Granada is the soul of Andalusia, a place of breathtaking beauty at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This mystical city was the capital of a Moorish kingdom from the 13th until the 15th centuries. To the Moors, who arrived from North Africa, the lush setting of Granada was like heaven on earth.
The Nasrid Dynasty reigned with a splendor unlike anywhere in the medieval world. The hilltop fortress of the Alhambra Palace was a paradise of greenery, rose gardens, and endlessly flowing fountains. After flourishing for centuries, Granada became the last bastion of the Moors in Spain when the Catholic Monarchs captured the city in 1491. Although now predominantly Christian, Granada has inherited rich Islamic, Jewish, and Gypsy influences.
The Renaissance Catholic cathedral was once a mosque. The Albaicín (old Moorish town) and the Alcaicería (spice market) have an authentic Arabic flavor. Colorful Gypsy culture and fabulous flamenco dancing is found in the caves of the Sacromonte quarter.
You can work your way along the streets of the old Moorish city, laid out exactly as it was in Medieval times, or enter the cave dwellings of the historic gypsy neighbourhood famed for its flamenco shows. All the while the soaring peaks of the Sierra Nevada will draw you gaze in the distance to the east.
- Alhambra: A Masterpiece of Islamic Architecture:
The Alhambra stands majestically on a fortified hilltop with the snow-peaked Sierra Nevada Mountains as a backdrop. This UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site is the main reason to visit Granada and is an absolute must-see attraction. The Alhambra was the residence of the Moorish rulers of the Nasrid Dynasty for 250 glorious years, from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and is a veritable museum of Islamic architecture. Surrounded by ancient walls, the Alhambra appears from afar to be an impenetrable fortress. This site was the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain.
The Alhambra complex consists of four groups of buildings in carefully landscaped grounds. The Alcazaba is the original 13th-century Moorish fortress, the oldest part of the Alhambra. All that remains of the Alcazaba are the ramparts and the towers. The Nasrid Palaces are the most splendid buildings of the complex, with marvelous accommodations and public spaces used by the Sultans of the Nasrid Dynasty. Typical of secular Moorish buildings, the Nasrid Palaces are plain on the exterior but sumptuous on the interior, with decorative tile work and peaceful courtyards. The Palace of Charles V was built in the 16th century after the conquest of the Moors and was used by the Spanish emperor as his summer palace. Be sure to allow time to explore the Generalife, especially the gorgeous Moorish gardens filled with shady patios, fountains, fragrant roses, and flower-adorned terraces overlooking the places of the Alhambra and the mountains.
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- Generalife Gardens:
The sumptuous grounds of the Alhambra are so huge that you might even need another day to see them.
These lush and stately gardens are especially fragrant in springtime and have colourful flowerbeds, neatly trimmed hedges and toparies, geometric pools and fountains and all sorts of surprising architectural flourishes.
The unforgettable part though is the Generalife Palace, which is at the crest of the hill where the Emirs would spend their summers in the shade.
The fountains here would cool the air as their waters evaporated on the patio’s paving stones.
- Albaicín and Mirador of San Nicolás:
One of the most enchanting things to do in Granada is to get lost in the hillside neighborhood of the Albaicín, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. The Albaicín, Granada’s historic Arab quarter, was once surrounded by defensive walls, and its picturesque little lanes and whitewashed houses still reveal the atmospheric Moorish character. From Puerta Nueva (Puerta de los Estandartes), a well-preserved stretch of the town’s old ramparts runs west to the Puerta Monaita. The best view of the walls is from the Cuesta de la Alhacaba, near the ninth-century Puerta de Elvira, once the town’s principal gate. Many places in the Albaicín offer stunning outlooks onto the Alhambra Palace, which is separated from the Albaicín by the dramatic gorge of the Río Darro.
The most spectacular of these is from the Mirador of San Nicolas, the terrace in front of the 16th-century Church of San Nicolas at the heart of the Albaicín quarter. This frequently painted panorama captures the Alhambra Palace and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not far from San Nicholas, the Church of San Salvador was built on the site of an earlier mosque and is noteworthy for its Mudéjar style (Christian architecture influenced by Islamic design). Another fabulous view of the Alhambra that is popular with tourists is from the Carrera del Darro, one of the oldest streets in Granada, which runs along the north side of the Río Darro.
