The hermitage of San Miguel Alto is located at the top of the Albaicin and the old medieval wall. In this post I am not only going to tell you about its history and the famous viewpoint but alsoI would like to tell you about its surroundings, the people who live there, the flamenco and some other little things from my point of view, since I have lived here for several years.
NOTE: This is not a conventional article about San Miguel Alto. It has been written by our colleague Amalia Ricard. She has grown up between San Miguel Alto and France, is a student of tourism and is now doing her internship with us. Enjoy it! because it is not to be missed!
What you will find here
HISTORY OF SAN MIGUEL ALTO
WHO WAS SAN MIGUEL?
St. Michael is one of the four archangels of Christianity. He is recognised and revered by all three major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He is a warrior angel who is depicted with either sword or spear and may have armour, and he delivered heaven from Lucifer’s attacks. His cult spread rapidly through Europe and the Middle East and he is now venerated almost everywhere in the world. Saint Michael is the patron saint of many offices related to security and justice, but in Granada he is the patron saint of the Albaicin neighbourhood.
SAN MIGUEL ALTO IN MEDIEVAL TIMES
In the Nasrid period the Albaicín expanded eastwards due to the arrival of refugees escaping the advance of the Christian troops. The neighbourhood was extended with a great wall that reached as far as the current hermitage of San Miguel Alto and enclosed the suburb of the Falconers (Rabad al-Bayyazin) or Albayzín.
This wall is known as the Cerca de don Gonzalo. Some Christian sources explain that the wall was paid for with the ransom obtained for freeing Don Gonzalo de Zúñiga, a bishop of Jaén held captive in Granada. But this bears little relation to reality. According to Arab sources (Ibn al-Khatib) the wall was built under Yusuf I, between 1329 and 1354.
At the top was the Aceituno tower. There are different opinions about its configuration, but in any case it must have been larger than the rest of the towers on the wall. In fact, some researchers believe that it must have been a small fortress.
During the Middle Ages the hillside area of San Miguel Alto was partially inhabited. In addition to some scattered dwellings and caves, there was a cemetery, the Maqbarat al-Rawda. At the foot of San Miguel we can see a stone cross in the middle of a small square built in the 16th century called “La Cruz de la Rauda”. This name comes precisely from the Andalusian cemetery.
I find it curious when walking through this area, to observe that in the past they wanted to bury their relatives in a place with beautiful views so that they could rest in peace and tranquillity.
THE CHAPEL OF SAN MIGUEL ALTO
The temple was completed in 1673 on the old tower of Aceituno. According to some descriptions, this first hermitage took advantage of the previous construction, which was reformed and extended. In fact, as it formed part of the defensive structure, the hermitage of San Miguel Alto was under the jurisdiction of the Alhambra, which held military authority. In the surrounding area, the hermit took care of olive trees, vines and other trees. The place was supplied with water from a spring relatively close by, known in the texts as the “Fuente del Moro” (Fountain of the Moor). Today, behind the church is the Aceituno fountain.
The first hermitage of San Miguel Alto was destroyed by the French at the beginning of the 19th century. Years later, in 1828, it was rebuilt in the neoclassical style as we can see it today. The hermitage of San Miguel Alto is one of the highest points in the city of Granada. On 29 September, an ancient pilgrimage is held in which a multitude of people process through the neighbourhood with an image of the archangel Saint Michael, guardian of the Albaicín.
THE CAVES OF SAN MIGUEL ALTO
This cave district has developed throughout history. There are few sources that can give the exact origin of the presence of cave houses in the city of Granada. Some researchers suggest that the first caves were originally dug by the Muslim population after the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs. Others maintain that they already existed during the Middle Ages.
Subsequently, the gypsy community settled inthese caves and expandedin number over the years. They found a suitable location here because of its low cost, ease of construction and low temperature variation inside.
Granada has always been one of the most troglodytic cities in Spain. In 1950 the city had 3,692 caves or in other words, 11% of the total number of dwellings in the city. Lunfortunately dsince the 1960s the caves have been destroyed in favour of city development projects that never saw the light of day.
I came to live in San Miguel Alto with my mother and siblings in 2008 in a beautiful cave with spectacular views of the Alhambra. Since then I have been observing the different dwellings, the inhabitants and the changes that this rugged neighbourhood has undergone. Since I have been here, I have realised that the hill is a living, evolving place where people of all kinds and origins live together.
Some caves have all the comforts of a conventional house, in others with fewer resources candlelight is essential, clothes are washed by hand and the water for the shower comes from the Aceituno spring.
Some inhabitants often spend only a few months there. There are also the Spaniards who have lived in their cave since they were born and they tend to be the nicest and best conditioned caves.
The caves are a perfect place to withstand the sometimes harsh weather conditions of the region. Being dug into the earth, the temperature inside is between 15 and 21 degrees Celsius all year round. You should know that feeling when you are climbing up the hill in unbearable heat and suddenly you enter the coolness of the cave, it is an exceptionally pleasant sensation!
