An old lady, in dressing gown and slippers, was leaning on her wrought-iron gate. It was midday. ‘Are you going down to Granada today?’ she asked her neighbour. ‘No, I’ve got everything I need,’ the woman replied. It sounded as if the city centre was miles away, rather than a five-minute stroll down the hill, but the Albayzin remains somehow separate, as if still surrounded by ancient walls. ‘A paradise closed to many, gardens open to a few,’ was how the poet Pedro Soto de Rojas described it in the 17th century. On the opposite hill stands the Alhambra palace, the creation of the Nasrids, the last Muslim dynasty to rule in Spain.
The narrow cobbled lanes are flanked by high white walls topped with tumbling flowers. The walls conceal carmens, a type of house unique to the Albayzin and comprising several buildings on different levels, set around courtyards where fruit, vegetables and flowers are grown. These houses were created not by the Moors, but by Christians who moved here at the beginning of the 17th century, following the expulsion of the Moriscos (Muslims baptised as Christians).
The street pattern is however unmistakably Arab, with tiny alleys zigzagging up the hill, linked by steep flights of steps. Many streets are L-shaped, ending in closed gates which allow no more than a glimpse of voluptuous gardens. Intoxicating perfumes and sounds waft over the walls – honeysuckle, lemon and jasmine; tinkling water and plangent flamenco wails. Federico Garcia Lorca, who loved walking around the Albayzin, called it ‘this unique and evocative quarter,’ and you can see why.