An Excursion to Mountainous Granada from Bustling Madrid

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I am currently studying with AIFS in Madrid and we had the chance to go on a weekend trip to Granada, which was included in my program fees!

You can bet I jumped at the chance to go on a free trip to the south of Spain!

Not only did we get to ride in a super comfortable coach bus, but when we arrived we were placed in a really nice hotel. Seriously, we were not expecting such a nice place! My room had a view of the mountains and La Alhambra!

A quick little history lesson about Granada (as a history nerd and Global Studies student, I can’t not talk about the history): Basically, Granada was the last place to be taken during La Reconquista in the time of the Catholic rulers, Isabel and Fernando. It was the final stronghold of the Moors, or Islamic people from North Africa, who occupied Spain for many centuries before. The Spanish victory over Granada was very popular in the 15th century. Granada became part of Catholic Spain the same year Columbus sailed to the Americas, in 1492. Isabel and Fernando are actually buried in Granada, as well. Isabel is definitely one of my favorite historic people to learn about, because she is very controversial. She was a strong woman for her time who ruled on her own terms, but also imposed an incredible repression and exclusion of Islam and Judaism in favor of making Spain totally Catholic. Thankfully, the beautiful Moorish influence has been preserved in Granada’s architecture. With the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this city is a gem well worth visiting.

Our first visit was to the cathedral of Granada. It’s an incredible 16th century building, with beautiful gothic and baroque elements like gold embellishments and painted ceilings. I was most impressed by the organs. The outside of the cathedral has some interesting elements, as well; I kept noticing old writing or what looked like ancient graffiti in brownish ink on the outside walls. What I learned was that traditionally students graduating with a doctorate would inscribe their name or the word “victor” — as in victory in bull’s blood (oh dear) — as a rite of passage and graduation. This was mainly done in the 19th century and was most popular in Seville, Granada and Salamanca, which is home to Spain’s first university ever. I can just imagine the 1800s version of college students writing their names on the cathedral as they celebrated the night away after the last of their exams were finished…

We then took a really cool walking tour through the tiny winding uphill streets away from the bustling city center to a beautiful panoramic viewpoint called the Mirador de San Nicolas. We had the perfect view of La Alhambra, the incredible Moorish palace that dominates the city. We were there at sunset and I was able to capture the magic of Granada.. although photos certainly do not do it justice.

The next day we woke up early to be among the first groups to visit La Alhambra. While it was originally built in the 9th century, the fortress as it stands is from the 13th century. This was actually my second time visiting, having gone three years prior with my family. I felt that I got a much better idea of the palace going a second time, plus our guides were fantastic. It was a gorgeous sunny day as we walked through the royal gardens and sultan’s rooms of the palace, admiring the incredible woodwork and plaster carvings. Since Islam prohibits idolatry, all of the decorations in La Alhambra are either geometric, nature-themed, or use Qur’an verses in beautiful Arabic script. I learned that in order to line the walls with such an intricate repeating pattern, wooden molds were made and then plaster was poured into them to quickly make the panels for the walls. Some of the original paint and colors remain, too!

That night we were invited to an underground cave-like bar called El Templo del Flamenco for a Flamenco show. The dancers and singers were very talented and the Flamenco style is passionate and strong when it comes to storytelling. The last day before getting back on the bus, we visited La Capilla Real, which is the royal chapel where Isabel and Fernando are buried. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but its basically another very beautiful chapel and the king and queen are memorialized in heavily decorated marble sarcophagi. Their actual bodies, as well as the bodies of Juana of Castilla, her husband Felipe “the handsome” and her son Miguel who died as a child, are in the crypt in simple coffins. Juana was actually called “la loca” or “crazy,” but I side with the theory that this was all made up in an attempt to justify locking up this woman in power in a convent under the guise of madness by the angry men who surrounded her… maybe I’ll write about that next because it’s fascinating! It was very moving to see the final resting place of these historical figures who, although controversially, shaped Spain into the country it is today.

The Granada trip was a lovely weekend full of culture and history, and I’m grateful that our AIFS coordinators, Bárbara and Mara, organized such a well-directed trip. It didn’t feel cheesy or like we were just doing what all tourists do, but rather were given opportunities to really get to see the real Granada. In the free time we had I had fun exploring the streets of the Albaicín quarter and enjoying the sun.

The excursion really made me appreciate the richness of Spanish cities and I’m glad that AIFS included such a good excursion in the program. As much as it’s fun to hang out in Madrid and party all night, it’s good to experience history and fresh mountain air, too!

This post was contributed by Camille Evans, a student from the University of Vermont who is spending her spring semester studying abroad with AIFS in Madrid, Spain.

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