By Theresa E. Curry
To be in Granada anytime seems like a gift. To be there in winter when the rest of the hemisphere is grey with winter cold and gloom seems almost guilty, as though you're stealing sunshine from Syracuse and St. Paul.
A good approach to this golden Spanish city is by train, because the goats and olive trees, stucco ruins and red-tile roofs let you know that the ancient city on a hill is more than a tourist attraction and college town. It's a farming center serving a rural area that still has many isolated farms without phones or running water, save for the complicated culvert systems that ingenious Spaniards have tinkered with for centuries, originally laid by the Romans and the Moors as each civilization rose and then fell.
Once you reach town, this cultural dichotomy influences everything. The gorgeous bowls and tiles sold in the alleyways and up in the hills are classic European designs executed in the stunning blue against white glazes beloved by Mediterranean artisans, but touched by exotic yellow zigzags and sunbursts. Other Moorish influences glitter in the thousands of mirrors sewn into leather bags and the intricate mosaic work set into wooden boxes of every size and shape. Tea shops in the Moorish alleys are cluttered with piles of fragrant teas, elaborate jeweled hookahs and glassine bags of pungent herbs along with tiny bottles of sweet, musty body oils.
Almost anywhere you can see Alhambra, the masterpiece of Spanish and Moorish design that rises out of the city and draws millions of tourists each year. After struggling up the hills to spend a day at this awesome palace, try climbing the hills on the other side of Granada's central square. From the heights, you'll see the olive groves and lemon trees of the hard-working Spanish farmer in a landscape little changed by the past two centuries.
As you climb, even on a steep path miles from nowhere that barely allows one hiker, you'll find small restaurants wanting to offer you a glass of wine, a bowl of olives, a wonderful meal of lamb and couscous if it's a Moorish establishment; or cheese and sausage if it's Spanish. Often there are both, since the two cultures are present in almost every face you meet.
Once civilization is just a dot in the distance you'll find the gypsy caves. Be careful, say the shopkeepers. They'll lure you in with the promise of flamenco and who knows what may happen. Most people speak a little English -- that's because of the steady stream of Alhambra tourists checking into town. One legend says that the last Moroccan king left the city with tears in his eyes. It was one hard Moorish mama who told her son, "Do not cry like a woman for what you could not defend like a man." We hid our own tears as we boarded the train at the little station, surrounded by travelers with huge hunks of cheese, sausages and bottles of wine, well-fortified for a trip back to winter.