectacle for those driving through, as the roads skirt below white-washed towns with the obligatory crumbling fort.
I have wanted to visit Granada for a very long time and my first glimpse galvanised my growing excitement. Coming to the end of a high pass, the hills split and dropped, exposing a wide valley stretching to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Just visible, nestled in the rising roots of the mountain range, Granada sat invitingly.
 
Being a bit of a romantic, I had booked to stay in a guesthouse high above the city centre at the meeting point of the historic Albaicín district and Sacromonte, home to centuries old picturesque gypsy cave settlements. This area has no parking and I will spare you the details of shifting two kids under 20 months old with all their cots and baby paraphernalia from an out of town multi storey car park, across the whole city, through the narrow streets of the old town, part the way up a mountain and up to a villa that can only be reached via a crumbling winding stair. Impractical, but worth it, the place was amazing.
Solar Montes Clares is a small, Moroccan styled guesthouse. Everything is inch perfect and relaxed thanks to the endeavours of Antonio, who runs the place. Best of all are the views. The second I stepped out onto our balcony I knew all the kerfuffle of getting here was worth it. Slap bang in front of us was the Alhambra itself, lit up as night fell. Down below the cliffs which support it, the Albaicín sprawled up from the small river and over the hill to our right. Below the new city stretched out to the plain, via the spires of churches and, of course, the cathedral. Each night I sat out on our balcony reading to this view, accompanied by the complementary vino tinto.
 
We spent a couple of days dragging the double pram up and down the encaptivating streets of the Albaicín, peeping into grand churches that were once mosques, taking time out in small plazas and dropping down into town to find more great food. The small road which runs between the Albaicín and the river below the Alhambra was particularly vibrant. Granada is famous for its eclectic community and this route was lined with artists, artisans and musicians. Best of all was a large group playing gypsy inspired tunes which infused Niko and a hundred other people with the jiggles. The place has a real buzz.
At the end of this road, the city flattens out into a series of wide open squares and a real mixture of building styles. 70’s monstrosities face off medieval churches. Find the right spot and there is little better than sitting back in a cosy square with beer, tapas and the passing warmth of February sunshine.
On our penultimate night we marched up to the sunset panorama in the Albaicín, a perfect place to whet the appetite for the trip up to the Alhambra the next morning. Situated at a high point before the land drops into the gulley at the bottom of the Alhambra hill, this vantage point provides an awesome view. The Sierra Nevada mountains dominate the backdrop. As they fall rapidly and give way to the flatlands and the city they thrust out one final arm of elevation. A high ridge jutting out into the populous, with steep cliffs on three sides. The palaces and castles of the Alhambra cling to the top of this ridge, peering down at those below. Quite a sight as the sun dives off the Western horizon in streams of red and orange.

THE ALHAMBRA
 
 
I have never met someone who has been to the Alhambra and not waxed lyrical about its magnificence and beauty. That is probably why you need to book your ticket way in advance. Fortunately we had had that insight. Early the next morning, we trekked up the back steps to the plateau at the top of the ridge with Alexi in the Bjorn and Niko on the shoulders.
 
When first hearing about the place I had imagined it would be relatively uniform in terms of style and date, like the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat. From the very start of our visit it was evident that it is instead a hotchpotch of variety, made up of religious buildings, fortifications and, of course, palaces from a wide range of eras.
This makes sense when you think of the important natural position of strength that the ridge holds. Like the Acropolis in Athens, it has proved irresistable as a seat for power for millennia. You therefore have Visigothic archeological digs, next to Moorish baths, which are in turn just around the corner from the gordy renaissance palace of Charles V (Charles II from Spain’s perspective - the most powerful of sixteenth century Europeans).
 
