Since first seeing the silhouette of a bull on the Spanish landscape, I’ve noticed there are quite a few of them in different places along the route. In fact, on one of them someone had graffitied (in Spanish), “Machismo kills.” In La Mancha, however, I saw a variation on this theme: silhouettes of Don Quixote, sometimes with an actual windmill nearby. These reminded me of my old friend Fritz, whom I would call Quixote (as he called me Cervantes). I know the novelist Cervantes meant Quixote as a satirical figure, but his hopeless quest kind of appealed to Fritz and me.
I hope I do not offend anyone by a persistent observation I've made about Spain. I’m really enjoying Spain, but every city we’ve been to, this phenomenon happens: You’re just going along, doing fine, and all of a sudden there’s this stink. It seems to come out of nowhere and not correspond to anything, and then it’s gone. It happens in the streets, in otherwise immaculate rooms, in the middle of an art museum.
And I finally know what it is. It’s the ghost of Queen Isabel I.
Now as I wrote before, Isabella of Castile has a lot to answer for. Before she married Ferdinand of Aragon, there was no such thing as “Spain,” just a bunch of warring kingdoms. After their union, there were two warring sides: the Catholic monarchs and the last bastion of Muslim Spain, centered in Granada.
|Columbus asking Ferdinand for money. He's saying, "Let me ask the Jews."|
Granada is very fond of Fernando and Isabel. There are statues of them, and they are buried here. Isabel was from 800 kilometres away, but she wanted her final resting place to be in conquered Granada. So keen were she and her husband that everyone in their kingdom be Catholic that they expelled the Jews, although a more cynical explanation is that Jewish moneylenders had helped finance Fernando and Isabel’s wars. Maybe they didn’t want to pay their debts.
I learned on our tour of Granada that Isabel had another fault. I’ve already mentioned the strange belief that eating pork made one a better Christian; Isabel took it one step further. She observed that the Muslims washed five times daily before their prayers, and decided that if washing was a Muslim thing, she wasn’t going to do it. Legend has it that she vowed not to change her shirt until the war was over. Nine years later, she sure showed them!
“[W]hat a country is Spain for a traveler, where the most miserable inn is as full of adventure as an enchanted castle and every meal is itself an achievement!” —Washington Irving, The Alhambra: A Series of Tales and Sketches of the Moors and Spaniards
I’m not sure Irving, that romantic norteamericano writer, meant it this way, but meals are certainly an achievement in Spain. I’d thought that the Irish diet was dominated by potatoes, but Spain has Ireland beat. You cannot go anywhere in Spain with what, confusingly for one who studied Latin American Spanish, are called tortillas. They are a really thick omelet stuffed with potatoes. The first one I had here, I really liked. The second time, I looked around for a tomato or a green vegetable. I couldn’t face a third. The British invented the word claggy for food like this.
For a country that grows so many fruits and vegetables, they don’t seem to be sold in many places. Maybe it’s the “false friends” of Spanish words. I’d expect a supermercado to sell fruit or at least something fresh. I think of a cafeteria as something more than a café or tapas bar. But not in Spain.
We did eventually find a hotel buffet and stuff ourselves with salad and vegetables. I’d never been so excited about salad as in this arid land of the olive! Yet even here, the love of pork and patatas could not be suppressed. I took a big scoop of lovely vegetable ratatouille, and what was in it? Potatoes! Helped myself to pasta for a change of starch, and what was it laced with? Ham!
How we got to the hotel was one of those “miserable inn” adventures Irving mentioned. There were no mules or bandoleros on our journey south to Granada, but our arrival was dicey enough. We’ve met many local people and had many quirky experiences through Airbnb, but the places were all clean and comfortable. Everything about this one, from the taxi driver being “unable to find” it (meaning he drove around the block four times and overcharged), to the desolate location, to our host being unapologetically late, was miserable. Took one look at the dump and concluded we wouldn’t let a dog stay there. Even the cat tried to escape!
We decided to stay no longer than it took to use the WiFi, find an affordable hotel, and get them to send us a more reliable taxi. Sometimes you just need a break.
We were always going to exceed our average budget in Granada anyway, because I wanted to see the Alhambra. Thanks to its reputation as the world’s most beautiful Islamic architecture—a reputation embellished by Irving when he actually lived in the Alhambra during 1829—tickets sell out as much as a month in advance. Well, a month ago I didn’t know when we’d be in Granada. I don’t even think we were spending euros yet. So, the only way we could get into the Palacios Nazaríes was to join a guided tour, avoiding the most expensive ones.
Fortunately, our last minute lodgings were just a short walk from the Alhambra, which is on the highest hill in Granada. And in addition to English, our guide, Tania, was fluent in German (her native language) and Spanish, because she lives in Spain. “My children were born here,” she said; “they’re Spanish. Generations from now, will it matter that someone’s great-great-grandmother was German? That’s what I say when people ask ‘when did the Spanish do this or that in history?’ Who are the Spanish?”
Sometimes I learn the most from guides during breaks. We’re back to Isabel and Fernando again: the invention of Spain, the erasure of eight hundred years of Muslims in the Iberian peninsula. Isabel wanted to destroy the Alhambra. I don’t know what stopped her, unless poor hygiene put the demolition crew off. Even in Irving’s time, Spaniards would claim to be “old Christians”: that their families had only ever been Catholic, not “tainted” by any Jews or Moors.
To give you some idea of how ridiculous this is: St. Teresa de Avila, one of Spain’s (and Christianity’s) great mystics, was descended from Jewish conversos.
Luckily for us, the North African heritage of Granada is more alive today than it has been for centuries. We took a winding path up Calle de la Calderería Nueva, a street full of teahouses and Arabic sweets. Halfway up the Albaicín, the Muslim quarter, we stopped for hummus. (My gosh, a legume! And soft pita bread!) At the top of Callejón de San Cecilio is the Mirador de San Nicolás, the best viewpoint of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada.
You wouldn’t believe they are the “snowy mountains” as hot as it is down here. But, there is snow.
A flamenco guitarist emerges, then a hippie who appears to have been living in the side of a hill for years. Gitano (“Gypsy”) music drifts down from the Sacromonte…