Granada: This Must be the Place

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I couldn’t go back.

The last days of May 2012 were etched in my memory, playing on a loop every day since my return to the States. I dreamed of watching the sun turn the Sierra Nevada peaks pink once more, of jumping on the back of a moto and weaving through the old streets one last time, but everything was different and I couldn’t go back.

Granada became a sort of fairy tale for me. The cloudy, fabled type of fairy tale that makes real life seem sad in comparison. The city nestled between mountain and sea was a paradise that I wasn’t completely sure truly existed.

How could what I lived during those five months be real? How could a place like that go on existing when I was drowning in New York with two jobs and a full course load?

My first taste of Granada changed my life forever. It opened my eyes to the magic that’s possible each and every day when you seek it out, to a new rhythm of life, and left me with an insatiable hunger for Spanish language and culture. I worked like crazy to return to Spain and come August found myself in Madrid, four hours north of my precious oasis. With a trip planned south soon after my arrival, of course.

I was convinced that Madrid would never capture my heart. Poets didn’t write about Madrid, its history doesn’t do much for a romantic and madrileño Spanish is much too proper to be charming, I thought. Andaluz and the land of Falla and Lorca and the olive groves would always be the dueños de mi corazón.

But within ten days of arriving in Madrid, I cancelled my trip to Granada.

Against my internal protests, the capital was sucking me in. The diversity of the city, the vibrant nightlife and abundance of interesting souls I had encountered in a few short weeks told me I couldn’t go back just yet. I couldn’t give my heart back to the city of my dreams just yet, for fear that it might stay there forever. I needed to give this new place that was being so good to me a fighting chance.

So I spent five months falling head-over-heels for my new home, and one January evening I wrapped myself in a blanket, lit candles and sat down to reread my well-worn copy of Romancero gitano for the hundredth time. As soon as I reached the third ballad, I knew it was time. My heart cried out for the land that first called me to this country and I finally felt ready. Within an hour I had a flat booked, bus tickets set and stars in my eyes.

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Within the past month I have spent a total of ten days in Granada, and it is even more heart-stoppingly dreamy than I remember.  The city found little ways of showing me why it will always be the be-all, end-all in my eyes. From wandering the winding streets and spotting puppies peering over walls, to letting my thoughts escape me under the strong February sun as the enchanting cadence of my beloved Andaluz accent and Spanish guitars transported me to an alternate reality, Granada wasted no time in wrapping her beautiful hand around me, promising that this time she wouldn’t let go.

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This time, I don’t want her to. In no time I forget about my past in Granada, about my constant desire to relive it, and decide to start a new romance with this beauty. Without trepidation I retrace my steps to my old haunts, but now with new friends and more life lived under my belt. We spend our days in the sun and our nights laughing with locals in crowded, hidden tapas bars then adventuring out to cause the best kind of trouble.

Granada makes me feel like I can do anything. She inspires me to chase my dreams, all the while making them even bigger than I thought possible.

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I am more than content in Madrid, but as for the soul-stimulating, utterly captivating and mysterious jewel to the south….well, she’ll continue to be my mistress in this Spanish love affair until the day of my return to her inevitably arrives.

For me, Granada will always be the place.

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an insider’s guide to getting lost in granada {el albaicín}

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What better way to see everything than to let yourself get lost in a new city? By ditching the guidebook, you’ll find tons of hidden gems that you might have missed had your nose been stuck in a map all day! Plus, it’s a great way to meet locals. In a place like Granada, where the Andaluz people are so warm and welcoming, you’re likely to make a new friend by stopping to ask for directions. Hey, they may even invite you de marcha along with them!

I’ve put together a little guide of my favorite neighborhoods to get lost in my querida Granada. This will be the start of a new series where I’ll post my guide to a new area once every few weeks.  Each of these places offers unique activities, art, restaurants and watering holes; you really can’t go wrong.

 El Albaicín

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One of the most enchanting things about Granada is that it synthesizes so many seemingly conflicting elements. It’s an hour from the bright Mediterranean waters to the south, and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada to the east. It is a representation of Catholic Spain, dedicating endless landmarks to the kings that expelled both Moors and Jews, but it also represents a revival of the Granada of the past; where many religions and peoples lived in harmony. A stone’s throw from the very cathedral where the Reyes Católicos are buried, you’ll find a hub for the colorful culture they thought they drove out of this city in 1492.

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Start at the base of the hill off of Calle Elvira, where you’ll smell the mint tea and incense wafting out of the many cafés, and know you’re in the right place. The streets are lined with colorful fabrics and tapestries, glittering lanterns, handmade stained-glass tea cups and endless treasures. Be sure to pop in for a te marroquí and traditional Moroccan tapas at my great friend’s tetería, Dar Ziryab on Calle Calderería Nueva. You’ll be treated like family, and feel like you’ve been transported to Morocco. Your senses will be overwhelmed with the pleasures that surround you.

