Monday, 16 April 2012

The Breathtaking Beauty of Granada

by Lucy Cole

Alhambra Palace, Granada (source: tqn.com)
 Granada. Arguably one of the most intriguing, historical and beautiful cities in the world, this was the last of all the Spanish cities to be conquered from the Arabs by the Catholic forces in 1492, not by force, but by hunger as the enemy waited outside the Alhambra, unable to overcome its incredible defences and thus resorting to siege warfare. One famous Spanish quote derives from the moment when Boabdil – the last Arab king – and his mother, Aixa, walked over ‘el suspiro del moro’ (the sigh of the moor), the last hill from which you are able to view La Alhambra as you travel south of Granada towards Africa; Boabdil was crying from the loss of his country, and his mother turned to him and stated - “Llora como mujer lo que no supiste defender como un hombre” ‘he cries like a woman who could not defend like a man’. A cruel, and yet undeniably beautiful phrase.

It is in this city, with its labyrinth of streets, rich culture and of course incredible historic architecture, that I chose to pass two precious weeks of my Easter holiday in a language school, attempting to improve my mediocre Spanish into the beautiful and flowing language I have so often heard on my travels to Spain. Whilst I fear it is unlikely that I will achieve this, so far my time here has been invaluable. Last week, while the children of England sat at home in anticipation of the mountain of chocolate they hoped to receive on Easter Sunday, here the week of Christ’s death and resurrection were celebrated in a distinctly different way! La Semana Santa, or ‘Holy Week’, would seem an unimaginable occurrence in England; as thousands of people line the streets of Granada every day, they delight and mourn in the events that take place. Each procession is representative of the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection and every one is unique, characterised by its costumes and statues, undeniably stunning in its tradition and its simple significance. I was struck by the incredible unity of all those who gathered to watch, present either for their faith, to enjoy the beauty of the procession (especially at night), or even just to revel in the tradition of their city and their ancestors. Living in a country where arguably the last thing that truly brought the British people together was the Royal Wedding, this ancient tradition fascinated me. There is something incredible about the ability of one thing to include and bring together a whole country for a week every single year (although I do believe perhaps that England’s failure to take to the streets in celebration may have something to do with our ever unpredictable weather, something over which the Spanish have an unfair advantage!)
However, although it was a dominant feature in the last week to say the least, La Semana Santa is not the only Spanish culture that I have had the pleasure of experiencing.  

Picture by Lucy Cole
It goes without saying that I was a little shocked at leaving the house at eight-thirty on my first day of school, and finding the streets almost completely empty. It appeared that the only person who would be doing any work today would be me. Now for someone who walks through the busy streets of Portsmouth at half eight every morning, passed by the endless commuters and business men in their suits setting off for work, this seemed incredible to me. This feeling was only increased on my return when I took to the pebbled streets leading back to my house, and passed numerous cafes absolutely full of locals enjoying their afternoon coffee. It was as if nobody ever worked! However, on asking my teachers to explain my confusion, I discovered that this ‘illusion’ was purely caused by a different (and perceivably far more appealing) ‘cultural timetable’. This became apparent one evening as I walked home late at night and found the local shops still open at almost ten o’clock, something completely unheard of in England even during the rush up to Christmas. I have thoroughly enjoyed this change, relishing in the vitality of the ‘calles’ and ‘plazas’ at night as they are lit up by the streetlights. One advantage of Granada’s history is that it has led to it being speckled with unbelievable monuments and fountains, only adding to the simple beauty created by the classical Arabian style buildings and the snow-topped mountains that create an otherworldly backdrop to the sun drenched city. 

Picture by Lucy Cole
  It feels clichéd to say that the highlight of my trip was my visit to the Alhambra on Thursday afternoon, but I am afraid that I cannot help but agree with the millions who visit the medieval fortress every year. Sitting atop a hill ten minutes walk from the centre of Granada is the Alhambra, home to the last Arab king and the final symbol of Arab resistance against overwhelming Catholic forces it is characterised by its burnt sienna walls and beautiful gardens. This World Heritage site opens its gates to around 9,000 visitors every day, and on Thursday I joined this number in order to marvel at this amazing piece of history as so many have done before me.  Bathed in a blanket of sunrays the walls seemed almost on fire as I walked through the city, passing building after building of beautiful Moorish architecture and falling into the classic tourist stereotype of camera hanging around my neck and map spread out in front of me as I tried to make sense of the maze of pictures that make up this huge fortress town. After spending an hour in the incredible Nasrid palace with its astonishingly intricate decoration and secret passageways roped off to public view I made my way fumblingly up the winding stairways and towers that make up the oldest part of the castle. As I finally made it to the top of the highest tower of the battlements I had to stop a moment to catch my breath, and when I looked up I found I was looking across Granada and all the surrounding towns, enclosed by a wall of green hills and snow topped mountains. There are not many times in my life where I can say I saw something that took my breath away, but this is one of them. From the tower it seemed as if I could see the whole of Andalusia, its white buildings and numerous fields lit up by the afternoon sun, a gentle wind blowing the flags that can be seen from the streets of Granada. The view was unbelievable and inexplicable. Sadly I realised I had little time left to view the rest of the castle, and after taking my share of blurred photos that can’t even hope to capture the reality of the scene, I descended the spiral staircase and continued to the gardens.  It took me four hours of exploring before I could bring myself to leave but after all the walking and climbing I was absolutely exhausted! I returned to Granada and to reality, and after grabbing a slice of Spanish tortilla (meal options are few for vegetarians in Spain!) I headed home to sleep.
  With only a couple of days left of my time in Granada, I plan to make the most of it and savour as much as I can of the culture that clothes the city before I leave. It really is one of the most incredible cities in the world, and if you haven’t yet had the fortune of experiencing it then make sure you plan to do so. I promise you that it will be worth it.

by Lucy Cole

2 comments:

  1. Hi Lucy,

    I'd just like to say that I really enjoyed your article, not least because I visited Granada a couple of years ago and was equally spell-bound by its beauty and cultural and historical significance! Reading your piece only makes me want to go back!

    George

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment George I'm glad you enjoyed it! It is an absolutely incredible city and I am definitely planning on going back sometime soon; it is impossible to experience everything it has to offer in only two weeks.
    Lucy

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