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Travel Talk – Southern Spain brings blend (May 20, 2015 issue)

Southern Spain is a unique and beautiful part of the world, and Granada is one of the most beautiful cities in this part of the country. Andalucia, a region of southern Spain, is interesting because it is where East and West clashed in the Middle Ages. The Moors of North Africa colonized the area, and it was taken back by the Spanish in the late 1500s during the Reconquest. Granada was a Moorish stronghold and was symbolic during the unification of Spain. Today, you can find a beautiful blend of Spanish and North African art and culture in the city. Observing the beautiful, fertile landscape, it’s easy to understand why kings fought over this land. You’ll fall in love with the Spanish sangria and food as well as the warm and vivacious people.
The most famous attraction in Granada is the Alhambra. The Alhambra was a palace and fortress for the last Moorish rulers of the Nasrid period in Andalucia until the Conquest of Granada by the Reyes Catolica (Catholic Rulers), Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, in 1492 when southern Spain was taken by the Spanish monarchs. After this Conquest, portions of the Alhambra were used by Christian rulers, and later the Palace of Charles V, a Renaissance style palace, was built within the Nasrid fortifications. Since the restoration of this heritage site, one can see the remaining grandeur of the Moorish palace. As a fortress, the Alhambra looks over the city of Granada, providing excellent views of the valley. With the citadel's strategic viewpoints and fortified walls, it’s easy to see how the Alhambra was never taken in battle. In addition to providing a background on the Spanish Inquisition, the Alhambra remains a testament to the detailed art and architecture of Spain’s Muslim period as well as the Muslim influence on Spanish culture. When visiting, you’ll want to give yourself time to see the Generalife gardens, the Nasrid palace, and the citadel. Don’t forget to book your tickets in advance and make sure that your ticket allows entrance to the parts that you are interested in.
From the Alhambra, you might wish to get a feel for old Moorish Granada, so head to the Albayzin district. Albayzin was the Arabic quarter of Granada, and the Alhambra overlooks this part of the city. Today when you roam the narrow, winding roads of Albayzin, you will find architecture and monuments from the Nasrid period and the Renaissance as well as several tapas bars and shops selling unique souvenirs. You can also find several restaurants inspired by the North African past serving mint tea and baklava. This quarter now feels like a little North Africa and encapsulates the diverse history of Andalucia.
After spending a morning taking in the history of Granada's origins, move along historically by visiting the Renaissance Cathedral and Capilla Real (Royal Chapel). The Cathedral and Chapel were built after the royal family acquired Granada. Construction began when Spain's architectural Renaissance was starting, and you can see the difference in styles of the Gothic chapel and the Renaissance cathedral. Since Granada was the last stronghold to fall during the Reconquest, it marked an important symbol for the Reyes Catolica (Catholic monarchs). Because of this symbolism, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand wanted to be interred in Granada and ordered the construction of the Capilla Real. For a 4 euro fee, you can see the mausoleum of the Reyes Catolica, the compelling Gothic chapel, as well as several relics and Flemish paintings from the time period. For another 4 euros, you can visit the more baorque styled Cathedral. The Cathedral is a bit more ornate and contrasts with the chapel. Between the two, the chapel is the greater attraction, though the two make for an excellent lesson in art history.
If you're not interested in art or history or have gotten your fill of religious sites in Europe, I suggest finding a hiking trail in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains. The landscape of Andalucia is breathtaking. The gently rolling Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain are covered with olive trees amid the rocky ground. There are a few trails close to the Alhambra if you want a short hike with views of the Spanish land and of Granada. The trails are not all marked clearly so be sure to ask for directions or take a good map before you start your trek. Admittedly, it is a beautiful place to wander, though you might not encounter many other hikers if you do get lost.
After walking and exploring under the hot Spanish sun, consider relaxing in one of the Arab baths of Granada. Theses baths are another example of Arab influence in Granada, and the most popular is the Hammam Al Andalus. This hammam was built on the ruins of a 13 or 14th century Moorish bathhouse, converted to a bakery under Spanish rule, and then restored to its original purpose, in great splendor in the 1990s.
Granada is an easily walkable city, though taxis and buses are available if needed. Wandering around the city, you will find numerous tapas bars where you can enjoy Spanish favorites, including sangria. In many restaurants, when you order a drink, you'll get a tapa (think appetizer or bar food). In addition to traditional Spanish food, you can also find Middle Eastern fare in this diverse city.
There is a lot to see and do in this beautiful city. Just by roaming the cobblestone streets, you will likely encounter historic buildings and interesting sites. The Alhambra is a must see and will transport you to a different time period. However, no matter where you go in Granada you will find traces of the lingering Moorish influence. It's easy to fall in love with this unique city that doesn't seem to quite belong to Spain but to a different era with its winding streets, old buildings, and stunning landscape.