INSTEAD of celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary by having a party with family and friends, my sister Josie and Kayong Eli, last month, decided to treat themselves with a tour of some interesting places in Spain. The couple retired from work in the United States of America some years back and had been doing church ministry in Texas where they reside. They would join pilgrimages to the Holy Land and other religious sites in Europe, arranged and sponsored annually by their church.
For their tour. they did not avail of the services of a travel agency but, instead, asked that my wife Nena suggests interesting places to go to in Barcelona and some other places in Spain. We had earlier invited the members of our family to come visit us in Barcelona and make it their home base in case they decide to go around places in Europe. But in Barcelona alone, there are so many places and things to see, explore, and discover such that, in the few years that we have been here, I still have a lot to see and discover.
Manang Josie and Kayong Eli wanted to see the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which was the setting of a romantic sci-fi tv series that they watched on Netflix. Earlier they had requested me to find a priest who shall bless them on their golden wedding anniversary. My friend Jose Manzanilo accompanied me to request an appointment for their blessing and we went to the rectory of the world-famous La Sagrada Familia. Our request was granted.
Aside from being intrigued by the setting of a love story, in order to appreciate a place of interest, one must know a bit of the history – culture and arts – of a tourist spot in order to have a feel of the place, instead of just capturing the place with your selfies in photos as proof that you visited it. Mahatma Gandhi once said that “a nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Therefore, the culture and arts of a country is the window to the soul of its people. We then read on the historical significance of the Alhambra Palace which sits in the City of Granada, South of Spain.
The Alhambra Palace was the last surviving Islamic citadel in medieval Spain. It was a huge fortress and palace on top of a hill which took the Castilian armies centuries to conquer. Granada was the last bastion of Moorish Spain (Andalucia) to surrender during the Reconquista of the Catholic Monarchs – Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon – who united their opposing kingdoms by marriage – to conquer the Moors who were then in control of Andalucia.
By their victory, the unification of Spain was completed. They empowered the Spanish Inquisition of the Church, expelling Muslims and Jews from the city and the kingdoms unless they converted into Christianity. Thousands of Muslims and Jews who refused conversion were killed and thousands more fled. The Church, which was then the most powerful institution, recognized Isabella and Ferdinand as the first Catholic monarchs of the united Spain, in view of their efforts at expelling the Moors from Spain and funding the successful expedition to the new world that brought treasures and wealth and helped in the spread of Christianity.
Nena and I accompanied our sister Josie and Kayong Eli to visit The Alhambra and joined the walking tour of the three palaces and gardens inside the Alhambra, as well as the summer residence found within the 350 acres of land where there are several gardens. Pomegranate (Granada) fruit trees abound in the city.
The name Alhambra has its origin in an Arabic name meaning “red castle or vermilion” – the walls and towers of the fortress palace acquire a golden tone in the light of the sun. One needs to wear comfortable shoes for long walks on cobblestone paths and streets to survive the five-hour tour of the palace rooms, gardens, arenas and the high towers (to get an awesome view of the City of Granada). The most stunning place to view Moorish architecture can be found in The Alhambra. It is a style of Islamic architecture that is discernible in the intricately carved wood, repeating patterns and complete tileworks which are found all over the Alhambra Palace and make you sigh in wonder and amazement. From a tower of The Alhambra, one can view the old district of Albaicin.
Albaicin maintains the layout of medieval Moorish narrow streets and narrow lanes lined with traditional Moorish houses retaining its old charm. The steep climb through uneven narrow paths led us to the Church of San Salvador that was built over a mosque with extraordinary horseshoe arches and Arab-style ceilings.
Another church worth the effort of our steep climb through Albaicin was the San Nicolas where you can have a spectacular view of the Alhambra Palace, especially at night when flood lights show the magnificence and glory of this Moorish architecture perched on top of a hillock which is part of the charming Sierra Nevada mountain range. It is also from this mountain that one can watch the “most beautiful sunset in the world”.
We also visited the Sacromonte (“sacred mountain” because of the discovery of the remnants of San Cecilio, the patron saint of Granada on the Valparaiso mountain where they built an abbey). The original residents carved caves for their shelter that also served as the place of refuge of gypsies and winding paths to reach these caves that have been turned into whitewashed houses, many converted into bars and clubs.
At daytime, the Sacromonte district appears to be deserted, but one can have a stunning view of Alhambra and Albaicin . At night time, the district comes alive with patronizing tourists drinking their favorite cervezas, among which is Alhambra beer, and vinos with “tapas”. Some bars have “tablaos” where gypsy dancers perform the flamenco, a dance which originated in this southern part of Spain. A guitarist and a singer provide the tempo to which the flamenco dancer passionately sways her/his body, stomp their feet and click their fingers. Or they clap their hands or snap castanets to the beat as the dancer gracefully sways away, oblivious of its audience with eyes and facial expressions of angst, pain, anger or sorrow accompanying the strumming of the guitar and the deep songs of the singer.
Walking about the streets of Granada, one observes that there are churches in almost every road, notable of which is the Granada Cathedral or the Cathedral of the Incarnation, built in the renaissance baroque style architecture. Another interesting church is the Royal Chapel of Granada which is the burial place of the Catholic monarchs – Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, as well as almost all of the members of the royal family. The Cathedral and the chapel, which are near each other and the Church of Sagrario are great studies of Renaissance architecture with Moorish influence.
In this southern part of Spain is Andalucia, which was the seat of the Moorish Reconquista of the Catholic Monarchs. It is evident here that Moorish influence has remained in the modern architecture in this part of Spain. The Spanish cuisine, notably the “paella” is of Moorish origin, including other fruits such as apricots, pomegranate (granada), palm dates, peaches, oranges, lemons, ginger, saffron, rice, among others, which are now main products of Spain. The “tapas” (finger foods) are believed to have originated in the Andalucia region. In fact, in almost all restaurants and bars in Granada, free “tapas” are served for free to their customers, to start their meals or even if “cervezas” alone were ordered.
Now we truly understand the feeling and emotion when the song Granada is sung, especially by the Spanish tenor Mario Lanza, or Soprano Caterina Valenti or the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti … “Granada… I’m falling under your spell!”
Indeed, a visit to Granada transports you to a very interesting mix of Castilian and Andalucian Spanish and Arabic cultures that will keep you spellbound.