by Stuart Haggas
Although it cannot boast having a gay scene to rival Madrid or Barcelona, and isn't an iconic gay destination like Ibiza or Sitges, historic Granada has distinguished itself over and above all of these places by becoming the first province in Spain to officially declare itself "gay-friendly." Last year, specialist gay tour operators from 14 countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Poland, Germany, and Italy, attended Granada's second annual International LGBT Tourism Symposium, and Granada took this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag and flex its queer attributes, which include an annual LGBT film festival EntendiéndoNos, and Pink Week Sierra Nevada, a gay skiing and snowboarding event in Europe's southernmost ski resort.
Of course, gays and lesbians have been coming here long before the official welcome. The city has an exotic ancestry, a cross-pollination of Christian and Moorish cultures that gives Granada its unique personality. This culture clash has also given the city an extraordinary inheritance of treasures, including the maze-like old Albaicín quarter, the hillside caves of Sacromonte where gypsies dance flamenco, and the spectacular Alhambra and Generalife palace complex that, to this day, overshadows all of Granada from its lofty hilltop site.
The Moors occupied this part of Spain from 711 until 1492, when Granada was the last place in Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) to be re-conquered by the Catholic Monarchs. A popular legend tells how Boabdil, Granada's last Arab ruler, wept as he took a final look at his beloved Alhambra palace, at which point his mother is said to have uttered the cutting line: "Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man." It's hard not to pity Boabdil, for not only does his mother sound like a callous matriarch, it must have been genuinely heartbreaking to lose such a prime piece of real estate.
The American author and historian Washington Irving, best known for the haunting short stories The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, was responsible for writing more famous lines about Granada. Having completed work on a biography of Christopher Columbus in Madrid, Washington Irving arrived in Granada in 1829. He was immediately captivated by the city, so when Granada's governor invited him to stay in some of the Alhambra's unused rooms, he graciously accepted.
By then, this once grand palace was a neglected place, faded and forgotten, but Washington Irving remained here throughout that summer, exploring its Moorish grandeur and enjoying old stories told by beggars, thieves, and other misfits who sought shelter within the palace's fortified walls. His experiences inspired him to write Tales of the Alhambra. When published in the United States and England in 1832, it was an instant best seller, and furthermore had an astonishing affect on Granada's prosperity—it singlehandedly reintroduced the Alhambra's mystique to a whole new generation. Readers began to send money, and these donations were the start of a restoration project that ultimately led to the Alhambra becoming one of Spain's most visited attractions and, since 1984, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city's most famous son is another world-renowned wordsmith, Federico García Lorca. Born in 1898 just outside of Granada, today he's one of Spain's most prominent poets and dramatists, and an icon of LGBT history.
While a student in Madrid, García Lorca became infatuated with his friend, the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. Their complex story was told in the GLAAD Media Award-winning film Little Ashes. Dalí stated that, although he knew García Lorca was madly in love with him, they never had a sexual relationship—a fact some historians still question. He then began a stormy relationship with a bisexual young sculptor, Emilio Aladrén Perojo. Both these relationships were fatally one-sided and brought on a bout of depression, prompting García Lorca to travel to New York and Cuba. This trip gave him the confidence to write some of his most openly gay works, such as Ode to Walt Whitman and The Public.
Returning to Spain in 1930, García Lorca moved into his family's summer home in Granada. Today, Huerta de San Vicente is a fascinating house-museum, with original furnishings and artworks preserved, including a Dalí sketch. It was here that García Lorca wrote some of his best-loved works, including the plays Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba. In 1935, he also wrote a collection of eleven poems entitled Sonnets of Dark Love, with subtle homoerotic undertones (which as a result remained unpublished until 1984). These were dark days, the beginning of Spain's bloody Civil War, and in August 1936 García Lorca was arrested and summarily shot by fascist extremists, his body buried in an unmarked grave.
OF GRANADA SPAIN
Visit Granada today and you'll realize why it's inspired great literature and great passion. The Alhambra is inevitably the key attraction, but there are many sights to see in the shadow of this world-renowned palace. Covering the adjacent hillside, Albaicín is Granada's labyrinthine Moorish quarter. Tourists venture here primarily to enjoy postcard-perfect views of the Alhambra from the viewing point at Mirador de San Nicolás, but this whole area warrants thorough exploration.
If there's space for two donkeys to pass each other, that's considered to be a wide street in Albaicín, but for me the most notable attribute is not the narrowness but the steepness of the streets; if the jasmine-scented air and the vistas of ancient rooftops don't leave you breathless, the incline will!
The sinuous muddle of cobbled streets is lined with carmenes, a traditional style of villa arranged around a courtyard garden and secluded from the outside world by high walls. Today, several of these are restaurants. Occupying a prime vantage point, the regarded El Huerto de Juan Ranas serves up a mesmerizing view of the Alhambra, as well as delicious Arab- and Spanish-influenced cuisine like lamb couscous and pastela (pastry patties filled with meat and eggplant). For more casual and affordable dining, grab a table upstairs on the chic vine-covered terrace.
