The year 1492 is the stuff of legend in Western Europe. Even if history is a continuum, it was a year that marked a dramatic change in the course of world history. The Spanish Reconquista led by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, finally defeated the Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic kingdom in what had once been a vast Moorish empire covering most of Spain and Portugal.
It took eight months of siege warfare to force the surrender of Granada, and with it the collapse of Moorish rule. It was January 1492 and, after centuries of conflict, the fall of Al Andalus must have seemed like a pretty good start to the year for Ferdinand and Isabella. Liberated from reuniting the Iberian Peninsula under their rule, they turned their attentions to other things.
Fatefully for the peoples of the Americas, they decided to finance the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. The Italian explorer had been pleading with the two monarchs to support his plans for several years, the fall of Granada made that investment seem worthwhile. In August 1492 Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic. As the Moorish empire in Europe ended, Europe took its first steps to colonise the Americas.
The fall of the Emirate of Granada brought to an end nearly eight centuries of Moorish culture across the Iberian Peninsula. Despite the constant warfare, this was a period of extraordinary political, economic and artistic flourishing. It has bequeathed Spain a vast cultural legacy that can be summed up in three words: Cordoba, Granada, Seville.
All three cities preserve magnificent examples of Islamic rule – Cordoba’s Mezquita, Seville’s Alcázar and Granada’s Alhambra – but it’s in the narrow medina-like streets of the historic heart of these cities that Spain’s Islamic past truly comes alive. I’ve visited all three, and for pure atmosphere the cobbled streets, winding alleyways and narrow lanes of Granada’s Albaicín district are hard to beat.
This is a touristy part of town, but it didn’t seem too difficult to find ourselves walking alone on the cobbles, discovering pleasant squares, grabbing picturesque views of the Alhambra, and discovering lovely tapas bars. At night the tranquil, silent streets oozed atmosphere. It just needed the sound of the call to prayer from a minaret and we’d have been transported back to the 14th century.
South of the Albaicín is El Realejo. Before all Spanish Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity or thrown out of the country, this was the historic old Jewish quarter. It’s a vibrant place with good tapas bars and bustling squares. We wandered through it on our way to explore the area around Granada’s enormous and imposing cathedral, another barrio worth spending some time in.
Granada’s cathedral was designed to make a statement. Commissioned by the same King Charles who added the Renaissance monstrosities to the Alhambra, it was never likely to be a subtle, simple building. It was constructed on the ruins of Granada’s Great Mosque, and was meant to send a message: Spain, with its newly conquered empire in the Americas, was the greatest of European powers.
The cathedral towers upwards but is hemmed in by narrow streets and houses. It’s hard to get a real sense of the whole building, and even the square outside the grand entrance does little to remove the feeling of claustrophobia. Maybe that’s the point, because, once inside, the vast interior space and white stone columns transcend the ordinary exterior.
As with Cordoba’s Mezquita, which had a church built in the middle of it, it’s hard not to judge the two architectural styles that have been handed down to contemporary Granada. While the Arabic Alhambra feels light and uplifting, Granada cathedral feels heavy and oppressive. As if to compensate, the area around here has a lot of lively bars and restaurants filled with happy crowds.
We spent our final night in the streets around the cathedral, carousing with the local crowds and trying the tapas specialities of each bar. The next day we would leave Granada to explore the Sierra Nevada’s pueblo blancos, where nightlife would be hard to find.