Europe '96: Granada, Cruz de Mayo, and Rain

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Crowded trains, first from Ronda to Boabdilla, then worse from there to Granada. I get lucky and get a seat and even a place to put my big pack on the overhead rack. (By the way, in case you ever need it, the Spanish for backpack is mochila. They will probably also understand rucsac. Who knows why they don't teach us these words in school Spanish classes.) Windows fogged, I finish reading El Pais (newspaper); I lack the patience to resume Eduardo Galeano's Dias y Noches de Amor y Guerra, good book but killer vocabulary: I end up looking up 5 words on every page and half of those turn out not to be in my dictionary. When I ask native speakers for help, they read it, then reread it, and on the third try they go "aha!" and finally explain to me that it's this obscure metaphor, and here's how it works. Or it turns out to be really obscene.

In Granada it is still pouring, and unbeknownst to me this is the big weekend of a festival I've never heard of, Cruz de Mayo, apparently big big big in Granada and Cordoba, and no little thing in Sevilla (though it pales by comparison to their April Feria). Hardly a room to be had in Granada under 10,000 pesetas (about $80) but my luck holds: I find a tiny room, the smallest yet, little more than a crash space, 3 flights up in the annex to a student residence. 1500 pesetas a night, bare lightbulb, narrow bed (but firm: it's a thin mattress on a slab of plywood), no heat, peeling linoleum, have to remind them I need a towel, have to ask them to put some toilet paper in the bathroom down the hall. Still, it's only 2 blocks from Plaza Trinidad which was my original target for where I wanted to stay.

The weather continues miserable. I go to the Capilla Real, mostly to stay out of the rain. My shoes are drenched (it will be 3 days between when the rain stops and when they actually dry out. I will end up packing them wet when I take the train out of town). Of course, a lot of people decide this is a fine day to get out of the rain and go to the Capilla Real. Soak up culture instead of water.

The tomb of the Reyes Catolicos (know to us Yankees as Ferdinand & Isabel) has a rather belligerent Latin inscription about prostrating the Mohammedans ("Mahometice secte prostratores...") and extinguishing heresy. Actually, they themselves cannot be blamed for the text, even if they would have agreed with the sentiment: they arranged a simple tomb in the crypt, but Carlos V felt it was too modest and built a marble monster over it.

There are some fine paintings in the chapel museum, including a Hans Memling Pieta in which the tears of Mary echo the blood of Jesus and a marvelously detailed Epiphany by Bartolome Bermeso, of whom I know nothing. He's dated as 1430-1496/98, Spanish, but his work looks almost Dutch or Flemish (except for a giveaway mountain in the background). Wonderfully detailed facial expressions, even animals are obviously drawn from life or from sketches from life.

The Reyes Catolicos would be appalled what has become of their chapel: tourists mounting the pulpit to get a better look at the elaborate tomb they never wanted, no one here to honor their memory, or to pray to their God, much less to celebrate the dubious achievement of driving out the Moslems. We're all just here to visit what is really more a museum than a burial site.

Cruz de Mayo is another one of those Andaluz festivals (like the Día de la Virgen de La Cabeza, which crossed my path in Madrid: literally crossed my path, with an immense procession) that the natives can't believe I don't know. It has the thinnest veneer of Christianity in... well, in all Christendom.

People make a lot of flowery, mostly red crosses (their shape being the only arguably Christian aspect of this all-city blowout), then place them in settings often involving a potpouri of artesania: ceramic tiles, copper kitchen utensils, whatever. It's all very competitive, different groups set up in each public square, each striving to outdo each other's Cruz.

Even in the downpour, every plaza (and Granada has many) has a terraza under minimal cover. Lots of people -- mostly young women somewhere between traditional Andaluz dress and prom outfits -- are getting very wet dancing sevillanos and the like to recorded flamenco music blasted at discotheque volumes. Lots of rhythmic clapping, lots of singing, some very amusing attempts at dancing while holding an umbrella aloft and/or smoking a cigarette. Lots of good dancing, with no correlation between the quality of the clothes and the dancing: one of the best I saw was in denim and hiking boots.

Around 11:30 pm the downpour is reduced to a drizzle, and the demographic of the dancers widens in all directions: more men, more kids, more people in normal street dress. Occasionally the full moon peeks through the clouds. By 1:30 am, most of the action has moved indoors to the bars. I opt for a less specifically Andaluz bar, where the music runs more to James Brown and Dee-Lite than to flamenco.

Flamenco remains a very live tradition, and I gather it's on an upswing. Ten years ago they used to tell you flamenco in Madrid was entirely to be avoided, nothing but phony tablaos for the tourists. Now there are clubs which are more the equivalent of jam sessions, even in Madrid. In Granada, there must be half a dozen dance schools with signs like "Catedra del Flamencologia."

The next night, in clear but cool weather, is wilder but similar. Most of the center of town is closed to traffic, the music is so ubiquitous and so loud that there is nowhere in town you can't hear it, often at danceable volume from two plazas at a time. (Let's see, which of these rhythms am I trying to follow...?) Thousands of women and hundreds of men in more-or-less traditional dress, many many good dancers. The seven-year-olds are good dancers. Well-poised preteens who don't merely know the steps and where to put their hands, but have flair, distinctive hand movements, know how to resolve with a flourish. No surprise that they are amazing by 20.

Quite a few older people out dancing tonight, too, though not as many as one might think. I gather that's partly because traditions like Cruz de Mayo were in eclipse during their youth in the years of Franco's dictatorship. He didn't like large crowds unless they were his own rallies, and dancing deep into the night in public space was out of the question. It was a home-by-midnight country. I guess getting the Spanish home by midnight was a more impressive, if also more perverse, achievement than making the Italian trains run on time.

On the Plaza Universidad is a small Cruz ("Gotta have the Cruz, it's the excuse for the party, can't skip it entirely, how about something on the order of twenty minutes work?"), a big student crowd, a broader mix of music, and the dancing is more like what you'd find in a random bar on a random night. Another Plaza had a big raised stage so the hot dancers can really show off. Near the cathedral, two separate terrazas compete less than a hundred meters apart, each blasting its own flamenco.

That day (Saturday) before the evening's festivities, I had spent 10 hours at the Alhambra. What can one say about the Alhambra that hasn't been said? Certainly the greatest architectural achievement of the Moorish culture in Europe, maybe of any culture ever in Europe, it has to be seen to be believed and even then it's hard to know you aren't dreaming. A circular palace of Carlos V which would look great anywhere else looks like a second-rate Plaza de Toros next to it. But for further descriptions, I leave you to the guidebooks. Or Washington Irving 🔗.

The train back to Barcelona was hell: flooded tracks, missed connections, but eventually I made it.

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Originally written: 1996

Last modified: 26 February 2021

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