"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go till you come to the end: then stop."
Thus the beginning of my story will have to be the founding of the city of Granada by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in the year 1524 CE. He named this new Spanish settlement in the Americas after the city of Granada in Spain, honoring La Reina Isabel I de Castilla y León and El Rey Fernando II de Aragón. The Emirate of Granada had been the last jewel of Al-Andalus Spain, when it was surrendered to The Most Catholic Monarchs, ‘Los Reyes Católicos’, by Emir Muhammad XII, in 1492. This defeat of the last Muslim king in Spain concluded the Reconquista, the 781-year long struggle of Christian rulers to end Muslim domination over the Spanish peninsula. The successful conclusion of the ten-year War of Granada cemented Isabel and Fernando’s standing as leaders among European Royal Houses.
Hernández de Córdoba was less fortunate with his Granada. He soon lost favor with his boss, the Governor General of all of the Provinces, a high-ranking Castilian nobleman named Pedro Arias Dávila or Pedrarias Dávila, called El Galan for his jousting prowess. Dávila felt it politically convenient to declare Hernández Córdoba a traitor and had him beheaded in 1526. Dávila had his posthumous requital, however, when in 2000 both his and Córdoba’s remains were found in Viejo León (the colonial town of León in Nicaragua). Capitán Francisco Hernández Córdoba was reburied with military honors and a 21 gun salute in the Founder’s Memorial Pavilion in the Old Town square, while noble Dávila’s bones were unceremoniously put in the ground at Córdoba’s feet.
Granada in Nicaragua soon became a wealthy city through trade with North America and Europe by utilizing its natural connection with the Caribbean Sea and thus the Atlantic Ocean through Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan river. It is intriguing to consider that the western shore of Lake Nicaragua is a mere 20 Km distant to the Pacific Ocean, yet there is no connection between lake & ocean. Lake Nicaragua drains solely through the San Juan River, which flows into the 100 Km distant Atlantic Ocean to the East. This proximity to the Atlantic and thus Europe also had its drawbacks. From 1651 to 1689 especially, Granada suffered repeated assaults by Dutch, British & French pirates and privateers, who tried to take control of the wealthy town.
As we were approaching through the outskirts of the city, Edwin gave us a quick summary of its colonial history. His narration evoked vivid images as we were passing homes, churches, cemeteries, and parks, some of which may have witnessed those early colonial days. Edwin recounted how Granada was built like two towns, separated by a wall. On one side of the wall, Spaniards lived in splendid houses, on the other side of the wall indigenous people lived not so splendidly. They were only allowed to come into the Spanish section of Granada to work in the homes and businesses there. This separation continued until a high ranking Spanish official asked The Crown for dispensation to marry an indigenous woman. Once permission was granted, the wall gradually came down. But the colonial value system, which classified humans into clearly defined social groups, persisted well into post-colonial times. This class or caste system eventually became highly detailed and your personal data in birth & baptism records, taking into account at least three generations of forebears, would be categorized into different CASTAS or racial classes. Your casta was the most important factor in the determination of your place in society. For a long time, the most influential and important people in Granada were all Peninsulares, true Spaniards, born on the Spanish peninsula. The next best category down from these few, rarefied beings was Criollo. Born, alas, in the Americas, but nevertheless of pure white parentage. Since The Crown in its infinite wisdom wouldn’t allow Spanish women to settle in the colonies, the following category down from Criollo soon constituted the majority of the population all over Central America, Los Mestizos, which allowed one indigenous Amerindian in conjunction with a white parental unit in a person’s family tree. Pure indigenous Amerindians were Indios, but their offspring with a partner of African descent were called Zambos, and so forth. By the time independence rolled around in 1821 and the colonial era ended in Central America, people were categorized into over one hundred sub-groups of castas!
Before we toured the city proper, Edwin organized a relaxing boat ride through the 365 Isletas de Granada. Not all of them, of course, but we cruised through a nice representation of these rock piles, which the volcano Papa Mombacho had spit out millennia ago. There are large islands, which seemed more like bustling villages and tiny rock formations, just large enough for a frog family or two and everything in between. More than a thousand people, mostly indigenous fisherman and their families used to live in the archipelago. During the second half of the 20th century, a number of inhabitants were forced to leave their ancestral homes on the islands. Some have since been allowed to return, yet the issue hasn’t been fully resolved owing to political power games. Lately, international tourism has reached the Asese peninsula and the isletas and varying forms of recreation & leisure activities have become available.
With a >8 000 sqKm surface area, this Gran Lago Dulce, great freshwater lake, is the largest lake in Central America. Lake Michigan, the world’s largest freshwater lake located entirely in one country, is only 7 times larger than lake Nicaragua. Lake Nicaragua is infamous for its sudden squalls & unmanageable storms.
Many islands are now privately owned, some by foreigners, and you can catch glimpses of some pretty fabulous estates out there. We also saw historical Fort Pablo, which was intended to protect Granada against marauding pirates, but never really managed all that well. What I do remember best about our private boat trip among the islands, is the special light quality and otherworldly atmosphere one experiences, gliding between dense spots of jungle vegetation over a still, reflective surface, possibly hiding untold dangers. Too fanciful? Ok, let’s return to the reality of city streets and oppressive humidity.
Granada is a hot town. Culturally and climatically. Artists thrive in Granada under private and governmental tutelage; I’ll tell you a little more about these cultural aspects in the next post. And the weather? Compared to our mountain perch in Costa Rica, it felt uncomfortably hot & humid to me. But I don’t manage heat well, I want to be clear about that, whereas friends of ours liked it quite well. Fortunately for me, there’re plenty of bars serving ice cold beer to revive wilted spirits and damp bodies. And Edwin introduced me to Micheladas, very refreshing!
