I promise to go back to my regular posts this week! Excited that the Alhambra is open again!!
My first of many videos………………..!! Tomorrow the Alhambra reopens. I am just getting used to talking to a camera instead of people but little by little. More to come!!
I was in Seattle for a summit when the Coronavirus first hit the news. There was one patient already detected and being treated at a local hospital. At one of our meetings we were greeted by the COO of the company, “there is now a strange virus from China and the first case in the US is right here in Washington. Welcome”. His charismatic humor was welcoming and innocent. As we all were.
Two months later as all of my tours were slowly being cancelled and I was helping my oldest niece get out of Spain before the borders closed, I started to become conscious of what had begun that day in Seattle. The reality started to set in little by little. And then the impossible happened, the Alhambra closed. The Alhambra. The Red Fortress. Qa’lat Al Hamra. Closed. Gates locked. Silenced in all her glory. Empty of tourists, busses, local guides and groups. The hotels and restaurants are closed and boarded up. The gypsies have gone home with their rosemary and Diego is no longer there soliciting groups for the flamenco shows. The Alhambra had gone to sleep.
My relationship with the Alhambra is long and deep. On my very first night in Granada over twenty years ago we went up to the rooftop terrace of a friend’s apartment and I met the Alhambra for the first time. She was my solid introduction to Granada. A few days later my friend Kerri and I rented an apartment in the Albaicín neighborhood with a perfect view of the Alhambra from our little balcony. We lived on Calle San Juan de los Reyes, known then as la calle de las putas. I would walk to class everyday and wave hello to the prostitutes sitting out on their chairs waiting for customers, mostly older gentleman from the neighborhood. They would be casually sitting on their chairs in the narrow street in front of their doors , enjoying a cigarette and café con leche. In the late afternoons we would greet each other again, their café now replaced by a vino tinto. I used to see Rafael chatting with the ladies quite a bit. He was well known in the neighborhood and a couple of friends lived in the same building as Rafael so he had become a close aquaintance. A character to say the least, with his rough voice from smoking the black Ducados cigarettes for most of his lifetime. A true Albaicinero. I no longer see prostitutes when I walk down my old street but those memories stand clear in my mind.
From that first apartment I used to go for a daily run down the Cuesta de Chapiz and up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra. The Cuesta de los Chinos used to be called the Cuesta del Rey Chico, named after Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada. I would run up past the San Jose Cemetery to the Silla del Moro, which used to be a guard’s outpost for the summer palace in the Xlll century. In the Springtime I would come across older gentleman picking fresh asparagus for their lunch or taking a break under the olive trees. These runs were my escape from the city, all social activity and the struggle to understand the thick accent of the Granaínos. The Alhambra gave me piece of mind and serenity then as it still does today.
The entrance into the Alhambra was free on Sundays when I first moved to Spain. Nowadays, this is an unbelievable memory of mine. The hours and energy I have spent trying to purchase tickets to the Alhambra for groups over the years is exhausting to event think about. And to imagine that I used to stroll up there every Sunday with my books to spend hours studying in the Generalife and simply wandering about the palaces is amazing. I clearly remember reading one of my favorite books, A La Sombra del Granado by Tariq Ali, as I rested in the gardens. No tickets and no lines. Back then the security was also so low that we could even sneak into the summer palaces at night through a hole in the fence. A couple of my friends had grown up in the area of the Alhambra and they knew every way to enter. One night we even went through one of the secret tunnels below the city. These tunnels were used during the Nasrid Dynasty for inhabitants of the Alhambra to enter and exit without being seen. They are all closed off by gates now so we were lucky to have those wild adventures. We would have the summer palace to ourselves sitting under the stars. It was like the lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song.
When I lived in Sacromonte, the cave neighborhood across from the Alhambra, we had an outdoor terrace with a panoramic view of the Alhambra. On the second floor of our home there was also a loft bed, with a perfect view, that we named la cama de la reina. The Queen’s Bed. The Alhambra was the first thing I saw in the morning when I slept in that bed and my free time was spent reading, writing or drinking wine on that terrace. The Alhambra was the backdrop to my daily life for those years. It is still our favorite place to take a walk. Up the Cuesta de Chapiz, into Sacromonte to pass by my cave house and then up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra.
She’s resting now, our dear Alhambra. Similar to the years when she was abandoned in the 18th century. But soon she will reopen and we will again feel her vibration over the city. Enjoy the peace for now elegant lady. This type of calm never lasts forever.