THE FLOODS OF 1963
The 1956 earthquake and the torrential rains from 1962 to 1963 caused the destruction of most of the caves of San Miguel and the Sacromonte. These floods were used as an excuse by the authorities to drive all the inhabitants out of the caves, their demolition was insisted upon and most of them were torn down so that they could not be reoccupied.
Luckily for me and my neighbours, soon after, the inhabitants of Granada and travellers from all over the world dug up the caves again to inhabit them. Some have obtained the necessary permits to live in them but others are simply squatted.
VISITING SAN MIGUEL ALTO
Now I am going to tell you what you can visit in the “cerro de San Miguel”, also known as “cerro del Aceituno” or “de los Angeles”.
THE TWO VIEWS OF THE CERRO DE SAN MIGUEL
SAN MIGUEL ALTO VIEWPOINT
The Mirador de San Miguel Alto is one of the highest in the whole of Granadaand probably the most difficult to climb. Personally, I think it has the best views. When you get to the top you feel proud to have come all this way to see this breathtaking panorama. You can see the whole city and beyond. When you get to know Granada, you can try to spot some of the places visible from the top. Many people gather at sunset or in the evening to watch the light evolve and relax in this special place.
This viewpoint has not always been so well known and touristy. It was only 20 years ago that tourists slowly started to visit this place and nowadays it is quite crowded, but there will always be a corner to sit down and enjoy it.
CROS CRUZ DE LA RAUDA VIEWPOINT
This viewpoint is quite recent. The works were slowed down by the archaeological excavations that were carried out in the old Arab cemetery and were not finished until 2011. The Cruz de la Rauda viewpoint offers lower and closer views than those of San Miguel. It is less touristy and you can usually find groups of young people from the neighbourhood or inhabitants of the caves. It is a small viewpoint with few seats, but just as charming as the others, especially because of the history it contains. We talk a little more about this viewpoint in our “guide to the Albaicín“.
Our guided tours don’t go that high, but 4 Neighbourhoods 4 Cultures it passes by a number of Granada’s viewpoints. This is the most comprehensive tour of the city of the Alhambra.
THE OIL FOUNTAIN, THE PLACE TO REPLENISH YOUR STRENGTH
The Aceituno fountain is named after the ancient tower and hill. When I came to Granada as a child, an old man from the caves told me the legend that explains where the name of the fountain comes from. Apparently, in Islamic times there was an olive tree that was able to flower, bear fruit and ripen on the same day.
The fountain is located behind the hermitage and next to a children’s centre. At the top of the hill, this fountain is more useful than it seems, as it allows us to refresh ourselves and drink fresh water after a difficult climb.
There is a stopcock in the ground that you will have to turn in order to drink. Remember to always turn it off to avoid wasting water. Remember that we have a post dedicated to the pillars and water fountains of Granada.
THE STAIRS TO HEAVEN, OR HOW TO GET TO SAN MIGUEL ALTO
As you can imagine, to get to San Miguel Alto you have to go up and up. From the Rauda to the middle of the hill of San Miguel you will find 214 steps. Although they are not very pretty, they seem to attract tourists, who draw on the steps to leave a mark of their visit to Granada. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood also paint to evoke a message, which gives a touch of personality to these stairs.
Since I’ve been living in the cave, I have to go up and down at least twice a day, so I’d like to give you some advice. Personally, I’m still not used to it and I get quite exhausted at the end. That’s why I recommend taking it easy and, if you can, avoid the hours of intense heat.
At sunset, many people sit on the stairs to watch the last rays of light. This avoids going up to the viewing platform where there are a lot of people and not much space to sit at that time of the day.
SAN MIGUEL WALLS. CONTEMPORARY RESTORATIONS
From the hermitage of San Miguel Alto two walls descend. The one that descends towards the north was restored and rebuilt in 2006. The intervention was very controversial as they built a sort of interior passageway with small holes in the wall. Architecturally it is beautiful, but perhaps it was not the most appropriate for the site and the type of heritage.
To the south is another stretch of wall which was rebuilt in the 1960s by Prieto Moreno (one of the architects who played a decisive role in the current appearance of the Alhambra). It is precisely this reconstruction that has motivated the latest interventions in 2020. The mortars that were used have accumulated humidity and have caused collapses. Despite what you may read, this latest restoration has not destroyed the wall, but has consolidated it by removing the additions that damaged the original wall.
THE HABITANTS AND FLAMENCO
THE INHABITANTS OF SAN MIGUEL ALTO
From the 20th century onwards, most of the caves have been repopulated by a very heterogeneous group of people in terms of age, culture and nationality. There are still asome families descended from the first arrivals. However, most of the current occupants arrived much later, attracted by the unique and uniqueway of lifeof the place. My neighbours were often young European travellers, families, Spaniards, gypsies and Senegalese immigrants. They are usually very open-minded people with whom we can live in harmony, enjoying the benefits the caves offer us and with a common respect for the place we live in.
