Sunday, August 3, 2003

Granada: Arabian heights Granada relishes the spicy legacy of its Moorish past

Granada: Arabian heights Granada relishes the spicy legacy of its Moorish past, says Jeremy Atiyah

August 3, 2003 Times Online

So much for what the legends say. I have come to stay in the Albaicin, the city’s so-called Moorish quarter, to look for the evidence.

So far, I am charmed. The Albaicin is lined with cobbled lanes, scuffed white walls and bougainvillea by the ton. It also happens to have the best view in the world, across to where the square russet towers of the Alhambra spring up like a Moorish myth from behind thousands of trees. But thanks to the steepness of its lanes, tourists are still outnumbered by the local children, who play football, smoke hash and sleep in tiny forgotten squares.

And look at this hotel of mine! The Casa del Aljarife is a centuries-old whitewashed house with an enclosed patio full of lemon trees. Its windows look up to the Alhambra, and when I wake in the morning, all I can hear is the distant wailing of flamenco singers.

The only problem, in fact, is the owner, a vast northern European who stomps about in shorts, shoes and socks. When I tell him that I envy him his house, he retorts that I do not know the reality of life in Spain.

“And you do not know,” he grimaces, “that when the Spanish say ‘tomorrow’, they mean ‘in about a month’.”

He is missing the point, I tell myself. Because if this sleepy place isn’t an Islamic paradise, what is? Even the restaurants resemble corners of heaven. Their garden sanctums are suit-ably veiled from prying eyes, and at many you must ring bells at hidden doorways to enter.

I spend hours under the orange trees at the Terraza las Tomasas, eating cod’s roe salad and Iberian ham with a moonlit view of the Alhambra filling half the sky. Later I try Taberna La Higuera, where I recline in a candlelit courtyard eating squid and drinking dirt-cheap wine. Why, I wonder after my fourth glass, doesn’t everyone live like this, all of the time? In such a mood, I feel ready to conquer the Alhambra itself. The ancient pinks, reds and browns of its hilltop battlements have obsessed me for long enough. It’s time to scale that summit.

The next morning, as I puff uphill to the gate, I’m met by armies of tourists descending from coaches. I hear disem- bodied voices in multiple languages addressing me on the subject of my rights and obligations once inside. I appear to be at the beginning of a touristic assembly line.

Lucky Washington Irving! When he applied to visit, the request was considered so freakish that he was given the Nasrid Palaces, within, to use as his private hotel. He lived there for several months in the style of a Moorish sultan, taking his meals “sometimes in one of the Moorish Halls, sometimes under the arcades ... surrounded by flowers and fountains”.

Not that I am going to let distaste for other tourists eat me up. Five-hundred feet below, the traffic of modern Granada seethes and rumbles; up here in the Alhambra, I have the rustle of trees and the murmur of water, and the cool air from the Sierra Nevada drifts among the columns and fountains.

It is easy to get carried along by the spirit of this place. The calligraphic decoration on the walls is the doodling of men with nothing to do but repeat the central happy certainty of their lives — that there is no god but God. I slip into a daze, stepping from courtyard to courtyard, dreaming of harems and other pleasures.

By the waters of the Patio de los Arrayanes, I recall the Nasrid sultan of Granada who once summoned his court here to witness his concubine Zoraya taking her bath. Each courtier was required to drink from a bowl of her bathwater, then rhapsodise in verse about the marvellous taste it had acquired. Only the vizier refrained: “If I taste the sauce,” he protested, “I may develop an appetite for the partridge!” That’s Granada, a city not of jokes, but of suggestive yarns. Neighbouring Seville and Cordoba have also tried to cash in on the memory of the lost Moorish culture of al-Andalus, but neither has half the legacy of Granada. Later, back in town, I discover that the new craze is for ever more splendid teterias, or teahouses — perfect venues for storytellers to idle away the afternoons of summer. These are no longer the dingy dives of a few years back, but cool, palatial bars, pastiches of the old Moorish pleasures. They have candles, divans and fountains, all surrounded by Alhambra-style columns and arches.

At the Teteria el Bañuelo, I am greeted by the murmur of Arabic music and the song of a caged canary. The walls are adorned with quotations — eulogies about the period of Moorish rule when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in peace.

But what’s this? The menu includes such offerings as “1,001 Nights tea”. Is this not just a fantasy arranged to impress naive tourists? I immediately think of Calle Calde- reria Nueva, where all manner of “Moorish” tat is now on sale, from leather lampshades to aphrodisiac brews.

“No, no!” protests the cafe’s owner when he sees my scepticism. He is carrying a huge bunch of fresh mint in his hand. “These are genuine ancient recipes of old Granada!” This leads to a rambling discussion about half-remembered “Moorish” dishes. He explains how the Muslims of Spain enjoyed cultivating vegetables, while the Catholics were content to rear cattle on the parched hills. Surviving specialities include dishes that are neither sweet nor savoury: soups combining almonds and garlic; fig tarts with pine nuts; honeyed aubergines fried in batter.

That evening, in a Moroccan restaurant called Arrayanes, I eat an extraordinary dish of filo pastry, shredded meat and icing sugar, all washed down with a green and gingery home-made lemonade.

And then, of course, there are the tapas. Granada is the last big city in Spain where the tradition of a free snack with every drink still flourishes. Tapas, they say, were a Muslim invention, designed to eliminate the unholy possibility of drinking without eating. Later in my trip, in an old-fashioned downtown bar called Cas-teñada, my glasses of chilled fino arrive with little dishes of lamb stew and plates of ham and olives — and I ponder the miracle of getting something for nothing. After five drinks, I will need no dinner.

If Granada’s Arabs had contributed only this to civilisation, I would already be in their debt. But before leaving the city, I have one more Arab speciality to sample — up by the River Darro, between the twin hills of the Albaicin and the Alhambra. This used to be a smelly lane, leading out into the melancholy country that Washington Irving found so silent and lonesome. Nowadays, however, the valley has been cleaned up — kids strum guitars on the riverbanks and cool trees line the river. And here is a genuine hammam: an Arabic bathhouse.

It’s not the original — that fell into ruins about eight centuries ago. This is a new one. But don’t be put off. When I step inside, there are fragrant candles burning, and languid figures lounge on the tiles or in the pools. Through the steam, the atmosphere is faintly nefarious, vaguely suggestive of a Victorian opium den. But I find there is no end to the pleasure of immersing myself in the hot bath then the cool bath, then lying on the tiles regarding the stars and the half-moons inlaid in the vaulted ceilings.

I can still see the place now, just as I’d seen it years ago in my imagination. The influence of the Arabs, who fled Granada sighing back in 1492, is definitely making a comeback.

Jeremy Atiyah was a guest of Spain at Heart and Europcar