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Sierra Nevada

  • Granada July 2000

    We left at 1.45 on Monday. Me straight from the university, my briefcase stowed away in a cupboard, still fretting about the rush work only just finished in time. Julian fresh from his time off before starting a new job.

    Got to the airport in time, the flight was on time - whatever was happening? The lady with the placid baby next to me suddenly launched into the story of her uncle and his fifty year love affair with a deck-hand from his private yacht and promised that in Granada we'd have a fine time. We found ourselves in the hire car and on the outskirts of Granada in under two hours. Julian confused the Alhambra Palace with a block of flats but eventually we got to the Generalife Hotel, beside the Alhambra gardens on a hill overlooking the city.

    Heaving with wrinkled German ski-ers après ski-ing to a maudlin disco, the hotel did not promise well. We launched out into the night looking for a square where we were promised tapas just ten minutes walk away. 30 minutes
    later we were holed up in a smoky bar in altogether the wrong part of town. Me eating chorizos off a great wooden board, Julian a more appetising baked potato.

    With just two days in town we were in for a busy schedule: Tuesday the Alhambra, Wednesday the the Arab quarter, Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cathedral area. How to describe the Palace? Boabdil wept when the Spaniards finally forced him out, ending 700 years of Arab rule in Spain. His mother rebuked him for crying like a child for what he could not defend as a man. Great raw red walls top the hillside - like the hull of a vast liner, the prow jutting out over the town. Within the walls a massing of roof lines and everywhere water: fountains playing, still pools, rivulets cooling the road edges.

    Le Corbusier praised the design of the state appartments for their human scale and perfect proportions. In accordance with Islamic law, no representational decoration was allowed, but almost every surface is covered with the most intricate incised plaster work. Delicate filligree patterns twist and turn around the arches and columns, expressing the ordered hierachy held in place by the Islamic state. Arab calligraphy proclaims the omnipotence of Allah in a stylised motif that repeats again and again. Geometric tile patterns line the walls and the ceilings are a mass of repeating sculpted geometic shapes.

    The beauty and perfection of the proportions is hard to describe, but still remembered is the slaughter of two dozen or more young knights: their decapitated heads tossed into a great alabster bowl. In the gardens the mimosa was in bloom, the orange trees were full of fruit and the temperature was around 17 degrees. Dozens of interweaving jets of water made a great roar of sound along a terrace overlooking the palace below. The snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains provided a ravishing backdrop.

    Inside the church built to obliterate the palace mosque by the first Spanish king to re-occupy Granada I was struck by the contrast between the art of the two cultures: Bach blared from a loudspeaker, a garish gilded altar piece with images of the saints, caricatured lessons for the illiterate people.

    After a drink in a hotel built in about 1908 as a tribute to the Alhambra palace we ate in a restaurant empty but for us with a fine view over the city. Restaurants don't open until at least 8.30. We were meticulously served wine by an attractive blonde. "The Maitre de" hovered. The food was pretty dire!

    Next morning we walked down to the town (again) and like the duke of York up the hill again. Walking (or rather climbing) was inevitable since we were at the top of one hill, the centre of the city at the bottom, and the parts we wanted to see were at the top of then next hill.

    Tha arab baths were not (as I fondly imagined) still working. Up the river to a plain building, through the courtyard of the guardian's house and into an emty series of rooms with simple geometric patterns cut in the ceiling the only source of light. Strange to think of the rooms bright with tilework, full of steam, tubby Arab merchants panting in the heat 500 years ago.

    Up through a network of narrow lanes, some buildings barely habitable, great handfuls of electrical cable bunched together loosely snaking from house to house, and signs of arab influence everywhere. Here the tilework on a balcony, there signs of some patterned decoration slowly blurring with the passage of time. St Nicholas' church offers a famous view of the palace - but when we got there the sun was full upon us, the view obscured. We promised to return in the evening.

    We saw the Royal Chapel built to commemorate King Ferdinand and Isabella. Pompous sculpture of reclining figures conceal the simpler sarcophagi Isabella intended as their monument in the crypt below. A sublime van der Weyden tryptych fought for attention with reliquaries and embroidered vestments.

    The narrow streets in the centre of the old town were dirty and traffic choked. We walked the mile and a half back up to the cleaner air and the hotel and took the car into the mountains. At some 3400m Pico de Veletta claims to be reachable by the highest mountain road in Europe. Because of the heavy snow we only got to 2500m, the temperature down by ten degrees, but still in glorious sunshine.

    I chatted to a member of an English film-crew, his face tanned brown from a week making an orange juice commercial. Equally dark-skinned, shaven headed national servicemen skied past us, rifles sticking from their rucksacks. We set the camera to take an auto-timer portrait as we sat on a rock overlooking the ski runs below.

    Back to the town and a mad dash to St Nicholas for the Alhambra at sunset. Crowds of travellers sitting on the wall, while an old woman clacked castanets and screeched cante honto. Some evenings "the green flash" lights up the sky at sunset - a bizarre light shooting up from the horizon as the last rays of the sun disappear. That night we were unlucky.

    Again and again we saw a poem that reminds the traveller how sad it is to leave Granada - cut into a stone on the walls of old fort in the Alhambra or in a fountain within the old caravanseri we saw in the town. Perhaps if I go back...

    That night we ate our last dinner high up in the old arab quarter. Again we were the only ones eating. As we emereged afterwards on to a small square fronted by an old convent church we saw a bizarre cage like structure move slowly in the doorway of the church, supported on the shoulders of several dozen Granadans. In time to mournful music, they shuffled slowly out of the building, huge concrete beams weighing down the steel structure. This was Ash Wednesday and they were practising, as perhaps someone had done for generations, for a processional showing of some great statue.

    We fell into bed, worn out by all our walking and by 10.30 the following morning were back on the road to Malaga airport. A short break, but a time to remember!