It was the summer of that fateful year, 2020. In Spain, the major restrictions had just been lifted. Indeed, in retrospect this summer was the eye of the storm, as the first wave of infection had just receded, falling to very low levels; and public health officials were still unsure whether further measures would be necessary—and, if so, which.
My brother and I had weathered the pandemic in our tiny apartment in Madrid. He had been accepted into law school back home, so his time in Spain was coming to an end—time which had recently been spent doing pushups in his room and watching movies on his laptop. Now it was finally our chance to get out and have one last trip through the country.
Our plan was, as usual, rather convoluted. We took the high-speed (AVE) train down to Málaga, and then went to the airport to rent a car. Finally, we drove an hour and a half to Granada, listening to an audiobook about the Morgan banking dynasty along the way (random, I know).
We arrived in the middle of a typically hot summer day. It was around 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) and the streets were totally deserted. But like two dumb tourists, we decided to walk into the city. The whitewashed walls of the buildings seemed to reflect the sunlight into our faces. On the side of one building somebody had spray painted: Welcome to nueva normalidad (the new normal). And the city did have a post-apocalyptic feel, if only because nobody seemed to be living in it. The shops were closed; the windows and doors all shut; and a few lonely drinkers hid inside the bars.
We experienced some relief when we entered the Granada Cathedral. The cavern-like interior was reasonably cool. As you may know, Granada was the last stronghold of Muslim Spain to fall to the Catholic Monarchs (Isabel and Ferdinand), finally conquered in that other fateful year, 1492. This cathedral is, then, something of a triumphalist monument, having been built over the remains of the mosque that once occupied this spot. To add insult to injury, the Catholic Monarchs are themselves portrayed as figures on either side of the main altarpiece (a device later used by Ferdinand II in El Escorial), piously thanking God for their victory.
One can sense the symbolic importance Granada had to these two epochal figures, as they are buried right next door, in the Royal Chapel. Curiously, although the cathedral is built in a clean, elegant Renaissance style, this chapel—though constructed just a few decades earlier—is wholly gothic in style, bristling with spires and points. Photos are not permitted inside, but the main attraction is the beautifully carved tomb of the king and queen, carved by the Italian Domenico Fancelli.
Right next to these are the even grander tombs of Juana la loca (the mad)—daughter of the Catholic Monarchs—and her husband, the very short-lived Felipe el hermoso (the handsome). This unfortunate Philip, who died at the age of 28, actually was the king of Spain for a few months in 1506, but died in Burgos under mysterious circumstances. It is unknown whether, or to what extent, his widow Juana really was mentally ill, as the men in her life (her husband, father, and then her son) all had much to gain by having her declared unfit to rule and confined.
Next, we visited the Monastery of San Jerónimo, which was built at around the same time as the cathedral and the chapel, also at the behest of Isabel and Ferdinand. Like the cathedral, the monastery was constructed in the Renaissance style, which had just arrived in the country. By far the outstanding part of the visit was the main altarpiece, which is both enormous and enormously detailed. But I also enjoyed the statue of the maniacally smiling nun.
I am narrating these visits as if we were coherent. In truth, by this point we were sleep-deprived, hungry, dehydrated, and just worn out from the train ride, the drive, and from walking around the hot city. So, after a quick bite to eat, we decided to walk back to the Airbnb for a break. By now it was late afternoon, the hottest part of the day. Our path took us up one of the many hills in the city as the sun blazed down from above. The streets were still completely deserted. The only people stupid enough to be marching through the evening heat were the two American tourists. And we were regretting it. (If you think Spaniards are lazy because of the siesta, try staying active in the middle of an Andalusian summer day. There is a reason that certain customs develop.)
After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the Airbnb and collapsed into the bed, falling asleep immediately.
We awoke two hours later into a different world. The sun was about to set (which means that it was around nine at night) and the city had come alive then. Every bar and restaurant was full, the plazas and sidewalks were bustling. And it was easy to see why: the temperature had dropped from hellish to perfectly pleasant.
We had a quick dinner and then made our way to the famous Mirador de San Nicolás, a viewpoint on the top of a hill, directly opposite the Alhambra. As usual, it was swarming with people, though for a change they were mostly Spaniards (if memory serves, the country had not yet opened up to foreign tourists after the lockdown). We had a drink, listened to the locals playing flamenco, and looked across to that famous palace—emblem of Moorish Spain—which was the next item on our itinerary.
Even in the wake of the apocalypse, it is still wise to book your visit to the Alhambra in advance. We had our tickets to go bright and early. Now, I have already written a very long post about the Alhambra, its architecture, and its history, so I will not rehash that here.
I will only say that if you ever have a chance to visit this iconic site in the wake of a global pandemic, take it. The Alhambra is normally packed with people, which necessarily detracts from the experience—since it is hard to appreciate the mathematical elegance of its designs while elbowing fellow tourists. This time, there were perhaps a quarter of the usual number of visitors. It was incomparably better.
With our visit to the Alhambra completed, our short time in Granada was up. We ate a quick meal and then drove back to Málaga for the next stage of our journey.
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