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A Step Back In Time
On Wednesday of last week I took the bus from Nerja to Granada to attend a four day workshop on The Art of Islamic Pattern, a subject I have become particularly interested in over the past year. The course was based in the Centre of Islamic Studies, alongside the Granada Mosque in the Albaicín district of the city, and also included a whole day visiting La Alhambra palaces and gardens, one of Andalucía’s - and, indeed Spain’s - major monuments from the later years of Al Andalus.
Over the course of the four days I learned a tremendous amount about the construction of complex patterns and designs from what are essentially simple elements, together with a better grasp of the philosophy that underlies Islamic art. I also enjoyed the company of around two dozen fellow students, drawn from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds and covering a good spread of ages.
But as well as benefiting from the teaching, I also had the pleasure of being introduced to the Albaicín, as the apartment that I rented for my stay was located right in the heart of this ancient community. The better-known Alhambra palaces were relatively late arrivals on the scene, construction of what at the time was an entire walled city, with many palaces, only began in the thirteenth century. By the end of the fifteenth century - the famous year of 1492, when according to the mnemonic, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, the Nasrid dynasty was defeated by the Catholic Monarchs ( Ferdinand and Isabela), bringing to an end almost 800 years of Arab rule in the Iberian Peninsula. The street where I stepped out of my taxi to be met by the owner and led down to the apartments, on the other hand, dates to the twelfth century, with most of the lower part of the Albaicín much older than that. My apartment was located in a carmen, which in Granada refers to a traditional Arab house from the medieval era or even earlier, which is built around a central patio. El Número 8 as it is called, is built on two storeys around such a patio and has been divided by Rafa and Carmen, the owners, into six units, one of which supplies their accommodation, with the other five let as self-catering apartments. In keeping with its age and style, the units are small and compact, but so well-ventilated that even in the full heat of the day you could be excused for thinking that they must have modern air-conditioning, but no, this is another of the skills which the Arabs brought with them to Spain. From the upper storey a flight of steps takes you up onto a small roof terrace with a view straight across the valley of the Río Darro to the ridge of La Alhambra, which looks so close that you imagine you could almost reach out and touch it.
This part of the Albaicín is built up the steep slopes from the river, with higher status houses at the bottom near the river, and lower status the higher you climbed; and climb you did, so it is just as well that I have had plenty of practice here in Frigiliana. After a day or two my OCD streak kicked in and so I am able to tell that you that to reach the bar where I had my milky coffee and toast and tomato breakfast, I had to climb 153 steps, whereas after eating in the evening down in the Plaza Nueva by the river, I had to climb 75 steps to get back to the apartment. That is without taking into account the steep slopes between the steps. And there was no alternative to walking; the entire area is a traffic-free zone. If you are ever thinking of staying there, leave the car at home and come by public transport, and that is true even if you are flying in from abroad: Get a bus to Granada from whichever city you arrive at. You’ll save yourself a fortune in car hire and car park fees, which can then be spent eating out at the many bars and restaurants at your disposal.