Discovering Granada: Moving and Buying a House in Spain

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The Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, is evidence of its rich history.
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Steven Nightingale excavates the rich history of a beautiful Spanish city in “Granada.”

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.

But that futile shenanigan came later. That first day with Trinidad, we learned the house had been in the same family for most of a century. We went slowly around. Up the stairs, we found a room of Arabic design, with windows of colored glass, soft green with stars of cobalt, that filled the space at morning with blue and verdant light. Nearby was a tiny room that had small, beautiful wall paintings of children playing with toys from early in the 1900s. One story above, we found a tower with a tilting outdoor terrace, looking straight at the Alhambra. We gazed from there down into the garden. Curious barbed-wire designs swathed the garden walls, and a wooden dovecote hunkered down in a corner of the garden near a room where some brother, decades ago, had been locked up for insanity, with the murmuring doves for comfort.

Fate, in a good mood, was by now holding us in a muscular embrace. The price, in euros, seemed fair to us, since at the time the dollar was worth more than a gnat’s eye. So the negotiation began, with the help of a magisterial notary who had, from sheer generosity, befriended us. Notaries have, in Spain, a distinguished position, and part of their traditional work is to join in with negotiations to help both sides understand the issues and the law. I was used to American lawyers, whose job is often to snarl, at great expense, and hurl thick documents at their adversaries, or even at their clients. Now I was confronted by a new, disorienting Spanish custom of helpful and honest lawyers who bring goodwill and clarity to business. I felt we had been transported to some odd and distant planet. But I liked the planet, and soon we were signing papers—all four pages of them—to buy the house from the family who had owned it for generations. Closing would be in three months. Since we were headed back to the United States, we proposed in the spirit of efficiency to conclude the transaction through the mail. This innocent idea appalled the family, for it lacked in ceremony, offended tradition, failed in courtesy, and marked us as brutish foreigners. The way you buy a house, we learned, was to hand over a cashier’s check, receive the keys into your hand directly, and then go out for a sherry together. Not wanting to give mortal offense, and hoping to earn a glance of affection from Nuestra Señora de la Purificación, we of course caved in and agreed straightaway to return to Spain in a few months with money, and thirsty for sherry.

In the meantime, we learned more about the Albayzín, with a view to having some renovation done before we arrived in the next year. We discovered that the whole barrio, from the church of San Cristobal at the top of the hill to the River Darro at the foot of the hill, had since 1570 been crumbling away, an abused and, in some centuries, a despised ruin. No one loved it, unless they lived there. It was too poor and dusty, strange and ancient, even to bother with flattening it. Then in 1994, after much work on the part of its brilliant Spanish advocates, UNESCO declared the whole neighborhood a World Heritage Site, part of what they call the Patrimony of Humankind. This rotund phrase, now affixed to the Albayzín, came with Spain having thrown off just two decades earlier the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The country had written a constitution, begun a democracy with an independent judiciary, joined the European Union and NATO, and in general, with genius, worked a national miracle. Suddenly, visitors turned up in the forgotten Albayzín, the European Union sent money to help with repairs of the streets and houses, histories of the neighborhood were written, traditions of painting and poetry rediscovered, and Granada recognized publicly what some citizens had said for decades: that it had a jewel in its hand.

We began to feel a wee bit less absurd. And when in June Lucy and I returned with our cashier’s check, we came with a coffee pot and some ideas. We camped out like teenagers on a single mattress on the floor of our bedroom, rose with the sun, scratched our heads and looked around. What had we done? There were modern tiles to remove, the garden cement sported fissures, the kitchen held a dark- ness a tomb would envy. And the property came wrapped in metal: because the selling family had not lived here, the house had been empty except for holidays, and it had been robbed. The young burglars, finding the house to their taste, had after the robbery decided to stay on. They frolicked by candlelight through the warm nights, in all the rooms, with invited and consensual friends. Guitars sounded. Aromatic smoke swirled. These high times lasted for days. When their revels were finally discovered, they unanimously wanted their derring-do to be admired, and their stay extended; but alas, even in courteous Spain, uninvited thieves must eventually go.

This bizarre incident made the owners swoon from distress. They trussed the house in barbed wire, locked up the windows in iron bars, installed bolts, fixed metal doors in place. The keys that we were handed with great courtesy came in a weighty bundle that, put in a pocket, would break a femur.

What to do? We did what we would do so often in our time in Spain: we counted on our Spanish friends. The wonderful notary and his wife, who had been of inestimable help during our house-hunting, now named a contractor who came to see us. José Antonio de la Torre was his name, and he spoke a Spanish so clear that a rock would understand it. We walked about, dreamed, pondered, declared that the barbed wire must all go, marveled at the azure radiance in the Arab bedroom. We sought a way for the house to exhale, for dark rooms to open to the light and the garden. We thought it would be nice to have heat in the winter. We gathered ideas from books on the houses of southern Spain and Morocco, from our visits to carmenes in the Albayzín, and our look into the Moorish traditions of design in Granada that have fascinated so many for centuries. All in all, our idea was simple: we wanted a house and garden respectful of the traditions of Andalusia, and we wanted a place where our daughter could rumpus safely with other children.