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On your way to the top, follow your curiosity. Wander down the tiny side streets that smell of wisteria, and keep an eye out for the small wonders that are hidden all around you. El Albaicín is filled with love notes and poetry scribbled on the cracked white walls. For an artist, writer or photographer, it promises endless inspiration.

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There’s beauty around every corner, be it a pop of bright flowers hanging over a white wall, or an open patio offering a rare glimpse into the private lives of the Andaluz. No matter what you see, you’ll feel like you’re in a different world. The enchanting sights, and the sound of spanish guitar that is always echoing down the cobblestone paths, will make you stop and pinch yourself.

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If the base of the Albaicín represents the Moors of Al-Andalus past, the top is all about the fabled gitano, romanticized by Cervantes, Mérimée and my beloved Lorca. The gypsy culture is still alive in Granada, though nowhere near as visible as the days when these men haunted Andalucía. If you’re lucky, you may find a small band of gypsy men de toque y palma under the late afternoon sun.

 The real jewel here is, of course, the Mirador San Nicolás. The plaza offers the perfect ending to a long day of wandering and sensory overload. Pick up a bottle of Rioja, find a seat on the stone ledge, and enjoy enjoy the sounds of the city while you watch the sun fall over Granada and her Alhambra. Reflect on the art, the mix of cultures, the love letters, the colors and the history that you’ve seen in this little barrio and let the wonder wash over you.

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my love affair with a man named lorca: why i chose to study in granada

Verde que te quiero verde…

One line and I was hooked.

I first read Romancero Gitano in high school, falling madly in love with Federico García Lorca at age 17.

So in love that I spent a semester researching the symbolism of nature in his poetry, exhaustively scouring the library for works that could help me expose the metaphor of Lorca’s moon, wind, and the color green. The granaíno took the nature that surrounded him in southern Spain and made it speak.

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You could say I came to Granada chasing Lorca’s luna. I romanticized the city; loving the the olive groves, the mountain winds and the gypsies from afar.

I wasn’t disappointed. There was not an evening in Granada that I didn’t find myself in a dream-like state. It is at night when the city grabs your heart. From dusk til dawn, the city is alive.

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On a 6 am bus ride from Granada to Sevilla, surrounded by sleeping friends,I found my nose pressed to the glass window. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the full moon hanging low over the rolling olive groves.  The fog rose to meet the hovering ball of light. The luna granaína spoke to me, just as she speaks in Lorca’s Romance de la luna, luna. There was something magical about it, something that can’t be put into words. Something that simply washes over you.

source: thecareyadventures

source: thecareyadventures

After that morning, I found myself constantly staring at the night sky. Upon leaving one of our favorite discos in the caves of Sacromonte shortly before dawn most weekends, I’d sit on the city walls and just watch the moon lower itself over the Alhambra, slowly disappearing behind the breathtaking fortress. I couldn’t tear my gaze away.

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Then, there were the gypsies. Hearing the toque gitano, the soft olé‘s that seemed to rise up from the soul, and observing the strong presence of tradition in barrio Sacromonte at sunset gave me chills.

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I came chasing Lorca’s inspiration, and Granada guided me to it without me having to look. It’s a magical city. A sensual one that makes you feel deeply. A city that speaks to the heart in both culture and nature, and promises to enchant you each and every day.

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I leave you with some words I wrote for the magazine Por Granada at the end of my time living there:

Quien pasea por las calles del Albaicín o las cuevas del Sacromonte puede imaginar la historia de los árabes y gitanos que una vez poblaron estos barrios granadinos.  Esta imagen necesita como complemento indispensable una banda sonora de guitarras y quejíos flamencos.  La música de la historia de Granada parece sonar a través de sus calles.

Los últimos meses han sido unos de los mejores de mi vida, llenos de diversión, risa y aventura. La historia, la poesía y la música del pasado aún viven en las calles de Granada. Cada vez que salgo de tapas o a las discotecas, la vista de la luna de que habló Lorca y la belleza de la Alhambra me deja sin palabras. Para mi, Granada es un sueño.”

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street artists capturing the essence of Granada

“Whoever walks the streets of the Albaicín or explores the caves of Sacromonte can feel the presence of the Arabs and gypsies that once populated these neighborhoods. This image is complemented by a soundtrack of guitars and the sounds of flamenco. The music of Granada’s past seems to play throughout its streets. The past months here have been some of the best of my life, full of fun, laughter and adventure. The history, poetry and music of the Granada of the past still live in its streets. Each time I go out for tapas or to a club, the view of the moon that Lorca spoke of combined with the beauty of the Alhambra leaves me without words. For me, Granada is a dream.”

source: flickr

source: flickr

la mezquita mayor {granada}

During my time in Granada, Spain in the spring of 2012, I spent a good amount of time studying religion. In my university studies, my theology classes were by far the most interesting to me. I love learning about different faiths and doctrines, and the Jesuits at my university encouraged questioning and critical thinking. I have become quite curious when it comes to faith and religion.

