Granada – el Duende and a city that survives on snow water

Granada is like an old queen slumbering away under an antheap.

This is because of all the travellers and tour groups who come to see the Alhambra Palace, which is a world heritage site and is deserving of all the attention.  It was built nearly 1000 years ago and has enjoyed a number of ówners´ during the intervening period.  It is a palace  built for luxury and relaxation, for defence and a show of wealth (like most palaces) but this one has been designed to go one step further to be a little paradise.

What amazed me the most, and what will be my favourite memory of the Alhambra, are the gardens.  I do realise that there are gardens everywhere and that all palaces have gardens.  But these gardens are particularly fascinating.  They are lush and beautiful, and a miracle in this climate, because (as the tour guides will tell you) it never rains in Granada.

The area is arid desert, but engineers in the 12th century created this ingenious system of irrigation channels and reservoirs to catch the snow water as it runs off the nearby mountain ranges in spring.

The palace is huge, a suburb surrounded by walls, with buildings, gardens and little forests in it everywhere.  These are irrigated purely from snow water.  How smart is that!  And even smarter, is that the surrounding miles and miles of olive plantations and agricultural lands are also irrigated with snow water.  The only water in Granada is snow water.

When other parts of Spain suffer drought Granada is ok, although it never rains, because of this highly intelligent snow-water-system that was set up 1000 years ago.


Something interesting – the word ¨Granada¨ means ´pomegranate¨and the city is named after the fruit – probably as a mark of pride in the achievement of turning barren land into a beautiful oasis.

I can imagine that Granada in her day was a truly splendid queen, bejeweled and magnificent (like a pomegranate).  The location is also strategic from a military perspective so the palace has changed hands a number of times throughout history.

So what have I been up to?   Flamenco.  Watching of course, not participating.  (Though I now have two different pairs of castanets – they are easier to play than music spoons and they sound just like horse’s hooves on cobblestones).

In the gypsy quarter they perform a raw and salty form of flamenco which is quite unique and a little bit addictive!  I have gone to alot of shows and will probably go again tonight.

The performers sing and dance well into the small hours of the morning, and even last night about 3am I could still hear the sound of the music and singing floating down the hill.  The suburb is called Sacromonte and consists of cave dwellings burrowed into the hill.  They look like any other sort of house at the front entrance but inside it is a cave. It is where the Granada gypsies have lived for hundreds of years and display strong cultural identity and history.  The caves are very decorated inside and lots of them hold Flamenco shows nightly.

There was one young girl who truly stood out.  What an incredible dancer!  There is this Spanish concept of ‘duende’.  Some performers have it and some don´t.  You can’t practice it, you cant learn it, and you can’t put it on like a dress.  You either have it or not.  This girl has it.  I cannot explain what duende is.  Any translation is clumsy.   The great Spanish poet Lorca presented an essay once, beautifully written and eloquent, in which he tried to explain the concept of ‘el duende’ in English.    By the end of his essay Lorca concluded, with some sadness, that despite all of his best efforts he still did not feel like he had hit upon the perfect transalation, and that it was impossible to explain ¨duende¨ in english.

I think you have to see it.

And for that you need to come to Granada, to Sacromonte, and watch this girl dance.
The other thing I would recommend here is the olive oil tour. Don’t laugh, I realise it sounds like something you would do if you were bored, but it was very interesting.
We met a 300 year old olive tree, and went to a 15th century olive mill, and learned that olive oil is just as complicated as wine.   If you know what you´re doing you match certain olive oils with certain foods, just like you do with wine.  You have regions and varieties, which are important to know about.

Interesting olive oil facts:-

If you plant almond trees near the olive trees it is believed that the aroma of the almonds will be found in the olive oil.
There are thousands of different varieties of olive worldwide, and only a few hundred of these are grown in Andalusia.
Spain produces more olive oil than any other country, and Andalusia produces 80% of Spain’s olive oil
Most olive mills are also used to make wine.  The mills are run as community cooperatives.
The olive groves are owned by families and inherited within the family.  The saying is that you plant a grape vine for your children and an olive tree for your grandchildren.
Olive trees have these little nodules in their trunks that act like camel’s humps and store moisture and nutrients, which is why they survive in harsh conditions; just like camels.
Olive trees also have suckers which have to be removed and pruned off each year so that they don´t drain the tree.
However – and this is interesting – if an olive tree gets too old or gets sick you cut it down, and let the suckers grow out of the stump and they will become a new tree, which will have the benefit of the established root system and nodules of the older tree, and all the vigor and growth of a young tree.  In this way olive trees can continue to ´grow´for thousands of years and so in the Mediterranean they are symbols of eternal life.

Pure unrefined Olive oil is good for everything healthwise, and my grandma was not crazy, you are apparently supposed to put it in your hair!
If your olive oil at home has the word ´refined´anywhere on its label it is low grade olive oil with a bit of extra virgin olive oil splashed into it.
Pure olive oil needs no refining at all, so it seems.
The process of milling the olive oil is totally natural, they sometimes add a bit of water, which is then removed later. no chemicals or anything else.
They have to get the olives from the tree to the mill within 24 hours.
There is no wastage.  The crushed up pips are used as fuel to heat the mushy stuff left over from the ¨first press,¨in order to enable them to do the ¨second press¨.
There is a stinky acidic vegetable water which is a by product of the process and can’t be released into the waterways because it would kill everything¨- so for thousands of years they have neutralised it with limestone then put it back on the fields as fertiliser.
The leaves and vegetable matter left over is fed to animals.
So the olive tree is a perfect plant and a gift to us from nature.

The tour then went into all the complexities of spànish wine, and sherry!!
I had no idea that sherry was so complicated.  If you wanted to seriously learn about all this stuff you would need to set aside quite some time.
The other beautiful thing about Granada, which is timeless, is the sight of the snow crowned Sierra Nevada mountains rising behind the city.
That is a truly magnificent sight, and I feel such an inclination to go and explore those mountains.  Apparently they are ´closed´outside of ski season – I have already asked if anyone does day tours up there.
Another interesting fact about Granada is that 25 minutes away, along the Granada coastline, is a tropical ecosystem where they grow mangoes and other tropical fruit.  How weird.  See, I thought i was near the equator!

So that is about all I have to say about Granada.

The other little treasure I have from here is a heavy volume of translated works of Lorca.   He would have been an interesting person to meet.  He is dead now, killed at age 38 in a political upheaval, but he left a  written legacy and I am glad to own a little slice of it
It is because of Lorca that we know it is not possible to explain ‘el duende’ in English …


30 May 2012, – Granada Spain



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