I am currently sitting in a wine bar in Granada close to the Cathetral (Tabernas Masquevinos, if you want to know). It is a lively, most likely touristy place. Yet, in particularly Granadian fashion, not a single word of English can be heard in the entire place. This is typical for Granada. Like most beautiful cities, it has exploited its touristic potential, but it mostly caters to Spanish tourists; it doesn’t feel seem of tourist traps designed to suck in Americans and Brits as they do their proverbial Euro Trip. I even entered my hostel for the first time to find a young woman from Venezuela who knew absolutely no English sitting on the bed across from mine. For a city as beautiful as this one, this sort of purity is borderline miraculous; apparently it is perpetuated by a strong sense of Andalucían nationalism, and if this is what nationalism looks like, I’m all for it.
I am drinking a glass of Andalucían wine called “Glarima.” It is a rather wonderful red, not too bitter and tannin-heavy, but smoky and smooth. [It certainly beats smoky beer, which I was recently disappointed to learn that I dislike, at least when it’s of a particular bottom-fermented German variety.] My free Tapa is bread with cheese, olive oil, and vinegar; the cheese is delightfully pungent and the combination is lovely. I also paid for a goat cheese croquette, which is phenomenal as well; sprinkled with sweet vinegar, it takes the flavorful-yet-not-overbearing nature of goat cheese and gives it a crunchy, sweet edge.
Yes, I did say “free tapa” in the previous paragraph. Apparently this quirk is a Granada specialty, a way to keep people from drinking too much and luring in tourists in for drinks and food. Almost every restaurant abides by the free tapa policy, and of course people love it.
On my first night in Granada I noted an offhand observation to my friend Louisa that’s become even more apparent the longer I’ve stayed here: “Granada is like Disneyland, but real.” Indeed, Disneyland––with its stylized combination of different worlds that are consistently varying yet always aesthetically exciting––is a rather apt comparison for Granada, a city whose incredible location has made it the centuries-long site of envy-ridden competition for Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish cultures. Walking along its beautifully stylized streets, it is––
Excuse me one moment. One of the most delicious things I have ever eaten just arrived at my seat, and I would be completely ashamed to ignore mentioning it: tosta (toast) con “jamon iberico, queso de cabra y cebolla caramalezada” (cured Iberian ham and goat cheese and caramelized unions). The counterbalance of salty ham, bitter cheese, and sweet onions is unbelievable.
Anyway, as I was saying, the streets of Granada contain a deluge of wonderful Islamic-turned-Hispanic styles: white houses with brown tiled roofs hug the hillside in a dizzying maze of streets, hiding lush, ornate patios with decorative, geometrically patterned tiles that peak out from behind wrought iron gates. The façade of its towering, baroque cathedral (appealingly luminous on its interior) is surrounded by open-air Arab marketplaces that sell a dizzying rainbow of glass lamps and vibrant scarves. Mexico may own the cliché of the giant orange stucco hacienda, but Granada and southern Spain owns the cliché of the warm, ornamental Hispanic village. Designers of Southern California towns like San Clemente seem to have appropriated all of their architectural strategies from this one little town, and as someone from Southern
California, it felt comfortingly familiar.
And yet, the previously mentioned authenticity made it all the more exciting and fascinating. First, even though Spain is a Catholic country, Granada owns its Muslim influence. The full nature of this influence didn’t really occur to me until coming to Granada. Ferdinand and Isabella, notoriously responsible for the discovery and subsequent conquering of the New World, truly transferred the brilliance of Muslim architecture and technology onto North American soil. Blown away by the
Alhambra, they happily claimed it as their own, Catholic architectural predilections aside (they got their Cathedral eventually). Granada’s etchings, tiles, arches, and fountains are a far cry from traditional gothic, baroque, Catholic design. Unless you live in a traditional brickwork east-coast style house in the US, you probably owe a lot of your environment to early Muslim design. Shove that down your anglophile gullet, why don’t you.
Granada is famous for the Alhambra, the palace and fortress that Isabella and Ferdinand appropriated after conquering their Muslim oponents. I spent the majority of my Sunday afternoon here, from 2 PM to 5 PM. It is a massive place. I started with the Generalife, a summer resort with beautifully sculpted gardens and fountains. It even has upturned roof tiles that carry water down a stairwell. The design is impeccable, yet even more incredible when it occurs to you how old the Generalife actually is; Orange County’s modern “Fashion Island” was basically built between the 12th and 14th centuries.