Granada, as you may know, was the last city in Spain conquered by the Catholic rulers (Los Reyes Católicos)  in 1492. It was the final moorish stronghold to fall, expelling Muslim rule from the country forever. Although the country is very Catholic, there is still a strong Muslim presence in this city, due in part to its proximity to northern Africa. Arabic can often be heard in the streets, and the Albaicin (the old moorish quarter of Granada) is full of Moroccan tea shops and vendors.

The mix of cultures is enchanting.

I made many Moroccan friends during my semester there and even got to spend time Morocco staying with a local family. I quickly became fascinated by the foreign and mysterious Muslim faith.

Asilah, Morocco

Asilah, Morocco

A dear friend of mine was kind enough to take me to his mosque, discuss the teachings and traditions of his faith with me, and introduce me to women at the mosque. I spent a few Friday’s there observing prayer from the partitioned women’s area of the mosque, something very new to me, listening to the Imam give his homily in arabic and then in spanish.

I can honestly say I’ve never felt more at peace or tranquil than I felt during those afternoons. After 20 years of listening to Catholic priests rattle off an endless list of saints and teaching the same lessons over and over again, it was refreshing and fascinating to listen to someone profess the lessons of God in a totally new way.

After the actual service, I often spent time chatting with some of the women at a café near the mosque. They were so patient with me, answering all of my questions and helping me to understand their faith. Coming from the USA, specifically New York, I had been privy to many of the stereotypes surrounding Islam, and my new friends were happy to explain the truth to me. Their truths.

Keep in mind that Spain and northern Morocco are particularly progressive areas for Muslims, so the lessons I learned in these countries are certainly different than what is experienced in more radical areas.

I asked them why some women cover themselves. My male friends explained to me that many women wear hijabs to cover their hair and loose, conservative clothing in respect for both their bodies and their husbands, if they are married.

One friend told me “If I see a woman wearing a hijab, I look away. In covering herself, she is asking for respect and so I give it to her.” The women told me that they cover themselves because God made their bodies for its functions, not for the pleasure of any man on the street. My friend Fatima added that she chooses not to wear a hijab because she works in a store with many Spaniards and tourists, and does not want to distract from business in a place where her religion is still stigmatized. She told me that although she does not cover her hair, she prefers to wear loose-fitting clothing and to keep her pants long and necklines high, as she does not want to attract attention for her appearance. I was surprised that a practice I had previously seen as oppressive was, in many ways, feminist.

Another stereotype that was broken for me was the idea that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands. The women laughed when I brought the topic up, suggesting that their husbands are the obedient ones. I got the feeling that these ladies run sh•t in their houses. They also indulged me on the topic of polygamy. They explained that it may seem odd to a Westerner, in poor Arab countries, a woman is very lucky to find a man who is able to support them and start a family. Polygamy only happens when a man can afford to support many wives, and a woman is often considered lucky to be one of many wives. This is not common practice in Spain, however.

The most important lesson I learned during my conversations with my new friends was the importance of peace and reserving judgement in Islam. During every interaction I had in and around the mosque, I observed and heard words of kindness, greetings of peace, while gossip and the passing of judgement were refreshingly absent. To this day, I wear the Hand of Fatima on my wrist to remind me of those lessons, and to remember some of the happiest days of my life.

If you make it to Granada, I cannot recommend a visit to the mosque enough. It is located right behind the Mirador de San Nicolas, the most famous viewpoint in the city. The gardens are open to the public. They are so beautiful and tranquil. The center also offers lessons to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, so if you’d like to study a new religion or take arabic lessons during your time in Al-Andaluz, be sure to check it out.

on growing up.

My heart hurts today.

I just received an email offering me a teaching position in my beloved region of Andalucía, Spain. This means that I have the opportunity to live and work in Granada come October.

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I’m not going.

A few months ago, I was accepted to a graduate school that allows me to spend a year studying in Madrid. I enrolled right away.

Now, I am faced with an opportunity that would take me back to the city that I fell in love with a year ago. An opportunity that I cannot pursue. I feel like someone has punched me in the stomach. I could eat my grad school deposit, back out, and move back to southern Spain to teach english and travel.

But I won’t.

My time in Granada was the most exciting, fascinating, enriching, fun, and unbelievable experience of my life. I ache to go back to the city where the streets smell like wisteria, where rich history pours out of every nook and cranny. I long to drop everything and embrace the hippie lifestyle that awaits me in my Granada. But life is about change. It’s about pursuing new experiences, and taking every opportunity to become your best self.

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Moving back to Granada would be a dream, but Madrid offers me endless opportunities. I can study things that fascinate me. I will experience a metropolitan Spanish culture that I’ve never before immersed myself in. I will get my Master’s. I will explore new streets, museums, restaurants, and barrios. And, most importantly, I will move forward in pursuit of my personal and professional goals.

When we experience something so incredible in our lives, it is normal to long to go back to that time. I don’t want to regress. Granada made me a better, stronger, more easy-going, more open-minded and more patient woman. I am a different person for having experienced life there. It is time to give another place a chance.

And I can’t wait.

So, there it is. Officially. A move to Madrid in September 2013.

Vaya.