Every January 2nd, the celebration of “La Toma” takes place in the plaza of the city hall in Granada. January second marks a historical moment for Granada and for the entire country of Spain. January 2nd, 1492 marks the day that Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada, handed the keys of the city to the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando. A couple days later after Boabdil had gone into exile they entered the city through the Elvira Gate and made their way up to the palaces and compound of the Alhambra. This moment in history marked the end of the last Moorish dynasty on the Iberian Peninsula and also the uniting of Spain as a country. A few months later on March 31st the Alhambra Decree was passed demanding the expulsion of all practicing Jews from the country. They were given 3 months to leave.
To commemorate this yearly act they bring in “La Legión” to the city of Granada. Francisco Franco was the founding deputy commander of La Legión in 1920 and they served an important role in the Spanish Civil War serving the Nationalist side. Since then, they have been deployed to different areas such as Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Presently they participate mostly in NATO peace-keeping missions. They are also known for their extraordinary band playing its well known anthem and marches. The commemoration includes a parade, Holy Mass and visitation of the tombs of the Catholic Monarchs in the Royal Chapel. In all of my years living in Granada I had never attended this celebration. I luckily miscalculated time yesterday and found myself caught in the middle of this on my way up to the Alhambra. Just in time to watch La Legión departing the gates of the Royal Chapel and listen to their marches.
If we look back on history appropriately we will easily see that the culture we enjoy today is thanks to the important different civilizations that have lived on the Iberian Peninsula and in Granada. Accordingly, there is also a counter celebration of our democratic and plural society in which we live today. This act includes the reading of a manifest about coexistence and a tribute to Mariana Pineda, a 19th century heroine who fought for liberal rights. I have attended different celebrations throughout the years. Concerts, multicultural parades and talks given by history professors.
The tension in this years celebration was accelerated by the attendance of our new extreme right wing political party, VOX. Comments made by their Secretary General such as, “the reconquest of Spain is not over yet and will continue” provokes more altercations than usual on this conflictive day. However, this is not a political blog so we will continue on with history.
Once the crowds dispersed I was able to continue on with my original plan for the afternoon which was to make it up to the Alhambra. It was a gorgeous sunny day and on January 2nd they open the doors to the alter in the Gate of Justice. It is only opened once a year for a few hours and I had never made it up until yesterday. The altar was constructed in 1588 and was placed where the first Catholic mass was supposedly held in the Alhambra. On the upper and lower sides we find images of Saint Francis, Michael the Archangel, Isabel and Fernando. In the center we find an image of the Virgin Mary and below her an image of St.James represented as a warrior in the Battle of Clavijo. which is a mythical battle between the Christians and the Moors.
On January 2nd the entrance to the Alcazaba (fortress) of the Alhambra is free for those who want to make it up to touch the bell in the highest tower, La Torre de la Vela. The legend here says that all single women who touch the bell will be assured to find a partner during the coming year. I chose to take advantage of the free entrance to the Alcazaba and climb up a couple of towers to enjoy the beautiful views that they allow. The line was growing for people wanting to touch the bell and enjoy the highest tower so I just enjoyed the sunshine and the fantastic views of two of my old neighborhoods. I later found out that the line was longer than usual because one of the bell ropes had broken and needed to be mended, oops!
As I walked back down into the city I found the normal holiday atmosphere that fills the streets of Granada at this time of year. Families and tourists wandering about and flooding the outdoor terraces to enjoy some free tapas and lunch. Today however, I saw some rolled up flags leaning against the tables, obviously used for the celebration. The city center during the holidays can be quite full, especially with this sunny weather. However, neighborhoods like mine provide a more relaxed atmosphere and some of the best tapas. Our favorite is just on the corner by our house at La Noticia. Roasted ham on a rotisserie served with tiny pickles and bread. It doesn’t get much better that that!
“A sigh isn’t just a sigh. We inhale the world and breathe out meaning. While we can. While we can.” Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh.
It would be impossible to count how many times I’ve told the story of Boabdil, the last Nasrid King of Granada or Garnata al Yahud; Granada of the Jews. There are many legends and stories connected to Abdullah Mohammed Xll, the man who handed over the keys of the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula to Isabel and Fernando in 1492. He referred to these keys as the “keys to paradise”. As he left the city of Granada to go into exile to the Alpujarras (southern part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range) he paused at a mountain pass which is now named, The Sigh of the Moor, and shed tears over ending of 800 years of of Muslim rule. His Mother, Aixa, who was with him on this journey into exile said, “Do not weep as a woman for what you could not defend as a man.” Hence, the legend of the tears of Boabdil.
