Anno Domini 1492 was quite a year for the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
Their most famous accomplishment was to send Christopher Columbus on his way to the New World. Less well-known is that Ferdinand and Isabella also defeated the Moors in that year, capturing Granada, which for centuries had been the last Moorish stronghold in Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella are interred in the Royal Chapel, one of a number of Catholic buildings in Granada that tourists should see.
Construction of the Granada Cathedral began on the site of the Central Mosque in 1518. A Gothic building similar to the cathedral in Toledo was planned, but after 10 years, the man in charge, Enrique Egas, was replaced by Diego Siloe, who decided that a Renaissance style would be better. The remarkable church was finished about 200 years later. Five aisles lead to a semicircular ambulatory, the central element of which is a high central altar. The vaulting overhead is Gothic. Attached to the cathedral, but not accessible from it, is the Royal Chapel, which Enrique Egas built between 1506 and 1521. The entrance is via a Plateresque building called La Lonja, the city’s former stock exchange. (Plateresque is a style that resembles a silversmith’s work.)
There are two things that should not be missed in the single nave chapel of La Lonja. The first is the 16th-century screen by Master Bartolome of Jaen that encloses the chancel. The upper section shows scenes from the life of Christ. The yoke and arrow symbols below depict Ferdinand and Isabella.
The second attraction is down a set of steps (strictly one way). The mausoleums are carved out of Carrara marble and decorated with religious scenes. On one side are the tombs of the monarchs, and on the other, those of their daughter, the charmingly named Joan the Mad and her husband, Philip the Handsome. All the coffins are surprisingly plain, given the king and queen’s achievement in uniting Aragon and Castile, an alliance that formed the basis for today’s kingdom of Spain.
All the while I was there, the soundtrack from the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis was playing in the background. As if to confirm this conquest theme, Ferdinand’s sword and Isabella’s scepter and crown are just three of the priceless items kept in the museum. There are many religious paintings by esteemed painters such as Sandro Botticelli, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden.
Churches Built on Mosques
Heading northwest from the cathedral, along San Jeronimo Street, the visitor passes the law school of the University of Granada, dating from the 18th century. At the end of this street is the 300-year-old Baroque Iglesia de San Juan de Dios. Nearby is the Monastery of San Jeronimo, started just four years after the Moors left. The upper facade of the monastery’s church contains the coats of arms of the Catholic monarchs.
Heading back to the cathedral, the area toward the southwest is known as La Alcaiceria and was the Moorish silk market. Today, some of the narrow streets are reminiscent of Morocco, and the souvenirs are of mainly North African origin, along with other pieces from India. There are many similar shops in the El Albaicin district, the area where the Moorish king lived in the 11th century, located on a hill facing the Alhambra, a fortress dating from the time of the Nasrids, the last Islamic dynasty to rule Spain. Dating from this time are the city walls, arches such as the Arco de las Pesas, and the baths, El Bañuelo.
In El Albaicin, several churches were built over mosques and other Moorish structures and the remains can still be seen. In the Iglesia del Salvador are the foundations of Granada’s Great Mosque. Santa Isabela la Real contains traces of a palace. And under the Convent of Santa Catalina are stones from an 11th-century house.
Builders of churches weren’t immune from Moorish influences. On the small plaza de Santa Ana is the small 16th-century church of San Gil y Santa Ana. Its bell tower has azulejo tile decorations, and the nave ceilings are Mudejar in style. Also in the Albaicin district is the Iglesia de San Jose, which incorporates a 10th-century minaret as a bell tower.
‘The Red One’
Of course, any trip to Granada must include a visit to the Alhambra — Arabic for “the red one.” The Alhambra contains both the palaces of the Nasrids and Emperor Charles V.
The contrast between the two couldn’t be starker: Charles’ palace, built in the 1500s, is imposing, plain and devoid of character. The Nasrid palace is full of marquetry, delicate stone carvings, and intricate tile work.
There is also the Lion’s Courtyard, named for the 12 lions that support the 1,000-year-old fountain at its center.
For me, the most beautiful place is the Jardines del Partal, the Partal Gardens. The Moorish architecture and palm trees are beautifully mirrored in a large reflecting pool, and from the terrace, there are views over El Albaicin.
The terraced Generalife Gardens are next to the Alhambra. The central Patio de la Acequia is lined with water jets, and some of the staircases, most famously the Escalera de Agua, have open channels that form part of a small irrigation system.
By the use of terracing and irrigation, the Moors transformed some of the valleys in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains into some of the most fertile in the whole of Spain.
They moved to this region, now known as Las Alpujarras, in 1492, and the abundant supply of grapes, oranges, figs and bananas must have eased the pain the Moors felt at having to leave their beloved Granada.
Julian Worker writes from
New Westminster, British Columbia.
Planning Your Visit
Granada’s weather is fairly straightforward. The summers are hot and dry; the winters are cold and fairly dry. In the summer, it can be very hot during the day (it was 97 degrees at 1 p.m. when I was there in September), but it does cool down in the evenings, and you may even need a light jacket at night. There is very little rain from June to September.
Granada has its own airport, about half an hour from the center of the city. Visitors from North America will most likely fly to either London’s Heathrow airport or Madrid’s Barajas airport first, and then catch an Iberia flight to Granada. Flights from London go via Madrid.
Buses are timed to coincide with most arrivals and take visitors to the city’s center. There’s a stop right outside of the cathedral. There are plenty of taxis at the airport, too.