I had a request for some more straightforward impressions of Granada. So, now that the poetry is out of my system, here they are. This is the very end of my sojourn. It is maybe a good place to draw to a close.
I arrived in Granada to a two day stay in a hostel not far from the cathedral and close to the popular Plaza Nueva and Calle Gran Vía de Colón. Just enough time to take a free walking tour, get my bearings and break down and buy a second pair of jeans. I had finally had enough of two skirts that were forever stretching out to being almost unwearable. I picked up the keys to the student apartment on a Sunday night and made my way into the Albaicín by bus in the dark.
Albaicín is more than 1,000 years old. It is Granada’s old Muslim quarter built by the North African Arabs and Amazigh (Berber) people who conquered Andalusía. It climbs a mountain slope adjacent to the walled Alhambra – a breathtaking royal enclave and fortress. Together with the Generalife gardens and summer palace, the Alhambra and Albaicín were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Albaicín today is a maze of winding cobbled streets overhung with vines and herbs and flowers from wrought iron balconies. Many homes are surrounded by a high wall with an inner terrace or courtyard where trees and fruit are grown for shade, fresh air and pleasure. These homes are called carmen. Most are painted white. Many have unique names and elaborately designed doors or gates, each unique.
Throughout Albaicín there are also small brick structures with little doors. These are water wells. The Moors ensured that everyone had fresh drinking water not far from their homes. The wells are shuttered now but would have been a big part of community life hundreds of years ago.
Today, community life takes place in the plazas. Mostly small and intimate open spaces ringed with restaurants and cafes, shops and services. I’ve been told it is not typical here to invite just anyone to your home to socialise. The line between public and private space is more distinct with homes being the domain of family and only the closest of friends. So friends and acquaintances gather in the plazas and in restaurants spending hours over a single beer or a couple of coffees. There are always children, especially young children, in the plazas. There are also plenty of cats and dogs. Dogs are often given free run of the streets so you need to watch where you’re walking because they leave their refuse behind. But for the most part they are remarkably well behaved. It would be impossible not to socialise a dog in such a hive of activity.
Albaicín feels like a pedestrian village but, in truth, any street wide enough to accommodate a vehicle – however tightly – does so. Motorcycles and mopeds are common and vehicles manage to navigate the tightest of spaces, often at significant speed. Off the main thoroughfares there are cobbled streets too small for cars and with too many stairs for bikes. At night I can sit on the rooftop terrace with other students, look out over the tiled rooftops and hear only the sound of footsteps and muted conversations in the streets below. It is remarkably quiet for a place so densely populated.
The student apartment is a two minute walk from Plaza Larga, one of the liveliest plazas in the Albaicín. This intimate plaza has everything you need within a 60 second radius – restaurants to stationers, a pharmacy, grocery store, hardware, and a fabulous Saturday market.
Our apartment is not a charming carmen. But what it lacks in architectural character it makes up for in personality. It is a mini United Nations. In five apartments we have residents from Canada, the United States, India, Italy, Egypt, Malaysia, Switzerland, Russia, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Australia, England, Israel and Palestine. Someone cooks a communal meal at least once a week. Most nights there is socialising somewhere over tea and cookies or beer and potato chips often with guitars. My favourite evenings are those spent in the kitchen, with pleasant company, visiting and listening to people jam, playing flamenco and blues.
The apartment building is owned by the school we attend. It houses a mix of people and ages. All are studying Spanish, guitar, flamenco or a mixture of the three. It is a community of artists and the artistically inclined. Some, like me, are here out of curiosity. Others have sold houses and left career paths, studies and communities behind to focus solely on their all consuming passion for whatever they pursue.
Flamenco is a part of life here with so many students studying either guitar or dance. There is a tablau just 5 minutes from the apartment where, for 15 Euro, you can purchase a drink, eat a tapas, and watch a sweaty, fiery 90 minute concert. Flamenco is a complex and emotional combination of singing (cante), guitar (guitarra), dance (baile), and percussion (caja and palmas). It is full of joy and turmoil.
I’ve been studying Spanish language, flamenco dance technique and flamenco compás (i.e. roughly, musical phrasing). The language classes have been encouraging but require concentrated effort that I’ve been sacrificing to spend time with people and places.
The flamenco dance has been humbling. Combining the rhythmic feet with the counterpoint arms is challenging but in order to do either of those well you must also give it soul… posture and attitude are harder than movement.
