The Gipsies (title Chapter four of She Travelled alone in Spain)

“Academically, you should not consider Granada until Cadiz, Cordoba, and Seville have been visited. But when it comes to buying a kilometric railway ticket for your travel you are forced to abandon the romantic idea of flowing from the south in the track of the Moorish invaders … train travelling there is not cheap enough to encourage going over the same ground twice”. With this, I followed Nina to Granada immediately after Ronda.

I caught the train, as Nina did, but owing to track works I was forced to take a bus for the last one hundred kilometres. Last on the bus, I got the very front seat. The landscape that wizzed by the highway was dry, typically Spanish, with orchards and olive groves. There was a large mountain here and there but as we got closer to Granada, I could see the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Sierra Nevada is the ‘snowy mountain range’ and contains the highest point of continental Spain and one of the highest on the continent. Yet, I was surprised to still see snow on the top of the ranges as we hurtled into Granada. After all, it was autumn! For the time I spent in Granada, I was always pleasantly surprised by the snow, especially when it worked as a back drop to the Alhambra.

Nina believes “Granada is not a city that delights at first glance. It presents itself as a crowded, dusty place of narrow pavement where the poor man flings his grubby-looking coat across his shoulders like a cape, with sleeves swinging so that however you compress yourself passing by you cannot prevent their brushing against you”. Some things have changed since then, the poor are not as prevalent and I never felt the need to avoid touching against people. In what has not changed, is that you cannot avoid it. The streets are some of the narrowest I have ever walked. Pedestrians share with cyclists, bikers, cars, taxis and buses. “The Carrera del Darro is so narrow that to allow a motor-car to pass along it a panniered donkey must retire up a side-street and the pedestrian must flatten himself against a house-wall”. Nina was right! I was in a taxi on my first trip along the Carrera del Darro, one of the oldest streets in Granada. It is barely wide enough for a car. As my taxi started driving down the street, I let out a breath of shock. I thought he was driving into a pedestrian mall. It was Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining and all the tourists and locals were out walking. The ride along it was so slow. The driver had his window down to ask people to move out of the way to allow the taxi through. Luckily there were no donkeys burdened with heavily laden baskets thrown into the mix. Shortly later, we had to stop behind a bus – which was actually more of a mini-van – for passengers to get off. While we waited, throngs of people of all ages, all cultures and all shapes and sized flowed around us like a human river. This was my introduction to Granada as the taxi then made its way up the steep hill to my accommodation.

I am staying on the edge the Albaicin and Sacro Monte areas. Albaicin is the old Arabic quarter and Nina informs me that Albaicin is “actually a corruption of the Arabic words meaning ‘the falconers’ quarter’”. All the white washed houses have central courtyards and gardens. Old Arabic styles which have been transformed externally into what looks like more traditionally Spanish houses. Everytime I see an open front door, I try to get a glimpse in at the tiles, the terraces and the gardens – to see if the house has a water feature or fountain. The Sacro Monte area is the traditional gipsy quarter. The gipsies lived in caves which run along the foot of a hillside covered in prickly-pear. The gipsies have lived in these caves for more than five hundred years at least. When Nina visited Guardia Civil (Civil Guards) guarded the end of the street, visitors were warned against going their without a guide or a police escort. Nina visited and saw no one there “with half the menace of some of the Civil Guards”. The only guard on duty now is on the corner across the road from my room, is a statue dedicated to the last king of the gipsies.

Nina was mixed in her descriptions of gipsies. I think she secretly envied their exotic lifestyle, but her good Empirical heart would not let her admit to this.  I think once she got over the “swarms of children with poor savage manners; dust and dirt; rags and papers; high, mouldering houses with washing flapping from the balconies; and then you come to a dirtier, nosier, narrower street, and you are in the gipsy quarter of the Albaicin, the Camino del Sacro Monte”. The people themselves she says “some are really plain, being flat-nosed and thick-lipped. Not all of tem are dark-haired. But every one has dazzling white teeth. And there springs from the least charming such an abundance of vitality that the air is wicked with it”.

Nina went into the Sacro Monte to see a flamenco show. She describes the dancing vividly and how she got caught up in the passion of the flamenco. She describes the dusty floors of the gipsy caves and the dancers stirring up all the dust. She is enthralled but slightly deflated when she is told at the cost of the excursion will be “thirty pesetas for the dancing, ten pesetas for the wine”. I smile and think of what she would make of £26 up front which includes one bebido (drink).

Last night, I crossed the street and walked into Sacro Monte to see a flamenco show. The caves are now shop fronts and houses from the outside but inside, they are like houses I have seen in White Cliffs, NSW. Dug out, rounded edges, painted all white with a nice cool temperature inside. The floors are no longer dust, but the dancers perform on the floor not a stage. A sprung piece of timber allows for the tap and click clack of their dancing shoes to ring through the amazing acoustics of the cave.

The guitarist began to strum, the singer, let out a lament. A young girl of about 16-17 rose to her feet and danced the dance of a bull. She was youth. Impetuous, fearless, strong, the world was before her. She danced. She was extraordinary. The rose in her hair and the Spanish comb were flung from her hair in the vigour of youth. The next woman up was a woman in her thirties, her dress of silver included an apron tied around her waist. She was wife, she was mother – she still had it. Yet no flower was in her hair. She danced with temper, a controlled, boiling below the surface frustration and life, of its ups and downs. No one could argue with her. The final woman was older. Much older. Her legs and hips were stiff, certainly not with the same vigour. The flower in her hair did not move. Her body once willowy would not allow her the movement she could once create – but her hands and her fingers … they knew the way. She could still play those castanets and have every eye in the room was upon her. I watched, and tears slid slowly down my face. This was the story of being a woman. People have often said to me that I must have some gipsy in me – the way I was moved by the dance last night certainly had me thinking. If only the Dutch tour group in the room would stop talking and laughing. Flamenco is serious business. The women told our stories of hope, of our own entrapment – of desperation and of acceptance at our price. We must dance our way through our lives – but it is our dance and our lives.

The next part of the show was more about the bucks and the men. The first young guy strutted on stage as if he owned it – and he did. He was tall, he was handsome, he was young – and my God he could move. Even in that skin tight outfit. Next were two more women. The first a blonde dressed all in black.  A dance of provocation. I figured she must have been a mistress. This one also had not flower, but rather a showy clip that pulled part of her hair up. She was followed by a dancer in a gold dress – the well heeled, the fortunate, the wife. She had a sprig of flowers that did not move, despite all the dancing to keep her man happy so he would not run off with the other. I was making this story up in my head as it went along. Who would be chosen? Neither, as after that came another male who danced up a storm and reminded me why we love men (for those of us that do). Afterwards, I sat outside chatting to the owner in English and Spanish. He told me my Spanish was very good and was impressed I was from “muy lejos”, very far, Australia. He asked me to stay for the next show – for gratis – “without the tourists”, he said to me. I did, and again, tears fell from my eyes, watching the dancers. I spoke to the oldest woman at the end. Very proudly she told me the youngest dancer was just 13.

I walked the short distance home, stopping at the statue of the gipsy king. I  smiled up at him and am glad that the gipsies remain here in Granada.

2 thoughts on “The Gipsies (title Chapter four of She Travelled alone in Spain)”

  1. Maybe Nina was present in spirit and for an evening of flamenco you became Nina, Who knows. What a wonderful experience. I think I would have found it quite emotional myself.xx

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