The main attraction, and one that required a specific 3:30 entrance time (brilliantly instated to curtail traffic), was the Nasrid palace. After walking down from the Generalife and waiting in line, I was let into the palace where Ferdinand and Isabella gave Columbus permission to seek out the New World. I’m sure I’ve seen pictures of this palace on/in textbooks before: deep pools, mathematically perfected fountains, it’s all here. But the true, overwhelming beauty of the Nasrid palace lies in its tile sculptures (Islamic architecture pros can probably correct me on my wording here). Immaculately carved tiles are flawlessly arranged over unbelievably large spans wall space, columns, and ceilings. It is impossible to fully imagine the amount of hours and care placed into this breathtaking work. And, amazingly, unlike western variations on this sort of ornamental stylization (I’m looking at you, Rococo, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco), its decorating methods never seem to draw undue attention to themselves. From a distance, they merely ripple and only unveil their true majesty when careful eyes step in close to take them in. They beckon for watchful presence and award your aesthetic digestion in spades.
Being at the Alhambra made me think of how the closest Western Christian culture comes to this sort of detailed design is through stained-glass windows. Yet in general, Christian decoration could learn from this sort of watchful nuance. Copying examples from the Greeks and Romans, Western Christian culture is typically influenced by concepts of the grand, the pompous, the boastful. The problem with this generally neoclassical and gothic notion is that largeness can sometimes feel grand yet empty, impressive yet vacuous. “My cup runneth over,” says in the Psalmist. Not “My cup is really large and imposing.” It’s not the cup that’s large—it’s the density of the goodness within the cup. Christian artisans could do well to learn from the Alhambra.
Yet as ornate as the Nasrid palace is, as wonderful as the Granadan character can be (I seriously felt like I could live there a lifetime, and not only because I could wear a t-shirt and shorts everyday if I did), the true highlight of the trip was seeing Louisa. Louisa and I have been friends since… well, before you chose your friends. We’ve been friends since your “friends” were just little kids that your parents grouped you with before you had the agency to say yes or no. And, in a sense, that makes our relationship all the more incredible. Because we are not “old friends” who simply get together and reminisce about “the old days” without any true substance to our current, continuing relationship. We’re not ancient acquaintances who get together merely out of courtesy or parental encouragement. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though we live far apart now and have vastly different life experiences, our relationship is somehow all the stronger because of this distance, because of our different life experiences. We have independently grown into the sort of people who can have wonderful conversations about anything and everything, who can laugh together and share together, who can find ourselves mutually enlightened through our combined perspectives. Our friendship doesn’t only pick up where it left off; it grows because of the time that has lapsed since we last saw each other. Even though I see Louisa probably six days per year (max) compared to the hundreds (only a slight exaggeration) of days that we used to see each other, I feel as if our the quality of our friendship is stronger now than it was when I was in eighth grade. This is a gift.
Unbelievable Shawarma, Alhambra Behind
And it is even more of a gift that, with little to no knowledge of Granada, I was able to visit such an extraordinary, lively, beautiful place. That I stayed long enough to have multiple churros con chocolate (seriously, the US has no idea what good churros are like), sangria, local wine, and 3 (yes three) incredible shwarmas from local Arab places (one in particular was literally among the best things I have ever eaten—Tony Stark would fall head over heels), was a supreme gift. On Monday afternoon, Louisa’s host mother, Rosa, even had me over and made an impeccable local Spanish dish. Louisa was a gracious translator and I enjoyed seeing what bits of Spanish I could pick up (a surprisingly ok amount, considering how long it’s been since I’ve taken the language). It was also very nice to be in a real home after traveling so long—although my hostel was very nice, as far as hostels go. It was roomy, nicely decorated, had a comfortable mattress, and I spent the last 24 hours in my room as its only occupant, a rather amazing feat.
I could go on and on describing the Rio Darro, the wonderful mural-eque graffiti throughout the city, the little miniature pinscher who followed me all the way down the Camino de Sacromonte, the expat atmosphere of Paddy’s Irish Pub (no, Charlie Kelly wasn’t there. I know, it killed me too), but I’ve used up enough words here already. In summary, Granada was an oasis of striking color, style, relaxation, exploration, and fun with a timeless friend.
I am currently on a plane headed for London (come on, you don’t think I’d be able to write this many words this diligently with wine and tapas in front of me, did you?!) after the lovely two-hour bus ride through the Central-California-looking Andalucían countryside. London will be strikingly different than Granada, but I am very excited to experience the contrasting atmosphere (even in its stereotypical rainy-coldness). Also, as much as I liked practicing and refreshing my limited Spanish, it will be lovely to be, for the first time in months, in a place where English is the most commonly spoken language.