We love anything free when we visit anywhere new and always check to see what free things are available. This is what we did on our recent visit to Granada and our previous last blog entry looked at what free things we found to do. Now we are going to share our experience of the free walking tours in Granada that we had signed up for.
We first encountered the concept of free walking tours on a repeat visit to New York City. Having already ticked off the usual sights, we wanted to do something different and came across a website offering free walking tours. There were a whole bunch of different tours available, the basic gist was that if you enjoyed the experience then you tipped the guide accordingly. We found that the service level was high; the theory being that a better level of service resulted in higher tips. Whilst the guides were vetted by the company, they were paid no salary. So no tips = no rent ! We had a great experience on the tours we took, it was an absolute ‘win win’ situation for everyone involved.
So we were pleasantly surprised to find a similar formula had been adopted in Granada.
The Company we chose was ‘walk in granada‘, who alongside paid excursions, offered 3 free walking tours in Granada:
- A historical tour. Run daily at 11AM.
- A tour to the district of Sacromonte. Run every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6PM.
- A tour of the Albayzin. Run every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 6PM.
Sadly, we were not going to be in Granada long enough to do all 3 tours, however, as we were arriving on a Tuesday afternoon, we opted to do the Sacromonte tour that evening and then the historical tour the following morning. As Meat Loaf once said ‘2 out of 3 ain’t bad’ ! We booked our places online and received a confirmation as well as where we should meet our guide and how we would recognise them.
The Sacromonte Tour
Fast forward a few weeks and we found ourselves in Granada on a warm and sunny Tuesday afternoon in September.
We made our way to Plaza Nueva (where all tours start) and as instructed looked for someone holding a red umbrella.
Well I suppose it’s a little easier to spot a red umbrella than a red carnation 😉
We passed the first test and checked in for our free sacromonte tour.
They reconfirmed that we wanted to join the tour conducted in English and we then waited for a few minutes until everyone was assembled. I would guess there were about 15 people in our group along with our guide Ana. Ana was native to Granada, a University graduate in English and tourism.
This tour was more about walking and less about talking. That said, Ana had plenty to share with us during rest steps and viewpoints.
We started by walking up into the Albayzin district (old arab quarter). It is a beautiful place to walk through as it retains the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1984, along with the Alhambra. We stopped off for water top ups along the way (Anna told us that all the fountains waters are drinkable), as well as stopping to enjoy a lovely viewpoint of the Alhambra palace.
At the edge of the Albayzin district we stopped to look through the window of an empty building. Then we were asked to guess what sort of building it was. My thought was “I wonder what this cave house was used for”, forgetting that most people haven’t encountered, let alone lived in a cave. So after a few wrong guesses, someone correctly identified it simply as a cave house ! So funny.
We started to walk up the hill, following the staircase to the church (Ermita de San Miguel Alto) at its summit.
Along with amazing views of Albayzin, Alcazaba and rest of Granada, we soon started to encounter our first cave houses. Now these are very different from the ones we are used to. There is no running water, sewage or electricity. A few of the caves are owned and some have solar panels. Many also have vegetable gardens, but basically the occupants have to travel down into the city for anything they need .
The majority though have no facilities and are effectively squatted in.
The government has, for better or worse, mostly left the cave community alone.
According to Ana, the only real public investment in this area is the staircase we walked on leading up to the Ermita de San Miguel Alto.
We were told that three years ago, without warning, the council demolished a lot of caves, displacing a lot of people. The intention was to build real houses, but nothing came of it and slowly people returned to the caves.
Stopping at top, we admired the views, which must be some of the best in the City. As Ana said, whilst this area is seen as the poorest in Granada, it is richest in other things, namely the location and the views.
At the Ermita there was another fountain for topping up our water bottles.
However, this one is meant to have special powers and is known as the ‘fountain of youth’. The legend goes that an olive tree growing there started producing lots of water. And the people that drank it got younger !
Walking around the back of the Ermita, we reemerged on the other side of the hill and on the far side of the old Moorish outer wall of Granada.
This area is where the traditional gypsy caves are. Apparently at one time there were close to 5000 people and 1000 caves. However, there was a big earthquake in the 1950s, and many of the caves collapsed. Then in 1963, it rained for months, killing many of the cave dwellers. After those events, only about 10 families came back to resettle these hills.
