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The gentle Granada

Finding the softer side of this Spanish city through its extraordinary gardens.

September 07, 2003|Mona Molarsky | Special to The Times

Granada, Spain — Granada, Spain

It was a hot summer afternoon, and the sun beat down on the city's red-tiled roofs. At home we might have switched on the air conditioning. But we were in Granada, a city that awakens the senses, and somehow the heat had become a seductive companion.

My husband, Frank, and I sat in the shade of a loggia, sipping wine coolers and watching an orange and black butterfly flit around an acanthus blossom. Nearby, Marina, our 10-year-old daughter, had settled on a bench next to a murmuring fountain and was absorbed in the latest adventures of Harry Potter. I inhaled deeply. The air was sweet with the smell of jasmine, and a gentle breeze rustled the upper branches of the cypress trees.

We were enjoying the tranquillity of the University of Granada's Carmen de la Victoria, a residence for visiting scholars that also boasts a beautiful terraced garden. The word carmen refers to a house with a walled garden that must, according to tradition, be perched high on a hillside.

Carmenes are unique to Granada, where generations of artists, musicians and writers have been inspired by the beauty and serenity of these little Edens.

"To live on a different plane, in a carmen," 20th century poet Federico Garcia Lorca of Granada once rhapsodized. "All the rest is a waste of time! To live close to what one feels deeply, the whitewashed wall, the fragrant myrtle, the fountain!"

In June, while our family was preparing to visit Granada, Garcia Lorca's ecstatic words floated back to me. So I decided to find some of these magical places to see whether we too could live, however briefly, on another plane.

Granada has been renowned for its luxuriant gardens since medieval times. By far the most famous are those of the Alhambra and its summer palace, the Generalife, built by the Moorish Nasrid dynasty in the 14th and 15th centuries. The gardens, preserved by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella after the Christian conquest in 1492, are among the oldest surviving Islamic gardens in the world and have become Spanish and Arabic archetypes, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year.

After touring their splendid patios and gardens, many tourists believe they have exhausted the charms of the city and head for the beaches of the Costa del Sol, never realizing the bounty that lies beyond.

On previous trips, we had made that mistake ourselves. But this summer we resolved to spend a full two weeks exploring Granada. In particular, we wanted to get to know the Albaicin, the medieval neighborhood of small white Arab-style houses and labyrinthine streets that covers the hill across from the Alhambra. As friends who know and love Granada had pointed out, this is the most ancient and beautiful part of the city.

We soon discovered that the Albaicin is better known for its carmenes than any other neighborhood in Granada. During our time in the city, we visited a few of them and peered longingly through the gates of others. The Carmen de la Victoria, halfway up the hill of the Albaicin, on Cuesta del Chapiz, was the first we gained entrance to.

Behind a high white wall and entered through a wrought-iron gate, the Carmen de la Victoria is one of Granada's best-kept secrets. The garden, perfectly peaceful on summer afternoons, is open to the public but used infrequently. The city has dozens of garden sanctuaries like this one, discreetly concealed behind unassuming stucco. If it weren't for the occasional cypress towering over a rooftop, few would suspect the presence of these little bits of paradise, tucked away on the hills that encircle the city center.

Some of these hidden gardens are public, and anyone who knows their whereabouts can enjoy their shady walkways, bubbling fountains and botanical pleasures.

We had arranged to meet the director of La Victoria, Jose Tito Rojo, who has researched and restored this and other important gardens in Granada. He joined us for a stroll. "We know there was a garden here in Arab times," he explained in his soft Andalusian Spanish as we wandered under pergolas covered with orange-flowered trumpet vines, "but we don't know what it looked like. No drawings of Granada's medieval gardens have survived. But we have many poems that were written about them."

He showed us a 19th century arbor covered with cypress that he had reconstructed, then led us to a mirador, or lookout, that yielded a startling vista of the red towers of the Alhambra, high on Sabika Hill.

Views of the Alhambra are a prized element in many gardens of the Albaicin, offering a constant reminder of the Islamic culture that shaped Spain for more than 800 years. We paused next to an old stone fountain, where the water looked temptingly cool and delicious.

"Did the Arabs ever swim in their fountains?" Marina asked hopefully. I could tell she was itching to kick off her shoes and step in.

"Oh, no. Their culture was very refined," I answered quickly, hoping to derail any such ideas. "I think the pools were purely ornamental."

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