High stone walls severed by shadow and sunlight snaked behind the river, into a maze of cobblestone filled with archways, cisterns and large wooden doors. Passageways resounded with chatter and music that vanished with each turn, beneath geraniums upon narrow ledges, above water that trickled from old Moorish fountains.
Arriving in the Albaicín after 35 hours of straight travel was surreal. Putting down our bags, we walked onto our balcony and took in what would be our view for the next two months – the Alhambra and rooftops of this labyrinth Moorish district of Granada, Andalucía. As we were lucky enough to spend a bit of time there, we managed to see that at certain times, the place was quite different.
Nightfall was a time when the birds and Gypsies came out and darkness was gradual, soft, yet awake like I’d never seen. It was a time to be upon rooftop balconies, where dark winged silhouettes swept in numbers across the gently rousing city. Below, musicians gathered on old paths and bridges, children stayed awake and cafes teemed with colour and laughter beneath a sea of clay-tiled roofs, which tumbled towards the vast mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
A (very) short history
Andalucía’s Albaicín district has been occupied since Roman times, however the Moors – who were the greatest cultural influence on the place – settled there under the Zirid kingdom during the 11th-century, fortifying the city’s great walls. Although it wasn’t until the Nasrid dynasty (1248 – 1492) that the Albaicín truly flourished, with roughly 40,000 inhabitants and 30 mosques.
At one time the Albaicín contained over 28 water channels and wells, most of which are preserved (though not in use) and in 1994 it was declared a World Heritage site.
My mornings began with churros, the clockwork chime of church bells and a palpable sleepiness that envelops this old and interesting part of the world. The morning is a good time to wander through the Albaicín’s narrow network, which runs from the top of Saint Nicholas down to the River Darro. It’s a time when visitors can be found from all over the world, experiencing its Moorish feel that’s endured a tumultuous history.
However my time living in the Albaicín, Granada was heavily skewed by a couple of events. I was doing my CELTA course downtown and if you know anything about CELTAs, they’re a lot of work. Many of my days within the Moorish network were hurried, sites became a familiar blur and often nothing more than background aesthetics. Although the times I managed to have a short break – sipping beer to classical guitar beneath the Alhambra during twilight – are some of my fondest memories.
During my final weeks in the Albaicín I had sciatica and was confined to a short distance from my home, limping down to Paseo de los Tristes. Thank god for that place. The views of the Alhambra, the cafes, sunset music, Rio Darro and proximity to my home gave me some sanity.
However there were several weeks in between where I managed to explore, navigating the alleys of Saint Nicholas and savouring the view at the Mezquita Mayor de Granada. The mezquita sits right next to Plaza Cementerio de San Nicolas, one of the most touristy viewpoints in town. Although the mezquita was comparatively vacant and the views there were just as good. Here are some other encounters during our two months in the Albaicín:
A few people, a few things..
There was the man who sat with his pencilled drawings – which appeared unaltered for days – drinking daytime beers. The hippies who urinated down a particular alley (which we coined ‘pee alley’) that we came to know and avoid. Or the subculture of felines that roamed the streets and had adventures, friends, lovers and great quarrels.
There was the hammam – ancient Arab baths filled with candles, tall columns, channelled waterways, sweet tea and starry ceilings. The old wooden doors that looked like an entrance to another world. Then there were the kora and saxophone players that gathered upon the bridge, jamming intently as dusk fell upon the city. The guitarists that played mellifluous melodies in courtyards, gardens and by the River Darro.
Granada’s Albaicín is permanently etched in my memory. It’s a place that dazzled and beguiled me, where every turn was an adventure and every fissure held a story, a secret.
Have you been to the Albaicín, Granada? What did you think of it?