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There can be few cities so well favoured by their natural surroundings as Granada, built on hills which afford stunning views to snow-capped mountains and across broad plains. It is not hard to understand its appeal to successive peoples who have given Granada its rich history, from Roman days through the seven centuries of Moorish dominion to the triumphant Christian reconquest of the city in the late 15th century. Each culture has left its mark upon the city in countless ways, but Granada is known above all for its Moorish heritage, epitomised by the dream-like Alhambra palaces.
This complex of fortresses, palaces and gardens, built largely in the 13th and 14th centuries by the Nasrid sultans, is the focus of everyone’s gaze when they visit Granada, and rightly so. It is a hard challenge to envisage a more beautiful setting, on the wood-covered Sabika hill, seemingly floating between the city and the Sierra Nevada. Your first sight of one of the world’s most beautiful buildings is likely to remain long in the memory, but the Alhambra also rewards one with new pleasures on every reacquaintance, from every perspective. The intricate plasterwork engravings from the Koran in the sumptuous palace courtyards, the play of water in the pools of the Generalife gardens, the views to the Albaicín (Moorish quarter) from the ramparts of the Alcazaba – all can be appreciated in so many different ways.
Although the Alhambra has naturally come to symbolise Granada, the city has many other fascinations and charms. The historic districts of the Albaicín, Realejo and Sacromonte, each with a very distinct character, hold a wealth of interest. The Albaicín is one of the finest examples in Europe of a medieval town, being still based on the layout of the Moors – all crooked, cobbled streets and tightly packed houses. The Realejo is also a wonderful place to stroll around as besides its many monuments it is perhaps the best place to see contemporary granadino life, in what is still a very traditional barrio (neighbourhood). Sacromonte is a beguiling eccentricity: full of folklore and legends. Formerly home to a sizeable gypsy population, it still attracts visitors to flamenco performances in its cave houses but also those who appreciate its semi-rural tranquility and the fabulous views back to the Alhambra and the city.
The historic heart of Granada is the square of Bib-Rambla, the elegant pavement café and flower stalls of today telling nothing of a past of mass burnings of Arab books, Inquisition trials, joustings and bull fights. The Cathedral and Royal Chapel are nearby, one a vast Renaissance structure with an imposing main Baroque façade, the other delicate, on a far more human scale. The chapel houses the mortal remains of Christian Spain’s great immortals: Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, the “Catholic Monarchs”.
In Moorish times the Grand Mosque, the Madraza (university) and the Alcaicería (market for silks, jewellery, spices) were the focal point of the city. The Mosque was destroyed to make way for the Cathedral but the last two still stand – although only the beautiful oratory remains of the Madraza and the Alcaicería (several alleyways of shops reminiscent of a souk) is a replica of the original which was destroyed by fire in 1843. A further flavour of the past commercial life of the city is provided by two streets known colloquially as “the Arabic tea shop streets” where North African and Middle Eastern traders sell furniture, clothes, teas, spices, lamps, rugs and all manner of craftwork. The tea shops themselves make an ideal stop for the weary. Perhaps better still is to soak in the hot and cold pools of a luxurious hammam: there are two Arabic baths in the city, recreating an era and a culture when this was a daily ritual for the people of Granada.
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