The mystery of this barrio is not only present in its caves, landscapes, in the verses written by many a poet, nor even in the indescribable joy of a zambra, nor in its white facades, flowers, prickly pears and cacti. The mystery lies in the way time seems to stop, in the customs, forms and habits that belong not to this century nor to any other; but above all it lies in its people, the gypsies who are as much part of us as ourselves.
The gypsies who (according to some sources) arrived here with the Christian troops of the Catholic Monarchs and settled in what is now considered the barrio. They would later suffer persecution and were even expelled, although rather unsuccessfully as can easily be seen today.
The gypsies were the craftsmen of the Christian army and devoted their time to working in metal, providing the equipment for the cavalry, the thud of hammer and anvil that would soon transform itself into the rhythm and lyrics of a bulería.
The gypsies brought with them a culture that mixed with the Morisco (Muslim Spanish tradition) to finally produce the flamenco and above all, the zambra (a gypsy shindig). The gypsy tradition that emerged uniquely in Granada is an affectionate glance back to Jerez, Utrera or Triana based on distant but orthodox dances such as la mosca and la cachucha.
Everyday the evening ritual commences: the brittle rhythm of dancing shoes on cobbled stone sounds out across the barrio announcing, like clockwork, the march of the gypsies to their caves. Here, the tourists surprised, confused or impressed bring away a souvenir of Sacromonte, with the happy sensation of not understanding but at least having enjoyed the experience. This is an art that speaks in a number of distinct voices: the different dances and tempos present in the bulerías, tangos, alegrías, all accompanied by the mournful chant of the martinetes, tientos and saetas -the traditional songs that have survived into the present. Other rituals, now lost in time, may be present in a shout or scream that trembles and rips through the soul. Yet there is more to Sacromonte than its gypsy tradition.
The gentle slope that leads to the Abbey founded by Archbishop Don Pedro de Castro in the seventeenth century, is the path that tempts most visitors to the barrio. On the way up or down, pass by the Casa Juanillo restaurant and from its magnificent terrace the whole of the Valparaíso valley is yours.
Having arrived at the Abbey by the above-mentioned route, do not overlook the great number of works on display
, by some of the finest artists working in seventeenth century Granada and, above all, the irons used in the production of the original engravings that represent the richest chapter in Granada’s graphic history. The map engraved by Ambrosio de Vico in the sixteenth century has allowed us to reconstruct medieval Granada with almost perfect precision, while Heylan’s engravings led us towards the discovery of the saintly remains of San Cecilio in the caves that surround the church.
On the way up to the Abbey, it is worth making a detour off the main path to explore the tiny streets that climb up over the hill. This is only way to get a glimpse into the unique atmosphere of Sacromonte, and the daily lives of its people.
The caves, a mixture of copper and limestone, appear as holes that have been drilled through the hillside. As dwelling places they normally leave the visitor empty and confused, tiny worlds made out of papier-maché, homes which reject or defy our modern-day
perceptions. Yet, have we ever stopped to consider that a cave wall or roof can be up to one hundred metres thick, soundproofing their rooms and maintaining a constant temperature in summer or winter? The barrio of Sacromonte is fundamentally illogical as too is the landscape that surrounds it. Whitewashed rocks turn into the doors and roofs of other caves, strange holes in the earth that, on closer inspection, reveal chimneys, lunar landscapes filled with cacti and prickly pears, where carnations yield the only colour and jasmine the only scent. Here the streets and squares have been designed by nature, leaving humans, the inhabitants of one of the strangest neighbourhoods in the world, to learn to adapt themselves. Once adapted though, the faith and trust in their barrio is as strong as the sacred mountain that supports them.