We have a dessert in Granada named after this legend. It is called “Lágrimas de Boabdil”. This dessert, with an obvious Moorish/Jewish influence, is unfamiliar to most people but they serve my favorite version at the restaurant next to my house. It has a buttery almond base topped with carmelized crunchy almonds and a raspberry glaze. It pairs well with a local red wine from the Señorio de Nevada winery.
Boabdil’s tears are understandable to anyone who has been to Granada. Not only did handing over Granada to the Catholic Monarchs signify the end to one of the most important examples of religious tolerance, Boabdil was forced to leave his home and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Washington Irving speaks well of this in his last paragraph of Tales of the Alhambra, and I can also share this sentiment as I have been unable to live anywhere else for the past 25 years.
Some of my favorite coastline in the Basque Country is between Bilbao and San Sebastian on the Cantabrian sea. Zarauz is a relaxing village that comes to life in the summer offering excellent food and one of the longest beaches along the Cantabrian sea. Last year we spent a few days in the nearby fishing town of Getaria and walked the 3 mile seaside walk to Zarauz a few times to enjoy the beach and to dine at Karlos Arguiñano, a restaurant owned by the famous television chef. The walk between the two towns is right along the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago. We fell in love with the rhythm of Zarauz and decided to spend a few nights there in a hotel and returned again this summer with the van.
Last year we stayed in a hotel right in the main square and there was a protest going on about the attempt to close one of the local bars due to political reasons. In the Basque Country there are bars called “Herriko Tavernas” where members of the Basque Nationalist organization meet. They are also just regular bars with excellent pintxos. The Spanish Government is trying to close them down. The protest consisted of the signing a proposition, selling t-shirts and live music.
One of our favorite bars, also in the main square, has a great display of pintxos. Everyday at 10 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. the bar was quickly covered in various types of Tortilla (spanish omelette). Some are sliced in half and layered with different fillings like crab salad, ham and cheese or tuna salad with piquillo peppers. Others are prepared with potato and onion, chorizo and peppers, or any mixture of fresh vegetables. The choices are endless.
The classic Pinxto, which should be eaten in one big bit, is the “Gilda”. Named after Rita Hayworth as “Gilda”, this pintxo is spicy, salty and green! An olive, a spicy pickled pepper and a cured anchovy are what you get on this long toothpick. Whether you are in Zarauz or any other bar in the Basque Country you can always find a “Gilda” surrounded by many other plates of art that are prepared to touch all of our senses.
Everyone who has visited Madrid has seen, photographed or met up with friends at the famous Bear and Madroño Statue. A cute little bear trying with his paw to grab a bit of this unusual and fairly unknown fruit. This symbol, along with the seven stars that have been known to represent either the Ursa Major Constellation or seven castles that used to surround Madrid, make up the Coat of Arms of this capital city. There are many different versions about why the bear and tree also became part of the Coat of Arms. Some say it is the symbol of possession and power. My favorite interpretation so far was one that my sister Denise was given late one night in a bar in Madrid. Something about bears molesting trees. Anyhow, I would imagine that for most visitors this statue in the Puerta del Sol is their first and last contact with a Madroño Tree. But, they can be found all over the country.
The other day we went for a walk with friends near the Alhambra. We eventually found ourselves wandering through the Carmen de los Martires. “Carmenes” in Granada are typical homes with beautiful garden areas. Sometimes Granada is referred to as The City of Carmenes. This particular Carmen is very large and open to the public at certain hours during the day. There are beautiful views of the city, extravagant gardens and even peacocks. It is the perfect place to enjoy peace and quiet or read a book. With three kids in tow we had less peace and quiet but we did enjoy the views and had fun tasting the funny fruit off the Madroño trees. I heard once that if you eat too much of this fruit it can actually intoxicate you. We didn’t have time for that but it was fun to taste.
Luna and I walked home the other night……at sunset. Sometimes I have moments of bliss in this city. My Granada……the part of it that has always been a part of me, and always will be. There are places that I walk by everyday that are as familiar as my own breathe. Graffiti, the smell of jasmine and the old gentleman sitting on the bench.
Sometimes the beauty of the Sierra Nevada silences me. I forget it is there. Then, I look up as it is whispering Good Night. With the last traces of snow, its magic casts a shadow over the city.
Granada is small enough that while I’m sitting having a coffee, a friend suddenly shows up on her bike unexpectedly. People recognize me wherever I go, whether we met yesterday or years ago. But, you can also hide in its cracks and crevices. Under a tree in the Alhambra, in a hidden cafe or bar, or sitting on a rock near the river.
I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. One of them.