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Off the Walls

Destination: Spain

Treasured Alhambra and web of ancient streets give Granada its haunting lilt

March 08, 1998|SERGIO ORTIZ | Ortiz is a Malibu-based freelance writer

GRANADA, Spain — "The Guadalquivir skips from orange trees to olive groves, but the rivers in Granada flow from snow to wheat."

He's a Gypsy and looks like Willie Nelson, if Willie had jet-black hair and coal eyes, and he's reciting the poem in that melodious Spanish gypsy measure that sounds more like Arabic than Castilian. Three German girls--students no doubt-- are all aflutter at hearing the deep voice of the Gypsy sending the words of Federico Garcia Lorca echoing off the walls of this city where the poet lived.

This is Garcia Lorca country. He was born in a village on the outskirts and 38 years later was stood against a wall outside the city and shot during the Spanish Civil War, along with two bullfighters and countless others considered subversives by Francisco Franco's Loyalists.

The Gypsy Willie Nelson is reciting Garcia Lorca's "The Ballad of the Three Rivers." The girls are throwing pesetas in a box at his feet.

It's so typically Spanish, I think as I continue my walk to Albaicin Hill.

It's a long, steep haul. In a few minutes I'm hopelessly lost in the perplexing streets in the oldest quarter of this ancient city.

The confusing web of narrow, cobblestoned streets seem eerily deserted, and the whitewashed houses are all locked. Flowers spill from window boxes, and once in a while the faint smells of rosemary and myrtle drift from small well-tended gardens. The whole place looks like an heirloom. And it is.

The Spanish crown has proclaimed Granada a national treasure in a nation full of treasures, as it should be. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is in the heart of Andalusia, the region where everything you think of as Spanish began: bullfights, flamenco music--even the guitar was given its modern shape here.

Sure, Granada lacks the sangfroid of Seville, the bustle of Madrid and the cosmopolitan panache of Barcelona, but it is the very soul of Spain.

Walking up Albaicin Hill from San Juan de los Reyes, the wide avenue where I stopped to watch the gypsy minstrel banter with German students, I found it difficult to pinpoint why I like Granada so much.

It's not pretty. As a matter of fact, the city sprawls amid the Vega de Granada, a dusty plain that could easily be transported to Southern California's Imperial Valley and not seem out of place. It's old, very old, and there isn't much to do, except walk around the remnants of a culture that disappeared centuries ago. But there's something about it that makes you suspect that there might be a grain of truth behind the Spanish proverb that holds that there's no greater sadness than to be blind in Granada.

Take the Albaicin, for example. It's a quaint district where antiquity stuns the senses. For centuries it's been home to a long list of cultures and races. Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Arabs, all lived here at one time or another.

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The Romans set up a fortress on the crest. Then came the Jews, followed by the Moors, who stayed six centuries before being driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella, whose bodies are down there in the cathedral, near where the poetry-loving Gypsy hangs out.

Traces of those cultures are everywhere. At the top of the hill, you'll know the climb has been worth it when you come up on a panoramic view of the magnificent Alhambra from the plaza in front of San Nicolas, a rather drab church built on top of a mosque by the Spanish when they captured Granada from the Moors in 1492; the mosque, in turn, was built on the rubble of the Roman fortress. When the weather is right, florists and jugglers, singers and clowns, snack vendors and balloon makers, sometimes even knife sharpeners, set up shop here and turn the place into a maddening street fair. It's better to go alone during a midweek afternoon to catch the sights without being hassled.

The climb up and down the Albaicin is sure to make you feel ravenous, and the hungrier you get the more tantalizing the smells gliding out of quaint bodegas at the bottom of the hill will be. The menus will confuse those who learned their Spanish on this side of the Atlantic.

Although I speak Spanish, the nuances of the mother tongue as spoken in Spain can be a problem. When in Spain, I am linguistically challenged. I feel like a rapper in Windsor Castle.

The first time I visited the Albaicin, I stopped at a bodega and ordered something called the "tortilla Sacromonte." I knew that in Spain tortilla means omelet and that Sacromonte is the Gypsy quarter a few blocks away. So far so good. It was a delicious feast, Granada's regional dish, I was told, and I enjoyed it tremendously. When I asked for the recipe, I found out that the omelet's main ingredients are shredded bull's testicles and beef brain mixed with vegetables.

This time, in a different bodega, I ordered gazpacho and didn't ask what was in it. Some things are better left unknown.

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