Few of Europe’s medieval neighborhoods can have as varied a history as Granada’s hill-climbing Albaicin. Many others share the narrow streets, twisting lanes, hidden courtyards and sudden vistas, but this one is unique, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.
Our walking tour started at the edge of the modern city, where a tourist bazaar gives a hint of how busy the area was a few hundred years ago.
Although there’s archeological evidence that someone lived there in the Roman era, and that the early Islamic rulers built a fortress there in the 8th century, the Albaicin as we know it was a late starter. In the 11th century, new rulers built a wall around it, but it didn’t really grow until after the fall of Cordoba to Christian conquerors. At that point, for the first time, Granada became an important center of Muslim rule in Spain.
Not only did it gain importance as the last stronghold of the Moors—it also had a sudden population jump as many, especially the well-off-migrated there from other areas, and began building new homes and mosques on the hill. At the same time, the next hill facing it became the building site for the Alhambra. Some of the best views of the Alhambra, in fact, are from the Albaicin.
Above, a sneak preview of the Alhambra in the distance; below, the Alhambra crowns the hilltop opposite the Albaicin. Bottom: the Albaicin from Alhambra
By the time Granada fell to the Christian Reconquista in 1492, the neighborhood had perhaps 40,000 residents and 30 mosques. The population soon grew to 60,000; the new rulers alternately encouraged and forced Muslims into the neighborhood.
Lower shaft of bell tower at left was a minaret; when a church replaced the mosque the bells were added. At right, the arched opening is to a rainwater cistern, still functional.
The Treaty of Granada, which set the terms for the city’s surrender, guaranteed that everyone could continue with their religion and possessions, but that had a fairly short life; Jews who did not convert were expelled soon, and within a few decades, Muslims were given a choice of converting or leaving. Soon the Albaicin population became mainly Christian and convert—but it had little effect on the architecture or appearance of the area.
Church and cafe share a tiny plaza halfway up the hill. Stone inlaid paving is typical throughout Andalucia, part of its Moorish heritage.
Over time, churches replaced mosques, often using the same buildings, but residences kept most of the characteristics of Moorish homes: enclosed inner courtyards open to the sky, usually with a pool, with all rooms and windows opening to the inside of the house. Many of the blank walls seen in the Albaicin today have small compounds, called “carmena” behind them and hiding their carefully-tended gardens.
The house above is open as a museum; once the home of a Moorish official. From its open courtyard, a view of the Alhambra.
The Albaicin is a fairly quiet place these days, and except for a colorful commercial strip at its feet, where it meets the modern city, it’s difficult to imagine it crowded and teeming with activity, but that is its history.
The plaque on this house identifies it as the Carmen San Francisco. Try as we might,
we never found Carmen Sandiego...
If you decide to visit, by the way, a guided walking tour is a good idea: No danger, but a real possibility not only of getting lost, but of missing many worthwhile sights. Tours are available daily; we walked with CiceroneGranada which has a kiosk in the Plaza de Bib-Rambla near the cathedral. Unlike some tours we’ve had which were filled with too many “good stories” and not enough context, this one was serious but fun, and gave us a satisfying taste of the history of this fascinating city and neighborhood.
MORE TravelGumbo blogs on Andalucia:
- Visiting the Alhambra
- The Alcazar of Seville and the Puzzling Palace of Peter I
- The Alcazar of Jerez: A Window into History
- Six Tapas Bars in Seville, Spain
- Cordoba's Great Mosque-Cathedral
Scenes from a bathhouse, a tradition in every Moorish neighborhood. The last picture shows shaped holes in ceiling to provide light.
The Darro, one of Granada's four rivers, flows between the hills of Albaicin and Alhambra. The bricked door in the ruined arch above led to a tunnel into the Alhambra. Bottom, the river disappears into a tunnel under the modern city.
Just graffitti, but fun...
The slideshow below includes some additional pictures...enjoy!