With beautiful Moorish architecture, flower-filled courtyards and the stunning backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, it's no wonder Granada captures people's hearts
Granada wears its Moorish heart on its sleeve and it’s not just in the world-famous Alhambra that visitors fall under the city’s seductive arabesque spell. Take a climb up the steep whitewashed alleyways of the Albaicin and you’ll soon stumble across bubbling medieval fountains, steaming Turkish baths and giant horseshoe gateways, all strongly reminiscent of the medina in Marrakech.
No other city in Europe outside Istanbul has such a rich Islamic heritage and if you tag on the old town’s laidback Mediterranean charm and infectious Andalucian joie de vivre, you have all the ingredients for one of the most enjoyable short break destinations in Europe.
The best time to visit Granada is in late spring. It’s at this time of the year that the city’s famous pomegranate trees (Granada means pomegranate in Spanish) are ablaze with scarlet blossoms. The Sierra Nevada is still covered in snow and provides a dazzling backdrop to the rose-coloured battlements of the Alhambra while refreshing mountain breezes waft over the city, helping to temper the fierce heat of the Mediterranean sun.
The magnificent location and unparalleled historical heritage justifiably make Granada one of Europe’s favourite tourist destinations and the city rises to the occasion with one of the finest selections of accommodation in Spain. Hotels range from sumptuous 16th-century convents to sleek city centre pads with panoramic rooftop pools.
One of the most enjoyable options is to stay in a converted carmen. These ancient whitewashed townhouses often date back to the medieval Arab period and have ornately sculptured heraldic facades and delightful flower-filled courtyards. The Casa Morisca Hotel is a fine example. The simply furnished rooms are a tasteful fusion of contemporary and Islamic design and have wonderful pitched wood beamed ceilings. Be sure to reserve a room with a view of the Alhambra.
You’ll need plenty of energy to cope with Granada’s steep hills, and a good place to get an early morning sugar surge is at Café Lopez (Reyes Catolicos 39). This delightfully old-fashioned watering hole, with marble table tops, gilt mirrors and garrulous waiters in scarlet waistcoats, serves up hot chocolate thick as an oil slick and wonderful crisp lemony churros; the perfect rocket fuel for a hard day's sightseeing.
Behind the café the soaring baroque cliffs of Granada’s cathedral rise up in a mighty statement of Catholic power. It’s an impressive neck-cricking edifice but step aside into the adjacent Alcaiceria, the Arab silk exchange, and you enter a far more sensuous Arabian Nights world. A network of narrow alleyways, with graceful oriental arcades lit by shimmering glass mosque lamps, give more than an inkling of a medieval souk. Nowadays the shops sell garish flamenco dolls and Ali Baba tat but at one time merchants from all over Europe flocked here to buy the city’s renowned silks.
The Alcaiceria leads out into the Plaza Bib Rambla, where the colourful flower stalls seem a world away from its previous incarnation as jousting ring and burning site for heretics. It’s an ideal spot for a late morning café con leche; you can bask in the sunshine and chuckle at the four giants in the fountain clutching their heads and vomiting water in what looks like the worst hangover in the world.
From the city centre the old town meanders along the narrow Rio Darro sandwiched between the shady cypress-covered slopes of the Alhambra and the sugar cube jumble of the Albaicin. It’s an impossibly romantic stroll of humpbacked bridges and sunny plazas strumming with guitars. You’ll be tempted to head straight up to the Alhambra but save it till dawn, as it becomes tour-bus and school-trip bedlam during the heat of the day.
If you get up early and arrive before 8am the only other people around will be groups of early-shift security guards enjoying a fag and a natter around the tiny coffee kiosk. You can then watch a spectacular Sierra Nevada sunrise from the battlements of the Alcazaba before booking the first slot in the showcase Palacio Nazaries. In this way you’ll be spared the seas of digital camera screens and bad-tempered bottlenecks and be able to fully appreciate the mesmerising beauty of this pinnacle of Islamic architecture.
Granada takes its dining very seriously and it sometimes seems that the whole city is clock-watching for the next meal. At 1 pm the city echoes to the sound of drawing shutters and the sunny outdoor restaurants become packed with lingering lunch-goers. The Placeta de San Miguel el Bajo, a tiny square of whitewashed houses and a beautiful little convent, is one of the loveliest spots in town. Here you can enjoy a light lunch of grilled sea bream fresh from the nearby Costa Tropical, washed down by an ice-cold fino.
From here you can head off to explore the extraordinary Hobbiton cave houses that lie tucked away on the prickly-pear-covered slopes of nearby Sacromonte. In the early evening, wander over to the Mirador San Nicholas, in the heart of the Albaicin, and order a glass of light velvety munana wine in one of the buzzing outdoor cafes. Here you can enjoy the sunset lighting up the Alhambra, framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a timeless view that captures the very heart and soul of Andalucía.
How to get there
Iberia Airlines (www.iberia.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) both fly to Granada from the UK.
Spanish Tourist Office: 020 7486 8077; www.spain.info.uk
Granada Tourist Board: 00 34 958 42 71 46; www.turgranada.es