Following our quick tour of the Plaza de la Independencia, it was off to lunch at the Toritos Hotel Restaurant & Bar on Calle Calzada, Granada.
To save time, Eric, our tour guide, had phoned in our orders and they served us as soon as all 20+ of us had our seats. (Lunch was included in the cost of the tour.)
My fish with salad and rice, served with a few wedges of lime, was light and delicious. We spent maybe 30-45 minutes at the restaurant then it was back on the bus to our next stop – Monkey Island on Lake Nicaragua.
At just over 3,000 square miles, Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake, is the largest in Central America, the nineteenth largest in the world. Numerous fish, including tarpon, sawfish and an endemic species of shark live in the lake that, in parts, reaches a depth of 85 feet.
Because of its size and depth, about 400 islands dot the lake. Many are inhabited and several are privately owned by prominent Nicaraguans and some foreigners. There was even one with a For Sale sign.
Climbing on to the small craft that would take us to Monkey Island, I noticed right away that no one distributed life preservers. Was I taking a risk? I pushed that unsettling thought out of my head and relaxed into my seat.
A man, who looked young enough to be in high school, took the engine and soon the boat was slicing through the brown water kicking up sprays. Ours were the only two boats on the open lake and as we glided pass small islands, we trained our cameras, trying to get good shots without getting water on to the lenses.
The ride to Monkey Island took no more than 10 minutes. I was a bit disappointed that the island wasn’t larger so we could disembark but the capuchin monkeys put on a little show, jumping from rock to rock and swinging from tree to tree as if they knew they had an audience. (They are called capuchin because their color reminded the early explorers of Franciscan monks.) One even jumped into a boat that pulled in after we did. I suspect someone might have lured it with food.
We spent about 10 minutes watching the monkeys then our boatman turned us around and headed back to the pier, the mid afternoon sun shining like diamonds on the water.
I had no plans to go to Granada, Nicaragua. The furthest I considered going while I was planning my trip to Playa Potrero, was to San Jose, the Costa Rican capital to see a friend. But I’d given up the idea because I wasn’t able to speak with her before I left home. I was content with spending the time catching up, reconnecting and reminiscing with my friends.
A day or two after I arrived, though, I noticed a one-day tour to Granada. That it as the first European city in the Mainland had me almost salivating with delight. Suddenly, my plan for a seven-day do-nothing-but-relax vacation evaporated as the thought of traveling to a second country and seeing a colonial city filled my head.
It didn’t matter that the trip would involve traveling 8 hours on a bus or that I was the only one of our group who wanted to go. All that was nothing compared to the adventure I imagined I’d have, the treats I knew I’d discover. I contacted Claudia at LEP Costa Rica to make the arrangements (Claudia also arranged my Congo Trail zip lining tour) and all I thought of for the next four days was the tour to Granada.
Like a lot of people, the most I knew of Nicaragua was what I remembered from reading about the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista Revolution, and the explosive Iran-Contra Affair – the scandal that tainted the second term of the Reagan Administration over their covert arming of the Contras, a guerrilla group that was fighting to depose the Sandinista government.
Because of these events, I knew of Managua but not of Granada. I didn’t know that Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, that it was named in recognition of the Spanish defeat of the Moors in Granada, or that the Sandinista war never reached this historic city.
Granada is the capital of Granada, one of Nicaragua’s 15 departments. About 130,000 people live in the city which sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake, the largest in Central America (the 19th largest in the world).
I also did not know that from 1856-7, an American lawyer and journalist, William Walker, took up residence in Granada and declared himself president of Nicaragua (his election was fraudulent). Walker envisioned taking control of Central America and began by Americanizing his colony, making English the official language. He also tried to reinstate slavery. While this brought him some support in the U.S. South, it made him no friends in Central America.
In December 1856, he fled Granada ahead of an advancing coalition of troops from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Before they abandoned Granada, one of Walker’s generals ordered the city burnt. So sure they were of their success that they left this note, “Aquifue Granada” (Here was Granada).
From the moment we entered the heart of the city, I was tickled by vibrant colors everywhere – from the buildings to the ‘chicken’ buses, as the woman sitting next to me called them. (She had spent time in South America and said that’s what the expats there called them as they were as likely to carry people as they would poultry and livestock.)
