Granada - Interesting Facts

by Lawrence Boheme


The name Granada is ancient and mysterious. It may be a word of Oriental origin meaning great castle, for the Iberian, later Roman fortress which once stood on the Albaicin Hill. When the Moors came here, the town was largely inhabited by Jews, for which they called it Garnat-al-Yahud - Granada of the Jews. The Jews were one of the first peoples to come here from the east, even before the Romans conquered the peninsula in the second century before Christ.


Some say that the name Albaicin means "quarter of the falconers", but most historians now prefer "quarter of the people of Baeza". During the Christian Reconquest, when the Moors were driven out of the city of Baeza, near Jaen, in the 13th century, they fled to Granada and re-settled on the northern part of the hill, creating a suburb outside of the fortress walls which was called, literally the place of the people of Baeza. Most of what we now call Albaicin was in fact the Alcazaba, the Moorish citadel, stretching from the Colegiata del Salvador to the Plaza San Miguel Bajo. Only the western wall of this fortress still exists (it's best seen from the Mirador San Cristobal); the castle keep stood on what is now the Plaza San Nicolás. It was only after the fall of Cordoba, in 1236, when the centre of Moorish power was transferred to Granada - bringing a massive influx of nobles, architects and money - that the old castle (alcazaba kadima) was abandoned in favour of the newly built, fabulous castle on the hill across the river valley: the Alhambra, Calat-Al-Hamra or "The Red Castle", so called for its reddish stone.

Remains of the Moorish period can be found at every turn of this fascinating quarter's twisting alleyways. Most of the Albaicin's churches are built on the foundations of Moorish mosques, and many have conserved their external cisterns for the ritual washing of the faithful. Much of the ancient fortifications still stand: the walls and towers above the Cuesta de Alhacaba, and the great city gates (Elvira, Monaita, de las Pesas and half of Bab-Al-Bonud), several interesting minarets-converted-into-bell-towers, the most precious of which is the Alminar de San José, dating from the 10th century and unchanged apart from the Christian bellfry on its top, and the courtyard of what was once the Albaicin's Great Mosque, now attached to the church of the Colegiata del Salvador.

The story of this church tells us much about Andalucia's difficult transition from Islam to Christianity. After Granada was taken by the Christians at the end of the 15th century, he great mosque of the Albaicin was demolished, except for the inner courtyard, to make way for the new religious authority. The building was destined to be not only a church but a mission school - colegiata - for the evangelisation of the Moors. This is why it was located in the heart of their medina, although there was such resistance from the inhabitants that the priests abandoned it and it was closed for many years. The inner courtyard, El Patio de los Naranjos, is one of Granada's finest examples of pre-Alhambra Moorish architecture.

The Albaicin is rich in folklore: the Crucifix which stands in the Plaza San Miguel is called El Cristo de las Lañas - the Christ of the Clamps - because of the heavy iron clamps which hold the sections of his broken body together. When the Civil War broke out in 1936, the Republican (leftist) soldiers smashed the statue, leaving the local people to hide the fragments each in a different cellar, until they could be reconstituted after the war. The name of the Puerta de las Pesas - the Gate of the Weights, which you must pass through to reach Plaza Larga, is linked to the market which has for centuries been held in the square (now on Saturday mornings only). When the king's inspectors detected merchants using scales with rigged weights, these pesas were hung on spikes on the wall of the gate. Whatever became of the offending merchants (one prefers not to think), a few of the blackened, rusty weights can still be seen on the plaza-side of the gate.


In Moorish times, the bed of the River Darro was uncovered all the way from the short stretch which we can now see at the foot of the Alhambra through Plaza Nueva, Calle Reyes Católicos, and broad shopping street which is still called Acera del Darro (Walk of the Darro) for the stream which still flows beneath it. Of course, it was crossed by the same charming bridges which still grace the Paseo de los Tristes. This name, The Road of the Grieving, is given to all streets which lead to cemeteries in Spain; the old path to Granada's cemetery, atop the Alhambra, ran up the right bank of the river, crossing the bridge called Puente del Rey Chico and winding up along the Cuesta de los Chinos, under the Alhambra walls. One of the bridges - destroyed when the river was covered at the beginning of the century - connected the Corral del Carbón on the left bank (a magnificently restored merchant's inn with courtyard, which among other things coal was sold, hence the name "Courtyard of Coal") to the bustling Plaza Bibarrambla. The name of this square (Bib=Gate, Rambla=Strand) refers to the magnificent city gate which stood near the water's edge; the long rectangle of the square, like the Campo del Principe on the left bank of the river, was once the place of the Moorish lists where noblemen jousted on their Arabian steeds. Later the Inquisition used to hold auto-da-fés and burn heretics and Jews, with a preference for those with lots of property which could be confiscated.  


