My last blog described Granada’s cármenes, the beautiful villas with gardens to be found in and around Granada. In my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, Deborah is lucky enough to live in one of these. Her son, Mark, however, chooses at the age of eighteen to live in rather more primitive conditions in one of the caves dotting the hillside in Sacromonte, traditionally the gypsy barrio of Granada.
If you look across from the Alhambra to the opposite bank of the river Darro, you will see the parched hillside above the Albaicín, divided by a medieval wall separating the two barrios: the Albaicín and Sacromonte. Amongst the vegetation of sisal, pita and prickly pear, the hillside is dotted with caves, dug out of the hill hundreds of years ago and inhabited through the centuries by the marginalised population of the city.
Some of the caves date from the 16th century, when Muslims and Jews, expelled from their homes by the Catholic monarchs, united with the gypsies, also out of favour in spite of having arrived with the conquering Christian armies. There on the Sacromonte hillside outside the city walls, they could live beyond the control of the authorities and the church.
According to one story, many of the caves were dug by the black slaves of the Moors who before their enforced flight from Granada had secretly buried their gold on the hillside in Sacromonte, or so the rumour went. El Barranco de los Negros (Black Men’s Gully) owes its name to this legend. The slaves’ attempts to find their masters’ hidden treasure were apparently unsuccessful despite the use of witchcraft to try and locate it. However, they stayed and the holes they had dug became their homes.
Although it was the gypsies who gave the area its distinctive culture and there are still many gypsy families living in the barrio, the real boom time for the caves of Granada was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when poor people from the rural areas migrated to the city and needed cheap accommodation. In 1900 there were 660 inhabited caves in Granada. By 1950, the number had increased to 3,682 (most but not all in Sacromonte).
Then, in the winter of 1963, severe floods inundated the caves and forced many families to flee to other parts of town. The devastation caused was so great that Franco came to visit and a whole new barrio had to be built in the city to accommodate the displaced residents.
Their homes did not remain unoccupied for long. The caves’ long tradition of being inhabited by marginalised sections of society soon reasserted itself in the form of an alternative community of the unconventional, impoverished or those who simply liked living close to nature. Mark, in my story, is one of a motley group of what are usually referred to as ‘hippies’: young or not so young drop-outs from all over the world. A few, like Ed and Dani in the novel, are addicts of one kind or another or deal drugs but most scratch a living by selling handicrafts: homemade jewellery, leatherwork, carvings; or by busking. There are some talented artists among them.
Free accommodation is of course the main attraction of the caves, but they do have other advantages, in particular their capacity to maintain a fairly constant temperature, staying cool in summer and offering a certain measure of warmth in winter. The degree of comfort that can be provided without running water or electricity is limited, though. Water has to be fetched from one of the fountains of the barrio, quite some distance away.
Two or three years ago, a decision was made by the Town Council to evict those who live in the caves near San Miguel Alto and prettify the area for tourists. Occupants are resisting, pointing out the long tradition of shelter for poor families in the caves and the fact that they have nowhere else to go. There is considerable support for their case and the battle is still going on.
Sacomonte has a unique character – peaceful during the day, lively by night but although its population is now more diverse and includes quite a few foreigners, the rhythms of flamenco still resound – whether the spontaneous and authentic kind or the shows put on for tourists. Well worth visiting is the open-air museum in the Barranco de los Negros (www.sacromontegranada.com), where you can see some of the caves, furnished to demonstrate the history, customs, occupations and lifestyles traditional in the barrio.