By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Javier Pinzón
Granada’s Central Park radiates life. It’s not just the mango and flame trees, the music of the gorgeous Love Fountain, the clear summer sky, or the spirited breeze that instills good cheer; it is the feeling that here, in the center of this touristy Nicaraguan city, there is room for shoe-shine men, candy sellers, girls reading on benches, and afternoon refreshment, conversation, and relaxation. Granada may be a tourist attraction, but it is also a city inhabited by people who laugh, cry, and scream. The city easily wears both the beauty of Lake Cocibolca and the immense chaos of the central avenue and public market.
Like any Spanish-style Colonial Era plaza, Central Park —actually, Colón Park, but the name is little used— is bordered by monumental buildings. There is the Cathedral, for example, which was destroyed (and rebuilt several times) by wars and fires. There is City Hall, the Palace of Culture, and the former Social Club. Hotel La Gran Francia is interesting because it was rebuilt as a copy of the original early 19th century building. And there is the Episcopal Palace, constructed in 1903 in the New Orleans style.
But the city’s history encompasses much more than the construction of the Cathedral (1583): Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and before that, the land was inhabited by the Xalteva indigenous people. The San Francisco Convent Museum (Calle Cervantes) displays a letter written to Emperor Charles V about Nicaragua: “It is a very populous land of abundance. There are some 8,000 native inhabitants, and very good rivers, orchards, fisheries, and resources.” In 1535, when the area was already under colonial rule, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote a letter criticizing the territorial government: “We have made amazing progress in two months with the Indians, but the inhabitants of Granada refuse to do God’s work. And God himself would want them to obey and to work like the Indians! (…) They beat them as if they were made of stone.”
A statue of Hernández de Córdoba stands at the end of La Calzada St., a pedestrian walkway that runs from Central Park to the promenade along Lake Cocibolca, which is at its best at dusk. The promenade is lined with cafés, restaurants, and shops. Musicians play and there is also the spectacular Hotel Darío, with its blue —yes, blue— dining room and wonderful inner courtyards.
The inner courtyards of Granada’s houses are a tourist attraction in themselves. Small and confined in modest homes and majestic and expansive in more elegant residences, the courtyards of Granada are filled with light, gardens, and fountains.
Aside from Central Park, La Calzada Street, and the promenade, two other must-sees are the San Francisco Convent Museum and the Merced Church tower. The San Francisco Church is the oldest in Nicaragua, and the appended convent building houses the San Francisco Museum and its multiple exhibit halls. For example, there you might learn that rattan furniture is traditional in Granada, as are weaving and embroidery.
There are spaces dedicated to architecture, customs and folklore, primitive painting, and popular religious art, the latter featuring a collection of Virgin Marys and Christs carved in wood, most from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The black basalt pre-Colombian idols, discovered on Zapatera Island in 1849, constitute the Museum’s most important collection. The Museum also has an inner courtyard dotted with giant palm trees that are often visited by flocks of parrots. Admission to the Museum is five dollars.
The Merced Church is known for its lookout point. The narrow steps of the spiral stairway lead to the bell tower of this church, which was originally built of wood and straw in 1539. From the top, a panoramic view of the city includes the Cathedral tower and the Mombacho Volcano. It costs just a dollar to climb the bell tower.
Beyond the “must-sees,” perhaps the most fascinating thing to do in Granada —as in all the cities and towns around the world— is to explore the streets.
Granada’s streets are narrow and cobbled, with sidewalks marked by façades of varying heights. A stroll toward El Caimito St., parallel to La Calzada, reveals places far off the tourist track, and thus more authentic. One window features the sign: “Firewood for sale,” and another “Cheese and curd cheese.”
Aimlessly wandering the city has the added advantage of allowing you to stop and admire the colors. The colors of Granada show up in its façades: this one in grass green, that one in indigo, the one over there in golden yellow, or mandarin orange, or vermilion…
Then there are the tiled roofs, the lamp posts, the architectural details, the windows, the designs on the floors, and the richly-decorated handmade ceramics.
Granada is a beautiful city. A beautiful city in a country of volcanoes and revolutions. A city graced with a Poetry Festival every February. A city where poets might meet, as noted by Claribel Alegría in Amor sin fin, to seek the truth, bare their souls, and write madly.