Granada is for me where it all began. It’s where I first really fell for Spain and all its charms.
I lived there for a year in 1975.
On a Sunday evening I would walk up the slick black winding cobbled streets of the Albaizin, the Moorish quarter. I would not go up as far as Sacromonte, where gypsy families still lived in caves and underground dwellings.
I would take a right turn from the main street and climb steeply up a narrow whitewashed alley, past the house with the broken guitar affixed to its creased outside wall, and enter the Plaza de San Nicolas.. my plaza.
On those autumn evenings, I would sit on the low wall, feet dangling in the cool dusk air circling upwards from the valley far below. I would drink in the silhouette of the Moorish Alhambra palace, the green watered gardens of the Generalife still woozy from the drugged warmth of the early autumn Spanish sun, as darkness fell. The snow- coated outline of the Sierra Nevada sat above the palace in a blood- red sky. A nightingale’s song would occasionally break the stillness, I would trace its journey down from that sky, through a rainbow of colours, to the Plaza.
I am drawn to this place when in need of succour. A place where African princes conversed with the birds from their homeland, mourned to their melancholy songs, rejoiced to their love refrains and whose lovers in the harem were rocked to sleep by their lullabies.
I am here again now, 37 years on from when I first came. Then, like now, it was both a beginning and an end.
I have left Laurie Lee behind in Almunecar, 70 miles to the south. I finally reached there, the end of Lee’s journey, a few days back. I have been retracing his steps on a journey he took from the North West Atlantic coast of Spain to Almunecar near Malaga on the Mediterranean in 1935, when Spain was on the brink of a civil war.
To complete my own journey I had felt the need to come back to Granada.
I had risen early to see the sun rise over the Alhambra. After 37 years my internal compass was not set correctly and I had walked up too high and to the west of the square. Glimpses of the church steeple finally led me back down through the years.
It was a cold, damp November morning, like many in Granada- a magical but melancholy city. At 21 minutes past seven,the time of sunrise, the Sierra behind the palace was covered in a grey sheet, like my memories of its Autumn sheen.
Granada was the home of Federico Garcia Lorca, a soulmate of Lee, and someone who influenced greatly his poetic and lyrical style of writing, though they never met. It was also the home of Manuel de Falla who captured the soul of the City and its people with his music. (Click to hear Falla’s Nights in the Spanish Garden.)
Lorca was executed by Franco’s followers, early in the civil war in August 1936. The favourite place for such executions was across the valley in front of me. The firing squad would line up its victims against the wall of the cemetery, underneath the cypress trees that lined the walk up to the Alhambra Palace. Lorca though was not buried there, he was buried somewhere in the green valley outside the city, the valley in which he grew up, the valley down below me covered in early morning dew.His grave has never been identified and those still alive who know the answer are silent on the matter.
I had started the second half of my journey in Madrid in October. Before leaving the city I visited the Residencia De Los Estudiantes. Part of Madrid University, it was where Lorca, Bunuel and Dali all studied and lived together back in the 1920s.
Lorca wrote about duende- the soul of the Spanish people- and defined a concept as elusive as running water. What Falla captured in his “Nocturno del generalife,” Lorca nailed down in prose. I am fascinated by his words, I think Laurie Lee, such a charmer himself, was seduced, like me, by Spain’s duende and came closest to expressing it in English. My retracing of Lee’s journey had led me to pure Flamenco song. A sound that,in Lorca’s words, originated not in the throat “the duende climbs up inside you , from the soles of the feet.” Lorca talks of “all that has black sounds has duende.” I had seen, as Lee had seen, the “moon-frozen heads painted by Zurbaran” in Seville, I had wallowed in El Greco’s “butter yellow and lightening yellow” paintings in Toledo and listened to the “innumerable rites of Good Friday…the popular triumph of Spanish death” in Valladolid.
The wind ruffles the leaves on the square of the plaza, frustrating the efforts of my only companians, two street cleaners, and spreads them out over the indented images of the Granadino, the symbol of the city, the pomegranate, whose black shells and seeds carpet the cobbled floor.
Lorca had ended his homily to duende with the lines”Where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed glass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.”
As I tore myself away from the plaza to a nearby bar for a well-deserved warming breakfast. I thought of Lee’s final thoughts as he left Almunecar, for what he certainly thought would be the last time in his life, as he set sail for England, “Spain drifted away from me, thunder-bright on the horizon, and I left it there beneath its copper clouds.”