An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.
January 2, 2019
We dedicated today to the exploration of the Albaicin, a residential area that has been continuously inhabited for more than 2000 years. Medieval Muslim communities frequently followed the pattern of palace or fortress (alcazar), city center (medina), and residential area (in this case, the Albaicin).
Our lodgings fell just inside the Elvira Gate, a massive 11th century structure that was once part of the medieval wall. Our journey took us east on our street, which in our case also meant upwards! Our street rose in altitude so quickly that it mostly consists of cobblestone steps. We were both huffing and puffing, much as I had experienced in Lesotho or Heidelberg. We zigged and zagged on some roads at the top, and we were rewarded with a stunning view of the city below us.
Unfortunately, we met with disappointment at the first site, Palacio Dar al-Horra, and others we had planned. Four sites were jointly managed as the “Monuments Andalusies” for World Heritage. The four sites use particular machines to distribute tickets, and the machines refused to execute purchases on my credit card or on Natasha’s. At a stroke, the premier sites for our tour of the Albaicin were eliminated from our day’s schedule.
We pressed on to our second site. Helpfully, Mirador San Nicolas never closes! It’s a plaza offering a brilliant view of Alhambra, sprawling across the next ridge. I had seen suggestions to visit it at sundown, and I soon understood why; just before noon, the sun appears low in the sky above the palace (our visit was near the winter solstice), adding considerable glare. I tried my best to capture some images of Alhambra anyway.
Courtyards and balconies
Casa del Chapiz was a very nice spot to visit, albeit being positioned at the extreme eastern edge of Albaicin. This pair of homes, built in the early sixteenth century by Muslims who had converted to Christianity (they were not given much choice in the matter), features a lovely pair of restored Moorish patios. The wood work was splendid, and Natasha and I were further hooked on the idea of a home that encloses an open-air patio. Behind the home, though, is a massive formal garden, much longer than it was wide. Its views back toward Alhambra were pretty stunning, and Natasha was delighted to see a persimmon tree, though its fruit was out of reach!
We had heard bells ringing over at Alhambra for some time before we realized that the noise was not going to stop. We suspected that tour guides were making a bell rope accessible to a never-ending queue of children. Three rings, pause. Three rings, pause. This figure overlaid our next several hours.
We tried to visit Casa Horno del Oro, but the ticket machines for the World Heritage quartet continued to pose a barrier. I felt discouraged. Our path, though, became simpler. Instead of climbing and descending cobblestone “stair streets,” our path descended to Carrera del Darro. This beautiful street runs along the bank of the Darro River for its remaining uncovered stretch. I was less happy about the uptick in tourists around us.
A tidy starter museum
I had hoped the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography would measure up to the ones we had enjoyed at Cordoba and Madrid, but its three chambers held relatively few exhibits. We liked some of the Iberian and Roman pieces, but our attention was more captured by the astrolabes we saw there. We were surprised to read that we were seeing one of only nine medieval astrolabes remaining in the world that was inscribed in Arabic. Astrolabes represented one of the key technologies that differentiated the “Golden Age” of Islam from the “Dark Ages” of Christian Europe.
The climb to the second floor was rather nice, though. The stairs had lovely embedded tiles. How old might they be? Natasha and I gingerly stepped upward, trying to rest our feet only on terracotta. At the same time, a teenager careened down the steps at high speed. We sighed. The Renaissance structure of the museum is lovely, as befits the building’s origins under Ferdinand and Isabella.
Our walk to the Casa de Zafra took almost no time. In many ways, this would have been the ideal first stop on our tour of the Albaicin. The little museum walks visitors through the different phases of occupation for this area. I liked a map showing different color regions relating to the different waves of population in the Albaicin over the centuries (see below). Natasha loved a timeline that contextualized the major historical events in the Iberian Peninsula against events in the world at large, such as the construction of the Leshan Buddha (begun in 713 A.D., nearly the same time as the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula), the completion of the Forbidden City (1420 A.D., a bit before the assault on Granada), or the discovery of America (Columbus sailed the same year Granada fell)!
Natasha and I were ready for some refreshment, so we paused at the Teteria del Banuelo. We pulled up a table on the open-air patio with an outstanding view of Alhambra (three rings, pause, three rings, pause). Natasha enjoyed a Jordanian tea (black tea with mint), and I selected an Albaicin specialty pairing green tea with orange peel and blossoms. Yum!
Palace of the Forgotten
Our last target for the day was El Palacio de los Olvidados. At first, I was glad to see from the guide book that the Jewish community of Granada had its own museum, even if the Sephardi population had concentrated to the southeast of Alhambra rather than the west! As we entered the museum, however, we realized that the museum was tiptoeing down the line of sensationalism, with the most comprehensive collection of torture and execution devices that I have ever seen (purportedly because they had been used by the Spanish Inquisition against the Jewish / Converso population). The second floor of the museum had a pretty great collection of Jewish artifacts (such as a 15th century Torah and cover and a 16th century bridal chest).
I was really happy to see a Hebrew astrolabe that echoed the Arabic one we had seen earlier in the archaeology museum. Unfortunately, we had to wade through an awful lot of metal and wooden devices for contorting the human body, along with woodcuts depicting their use.
There were, however, some useful facts about the Inquisition within the displays. The Jewish Interpretation Center in Seville alluded to a conspiracy among six prominent Jews in 1481 that led to widened operations against the Converso / Jewish population. That story was amplified at Granada, revealing that the discovered conspiracy had been used to motivate Inquisition proceedings at Cordoba, Jaen, and Ciudad Real over the next two years. The museum also offered useful information on the process under which the auto da fe (“declaration of faith”) ceremonies took place. Just the order of arrival would take a while to execute. Apparently these ceremonies announcing verdicts from the Inquisition were frequently all-day affairs! The other detail I appreciated was a series of statistics describing how many people were victimized by the Inquisition in each king or queen’s reign from 1481-1808.
We stepped into the afternoon light, glad to clear our lungs of such human suffering. We lingered for a bit in Plaza Nueva. It was a very busy place, with hawkers and street performers everywhere and Santa Ana church standing over it. The vitality of the plaza helped us to see Granada in the glory of today rather than brooding over horrors from its past.