America, as in the United States of — because once you’ve left it you discover America encompasses a lot more real estate than we “Americans” realize— is nothing if not efficient. At least it was efficient, before 5 billion undelivered shipping containers chock-full of Christmas decorations clogged the Port of Savannah. Because of that parsimoniousness, most of the U.S.’s national holidays fall on Mondays.
Not so here in Spain. A holiday is as apt to fall on, say, a Tuesday, as it is to land anywhere else on the calendar. That Monday in between? It may not be an official holiday, but the kids are out of school. Most people take the day off, in the process creating the long-weekend phenomenon known as el Puente —the bridge.
Weekend before last, travel throughout Spain was unrestricted for one of the first holidays since March 2020. Granted, you were able to get around travel restrictions before now — you could visit family; few people were turned away at the airport; the national State of Alarm was lifted, then put back into place, then lifted again —but until this weekend, people seemed to stay put more than they had in the Beforetimes.
We’d earmarked spring break 2020 for a sort of Andalusian Grand Tour through Sevilla, Córdoba, Granada, and Cádiz back in those Beforetimes —but we all know what happened to those sorts of plans. Twenty months on, we plan less ambitiously. Finally, weekend before last, on the first unfettered Puente of the New Normal, we made it to Granada.
Americans have been writing about Granada since 1832, when Washington Irving spent five months camped out in the then-ruined Alhambra perched picturesquely above the city. Who knew? Not me, not until last weekend, when I wound my way through the “pearl set into emeralds” that is the Alhambra, more of a diminutive jewel box than it is a building.
The Alhambra is fretwork and deliberate framing of a view of white houses tumbling down the spurs of the Sierra Nevada; the splash of water into 500-year-old alabaster fountains and the geometric precision of its terraced gardens. Even the Arabic calligraphy incised into its walls in places spells out the word joy. If I’d known beforehand that its gardens contain a multitude of nightingales, I would’ve bought another set of tickets and dragged the family back there for a second visit after sunset.
The Alhambra, specifically, and Granada, in general, exude Romance with a capital R, which makes sense, because Washington Irving was nothing if not a proponent of Romanticism, with its gothic overtones, its penchant for ruined crenellated turrets and its veneration of the natural world. Tales of the Alhambra, the book he wrote while staying in the palace — and that’s the writers’ residency par excellence I’d hold out for —both opened Spanish eyes to the treasure falling to pieces in their midst and put Spain on the Grand Tour map as far as 19th century tourists were concerned. Up until then, the English and their American country-cousins, avid to acquire a gloss of culture, had stuck to France and Italy. As the Industrial Revolution created nostalgia for an agrarian past, Spain was put into the picture.
And then, fifty or so years further on, Americans themselves, influenced by their own Alhambra visits, would create a Disneyfied version of Granada’s architecture of white walls and wrought iron and balconies in the Spanish Revival trend that took California, Florida and parts of Texas by storm. It might not be even that much of a stretch to draw a sort of through-line from Washington Irving’s initial romantic depiction of the country for foreign eyes to Ernest Hemingway’s idealized expat Fiesta-fever dream of it 100 years later.
That particular (mostly made-up) cultural welter, one part The Sun Also Rises, one part Carmen, one part San Antonio Riverwalk, shaped my idea of Spain before I moved to it. How can one not like Granada? It’s the Ur-Spain: filled with flamenco and guitars, hung with pomegranates, fragrant with jasmine! Even the Spanish are aware that Andalusia and Granada are both a cultural touchstone and a stereotype. Back in 1953, famous film director Luis Garcia Berlanga made a comic send-up movie called Bienvenido, Mister Marshall, in which a Castilian town (located nowhere near Granada) courts American diplomats and the Marshall Plan’s open pockets by transforming itself into an Andalusian village, complete with stage sets nailed over building facades and a flamenco dancer. (The gambit isn’t successful.)
If you can make any generalization about these Aftertimes, it might be this: the historical ground is shifting beneath our feet. So many of the stories we were told don’t actually reflect the way things were.
Twenty years before Washington Irving visited the Alhambra, Napoleon’s soldiers bivouacked in it. They used its walls for target practice; when they decamped they set off a few mines as a way of saying good-bye.
So… what’s real, what’s reconstruction, what’s fantasy? Who knows? You could even say that everybody who visits makes their own Alhambra. It was conceived of as a “paradise on earth” — but who knows what that looked like, or was supposed to look like, in the 13th century?
Wood disintegrates; stone remains. Sun and wind and the sound of water now pass freely into the Alhambra’s interior spaces; courtyards and passageways and windows shake up what interior and exterior might even mean, conceptually speaking. The garden is inside. Or is it? The salon is outside. Doorways are as carved and ornate as interior walls. Hallways look like, and sometimes were, rooms.
Maybe nothing is liminal space… or everything is.