This ancient city of the sultans is a 21st century wonder

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Coming back to the Alhambra is like re-reading a book. The hilltop citadel built by the Nasrid sultans above Granada, in the Spanish autonomous region of Andalusia, was a masterpiece of medieval engineering, but also of literature, poetry and philosophy expressed in dreamlike architecture. Worms, blessings and ruminations were engraved on its facades so that the structure seemed to speak.

“Perpetual bliss, continual ecstasy…” runs a long thread around the reflecting pool of the palace of Comares. “Be economical with your words and you will go in peace” advises the interior wall above the sultan’s throne. Above, a domed roof made of over 8,000 pieces of wood and encrusted with a constellation of stars represents the seven heavens of Islamic cosmology.

The grand medieval Alhambra Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sets the tone in this historic city steeped in tradition, one of Nat Geo’s top destinations in the world. But while one foot is in the past, the other hits a modern beat. Besides its history of flamenco singing and dancing, Granada is a European hub for the reigning hip-hop sub-genre of trap music. It’s a college town, always packed with students, a place where ultra-traditional tapas bars share bustling streets with contemporary fusion restaurants.

History comes to life

Founded in the 11th century, Granada was a thriving Moorish fortress until it fell under the Catholic rule of Ferdinand II and Isabella I in 1492. In the years that followed, Muslims and Jews were forced to sideline. settle in the Albaicín, a district north of the Alhambra.

In modern times, the medieval Muslim Quarter has retained its side labyrinth of whitewashed houses, spilling down the hillside into narrow, zigzagging lanes. Indeed, the cafes and tapas bars that overlook the switchbacks and the stairs offer a breathtaking view of the Alhambra.

It is still possible to feel the passage of the centuries through atavistic portals like El Bañuelo, the bunker-shaped remains of an 11th century hammam. Later, the Catholic monarchs saw the destruction of many similar spas, equating them with sin. Fortunately, this one has survived and continues to live as a small museum.

The King and Queen who reconquered Spain and sent Christopher Columbus to the New World are buried together in the Royal Chapel of the Cathedral of Santa María de la Encarnación. Here, one of the many Catholic shrines that sprouted during the couple’s reign, a dark atmosphere of Gothic romance reigns around their carved tombs.

While strolling through the historic center, visitors discover other famous figures, including Federico García Lorca. Born in Granada and executed with one of the first shots fired during the Spanish Civil War, the poet is still mourned as a favorite son in that city. Guided tours of his family’s summer house, Huerta de San Vicente, introduce visitors to his life and work. The park outside, once an orchard, is a good place to read a few of his lines.

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Tapas and more

The Spanish culture of small dishes began in this region, and hostels in Granada can be absurdly generous in observing the local custom of free tapas with every alcoholic drink. The shorter glass of beer can go with a pork loin sandwich the size of your face. Hitting a few bars around Realejo or Plaza Nueva will leave you as drunk and stunned as repeated trips to a wedding buffet.

In the glut of tapas bars, La Tratienda low profile, hidden behind a butcher’s counter. In 1836, the owner began serving charcuterie to hungry customers in the queue. Today’s price continues to consist of premium quality cold meats and smoked cheeses.

A little outside the old town’s culinary comfort zone of ham, lamb and knives, Cala Restaurant this is where weary tapas go for variety. In a bright and modern dining room, the French-born chef Samuel Hernández makes a largely Mediterranean menu more cosmopolitan with tiger milk, green aguachile, and hoisin sauce.

Traditional carmen (traditional style houses) scatter the Albaicín, vineyards and orchards of gardens growing on their high white walls. The highest of them is Las Tomasas, which offers a triumphant view of the Alhambra. The food here is based on regional and national staples, from baby squid to bull tail.

In this Spanish city, tapas go hand in hand not only with sherry but also with cocktails. A relic from the times of the Civil War, Bodegas Castañeda is stacked with carrier bottles and barrels full of local wines and sherry, but the house specialty is calicasas-a homemade doozy made from vermouth, gin, rum, soda and spices.

Tragofino-SanMatías 30 is a relatively young and cool alternative to the ancient taverns of Granada. It also stands out for its superior interpretation of the pomegranate cocktails served all over the city. Here it is made with fresh pulp and Pama liquor and served in a jam jar.

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Beyond flamenco

Flamenco originated in Andalusia about a millennium ago, and has evolved into a semi-improvised art form of percussive footwork, plaintive vocals, and acoustic guitar bursts. The question of the most “authentic” place in Granada is still the subject of furious debate among local aficionados.

Popular cave bars like Cueva de la Rocío in the Sacromonte district can amplify the style’s explosive tempos, but the sounds and colors also swirl in more airy settings like Jardines de Zoraya, a flamenco stage and a garden restaurant brought together. forming a world class restaurant tablao place of dinner and show.

Nowadays, Granada’s music scene is fueled by students and immigrants from all over Europe, North Africa and Latin America. As a result, you’ll hear many genres as you walk around: cellists from the Royal Superior Conservatory of Music Victoria Eugenia de Granada performing in a plaza or Balkan accordion ballads that turn into French rap battles in jam sessions. outside the Huerto de Carlos garden.

The city’s genre blurry club culture is even more fused to Boogaclub, a beloved little dance hall. Holding regular jazz, reggae and flamenco sessions, Booga also played a key role in breaking up splinter hip-hop groups who then made music trap the crisp, bouncy, self-tuning sound of the city. Spanish underground.

A wonderland of nature

Venturing outside the city center offers other wonders ripe for exploration. The suburban village of Monachil leads to the Sierra Nevada range via an exhilarating trail through the Los Cahorros Valley. Long, high suspension bridges sway dramatically underfoot, and the menacing canyon walls lean so far over the river that you can only pass by grabbing metal handles that have been sunk into the rock.

A half-hour drive outside the city limits takes travelers through a prehistoric landscape of fossil-rich clay hills. This is “the other Alhambra”, say the promoters of the geopark parading around Granada, newly designated by UNESCO as a heritage site.

The first Moorish settlers dug underground dwellings on this land, which were later occupied by people who could not afford to build or buy houses. These dwellings have recently been remodeled by operators such as Cuevas Almagruz, a network of family caves housing an underground museum and a row of rustic-chic dwellings carved out of the soft red rock.

Hosted in one of these rooms, visitors become, for one night, a figure in a popular tale. They sleep and dream in the belly of a mountain, then wake up and rise from the mouth of a cave, ready to wander through the history of this unique region of southern Spain.

Go with Nat Geo: Discover Moorish Spain from the cultures of Cordoba to the Alhambra in Granada and the wonders of Seville on this eight-day National Geographic Expeditions trip.

A version of this story first published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic traveler (UK).

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