The Carmen de Nuestra Señora de la Purificación had an older section with beautiful old tiles in the entryway—blue and gold and bone-white. Stairs led above to the child’s room with the lovely paintings, the Arab room, and then up to the tower. Downstairs, off the garden, there were the two storage rooms we would make into bedrooms, with orange and lemon trees outside their windows.

Soon, we had a plan and a contract. We left on the idea that the work would start in the fall. The main house, except for the kitchen, would be finished in January, when we would arrive in Granada to begin a life here. We’d move in, get settled, take stock; then we’d do the garden rooms and whatever else made sense, on the ground, as we looked around and learned more.

The months whirled by, our little girl learned to walk, we wrapped up sundry labors, and soon autumn was upon us. We sold our cars. Off went our boxes of books on a slow boat from San Francisco. We went on a last camping trip in Nevada, in our wild, beloved Great Basin, where we were challenged in the middle of the night by a big, snorting, white mustang stallion. We saw bighorn sheep, walked among the aspen going gold, rubbed our hands and faces with sage- brush, and knew what a sorrow it would be not to have this blessed country to explore. The light in the Great Basin is more than light. It’s a kind of intelligence and will lead anyone in that desert wilder- ness over ridges and into hidden canyons, where coyotes will come to your side and propose curious theological speculations. And these are the ordinary things of the wilderness of the Basin.

Winter wheeled round. We had a last Christmas stateside, said our goodbyes, put our golden lab in her crate for the long flight, kissed and murmured to the now 18-month-old Gabriella about our daft adventure, and we were off.

We arrived in Granada late at night, in a thick, freezing rain. Of course, this being the Albayzín, there was no way to get any- where near our house in the rented car. In addition, both Lucy and I were wondering, given the tangle of the streets, if we could even find our house. This doubt made us laugh, and so we parked at the side of a cobblestone street and sat there musing and joking, with little thought that, in such a fix, we would see our Spanish cohorts of months before. Of course, the notary and his wife just then drove by and leapt from their car to shelter us with their friendship. They promised to fetch umbrellas and meet us down by our house. We set off through the narrow streets of the Albayzín, hauling our belongings through the tempestuous night, with a soaked dog by our side and tired infant in our arms. The rain was merciless, the sky was black. “Gabriella!” we exclaimed to our dubious baby, “we’re moving into our house in Granada!”

Anyone could have predicted what happened next. We threw open the door to the house, and it was dark as a grave, dusty, frozen, and full of rubble. We were wet, exhausted, and cold. I think, but could not swear, that Gabriella winked at us.

The rain, of course, did not notice a thing. We advanced a foot into the house, enough to see that going further meant a fall over bricks and a tumble face forward into a mound of plaster. Not wanting to add fractured skulls to the curiosities of the night, we backed into the street, where we found our notary, by now a candidate for sainthood, standing with open umbrellas and ready to help. Together we toted our bags to a nearby carmen that had been made into a little hotel, and we burst into the lobby like a late-night edition of the grapes of wrath. The desk clerk looked us over. We dripped upon the carpet. Our bags were blotched and askew. Our dog shivered and mewed. I asked, rather hysterically I think, for rooms for all of us, regaled him about our wrecked house, and threw ourselves on his mercy. I expected very little, since, standing there and panting from our exertions, we were so bedraggled a spectacle.

“We have rooms for you,” he said immediately. “And your dog. We love dogs.”

Maggie the Labrador, to show her gratitude, shook herself with vigor, casting a fine mist of rainwater to the far reaches of the lobby. 

That night, it snowed—a rare event in Granada. TheAlhambra, the Albayzín, and all the city came whitened and startled to morning. It seemed that half the neighborhood ventured onto the streets, marveling at the stuff, as though the heavens had visited upon them some rare alchemical mixture. We ventured out to join them, homeless but game, with our tiny, happy daughter and the baffled Maggie.

So began, with mishaps and amusement, our years in Granada. Those first weeks held a pattern that would come round again in our time living here. First, the sainted notary and his equally blessed wife put us up in a house they owned in the upper Albayzín: the kindness of neighbors. Next, we went in search of cafés where we could sweep in and stay awhile, eating and musing over our next moves. As soon as we walked in anywhere, we enjoyed courteous and gentle service, for a reason we did not anticipate—the helpless love of the people of Granada for children. They love them unreservedly. They know that children have been recently formed in heaven, and so on earth need special devotions. And so the blond 1-year-old Gabriella was praised, whispered to, winked at, teased; she was given ripe oranges, warm bread and honey, fresh juice and gentle encouragement. We began going to the same café every morning for breakfast, and our daughter developed a small fan club among the other regulars, who greeted her in the morning with a sweetness I found astounding. It made one think the world has a goodness at the heart of it. Sometimes one even thought that humankind might have a future, after all. Such is the naïveté that rose in our thoughts, our first mornings in Granada, wholly dependent on strangers.

This excerpt has been reprinted with Permission from Granada: A Pomegranate in the Hand of God, by Steven Nightingale and published by Counterpoint Press, 2015.

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