Granada, 1492, a nation is born

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.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

A rainy day at the Alhambra

Perched on a plateau and dramatically framed by the Sierra Nevada mountains behind, the Alhambra sits serenely overlooking the city of Granada. Walking the maze-like alleys of the ancient Muslim quarter of the Albaicín, you get tantalising glimpses of the Alhambra between buildings. Climb the hill to the Mirador San Nicolas though, and the full glory of the Alhambra reveals itself.

There are several Alhambra miradors, but the little square in front of the Church of St. Nicholas (better still, climb the church tower) offers uninterrupted views. It’s a lively gathering place for people, and often has amateur music and flamenco performances. The view is beautiful at any time of day, but the reddish walls glow in late afternoon sun. We took the view on our first day in the city, the next day we had tickets to visit.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Everyone knows that in Spain it mainly rains on the plain. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. I don’t know how often it rains in Granada (not often I’m guessing), but we woke the next day to a grey, dreary and cold day of drizzle and downpours. Not ideal for wandering around the Alhambra, much of which is outdoors. It was disappointing to visit in bad weather, but we were determined the rain wouldn’t dampen our spirits.

The Alhambra started life as a fortress, the Alcazaba, in the late 9th century, 180 years after the Umayyad Caliphate had established itself in Spain. Cordoba and Seville were the centres of power, Granada little more than a backwater. It wasn’t until 1238 that work began on the royal palaces. By then, the Caliphate was already in retreat, having lost over half the territory it controlled at its peak to Christian kingdoms in the north.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Over the next century the Alhambra grew to be the majestic complex of today. The Palacios Nazaries, considered by many to be the finest example of Islamic architecture in Europe, was constructed in this period. The mix of exquisite rooms, courtyards with fountains, beautiful carved roofs and tiles with mesmerising geometric patterns and Arabic inscriptions, make it hard to argue with that assessment.

This is the real highlight of a visit to the Alhambra. Even with tour groups sweeping through and selfie stick-wielding tourists, it’s hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all. We spent so long in the Palacios Nazaries that when we emerged into the Gardens of the Partal Palace it had stopped raining. We wandered the gardens on our way to the Generalife, taking in the fantastic views over Granada.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The whole place exudes a sense of balance and harmony. The original buildings and gardens compare well to the disastrous later additions made by King Charles I (better known as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V). His Renaissance-style Palacio de Carlos V is like a wanton act of vandalism, a huge unsophisticated lump imposed upon the more refined and delicate vision of earlier rulers.

Walking through the Alhambra today, it’s incredible to think this glorious complex of fortress, palace and pleasure gardens, was abandoned in the 18th century and largely forgotten until the early 19th century. Interest in the Alhambra surged after celebrity American author, Washington Irving, published his Tales of the Alhambra in 1832, kick-starting the slow process of protecting and restoring the entire site.

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra’s obscurity ensured that it survived largely intact, and what you see on a visit today is the 13th or 14th century original. If anything, today it’s become a victim of its own success. More than two million people visit each year, and that must take a huge toll on the fabric of the buildings. Even on a rainy day in winter there were crowds of people, and plenty of disregard for signs asking people not to touch. That can’t be sustainable in the long term.

Granada, where tapas and history meet

I work with a number of Spanish people, each and every one of whom had the same response when I said I was making my first visit to Granada. First, came an expression of surprise, why hadn’t I visited before? This was quickly passed over though, as they extolled the virtues of a city renowned not only for good food, but for serving up the largest, most varied portions of free tapas anywhere in Spain.

I’m not saying Dutch food culture isn’t good (let’s just say this isn’t France or Italy), but for Spanish people living in the Netherlands, memories of really good food seem to be disproportionately important.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

One colleague was moved to raptures remembering a traditional fish dish that she’d eaten in some small cafe in one of Granada’s winding medieval streets. The subject of Granada’s food seemed far more interesting than, say, the fact that it is home to one of the world’s most famous buildings, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alhambra. It was looking like I wouldn’t need to worry about what to eat, only when to stop.

Granada is deservedly one of the most famous places in Europe. It’s main attraction, the Alhambra, is a spectacular example of Islamic architecture from the very height of Moorish power and cultural influence in Spain. Such is its popularity, it attracts around 8,500 visitors each day, or around 2.5 million people each year. That’s ten times the population of the town.

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Migas, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Migas, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Is that Michelle Obama? Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Is that Michelle Obama? Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Squid and beer, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Squid and beer, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

In many ways though, the town itself is the star attraction. You could spend days wandering the narrow lanes and alleyways, walking up and down the hills of the central Albaicín district, only to have scratched the surface of this mesmerising place. History seems to seep out of every wall, and every turn of a corner brings you face to face with yet more of the town’s fabled past.