- Capilla real:
The grandeur of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs is best seen at the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), which houses the royal tombs. This impressive 47-meter-high domed chapel is attached to the Catedral Santa María de la Encarnación but has a separate entrance; it was an addition to the cathedral built from 1506 to 1521 in Late Gothic style. The interior features beautiful 16th-century stained-glass windows and seven large paintings by Alonso Cano. An elaborately wrought grille by Bartolomé de Jaén encloses the richly decorated royal tombs. To the right is the Tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella in a monument of Carrara marble created by sculptor Domenico Fancelli of Florence. The crypt houses sarcophagi of other kings and princes. To the left is the tomb of Philip the Handsome and Joan the Mad by Bartolomé Ordóñez. A large beautifully carved retablo behind the royal tombs features statues of the Catholic Monarchs by Diego de Siloé. In the transepts are richly decorated relicarios (side altars) by Alonso de Mena. The north transept displays the famous Triptych of the Passion by Dieric Bouts.
A highlight of the Capilla Real is the sacristy, a treasure trove of artwork, including Botticelli’s Christ on the Mount of Olives painting, Rogier van der Weyden’s Pietà, and Hans Memling’s Descent from the Cross. The collection also displays polychrome wood figures of the Catholic Monarchs in prayer by Felipe Vigarny; King Ferdinand’s sword; Queen Isabella’s crown; and a prayer book, which belonged to the Catholic Monarchs.
- The gypsy quarter of “Sacromonte”:
Granada’s colorful Gypsy quarter on the Sacromonte is a fascinating place to visit. This hilltop neighborhood begins around the Cuesta del Chapiz, where the Camino del Sacromonte ascends the hill. The Gypsies (Gitanos) have had a presence in Granada since 1532 and settled in the caves of Sacromonte in the 18th century. Wander the hillside roads of this atmospheric neighborhood to discover the artistic Gypsy homes; some are decorated with vibrant handcrafted ceramics. The caves in the upper area of the Camino del Sacromonte are in the best condition, and one has been made into a museum so you can see inside. Tourists can find many cave venues in Sacromonte where flamenco is performed, including Cueva de la Rocio, whose famous guests have included the King of Spain, Bill Clinton, and Michelle Obama.
The Sacromonte offers some of the best views in Granada, with panoramas over rugged ravines, the Valparaiso Valley, and the Darro River. Some vantage points look out to the Alhambra Palace and the Albaicín. A steep and picturesque footpath (a difficult walk) climbs through deeply indented gullies to the Ermita San Miguel de Alto. This 17th-century Baroque hermitage has a magnificent viewpoint of the Alhambra and the Albaicín. Another noteworthy religious monument is the Benedictine Abbey of Sacromonte. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Sacromonte Abbey stands on Mount Valparaiso. Accessible by the Camino del Sacromonte (a 10-minute taxi ride from the Plaza Nueva), the Abbey is open for guided tours between 11am-1pm and 4pm-6pm. Several caves were found on this site, which possess precious relics of the 16th century as well as a cross of Saint John.
- The “Alcaicería”:
This traditional Arab souk is a recreation of the old Moorish market that existed here before the fire in 1843 destroyed the area. Close to the cathedral, the Alcaicería runs on the Calle de la Alcaicería from the Plaza Alonso Cano. The entire neighborhood of the Alcaicería, a maze of narrow streets, once held the silk and spices market. Today’s Alcaicería recalls the original souk and is a favorite place for souvenir shopping in Granada. Nearby is Plaza Bib Rambla, a spacious public square that teems with people and activity. An artistic fountain stands at the center of the square surrounded by decorative ironwork and colorful flower stands.
- The Bañuelo: traditional arabs baths:
The Moors brought the ritual of the hammam (Arab Baths) from their homeland in North Africa to Andalusia, and Granada’s 11th-century Bañuelo are among the oldest and best preserved in Spain. One of the few bath complexes not destroyed after the Reconquista by the Catholic monarchs, who considered the baths as immoral, they are one of Granada’s oldest surviving Moorish sites. Today, visitors can sample a similar experience to the Moorish baths at the Hammam Al Andalus near Plaza Nueva. Although it is on the site of an original Moorish bath house and constructed in the authentic style with graceful arches and exquisite Islamic-style tile work, this hammam is a newly built replica.
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