Cave Dances & Ancient Places

I was originally drawn to Granada due to its intricate-albeit bloody-history. That and its picturesque views-the city sprung up at the base of the Sierra Nevada so the mountains always hang hazily in the distance. Present day Granada is the consequence of hundreds of years of one religious peoples conquesting another, the city oscillating between Muslim and then Catholic rule, resulting in the patchwork quilt of architecture, food and art that exist here today. In addition to Muslims and Catholics, the city’s fabric is interwoven with other threads as well-the Jews, who historically had a strong presence here, and the Roma, or pejoratively termed, the gypsies. The Roma arrived during the time of Muslim rule as immigrants from India, where they contributed to the dazzling artisanship of the city. Overtime, they were increasingly marginalized, and now, as in the rest of Europe, they struggle against prejudices and lack of social and economic opportunities.

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However, in Andalusia, the Roma own something that their coethnics in other regions do not-Flamenco. Flamenco encompasses a style of both music and dance, with a genesis in the mountain caves of Andalusia. Originally performed at funerals, the art form became so popular that it is now well known and performed far from its roots.

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The city still maintains neighborhoods representative of its different residents throughout history-the Jewish quarter, the Albancin, or Moorish quarter, Sacremonte-the hills where the Roma reside, and the city center-the newest and most modern part of the city.
The first few days I spent just aimlessly wandering. It’s a great city for that. Beautiful flower lined streets, with dazzling fountains interspersed among sunny squares, fancy high end stores as well as shops that are more reminiscent of their Arab or Indian origins, and countless bars advertising their tapas and sangria specials. To me, the size of the city was perfect-completely walkable.

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One of the highlights of my trip was hiking up to Ermita San Miguel Alto, or more so a brutally steep upwards climb on cobble stone streets and a bit of a dirt path up to the top. The view was spectacular-the church sits at the highest point of the city, so Granada was stretched out before me in all its glory-little terra cotta rooftops and churches towering above them, vibrant flowers prolific among them. I arrived at the best time of day, about an hour before sunset when the quality of the light is saturated with warmth, painting the vista its most gorgeous colors.
This is Sacremonre, where the marginalized live-very poor Roma and Senegalese populations that inhabit the caves. The hillside is littered with random pieces of their furniture, a mattress here, a table and chairs there. It’s all they have. It’s harrowing, so much beauty and so much poverty in one place.
I went to see a flamenco show after the sun set that night. They offer shows in the caves, where flamenco came into being-it’s all very touristy, but I felt like it would be a shame if I didn’t see flamenco while in Granada. The dancers were so expressive, every part of them, their lips, their eyes, their finger tips, all told a dramatic story, all the while their feet stomping impossible beats. The guitarist was just as integral to my awe as the dancers-the way he played filled the room with so much sound I often forgot that there was only one instrument. The singer had a deep and smoky voice.

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The center piece of Granada is of course the Alhambra-the Muslim turned Catholic palace that sits on its pedestal overlooking the entire city. I was in fact determined not to see it-despite my intense interest in religion and its history, I couldn’t stand the thought of loud tourists snapping their aimless pictures, selfie sticks waving in the air, and children screaming. I would appreciate it from afar, read about it, and avoid the things I passionately despise. Mouths dropped as I replied to questions of when I would see the attraction with the answer that I wouldn’t. “But it’s the number one tourist attraction in Spain!” they would cry, not realizing that that made me want to run even further in the other direction.

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But day after day, they chipped away at my determination. “When is the next time you’ll be in Granada?” They would ask. “It’s truly spectacular”. I read blogs of people who had travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and were still taken by the Islamic architecture of the palace. FINE I said one night, I’ll go see it.

 

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Every awful thing that I anticipated was there, sure enough. There were points at which I didn’t want to be in the palace at all. But, the Alhambra was undoubtedly beautiful, and I reminded myself over and over again to focus on the intricate wooden puzzles that comprise the ceilings, the endless Qur’an verses carved into the walls, and the arched windows looking out over the picturesque city and the mountains behind it. I love places defined by Islamic architecture. Simple, elegant spaces, empty courtyards filled only with tranquility and the sound of fountains, juxtaposed with the hectic perfection of the walls and ceilings, where the artwork is concentrated and stunningly representative of the intersection of religion and architecture.
The gardens were spectacular in their own right, and I sat for long periods of time admiring the joyous colors of the flowers and the shade of the towering trees. In conclusion, I’m begrudgingly glad I went.

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My favorite place by far that I stumbled upon was a gem of a town called Quentar, about 25 km from the city. Remote, and nestled into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the town is a quiet and luscious escape from the city. I stayed in a guest house with a view so insane that for two days all I did was sit in the garden and soak in the gratification of resting in a place so full of beauty. I somehow had this weird steak of meeting an unusual amount of cool people within a 24 hour period during my time there-two lovely women from Winnipeg with lively spirits and words that made me laugh, a woman from California on a journey through Spain with a warrior heart and fiercely kind soul, and a couple that shared their captivating stories of working in China for two years. The peaceful terrace that looked out onto the green of sprawling mountains was the perfect setting for long conversations that continued on as the sun moved from one side of the sky to the other. I watched the shadows change on the valley walls as the hours slipped by. Bliss. The only word to describe what I was feeling.

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