Separated from the Alhambra by the steep sides of the Rio Darro drainage is the Albayzín, Granada’s historic Moorish quarter. Narrow lanes bracketed by whitewashed buildings criss-cross the Albayzín. It is postcard perfect Andalusia.
As long as you don’t mind the hulls, the Albayzín is an easy place to wander and explore. There are many things to discover along the way including a Moorish bathhouse and several traditional houses that have been opened to tourists.
From the outside the open houses are easy to miss. Only a small sign on the modest exterior indicates which houses can be visited for a small fee. In contrast to the outside, the inside of these houses is elaborate and ornate. Each has a similar layout; a collection of small rooms surrounds a central courtyard with a water feature. Today as in the past, these houses are peaceful refuges from the sights, sounds, and smells of the outside world.
Away from the hill, on the edge of the Albayzín, is Granada’s Cathedral. In 1492, the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Reconquista ended after the signing of the Treaty of Granada. Granada was the last stronghold to fall in the 770-year reconquest of Iberia. In 1518, the Spanish began the construction of an impressive cathedral to consolidate Catholic rule. Like many churches in Andalusia, Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana de la Encarnación de Granada was purposely built on the site of what was once a Moorish mosque. The architecture of the cathedral is Renaissance and Baroque and not the more typical Gothic style of many post-Reconquista churches in the region. The difference is noticeable inside and out.
Exploring the cathedral and wandering the endless hills of the Albayzín will make a visitor hungry. Fortunately visitors can stop in at one of several convents for sweets treats or dulces. Many nuns in Granada earn money by selling sweets and confections that are produced using recipes that are said to originate from the times of the Romans and Moors.
Purchasing these dulces from convents is an anonymous process. The nuns are cloistered and avoid direct contact with the public. Thus inside each convent is a room with a lazy Susan installed on the wall. Customers, after checking the posted price list, put the correct amount of money on the turntable and ring the buzzer. From behind the wall the voice of a nun greets the customer and the order is placed verbally. In a moment, the carousel turns and the money is exchanged for a box of the requested treats.
In our case, we opted for a box of mantecado de almendra, an almond paste based treat from the Monasterio de Santa Catalina de Zafra. In truth we didn’t quite know what we were buying. But it turned out these were good, very good. Indeed, we wish we bought two boxes, maybe more. And when we visit Granada again, we might well need to visit every convent to try every dulce on offer. After all, Granada has a lot of hills. At least that’s what we will tell ourselves as we gorge on all of the nun’s confections.
UNESCO has includes the Albayzín in the World Heritage listing: “Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada”.