Granada is indeed grand.
But its name has nothing to do with grandeur. It means pomegranate in Spanish and the fruit abounds here, not just on trees but in architectural carvings, art and even the city's coat of arms. Resembling an imperial orb, the fruit is said to stand for temporal power, while theologically it represents the Church and priesthood.
It's a fitting name for a city, then, that has been inhabited for 2,500 years by incredibly diverse religious populations and royal leaders. It was first an Ibero-Celtic settlement, then a Greek colony and, in 711, Arabs and Berbers from northern Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered the city, bringing Islamic rule to all of the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1492, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella laid siege and forced the King of Granada to surrender the town. Christians soon "persuaded" Jewish and Muslim residents to convert and began making significant changes to the appearance of the city to hide its Muslim character.
As a result, there is a unique conglomeration of Christian and Islamic influences here. We tiptoe into ornate Catholic churches and then turn a corner to find intricately carved arched doorways of small mosques tucked between buildings of a newer era.
We stay in a 300-year-old building with apartments arranged around an inner courtyard, beside a 1,000-year-old bell tower in the Albaicin neighbourhood, a World Heritage Site with Medieval Moorish stone streets winding between whitewashed buildings.
The North African influence is evident in the incense-scented shops selling mosaic hanging lamps and tablecloths with geometric designs (Islamic art rarely features human figures) and in tea houses and hookah bars.
High on a hill is the highlight of Granada (some say of all of Spain), the Alhambra. Arabic for "the red," it was likely so named because of the colour of the clay used to build the outer walls. This fortress, which sprawls over more than 10 hectares, encompasses royal palaces, lush gardens and extravagant water features built by the Nasrid kings, the Arab Muslim dynasty that ruled from 1230 to 1492.
The beauty of the palaces is hard to describe: ornately carved ceilings that look like inside-out wedding cakes, sophisticated tile work, elegant horseshoe-shaped arches, elaborately sculpted and scalloped posts and walls adorned with Arabic inscriptions (in many places the Arabic reads "There is no victor but Allah," which scholars have only recently deciphered).
The Comares Palace was the official residence of the king and contains the breathtaking Hall of the Ambassadors, with double-arched windows at eye level providing light accentuated by illumination from lattice windows set near the soaring ceiling. The Palace of the Lions was the private area, where the Harem lived! There is an alcove here built for a favoured wife—it has the only stained glass in the Alhambra.
The Catholic Monarchs undertook a number of restorations after they seized the city. Charles V built his eponymous Roman-style palacio, partly as a tribute to his grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, but also as a reminder of Catholic supremacy.
The Generalife, which means "garden of the architect" and signifies paradise, offers narrow paths between slender cypresses and towering oleander trees; myriad flowers bloom profusely. The gardens provided a cool haven for the sultans during the furnace of Andalusian summers. We too appreciate the shade from the intense heat.
Water is integral here—for architectural as well as practical purposes. The sight and cooling qualities of water fit seamlessly into interior and exterior design, in fountains, marble canals, reflecting pools.
This place, these buildings are a surprise for the eyes and a feast for the soul, no matter what your spiritual beliefs—and the perfectly curated outdoor spaces offer opportunities for quiet reflection. It's truly a wonder.
We depart after wandering alongside gardens that still produce vegetables—avocadoes, artichokes, plump purple eggplants—grown when the rulers lived here. Which gets us thinking about food.
Given its rich Moorish heritage, Granada offers many Arabic restaurants serving everything from Moroccan to Lebanese cuisine. (We also stock up on exotic freshly ground spices at street-side stalls for ridiculously cheap prices.)
But our favourite feast is with Francisco in the back room of his olive oil shop, La Oliva. There are only five other people dining with us because, as Francisco insists, "This is not a restaurant. I am not a chef!"
I'm not sure what his definition of chef is, but the delicacies he prepares in a tiny space with only a hot plate and one assistant indicate culinary talent. His goal is to ensure we "experience the taste of Granada via a pedagogical-tasting meal in order to know Spanish "tradicional gastromic products and confort food [sic]."
He describes the fresh ingredients and their history (for example, 50 per cent of all Spanish asparagus is grown in Granada, mostly for export. Called "green gold," Andalusian asparagus stands out because of its fine texture, intense green colour and its crown, which tends to be more closed) and cooking methods as he serves, and why he has paired each dish with a specific spirit.
We start with a tasting of three EVOOs and Fino (a pale white sherry) and then move through 17 individually plated tapas served with a rosado, a Blanca, two Tintos and a Pedro Ximenez (a dark, intense dessert sherry)—all for less than 50 Euros each (about $70 Cdn).
Francisco's elaborately presented, innovative and oh-so-fresh food, wines and entertaining commentary could almost be described as a religious experience. Which fits in perfectly with this spiritual city.
If You Go (Important Tip):
Alhambra is one of the world's most popular monuments so book as far in advance as possible. At the official site, tickets are 15 Euro (about $22 Cdn). Show up early and, once inside, head straight for the Nasrid Palaces because you can access them only in the hour indicated on your ticket. If the official ticket site is sold out, you can book a tour, which is what we did. It's more expensive but our tour guide was excellent and made it a much more enriching experience than had we visited on our own.