Given that, our first sight of Granada was a bit underwhelming. The outskirts of towns are normally disappointing, but Spanish towns seem to excel at ‘dismal’. It didn’t help that we were stuck in a traffic jam. When we finally arrived in the historic centre, we instantly lost our way amidst narrow streets. I got a €120 fine as a consequence. We may have been in a beautiful medieval town, but we were going nowhere fast.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

We eventually found a carpark, and were soon walking along beautiful cobbled streets towards the El Ladron de Agua Hotel. The hotel sits underneath the walls of the Alhambra on the Carrera del Darro, and occupies a 16th-century palace that was once home to nobility. A welcoming glass of chilled fino compensated for the trauma of driving in Granada and, refreshed, it was time for lunch.

Would the food live up to its billing? Order a glass of tinto or an oloroso in any of Granada’s many atmospheric bars, and it will be accompanied by a sizeable plate of the tapas of the day. Order a second drink and a different, but equally sizeable, portion of tapas arrives in front of you … and the food is good. Most places advertise their specials of the day, just buy a drink and tuck in.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada’s an economical place to spend time. We spent four days here, only ate lunch once and never felt the need for dinner. This may say more about how much sherry we drank than the availability of restaurants offering dinner. Beyond a day at the Alhambra, we didn’t have a plan. This, though, is a town that rewards aimless, leisurely exploration.

We strolled, made regular visits to historic buildings, ancient churches, atmospheric bars, and took it easy. Granada’s an enigmatic place, not without rough edges or petty crime, but that only seems to make it more vibrant.

Y Viva España, an Andalusian roadtrip

Here’s a thing. Y Viva España, a song so irritatingly catchy that once inside your head it’s hard to get it to leave again, was actually the creation of a Belgian musical duo who wrote the original song in Dutch. The English version, which plagued my childhood, was recorded by a Swedish singer-songwriter, and went on to sell over one million copies worldwide. It was recorded in a dozen languages, including Spanish.

The point about the song, with its resounding finale of “España por favor, España por favor”, is that it’s an infectiously upbeat homage to the joy felt by northern Europeans en route to the warmer, sunnier climes of southern Spain. The song may brim over with 1970s cliché of Spain, a place of dusky flamenco dancers and hunky matadors, where you can “meet señoritas by the score”, but it’s done with affection.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Bull on a bar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Bull on a bar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

It’s the same feeling I have every time I return to Spain, and I’ve been often enough to know that it’s a country I never grow tired of visiting. Whether its depth of history and culture, easy-going lifestyle, good food and wine, or dramatic landscapes, Spain is a country that I feel almost compelled to visit time and time again.

This time, we were escaping the miserable northern European winter in search of some warmth in Andalusia. We transited through Malaga and headed straight to the fabled Moorish city of Granada, where it rained on my first ever trip to the Alhambra. There was even snow on the hills of the Sierra Nevada behind the city – hills that we later visited to explore the famed pueblo blancos, before driving cross-country to glorious Seville.

Religious procession, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Religious procession, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Seville is a city I’ve visited before, but I can’t ever imagine feeling tired of this truly magnificent town. It’s large enough to have a big city vibe, but small enough to explore on foot. While we were there, roaming bands of musicians took over the town and were playing in bars and in the streets around the centre. It was a lot of fun, involving quite a lot of wine.

We headed east, into the corner of Spain bordering Portugal. This region of wooded hills covered with Spanish oak, is home to some of the finest black Iberian pigs known to humanity. Pigs that eventually become jamón ibérico, which is best washed down with a glass of dry fino sherry. We made it to La Rábida, on the Rio Tinto, a remarkably tourist free spot where Christopher Columbus departed on his voyage of discovery to the Americas.

A band in Seville, Andalusia, Spain

A band in Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Pueblos Blancos, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Pueblos Blancos, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocio, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocio, Andalusia, Spain

Turning south, the Costa de la Luz beckoned. We stopped in at the wonderful sherry town of Jerez de la Frontera and buzzing Cádiz. Both are fascinating and friendly, and often overlooked by tourists coming to Andalusia. Both are worth a  few days of anyone’s time. Finally, we ground to a halt at some of the rugged and beautiful beaches that run down Spain’s Atlantic Coast towards Gibraltar.

We ended the trip with a mad dash back along the coast, hoping to reach Malaga in time for our flight home. If this trip proved anything, other than that driving in Spanish cities is terrifying, but not as terrifying as trying to find a parking space, it is that Spain is a country of immense variety. And this was only Andalusia. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we return again.

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

The azur waters of Laguna de Apoyo

Have you ever dreamt of swimming in the warm, deep-blue waters waters of a laguna that sits deep inside the massive cone of an extinct volcano, surrounded by dry tropical forest that is home to a variety of colourful birds and troupes of Howler Monkeys? Dream no more, because at Nicaragua’s Laguna de Apoyo all of this is possible.

Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Seeing Laguna de Apoyo for the first time is breathtaking. Its obviously a volcano but sitting inside it is a body of water that looks more like an inland ocean, sparkling blue and turquoise under the fierce Nicaraguan sun…and it is only a twenty minute drive from Granada.

Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

When we reached Casa San Simian, an ecologically-minded set of cabanas, the peace and tranquility were the first things to greet us, followed by our bamboo and palm built cabana complete with private outdoor toilet and shower. Birds were flitting overhead, Howler Monkeys were calling to each other through the forest and the water of the laguna beckoned us to cool off from the heat of the day.

San Simian Cabanas, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

San Simian Cabanas, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Cabana and hammocks, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Cabana and hammocks, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

It was a beautiful place to spend a few days relaxing, swimming and wildlife spotting. We saw, for the first time, Nicaragua’s national bird, the fabulously titled Turquoise-browed Motmot. Not only one, we saw several of them. It has ridiculously shaped plumage that is brilliantly coloured – thankfully very eye catching when they fly, which is the only way I’m ever going to spot one.

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Other than that, time at Laguna Apoyo is all about swimming and strolling to spot monkeys and birds…although the fish tacos at Casa San Simian might be reason enough to visit.

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkey, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkeys, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Howler Monkeys, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Bird eating fruit, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Bird eating fruit, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Vulture, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Vulture, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Fisher, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Fisher, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

…oh, and two-feet long lizards…

Lizard, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Lizard, Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua

Glorious, Gorgeous Granada…Nicaragua

The Spanish must have either been homesick or utterly lacking in imagination when they started naming towns in their newly conquered territories in the Americas. As someone who has spent a bit of time in Spain there have been a number of familiar names on our trip through Latin America. Perhaps it was just the colonising mindset, after all there is a Manchester, Vermont and a Birmingham, Alabama.

Sorry about that Alabama.

Granada is one of the most cultured and beautiful cities in Spain, home to the world-renowned Alhambra. Its history stretches back to the eighth century BC and it was a centre of Islamic learning and grandeur under its Moorish rulers, before becoming a major prize of the Reconquista as the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand III and Isabel I overthrew centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsular. Its architecture and legacy are world famous.

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Nicaragua

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Lago Nicaragua in the background, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Granada has a lot to live up to. Founded in 1524, it may not be world-renowned and it may only offer a fraction of the architecture, but, perched on the edge of Lago Nicaragua and with a wealth of colonial buildings, shady people-friendly plazas and a couple of beautiful churches, it is a fabulously relaxed town to spend time wandering the streets and stepping into some of its excellent restaurants and bars.

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua, grew rich on trade that went via Lago Nicaragua, down the Rio San Juan and out to the North Atlantic via the Caribbean Sea. The route from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Rio San Juan once made Nicaragua rich, and was proposed as an earlier alternative to the Panama Canal. Even today it is still talked of as a possibility, however unlikely that seems.

So rich did this trade make Granada that, even though it was a long way from the Caribbean coast, it attracted the attentions of pirates. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary attacks came 1665 when Welsh pirate Henry Morgan navigated the Rio San Juan with canoes and paddled across Lago Nicaragua to sack the city. A hugely dangerous and technically difficult feat that made Morgan famous.

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

The one thing the two cities of Granada share it is that they drip with a sultry, energy-sapping heat. My advice is, get out early, swing in a hammock through the heat of the day (or pay for air conditioning) and hit the streets late afternoon as the sun starts to sink over the horizon and partake of some of Nicaragua’s best people watching while walking the city streets.

There are two Granadas in more than one way. While the colonial centre of this city is as pleasant a place to spend a few days strolling as any I’ve been to in the Americas; the other Granada of tin-roofed shacks and grinding poverty is only a few blocks away. You frequently see carts with skinny horses pulling people and goods around the city. It is a real contrast to the wealth of the colonial centre and especially to the countries to the south of Nicaragua.

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

We stayed in a hotel (Hotel Casa Barcelona) outside of the centre a few blocks from the mercardo municipal. Its a lovely hotel that is set up to help single mothers – of which there are plenty in Nicaragua – and is located in a much more typical barrio. There might not be any lovely colonial architecture here, and people may be poor, but it is a friendly neighbourhood that allows you to get a glimpse of how the vast majority of Nicaraguans live.

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

As with much of Central America, Granada has attracted a large number of Europeans and North Americans to either retire or start businesses. A complaint we heard a number of times was that gringos were buying up all the best properties and Nicaraguans were being priced out of the city centre, which was starting to lose its traditions and spirit.

While true, many gringo owned businesses have a social mission as well, which is just as well since there is a huge need for investment in basic health, education and social services which the government is struggling to provide. Still, it is good to try to spread the dollars around so that some make their way directly to Nicaraguan businesses.

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada