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I remembered a story I had read in a magazine years ago, about how Walter Chrysler had wanted to build a secret replica of the Chrysler Building, back in the Twenties, before embarking on the real thing. The article said he had a lover from Granada, who was very well connected and had arranged for the structure to be built in a huge cave under the Alhambra. Sounds preposterous? Maybe, but Granada casts a hypnotic spell, and sometimes even the most outlandish ideas seem perfectly reasonable as you wander around the city.
We veered away from the Alhambra and onto the neighbouring hill, the Colina del Mauror, where the cellars of some of the highest houses apparently conceal a few surprises. Lia showed us a large house, mostly hidden behind a high wall. Although now dilapidated, it was clearly once very grand. “That is the Carmen de los Catalanes, which is now part of the Alhambra estate and is being restored. There are tunnels underneath it, and pits in the gardens that were used to store grain, and may also have been used to keep prisoners in,” Lia says.
“There are tunnels and dungeons everywhere underfoot here,” César says. “They were dug out by the Moors or by Christian prisoners, no one is really sure. After the Moors left in 1492, they were used by the new Christian residents, and that went on for centuries, maybe until relatively recently, as the passages linked the various residences and enabled the great and the good to lead secret lives.”
We were heading for the Fundación Rodríguez-Acosta, a stylish white carmen built into the side of the hill by the artist José Maria Rodríguez-Acosta at the beginning of the 20th century. Now it is a cultural centre and exhibition venue, but we were not there to admire the paintings; the building contains a remarkable secret, and we were about to discover it.
We walked through an inner patio with a tinkling marble fountain, then out into the gardens, arranged on different levels on the hillside. The city sprawled below us in the fading light, while swallows flew in undulating formations. We went down to an elegant courtyard with a rectangular pool presided over by a figure of Venus. A smiling man appeared with a large key, opened an iron gate, and beckoned us into the shadowy space beyond. We entered a passage framed by columns and horseshoe arches. By torchlight, we gingerly made our way down a rough flight of steps into an eerie underground world.
We must have descended 60 or 70 feet before coming to a circular, grotto-like room, incongruously decorated with urns and sculptures. “The artist found the tunnels when the house was being built and set about restoring them to make them more accessible,” Lia says. “He built the steps, and arches and columns to support the walls and ceilings, and put in friezes and all these other decorative bits and pieces.”
Narrow passageways led off the tunnel, some blocked up, some with a narrow slit at the end, giving a tantalising glimpse of the gardens or the Granada sky. The temperature was perfect, neither hot nor cold.
“It is likely that originally there were ramps, as given the height of the tunnels, people probably went down on horses, mules or donkeys. If they had been walking, the ceilings would be lower,” Lia says. “The tunnels link with the houses nearby and lead down into the Realejo neighbourhood on the hill below. This was the Jewish area, and we think they used the tunnels for rituals and meetings,” César added. It all sounded very mysterious. “The thing is, there is hardly any documentation about all these underground passages; they don’t even figure on most official records, and aren’t mentioned in most history books,” he says.
Some time later, we climbed back up the uneven steps and emerged in the garden, where the cypresses had turned from dark green to velvety black and the magical city of Granada glittered below us in the light of a full moon.
Room Mate Leo (0034 958 535579; www.room-matehotels.com), a restored town house in the centre of Granada with contemporary design; doubles from £63 (€70).
The Granada Underground Passages and Dungeons route is one of several tours run by the Pura Vida Association (201939;www.granadaunderground2.blogspot.com) and costs £27 (€30). Information also available at the Pura Vida booth in Plaza Trinidad in Granada, or from the Granada Tourist Board (536973; granadatur.com)