The Moorish fort is large and stark, with high crenelated walls rising above the steep sides of the hill. At the further end of the hill from the mountains, the fortifications jut out into the city imposingly staring down at the minions. We had loads of fun climbing along the walls and staring out at the rarefied views from the parapets.
Peering into the Christian extension to the palace, we quickly moved on to what proved to be the undoubted pinnacle of our whole trip in Andalusia, the Nasrid Palaces. From the first antechamber, I was taken aback. Every surface was covered with carvings of exquisite intricacy and delicacy. Prohibited from recreating Allah’s creation in their work, the craftsman took the symmetrical, almost hypnotic form of Islamic art to a heightened level. Out of ideological constraints, human creativity reached new levels.
Passing through one courtyard after another, as no doubt intended by the creators, the splendour only increased, culminating at the Court of Lions, perhaps the most superlative piece of fine architecture I have witnessed. Designed and sculpted to mirror paradise, it comes strikingly close. A place that has to be seen to be believed. Go there!
Before leaving the Alhambra we had just enough time to wander up to the summer palace and gardens that adorn the hill above the main site. This is well worth a visit, providing fantastic views to the palace, city and plain beyond. To my mind at least, the stump of a centuries old cedar tree which once shaded the Muslim inhabitants of the Alhambra was a moving link to the past.

THE RECONQUSITA
 
It was fitting that our tour of Andalusia should end with a visit to the cavernous cathedral of Granada and, more specifically the Capilla Real which is adjoined to it. Here, tellingly, lie the Catholic Kings. In 1492 Granada fell and with it the 700 hundred year reign of the Moors in the Iberian peninsula. Ferdinand and Isabella had completed the crusade of the Reconquista, which forms the foundation stone of the Spanish nation to this day. In the fateful year of 1492, the world shifted. In the very same year as the fall of Granada, Columbus discovered the New World under the patronage of those very same royals, Ferdinand and Isabella. Staring at the tombs of husband and wife, you are in the decayed presence of prime movers. World changers.

With Christian conquest came a decline in science, art, architecture and tolerance. The Jews joined the Moors in forced exile. The inquisition followed. No longer would religions co-exist in relative peace and productivity. Soaking in the treasures and culture of Islamic Spain you can’t but feel that this was, at least in the medium term, a backward step. Thankfully, history leaves it mark, and the rich vein of influence left by people’s as diverse as Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Catholics has made this region into the simply fascinating place that it is today.

AN ALMOST COMIC DEPARTURE

It would be amiss to not share a short summary of our return to the UK and lacking context not to reiterate that we were travelling with Niko and Alexi, our small children who are but 20 months and 7 months respectively. As we were packing for departure, BA informed us by text that, due to an Iberia strike, our flight back to London from Malaga would be diverted to Gibraltar. Another country, but only a couple of hours away, no worries. Leaving Granada, the heavens had other ideas. After a couple of weeks of sunshine, a winter storm made its way in from the Atlantic and culminated in a non-stop torrential downpour. Pressing on we made it to the Spanish border with Gibraltar, dropped off the car and carried the family over the border (carry cots, car sears, suitcases, pram and, of course, kids). The rain was unrelenting and we were soaked as we passed through passport control with the weather battered Rock looming ahead.
We had made it. We ran into the terminal and went up to the desk. “I am sorry to inform you, but due to heavy winds, your plane cannot take off from Gibraltar”. Apparently Gibraltar has a very short runway and is hence prone to such things. The latest news was that we would be shipped onto buses and driven a few hundred KMs to Jerez, where they hoped to find a plane and break the Iberia strike. Better yet, we were required to still check in at Gibraltar, go through customs, wait, wait some more, then pick up all the luggage again and traipse back across the border by foot into Spain. The storm did us no favours and battered us some more. To their eternal credit, well past their bed time and wired, of the hundred or so passengers, our little ones were probably the most jovial when we made it on to the bus to Jerez.
A couple more hours later we made it to a small airport the other side of Andalusia and, greeted by many an anti-BA/Iberia strike sign but thankfully no strikers, made it through the doors and into departures. A long wait later we were onto a plane and on our way home. A real inconvenience in normal conditions. A real adventure with two babies. We made it home via three plane diversions with only three nappies. The joys of family travel!