I couldn’t wait to get off the bus as it pulled to a stop. All around us were historic buildings, many flanking narrow cobbled streets.
We followed Eric, our tour guide, stopping to take photos along the way and trying to keep up. Then there it was, the pièce de résistance: Granada’s Cathedral (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción).
Built in 1583, the Cathedral was destroyed by Walker’s fire and rebuilt several times. This current building was completed in the early 1920s. Although we didn’t have time to enter the cathedral, Eric explained that it had four chapels and three naves.
Before we left the bus, Eric had told us that the town square (Plaza de la Independencia) was to have been our second stop but we were late making our first stop – a boat ride on Lake Nicaragua – so he had to switch things around. It was then that I realized how focused I’d been on seeing Granada’s colonial buildings that I’d ignored everything else about the tour. (I’ll be writing about the rest of it later.)
The Plaza de la Independencia is a large open square anchored by the impressive Cathedral, which is located on the east side of Columbus Park (Parque Colón) and several buildings, including City Hall (Palacio Municipal) and the Alhambra Hotel. On one side of the bustling park were vendors selling T-shirts and souvenirs.
We spent about 30 minutes in the Plaza, way too short to see all there was to see. Next up was lunch at a local restaurant. I can’t wait to return to Granada for a longer visit.
I wanted to revisit Barcelona earlier this year. Had reserved a room at a hotel that’s located steps from the Ramblas. I was excited. For years since I left Barcelona, I had not felt the urge to return. My experience has so shaped me and my view about travel, I wanted to preserve the memories.
But quite unexpectedly, I started feeling that I needed to go. What would Barcelona look like since I was a student there 20 plus years ago? Would the images I’ve clutched to my heart look like anything I’d see? Would I recognize the street I used to live on?
All these questions flooded my brain as if the door behind which they had been stored had finally been opened. I was excited to find out.
Then life intervened and I returned to New York nursing my disappointment. It had been a perfect plan.
Things looked up late in May when I noticed an article in the New York Times about an exhibition that was set to open at the New York Botanical Gardens. Titled Spanish Paradise: Gardens of the Alhambra, it seemed an answer to my longing for Barcelona and Spain.
The Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a palace that was built in the 14th century by the Moorish leaders who ruled Southern Spain. Its gardens are beautiful and legendary. Although I had studied the history and architecture of the Alhambra, I had not seen it during my time in Spain. An exhibition was not Barcelona, but I knew it would satisfy my longing. So last weekend, my friend and I, cameras in tow, made a trip to the New York Botanical Gardens.
Located in the Bronx, the New York Botanical Gardens spreads approximately 250 acres. An oasis of tranquility and beauty, it houses plant laboratories, gardens, plant collections, old growth forest containing oak, beeches, cherry, birch, tulip and white ash trees, some more than 200 years old, a cascade waterfall and wetland area. It’s the perfect location for an exhibition of this nature.
The focus of the Spanish Paradise is the replica of a Spanish garden that takes over 15,000 square feet of the Haupt Conservatory. With the aroma of lavender, jasmine, sour orange and lime trees, olive, fig and saffron, you are transported immediately to Southern Spain.
It’s an exhibition that appeals to the senses. Poems about nature by the Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, line the Poetry Walk while Flamenco dancers provide entertainment on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Sangria and tapas are available in the cafe.
In the library, rare prints, 19-century photographs of some of the courtyards of the Alhambra, paintings and other artifacts can be viewed. The exhibition also pays tribute to American poet, Washington Irving, who lived at the Alhambra while he was writing his collection of essays and sketches, Tales of the Alhambra, which sparked renewed interest in the palace. The Alhambra is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions.
Spanish Paradise sated my appetite temporarily. Now, I want to see the real thing.
Spanish Paradise: Gardens of the Alhambra will run until August 21, 2011 at the New York Botanical Gardens. 2900 Southern Blvd., New York. 718-817-8777.
Hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays
Tickets: All Garden, $20. Grounds only, $5. The grounds are also free all day on Wednesdays and from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturdays.
The Botanical Gardens are accessible by car or public transportation. If you’re in the New York area or planning to visit, add it to your list.