Walking down the hill we walked through a grove (?) of cacti before reentering a more typical barrio of houses.
The tour ended back at the Albaycin and I was pleased to see everyone tipped the guide.
The tour provides an insight into a very different way of life. At 2.5 hours, it was a perfect length of time, and suitable for anyone with an average level of fitness.
This certainly wasn’t an area we would have thought to explore unguided, as it has a bit of a stigma. Now we would have no hesitation returning on my own. It felt very safe and all the residents that we passed were friendly.
We wandered back through the Albaycin until we found a restaurant where we enjoyed a tasty tajine dish washed down with Arabic teas and sickly (but amazing) sweet pastries 🙂
The Historical Tour
We slept well after all that walking, but still woke refreshed and ready for our historical walking tour.
But first for breakfast.
And along with a much-needed café con leche, being in Granada we simply had to have churros con chocolate 🙂
Fortified with caffeine and sugar we literally sprinted to the Plaza Nueva to meet our guide for the historical tour.
We loved that due to the number of people they split us into 2 groups to make the experience more manageable 🙂
The tour focussed on the central areas of the City and was far more educational .
Alberto was an excellent guide, friendly, knowledgeable and passionate about his City.
We started off at the statue at the Plaza Isobel la Católica, learning that it represents Queen Isabel giving Columbus her permission to make his journey to the Americas.
Continuing on and stepping back to Moorish times we visited the Corral del Carbon, the oldest arab monument in Spain. It has a spectacular original Arab entrance and a simple interior courtyard. Apparently It is where the merchants who came to sell their goods in Granada (in the nearby Alcaicería silk market).
The Alcaicería (well replica of it) was next up. The original Alcaicería was built in the 15th century, and survived until the 19th century, when a fire sadly destroyed it – caused, ironically, by a workshop selling Granada’s first cardboard matches, which itself caught fire. These days the Alcaicería is home to Granada’s souvenir stalls, selling a variety of Arabic craftwork.
After a quick browse (we returned again later) we exited the Alcaicería into the Plaza Mayor. We learned a little about the history of the Cathedral. Built on the site of the great mosque, it is a mixture of gothic, renaissance and baroque. It took over 180 years to build and is still not finished. Its original plans included two 80-metre towers but only one was ever started and even that remains half-finished.
The Madraza, which is next to the Cathedral was certainly worthy of a quick diversion. Founded by King Nazarite Yusuf I in 1349 and positioned next to the Mosque and the Alcaicería, it was an important institution in Moorish Granada. Sadly all that remains of the original Moorish features is the mihrab. This finely decorated prayer niche was restored in the 20th century. There are also various areas of decorated plaster work and a wooden dome covered with stucco lace work that belong to the original structure.
This whole area is very popular with gypsies trying to sell ‘charms’ and the less annoying living statues.
Moving away from this part of Granada, we entered the Albayzin (ancient arab quarter). We walked up one of the main shopping streets (Calle Caldereria Nueva) in time to experience the midday prayers of the cloistered nuns of the Church San Gregorio Betico.
Wandering among the narrow winding streets, we were treated to more ‘intimate’ views of the Alhambra before finishing the tour at the Casa de Zafra.
Described as one of the best preserved treasures of the Albaicín district of Granada, this 14th-century Spanish-Moorish dwelling today houses the Albaicín Visitor Centre.
It features Nazarid wall paintings and unbeatable views of the Alhambra. It’s location certainly makes you wonder how rich and powerful must the person who owned this have been to have such privileged views.
All in all a very informative tour with the history of Granada being brought to life in a way that no guide-book could hope to carry out.
We cannot recommend these tours enough and intend to plan our next visit to Granada around their free walking tour of the Albayzin.
So … Who are one foot in the cave ?
We (Danny and Josie) have spent the last 10 years living and working in the Caribbean. In 2015 we decided we wanted to move closer to family and friends so bought a cave house in the Granada region of Andalucia, Spain. We moved there full time in January 2017. Now we write about our experiences of cave living and how we are adapting to life in Spain.
We also have a Facebook page full of pictures, experiences and information that we have found useful along the way. If it’s your thing, you can also follow us on Instagram 🙂