Granada's Sacromonte District

The Sacromonte district affords some of the best Alhambra views in town.
By Rick Steves

The Sacromonte district is home to Granada's thriving Roma community. Marking the entrance to the area is a statue of Chorrohumo (literally, "Exudes Smoke," and a play on the slang word for "thief"...chorro). He was a Roma from Granada, popular in the 1950s for guiding people around the city.

Both the English word "Gypsy" and its Spanish counterpart, gitano, come from the word "Egypt" — where Europeans used to think these nomadic people originated. Today, as we've come to understand that "Gypsies" actually came from India — and as the term "Gypsy" has acquired negative connotations — the preferred term is "Roma." After migrating from India in the 14th century, the Roma people settled mostly in the Muslim-occupied lands in the south (such as the Balkan Peninsula, then controlled by the Ottoman Turks). Under the Muslims, the Roma enjoyed relative tolerance. They were traditionally good with crafts and animals.

The first Roma arrived in Granada in the 15th century — and they've remained tight-knit ever since. Today 50,000 Roma call Granada home, many of them in the district called Sacromonte. In most of Spain, Roma are more assimilated into the general population, but Sacromonte is a large, distinct Roma community. (After the difficult Civil War era, they were joined by many farmers who, like the Roma, appreciated Sacromonte's affordable, practical cave dwellings — warm in the winter and cool in the summer.)

Many Spaniards, including some who consider themselves accepting and anti-racist, claim that in maintaining such a tight community, the Roma segregate themselves. The Roma call Spaniards payos (whites). Recent mixing of Roma and payos has given birth to the term gallipavo (rooster-duck), although who's who depends upon whom you ask.

Sacromonte has one main street. Camino del Sacromonte is lined with caves primed for tourists and restaurants ready to fight over the bill. (Don't come here expecting to get a deal on anything.) Intriguing lanes run above and below this main drag.

A long flamenco tradition exists in Granada. Sacromonte is a good place to see zambra, a flamenco variation with a more Oriental feel in which the singer also dances. Two popular — or at least well-established — zambra venues are Zambra Cueva del Rocío (Camino del Sacromonte 70) and María la Canastera. I'd just go and explore late at night (with no wallet and €30 in my pocket) rather than booking an evening through my hotelier (many offer to make these reservations for guests).

The Centro de Interpretación del Sacromonte is a kind of Roma open-air folk museum, offering an insight into Sacromonte's geology and environment, cave building, and Roma crafts, food, and musical traditions (with English explanations). There are also great views over Granada and the Alhambra. As you wander, imagine this in the 1950s, when it was still a bustling community of Roma cave-dwellers. Today, higher up, hippies squat in abandoned caves. The center also features flamenco shows and classical guitar concerts in its wonderfully scenic setting.