Take one of the most picturesque and romantic walks in Spain, along the Carrera del Darro. © Sophie Carefull
Take one of the most picturesque and romantic walks in Spain, along the Carrera del Darro.


Just north of this square is a tightly-meshed grid of alleyways decorated with Moorish-style arches, now containing Granada's tourist souvenir shops: the Alcaicería. In the Middle Ages this was the site of the Great Bazaar of Granada, to which merchants came from all over Islam and Christendom: it stretched right up to the foot of the Alhambra hill. Many of these bazaars were famous for their silk, of which Granada was a major producer, since the days of the Roman Empire; and because Caesar had given the people of the Middle East the exclusive right to sell the precious stuff (in exchange for the appropriate taxes), to show their gratitude they generically called all such bazaars Al-Caicería, "Caesar's Place". But the geometrically neat and tidy Alcaicería we see today is a fake - the real honeycomb fleshpot-style Arab souk burned down in the early 19th century. Matches had just been invented and a shop selling them caught fire in the night, leaving the entire bazaar in cinders. On a small part of the site, a pseudo-Moorish pastiche was built to take its place in 1843, launching the 19th century fashion for neo-arabic architecture which remained alive for so long.

other curious facts

In Plaza Nueva, Queen Isabel's stern confessor, the Muslim-hating Cardinal Cisneros, had burnt some 80,000 books from the Muslim University, many of which were Arabic translations of Greek philosophers, claiming that they were all Korans.

In the Alhambra's Sala de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors), the magnificent tower overlooking the city with the galaxy of stars imbedded in its arched ceiling, the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand signed the decree ordering the expulsion of Jews, on March 31 1492.

The second chunk-of-a-bridge bridge over the River Darro, as one leaves Plaza Nueva, is what remains of a great viaduct - itself part of the city fortifications - called the Puente del Cadí, which joined the Alhambra Hill to the Albaicin. (See the illustration above).

On the Paseo de los Tristes is El Bañuelo, the only Arab bath house which was not destroyed by the Christians, who thought that the Arabs' love of bathing was a sign of effeminacy and decadence. The star-shaped openings in the roof were tiny stained-glass vents designed to lift automatically when the steam in the bath became too hot.

The circular Christian palace known as the Palacio de Carlos Quinto which stands in the midst of the Alhambra was ordered built by Charles I of Spain, who was also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (although the grandson of Isabel and Ferdinand, he was born in Ghent), for the simple reason that he thought the Alhambra was a fine place to live but wanted a building commensurate with his importance. In spite of the clash with the delicate Moorish style of the Alhambra, some of which had to be destroyed to make way for it, it has an artistic value of its own, being the first Renaissance building made outside of Italy. But because of financial problems the construction was a stop-and-go affair which continued over several hundred years... and was not completed until the 20th century, when it was made use of for the first time - as a concert hall.

The narrowest street in Granada, San Juan de los Reyes, which runs parallel to he River Darro along the lower part of the Albaicin Hill, and which at one point becomes the narrowest street in Granada, was once a Roman road. Do not attempt to drive down it if your car measures more than 1.5 metres in width. Most of the deep grooves on the walls on either side of the narrowest point were made by vans belonging to Brits and Germans who didn't understand the warning sign on the arched gate at the beginning of the street...

One of the main avenues of Granada, Calle de Recogidas, or "Street of the Cloistered Women", was named for the convent-cum-women's prison used to rehabilitate prostitutes, which once stood on the site of the Hotel Brasilia.

The gypsy quarter, El Sacromonte, gets its name from the Abbey which stands above it on the hill, and which in turn got its name - the Holy Mount - from some fake tablets "found" there - in fact planted there for the purpose of persuading the local Muslims to give up their religion - in the 16th century, and which described, in Arabic, the purported martyrdom of San Cecilio, presented as a pre-Islamic Arab who converted to Christianity. The authenticity of the tablets was later rejected by the Vatican, but the name Sacromonte remains.

Last but not least - in terms of humorous interest - is the rather disappointing fact that the world-famous song "Granada", which has become the self-appointed anthem of the city and sung by lung-bursting baritones for every new busload of old age pensioners, is actually the creation of the great Mexican composer, Agustín Lara, who was so afraid of planes and boats that he never set foot in Europe, let alone Granada itself. The opening line indirectly states this: "Granada, soñada por mí" means, approximately, "Granada, land of my dreams". The song goes on to enumerate all the fabulous sights which Lara had read about but never seen.