The Moor’s Last Sigh – notes on Granada’s Albaicin district
Granada’s Albaicin district is marking 1000 years of history; an enigmatic quarter that continues to be an inspiration to artists, writers and travellers.
High up in the Alpujarras, heading towards the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains is a pass overlooking Granada. It is called, ‘El Puerto del Suspiro del Moro’, the Pass of the Moor’s Sigh. This unusual name looks back five hundred years to the time when the Moorish Nasrid Sultan (known in Spain as Boabdil, ‘el rey chico’) was forced to surrender his beloved Emirate of Granada to the Catholic Christian Monarchs of Spain.
This violent part of Andalucía’s history is captured in the romantic, possibly mythical story of ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. It tells how when the Sultan was forced to flee the Alhambra citadel and his noble Albaicin quarter, he looked back from the mountain pass at the beauty of what he had lost, and wept.
Even now, in a different millennium the awesome beauty of Granada’s Alhambra and the romantic charm the medieval Albaicin quarter is clear to see. It’s probably no wonder that the Alhambra Palace and Gardens is Spain’s most visited site.
Yet although many people make it to the breathtaking, ornate beauty of the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, its adjacent medieval Moorish district of the Albaicin is often simply viewed from a distance; from the terraces and towers of the great red stone citadel.
This is a real pity, as Granada’s Albaicin, and neighbouring Sacramonte district famous for its Andalusian ‘gitano’ flamenco, is a truly mesmerising place.
For centuries this unique district has been an artistic muse for outsiders. The romanticism surrounding Granada reached its peak during the nineteenth century. As northern Europe was in the grip of industrialisation, Iberia and its southern region of Andalucía was in glorious isolation. An exotic world that, although nowadays is within three hours flight or less of most European capital cities, was then considered as being on the edge of civilisation. It was a colourful, vibrant, mysterious world of crumbling Arab palaces, passionate gypsy dancers, and unspoilt natural beauty.
Artists from across Europe came here to capture the unusual colours and textures; for many it was the chance to paint an enigmatic Arabian kingdom straight out of a fairy tale, yet in Europe. Writers such as Washington Irving, a former U.S. Ambassador to Spain in the nineteenth century, also fell under the spell of Andalucía. He wrote extensively about Granada, captivated by the romantic notions of east versus west, the conquest of the Moorish Alhambra and its Albaicin, and the era’s mythical tales.
Yet Granada’s ancient Islamic quarter is no myth; its legacy is strongly present today. The Albaicin, after one thousand years of history, retains the essence of Andalucía and its complex Islamic and Christian history. For the multitude of daily visitors to the Alhambra, nearby Albaicin is easy to explore.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, the Albaicin’s labyrinthine narrow streets and Moorish noble houses are straightforward to reach. There is a cobbled path, ‘la Cuesta del Rey Chico’ that runs directly from the Alhambra down to the foot of the Albaicin. Take this short 15 minute walk and within moments you will be immersed into a living community. It is a fascinating mix of residents; Andalusian gypsies; students; some modern day hippies; shop-keepers; restaurant and hotel owners; locals who have opened their courtyard homes as B&Bs; and other people that call the Albaicin and Sacramonte ‘home’.
Once the poor relation to its neighbouring Alhambra, the Albaicin is now better communicating its unique visitor attractions and updating its facilities. Restaurants are shifting up a gear, attracting young, talented chefs offering more gourmet menus; accommodation is be revitalised and includes boutique hotels, upscale apartments in historic buildings, and even cave dwellings appointed for the demanding modern guest.
The historic treasures of the Albaicin though remain timeless. For example the extraordinary Arab baths known as ‘El Bañuelo’, tucked away behind an unassuming door; the breathtaking convent of Santa Isabel la Real; and the exquisite palaces of the ‘Casas de Chapiz’. There are also newly conserved sites that are only now becoming accessible to the public such as ‘Casa Zafra’, with its peaceful central reflecting pool and iconic Moorish arches.
Ideally, stay a night or two, as sometimes the best experiences are just stumbled across over time; maybe the sight of the warm evening light on the red stone of the Alhambra; the sound of an impromptu guitar performance in a cobbled square; or the taste of local tapa in a bar.
In fact taking a drink or having a bite to eat can be a chance to see something unique. Many of the area’s restaurants are housed in converted ‘Carmenes’ that offer that classic view of the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada behind, yet without the crowds and noise of the over-visited San Nicolas square.
The word Carmen, like so many in Andalucía, is thought to have come from the Arabic language. It refers to a property with a garden planted with vines. Now it applies to many of the beautiful Albaicin villas. Many remain intact, and as with all Moorish inspired gardens, feature trickling fountains and narrow marble canals that bring mountain water throughout the gardens. In this vibrant ‘barrio’ there are a surprising number of tranquil and peaceful spots to relax.
It may take a while to undercover the secrets of the Albaicin and the flamenco quarter of Sacramonte, but after a time you too will be very sad to leave.
Ditch The Car – Walk The Albaicin!
From the high walls that line the narrow streets of the Albaicin it is at first hard to imagine the wealth of architectural and cultural riches that are hidden behind. So it is really worth seeking the help of a local qualified guide to gain access to some of the exceptional, former palaces of the Sultan’s entourage or the later Christian churches and monasteries.
On a practical note, be prepared to walk. The Albaicin is a UNESCO World Heritage area, and not car-friendly; access is strictly controlled and fines are regularly issued for drivers that enter the Albaicin without permission. If your holiday apartment or hotel has parking then usually your hosts can register your car for free access. Otherwise walk from the Alhambra car park or ‘park-and-ride’ from Granada’s city centre and take a taxi or bus up into the Albaicin. Once there one can easily explore on foot or use the regular public minibus or electric shuttle that together navigate the maze of narrow streets.
COPYRIGHT ANDREW FORBES