It’s January near the Sacromonte Caves Museum in Granada, Spain. The air is as warm as a summer’s day back home in the UK, without the humidity. We navigate the narrow paths around the hill, the Albaicín behind us, the Valparaíso valley plummeting into the Darro River below and then rising again to the red sandstone walls of the Alhambra.
After a pitched tent with reggae music pumping out of it, we see a pink plush armchair and our first cave house. I point it out to my 10-year old nephew, “That’s where Hobbit’s live,” I say. But he tells me he’s more interested in Star Wars than Lord of the Rings and I can’t think of anywhere in the Star Wars universe that’s anything like this place.
We take a bend around the hill. In the distance, a village stretches out, each house a dwelling set into the rock face like prehistoric caves. The path winds every which way and we struggle to find the way across. We pass skull-and-crossbones flags and laundry hanging out to dry. From the doorways ahead of us, some villagers watch out, their hands raised to shield their eyes against the sun.
We’re only a stone’s throw away from the city and everything looks rural and rustic. We find our way across to the other side and the villagers wave across to greet us as we approach.
Behind the Albaicin
A while ago, I wrote a post on the three major miradors of Granada’s Albaicin district: Mirador de San Cristobal, Mirador San Nicolas and Mirador San Miguel Alto. It took us an afternoon to visit these three viewpoints and we decided to repeat the adventure when Ola’s mother came to visit.
But this time, after gazing out at the stunning vistas behind us, we turned around and wondered what was behind the lonely monastery that stood sentinel over Granada. Behind, we found a path leading up to the top of the Albaicin hill. More interesting to us was the path that followed the hill round towards Sacromonte and its famous cave dwellings, winding over a steep drop into the Valparaiso valley below.
We eventually found way into Sacromonte, which turned out to be the most authentic and fascinating part of Granada we’d experienced during our 5-month stay.
About Granada’s Sacromonte caves
It’s unclear when people started to burrow into the earth in the valley below the Alhambra. Some say that they were built by Muslims and Jewish inhabitants who were expelled from their homes during Isabella’s and Ferdinand’s reign. Others believe (including the locals, it seems) that the Arabic population created them long before this, perhaps to house the people who built the Alhambra.
But whoever originally inhabited the Sacromonte caves eventually moved out to be replaced by the Granadian gypsies who live there today. Now, you can walk the narrow village streets to meet these wonderfully genuine people and explore some cave houses in the museum to get a glimpse into how they live.
Exploring the heart of Sacromonte
Most tourists who visit Sacromonte do so from the much wealthier part of the village down by the main road. This part of the district has its own character, a world apart from the rest of Granada, with low walls and buildings set into the rock face. This is a completely different experience from the rustic cave dwellings hidden behind this village, virtually invisible from the main road.
The roads stop in the second part and the only way through is to navigate the narrow and dusty paths. Just adjacent to the Sacromonte Caves Museum, this is the true Sacromonte, where you can meet the Sacromonte Gypsies and get insights into the way the live.
We stumbled across these dwellings by accident. Following the trail from behind the San Miguel Alto monastery all the way around the side of the hill. It was one of those times that we really don’t know where we were going, where part of us wants to just turn around and follow the tourist path. But something stronger inside says ‘soldier on’ and this is why we tend to venture off the beaten path.
We navigated the winding trails flanked by fragrant prickly pears and agaves. Many of the paths seemed as if they’d lead to dead ends. But we found a way through and a couple of locals came out of their cave dwellings and watched us from afar. As we approached, they called out to greet us.
Making new friends
We met two gypsies, one of them who spoke English. The first of these looked more Northern European than Spanish with deep blue eyes, freckles and sandy hair and beard. While Ola spoke to the other in Spanish, the first told us about his heritage. He believed that the dwellings were originally inhabited by slaves who built the Alhambra, that the hill on which the Alhambra lies wasn’t always there geologically, that they had an ingrained code in their culture against stealing, which would be bad for tourism all round.
The man also asked if he could play his guitar for us, perhaps in exchange for a coin, although it wasn’t obligatory. He didn’t have much of a chance to play for people anymore, he told us, as not many tourists come that way and he couldn’t afford a license to busk in the street.
He then sat down outside his porch and began to strum away and tap on the guitar’s body like a drum. Out resonated the sonorous and melancholy sounds I had become familiar with in Flamenco shows. Once the tune had finished, a moment of silence endured, and we then applauded our new friend’s performance. My mother-in-law and I both gave him a couple of euros each.
We didn’t take photos, since his parents were Muslim, and they’d always told him that cameras could steal his soul. I gladly complied since I believe, as a responsible traveller, that when in other lands you should respect local customs.
We thanked the two for the information and music and we asked for directions to the Sacromonte Caves Museum. They pointed us down the road.
The Sacromonte Caves Museum
In all honesty, we didn’t visit many museums when we were living in Granada. During the earlier months, we wanted to soak up the sunshine and then when winter came we got pretty busy with work.
But, in my opinion, The Sacromonte Caves Museum is on par with the best museums I’ve visited worldwide and reminded me in many ways of the ethnology museum in Hanoi. My nephew really seemed to enjoy it too, so if you’re travelling with kids, it’s also worth checking out.
The Sacromonte Caves Museum (Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte) is a short climb up from the main part of Sacromonte, signposted along the way. From the less touristy part of the village you can follow the paths around although, in all honesty, it’s easy to take a wrong turn.
The museum has ten or so dwellings furnished and ready to explore, giving you an idea how cosy these caves are and how people used to live in them historically. It also has a wealth of information on Andalucía (culture, history, wildlife, flamenco etc.) and cave dwellings around the world.
Equally impressive were the view Sacromonte offered of the Valparaiso valley, the Darro River trickling by beneath us and above us the Alhambra, red and resplendent in the waning sunlight.
We sat on a bench and gazed out at this view as I reflected on the beauty of this place. Though the locals here might seem poor, they had inherited a beautiful land and an awe-inspiring way of life.
Granada has an accessible airport just outside the city, with regular routes from Europe, including many served by easyJet from the UK. Taxis run from Granada Airport to the city from between €27 and €34, depending on where you’re going and whether it’s night or day. The taxis should run on a flat fare, so make sure the driver is charging this. You can learn more about this here.
To get from the city centre too Sacromonte you can walk (30 to 40 minutes) or take the C2 bus from near Granada Cathedral. It’s a circular route with a set fee, so you don’t need to worry about which direction you’re traveling. Alternatively, if you have a lot of energy you can hike up to Mirador San Miguel Alto in the morning giving you time to explore Sacromonte during the afternoon.
If you do this, make sure to stop off in a traditional tea house in the Albaicin along the way. Abaco Te is a three-storey establishment where they serve a large variety of teas, coffees and Granizados (crushed ice fruit drinks). Visit when it’s not busy and sit on the terrace for stunning views of The Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada behind.
You can stay in a Sacromonte cave house in the tourist part of Sacromonte. There’s quite a selection of these available on Airbnb.
Thank you for reading my article about Sacromonte’s Cave Houses at Being a Nomad. Have you ever visited any cave houses anywhere around the world? If so, what did you think?
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