Discovering Granada: Moving and Buying a House in Spain

A couple travels to Granada, Spain, in search for a new home and a new city to live in.


| March 2015



Alhambra Palace

The Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, is evidence of its rich history.

Photo by Fotolia/trofotodesign

Granada is one of the iconic cities of the world. Author and Granada resident Steven Nightingale explores its history and culture of Al-Andalus, finding a story of Utopian ecstacsy, political intrigue, religious exaltation, and scorching anguish in Granada (Counterpoint Press, 2015). This excerpt, from the chapter “The Carmen of Our Serendipity,” explores Nightingale’s initial arrival in the city of Granada with his wife and young daughter.

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To leave your place of birth, to be roughed up by another country, to seek understanding in a new language, to labor in hopes to make a home in the place you land—these are American dreams. I had wanted always to move away from the United States, and my wife, Lucy, had grown up in North Africa, in the Congo, in Paris, and in Mali. She was ready for a sojourn abroad. So it was that in the spring of 2002, we traveled with our 11-month-old daughter, Gabriella, through southern Spain, in search of a city to live. After visiting Córdoba and Seville, we wandered into Granada. Across a narrow gorge from the finest Moorish palace in the world—the Alhambra, egregiously famous—we found the Albayzín. It’s medieval, full of balconies and walls like spillways for flowers; and labyrinthine, with zany angles, mysterious stairways, hidden courtyards, and streets just wide enough for two walking abreast. Within an hour of our arrival, we dined in a small plaza. The buildings around us showed white plaster and stone. Old women dressed in black sat on benches talking, their voices like a stream of swift water from the mountains. Bricklayers and gypsies walked by, and couples with babies, dreaming young women, and guitarists with hair halfway down their backs. The warm, late light of the early evening flowed across cobbles, the trees were leafing out, the food was hot and delicious. Our little girl chortled at the waiter, who cooed at her from nearby and winked at her from afar. Less than a minute into the meal, Lucy and I decided irrevocably to move into the neighborhood.

The next day, we asked a local realtor about houses for rent, for two years, to a family with a baby and a dog. “Es absurdo,” he replied immediately. Now, neither of us wanted to confess to being absurd, at least not right away. So we stepped off to see some rentals available to our pushy inquiries. After two useless visits to houses that had been treated with scorn by their owners, we felt even more absurd than previously. So we went to a bar to bewail our predicament and muse upon our fate. There, by dint of literal back-of-the-envelope calculations, checked with a pen that would not work until dipped in red wine, we seized upon a new plan: to buy a house.

Back we went to the realtor, who now was convinced of our whimsy; he looked askance at us. We hoped fervently for a garden where our daughter could play, some privacy, a room for friends to visit, and a place to work. Shaking his head at our pleas, the realtor did the obvious thing and turned us over to his mother, one Trinidad, a savvy woman who led us ably into the labyrinth of the Albayzín. Only one kind of house had what we sought, a house that, unbeknownst to us, was part of the legacy of the city and the legend of the Albayzín: the carmen. A carmen is a house with a hidden garden; we would learn later of its rapturous history.

In the sure, maternal hands of Trinidad, we began to walk about and look at carmenes. After three days, we found one that answered our taste for idiosyncrasy. All carmenes in the Albayzín have names, and this one was named Carmen de Nuestra Señora de la Purificación. This, to me, was so melodious that, for the name alone, I was ready to fork over the sales price and close a deal. Who could not use some purification? Would I have to convert to Catholicism? Did a program of austerity and fixed hours for prayer go along with the deed to the house? As I was standing in the street, mulling these important questions, Lucy walked in the door, looked around, and announced immediately: “This is it!” I was of course then gripped by the insane male spirit of due diligence and wanted to see rooms, analyze figures, order inspections; in a word, to meddle idiotically in what was, already, destiny. My foolery would lead us later to an introduction to a pair of contractors, one tall and stern, the other short and jolly. They had looked at the house, and Lucy and I would stand in the garden with them as I asked carefully prepared questions about water quality, the structural integrity of the tower, the condition of the roofs, and so on. The contractors looked at me in silence, until suddenly I heard a buzzing in the air that I could not identify. I looked skyward. Was it a distant airplane? An invasion of insects from Africa? Had someone in the countryside started up a chainsaw? But no, it was the tall contractor, replying to my questions in the speed-of-light Spanish of Andalusia. Once I was able to discern a word or two of the opinions of our advisor, I asked more questions and received more long, mellifluous responses. In fact, their answers, a swirl of winds around a still center, turned on the one word they never really used: fate. You buy a house in the Albayzín, then fate will take you away, and good luck to you as you go. It was the first time I encountered such easygoing fatalism. It turned out to be part of life here.