Flamenco compas is fascinating and fun. We started by learning the main flamenco families, each with a specific time signature. Within each time signature are various palos or styles, each with a different character. Some are happy, some serious, some sad, and all play with fours, threes and twelves. You must learn to tell the palos by the sound of the music and the rhythms alone. Then remember where the accents go – clap here, not there, foot stomp here, silence there. The rhythms can be counted, technically, but at some point you must give up counting and feel instead how all the pieces fit together. The hands are instruments and our instructor warned us frequently in lightspeed Spanish that it requires years to do it well.
In general, the days are full. Classes start at 9:30 am and run until 4:30 pm with brief breaks. The evenings are filled with food and socialising and I am sorely lacking in sleep in spite of the siesta hours. It is normal for shops to shut between 1 pm and 6 pm. People without other obligations go home and eat lunch late, often after 3 pm, then work around the house or sleep for a couple of hours before getting up to work the second half of the day.
Weekends are quiet until early in the afternoon. Streets are lively and fun, especially in the sunshine. Nightlife begins with dinner always after 7 pm, usually more like 9 pm, with entertainment starting between 10:30 and midnight. Last Saturday we went dancing and at 2:30 am half the crowd went home because they wanted an “early night”. The rest of us made it until 4:00 am then stopped for food on the way home, crawling into bed at dawn.
Outside of Albaicín, Granada is not a particularly large city but it is a modern, urban one with the requisite traffic and apartment blocks. It sits at the feet of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the region of Andalusía. There has been snow in the peaks already. You can hike from pine forests and snow down to palm trees and mangos in just a day if you know where to go, passing orange and almond groves, walnut and apple trees along the way.
I can’t mention Granada without talking about Sacromonte. It is the traditional home of the Gitano (Romani or gypsy) people who brought flamenco to Spain. Starting in northern India and pulling cultural influences from Persian and Arab places along the way. It is famous for its cave homes, dug into the soft rock and takes its name from the Abbey of Sacromonte built on top of Roman catacombs. Today, it is home to Granada’s most Bohemian residents. Flamenco tablau coexist here with djembe and firesticks. I did not have a chance to explore it in detail this time. Maybe next time.
People here seem to come back. Returning to Granada when they need a fix of the Albaicin’s village atmosphere and slightly intoxicating soul. It is a crossroads of cultures and histories and a mix of travellers and locals. I can understand why people return.
For now though, I am leaving. Taking with me a full heart and a happy one. Yesterday we walked above Sacromonte to watch the sunset then returned to the house where neighbours made a feast. I packed while friends played music, sang songs and we finally all gathered for a big meal together laughing and stumbling through in Spanish and English. In the morning people began dropping by to say goodbye, bleary-eyed, bringing breakfast and leftovers. We drank Arabic coffee and shared mango and fried eggs and the ends of yesterday’s bread loaves.
Someone told me at the beginning of the trip that I needed to “begin” my life. Pleading with me to stop searching, settle down, have a child, grow up.
Maybe we grow up when we begin life a second time on our own terms. By all means, make a commitment to a partner, a mortgage, a community or a job – but above all we must make a commitment to ourselves. When we are able to say to ourselves, “I see you.” Without fear, disdain or frustration. Regardless of whether any of it is visible to others. When we accept what makes us who we are, believe it’s real, and live by it.
Not like it’s easy or obvious. Just necessary.
So this one is for all the people who revealed to me their sketchbooks, drawings, dances and dreams, the project they were most proud of, the subject they were most excited by at school, the song they wrote, the business they want to begin, the battle they won with academia, the screenplay, the unrequited love, the relationship they left, the divorce they survived, the dignity they hold in spite of brutality, the home they hope to make, the book they are writing, the career they put on hold, the class they dropped, the job they didn’t take, the difference they want to make. You move me.
I adore all of you for having accepted what is true and important to you. Even when it isn’t what everyone else is doing. Even when it’s not cool. Even when it brings you into conflict with people you love. Even when life makes it difficult. I have listened to people deciding what can and cannot be sacrificed. I have met people making their own luck with hard work fuelled by desire as much as discipline. I have watched people living today trusting the future will take care of itself.
Life is mundane. This is part of the story. We aren’t all going to be artists and musicians. There are bills to pay and mouths to feed. But I hope to return with a renewed commitment to both the visible and invisible me. To make plans on my own terms. To begin my life.