We started our walking tour of the city near the lake, essentially walking the length of the lively pedestrian zone on Calle la Calzada toward the Cathedral. Edwin highlighted the majestic Spanish-colonial building style, for which Granada is so renowned, by sneaking us into some of the public areas of the sumptuous Hotel Granada. He lead us up this really dark, forbidding and clearly dangerous back alley 😎
… and from here we wandered about the hotel’s amazingly restored hallways, salons and courtyards. What an experience!
The first edifice we saw upon leaving the hotel through its front entrance, was the Church of Guadalupe, which was founded by the monk Benito de Baltodano as a cloister around 1625. The churches location, being so close to the lake shore, made it vulnerable to pirate’s attacks and it was sacked and rebuild a number of times over the centuries.
Late in the year 1856, Granada, being William Walker’s capital city at the time, was under siege by Central American coalition forces. Filibustero Walker was sequestered in Guadalupe Church for 18 days while being under constant fire. The battle scars from the artillery volleys could still be seen in 1890, but more recent renovations patched over these historical marks. On December 14, 1856, Walker and his war commander, pirate Charles Frederick Henningsen, elected to run, but not until Henningsen had given orders to set fire to the entire city. He planted a lance with the message “Here was Granada” in the ensuing inferno and then they hightailed it across Lake Nicaragua to safety.
We, on the other hand, moving ever so slowly, strolled along La Calzada, enjoying the sights, the people, the atmosphere.
This women’s center bears the name of a very strong woman, Claudia Lucia Chamorro. No family history could better illustrate last century’s contorted and heartbreaking fate of Nicaraguan political leaders, than the story of the Chamorro family and their odyssey through the revolutionary years. The two faces of modern society in Granada. A posh boutique hotel lobby for foreign visitors and a much more modestly appointed convenience store for the locals that work in the tourism industry. The infamous wall is still up today.
A little further on, we looked up to the dramatically illuminated façade of the ‘Antiguo Convento San Francisco’, which was built, not surprisingly, by Franciscan monks around 1529. This church, too, was sacked by pirates again and again, among them the famous Henry Morgan. Over the centuries the monastery was used as a military installation and it also housed a university at one time. Currently, it is home to pre-Columbian treasures from the island of Zapatera in Lake Nicaragua. Sadly we couldn’t see the collection because the museum was closed for a convention promoting – ironically – tourism.
Edwin explained the symbolism hidden in the design of the church front. The 12 columns represent the 12 Apostles and the 3 bells represent the Holy Trinity. I think the four suspended cones refer to the four gospels, but I’m afraid, I don’t quite remember the details. Sorry, Edwin!
What have we here? Hm, William Walker again, who else. We were walking through narrow side streets toward the Plaza de la Independencia when I noticed the pretty tile work next to one of those impressive, carved wooden front doors. Looking more closely, the text became clear: The 1976 mayor of Granada, Don Alvaro Chamorro (sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I bet he was a relative of Claudia Chamorro) commissioned this plaque to honor General Fernando Guzman, President of Nicaragua from 1867 to 1871, who lived at this address. It appears the General and Don Fulgencio earned the gratitude of towns around the Pacific coast and Lake Nicaragua by being the first to organize resistance against the Walker forces. Also, note the pomegranate image over the General’s name. It’s the word root for the name ‘Granada’ and the pomegranate symbol appears prominently in heraldic devices, especially in the original Granada in Spain.
And speaking of the filibustero William Walker and his misguided life. I had to dig around quite a bit in those digital history tomes in cyberspace to understand, how it happened that a North American privateer wound up temporarily as President of a Central American country, only to be executed for his troubles by another Central American country.
Let’s first fill in the background paint in this amazing pictures. In the early 1700 agricultural export and increased trade options widened the scope of economic growth in Nicaragua past the traditional mining interests, which created two major centers of power. One was the city of Granada, the other one was the city of León. Also during the early years of the 18th century, significant changes occurred in Spain. The House of Bourbon replaced the ancient House of Hapsburg on the Spanish throne. The Hapsburg monarchy had always been focused on traditional trade monopolies, land ownership, and Roman Catholic values. The proud colonial city of Granada, named after the most profound success of those Most Catholic Monarchs two hundred years earlier, remained closely bound to the ancient value system. The city of León, on the other hand, marched to a less dowdy drum. Although the original León was also founded by Córdoba in 1524, it had to be abandoned soon after. León was moved around the countryside again & again, dodging volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters. The city only came into its own with the rise of the Bourbon monarchy, which promoted newfangled ideas of free trade and other developments of a newly liberal worldview. This was perfectly in tune with a town that had constantly reinvented itself for almost 200 years. León became Nicaragua’s Liberal stronghold, in perpetual competition with Conservative Granada. Each town supported an army and there were many skirmishes for political and economic superiority, but the fortunes switched back and forth between the cities and therefore between political systems in power. After Central America achieved independence from Spain in 1821 the fighting between followers of political ideologies became even worse. In all of the colonial successor states, it was quite common for the leading citizens to develop a stronger sense of loyalty to their political party than they accorded their countries. Party members readily joined their brethren in a neighboring country to fight against opposing parties. By the middle of the 19th century, this practice led to the tragic decision of the Democratic Party of the city of León to hire William Walker and his mercenaries to defeat the conservative city of Granada once and for all. And that’s when it all went downhill.