Named after the beautiful girl who married Boabdil, Granada's last Arab king, Mirador de Morayma is another lovely example of a carmen-restaurant, serving typical dishes like rich morcilla sausage with caramelized apple, salmorejo (a regional tomato soup similar to gazpacho), and chicken stuffed with spinach and goat cheese. Its pretty garden provides panoramic views that today are enjoyed by all; how sad to think that the young queen Morayma would have gazed sorrowfully at the Alhambra from here. Her husband was dethroned so soon after their wedding that she never actually set foot inside her palace.
After the 1492 surrender to the Catholic Monarchs, some of Granada's Muslim elite emigrated to North Africa, but the majority stayed and converted to Catholicism. The mosques of Albaicín were either destroyed or converted into Christian churches. Indeed, Iglesia de San Salvador is built on the site of the Great Mosque of Granada, and the bell tower of 16th-century Iglesia de Santa Ana is converted from the minaret of the mosque it replaced.
In Islamic culture, the ritual of purification is necessary before prayer, which is why there'll be a bathhouse in the vicinity of a mosque. Although you should visit the impressive remains of Granada's Baños Arabes El Bañuelo, which date to the 11th century, I also recommend you experience the bathing ritual itself by visiting nearby Hammams de Al-Andalus Baños Arabes. Although newly constructed, these Arabic baths are built in a traditional style with ornate horseshoe-shaped arches, walls of geometric mosaic tiles, and a vaulted ceiling with star-shaped openings to let light stream through, giving them a restful and authentic feel. Less authentic is the fact that wearing swimsuits is today obligatory here. The baths comprise a sequence of rooms with pools of cold, warm, and hot water, a Turkish-style steam bath, and a room lined with marble slabs for massages.
Nearby, lively Calle Caldería Nueva has inherited the ambience of an Arabic souk. Hone your skills at bartering for silk babouche slippers, exotic spices, and colorful lamps; then retreat to the nearest tetería, atmospheric Moorish-style tearooms where you can enjoy aromatic herbal infusions, perhaps flavored with mint leaves or rose petals and sweetened with honey, as well as strong Arabic coffee, sugary little pastries, and milkshakes made with yoghurt. You can even puff on a hookah pipe here.
North of Albaicín is Sacromonte, home to Granada's gypsy community. Gypsies have occupied the cave dwellings that honeycomb this hillside since the 15th century. The area is significant nowadays due to its historic links with flamenco. Some caves are home to flamenco families, with whitewashed rock walls displaying photographs of legendary flamenco dancers and famous former guests. Although the shows in these caves are inevitably touristic, this is not to say that they aren't good. In fact, the patronage of tourists must surely help keep the spirit of flamenco alive in Sacromonte. The variation of flamenco performed here is sometimes called zambra, and is said to be more theatrical in style because it symbolizes the different stages of a gypsy wedding. One recommended cave is La Rocío, where the majority of performers come from one family, and a photo of former guest Bill Clinton hangs on the wall. The musicians sit at the mouth of the cave while the dancers move up and down the entire length, guaranteeing everyone a front row seat. It's a lively and exuberant experience that'll get heels stomping and hands clapping.
If you genuinely seek the best and most authentic flamenco, I suggest you visit in June or July for Festival Internacional de Música y Danza. This dynamic event brings the passion of flamenco, the melody of the Spanish guitar, and the clack-clack-clack of castanets to the Alhambra palace, Generalife gardens, and intimate churches, cafés, and clubs throughout Granada. Otherwise, it's worth knowing who are the most regarded flamenco dancers, and aim to attend one of their shows. On my last trip to Granada, I was fortunate enough to see Juan Andres Maya and his dance company perform, a privilege also enjoyed by Michelle Obama on her Andalucía vacation in 2010. I was equally fortunate to spot him again the next night, enjoying a drink in gay bar Six Colours. I bet the First Lady can't say the same.
Beyond these ancient areas, Granada is unquestionably Christian and typically Spanish with tree-lined avenues, shady squares, tapas bars, and the stores of Spanish fashion brands like Zara, Springfield, Pull and Bear, and Massimo Dutti. Dating to 1583, Granada's Cathedral is a glorious monument of Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque styles. The adjacent Capilla Real displays a wealth of 15th-century art, including haunting religious works by Botticelli and Rogier van der Weyden; plus artifacts of the Catholic Monarchs including King Ferdinand V's sword, and crowns, jewels, and ornaments belonging to Queen Isabella I. Their bodies, and those of their heirs, lie in the crypt below.
Granada boasts several luxurious new five-star hotels in grand old buildings, all situated close to the gay scene. Occupying a beautifully restored old convent and cloister, AC Palacio de Santa Paula is a new boutique hotel that combines original features with cutting-edge contemporary design. Equally edgy is Hospes Palacio de los Patos, a former 19th-century palace that's been reinvented as a minimalist, alabaster-white refuge; and Fontecruz Granada, a polished and urbane new design hotel tucked behind a characteristic old façade. Fashionable but more affordable nearby options include Room Mate Leo and Hotel Abba Granada. You can even follow the lead of Washington Irving, because a former 15th-century Franciscan convent situated within the Alhambra fortifications is today a popular Parador, the Spanish chain of state-run historic building hotels.