The best thing about this neighbourhood is its diversity. Walking around its corners you can hear different languages, original music, or scenes that reflect the customs of each one. For example, the Senegalese usually live in their own cave, but at lunchtime they gather in a courtyard to eat together from the same pot. Every Tuesday and Thursday they celebrate a ritual known as bayfal in which they gather to chant the name of God: “ALLAH ILAHA ILALA”. On those days we can hear their chanting and the drums they play with joy. If you pass by, you are sure to be invited to enjoy this moment with them.
We can also observe alternative youths coming from different parts of the world in order to develop their art. Here they feel inspired and find a suitable kind of life in the caves. We can meet craftsmen, students, music lovers and lovers of life in general.
Since a few years ago more families started coming to San Miguel hill. They are looking for an ecological and self-sufficient life in a place full of life to raise their children. As you stroll through the heart of San Miguel you can see young children happily running around in the bush, teenagers with their friends sitting on the gazebos or neighbours quietly cultivating their vegetable garden.
The gypsies in the caves of San Miguel are usually quite old. Thanks to them we can travel back in time and relive life in the caves in the 1960s. They are people with a lot of history and experience, so they can often tell you stories or legends of the area.
Most of the inhabitants are sociable and open-minded people, who don’t like conflicts and take care of the place. As is the case everywhere, there are those who do not respect the environment and the community, but they are a small part, so I invite you to take a walk around the hill to make your own opinion of the place.
THE FLAMENCO AND LA BAILAORA CAVE AT SAN MIGUEL ALTO
La Cueva la Bailaora was imagined and created by my mother, a brave woman: Sabrine Leila, better known as “La morisca de San Miguel“. Her name is due to her Moorish and gypsy origins, even though she is French by birth.
We came to Granada in 2008 because she knew it was the best place to live and develop her project, because of her roots and her passion for flamenco. For eight months the cave was under construction to make it habitable and beautiful, with large spaces and not forgetting the tablao for the shows. When they finished we went to live there. For me it meant a different and very original life, but above all it was a place full of life and freedom. There you could express your art while enjoying some of the best views in Spain and in harmony with nature.
In 2010 my mother created the “peña flamenca Cueva la bailaora“, where every full moon a pure flamenco show is organised. It works as an association and every person who comes to the concert automatically becomes a member. The shows offer family-friendly flamenco and the tapas are usually made of organic and homemade products. Several artists have passed through the cave: la Farruca, el Petete, Jerónimo Maya, Montse Cortés, la Moneta, José Carlos Torres and obviously, “La Morisca de San Miguel”, among others.
Today La Bailaora is not only a tablao, you can also rent the cave for special events or rehearsals and there are also classes and intensive courses of singing, guitar and dance. It is a space for lovers of pure flamenco and art, it is a different place from the usual flamenco proposals in Granada.
Flamenco comes from an Arabic expression: felah menkub, meaning “landless peasant”. Flamenco is the soul of Andalusia and the heart of Granada created by a mixture of Moors, Gypsies and Jews. Sometimes I imagine that it was created in the caves, as with the arrival of the Christians the cultures mixed and lived together creating a unique, dynamic and emotional art form.
If you want to know the history of flamenco in Granada you have to try Sigue el Compás. It is a route through the Albaicín and Sacromonte with music, history and interesting people who live flamenco. Click on the banner to find out more.
We also propose you to know more non-touristic flamenco places in Granada and to know the reasons why you should come to Granada to know flamenco.
REFORESTATIONS IN SAN MIGUEL ALTO
Just behind the hermitage of San Miguel, on the upper part of the slope that descends towards the Sacromonte neighbourhood, reforestation with natural species has been carried out. Those responsible for this work are “Árboles Contra el Cambio Climático Granada“, an environmental association with which we collaborate from Andalucía 360. In the autumns of 2019 and 2020 and with the participation of students from the schools of Albaicín and Haza Grande, several reforestation days were carried out.
It is very important, if you walk through this beautiful area, that you do not leave the paths or that you take care where you step. The hillside is full of holm oaks, kermes oaks, strawberry trees, mastic trees, bearberry trees and aladerns. Whenever the plants need it, a group of volunteers is organised to come and water the future trees and bushes. San Miguel Alto will have a greener environment in the future.
The reforestation of this area will not only help to purify the air in Granada, but will also generate a stronger soil that will protect the Sacromonte caves from future floods like the one in 1962. Reforest and respect ✌.
NOTE: the reforested trees in this area that should be protected were uprooted for reasons related to urban speculation in San Miguel Alto.
MAP OF WHAT TO SEE IN SAN MIGUEL ALTO
Finally we leave you with a map of San Miguel Alto with all the places we have talked about in this post.
As we said at the beginning, this is a special article. And it is not only because it has been written by a colleague of French origin, but also because it is written from her personal experience. She has been helped by family and friends who know the neighbourhood well and whom we thank for their collaboration.
We would also like to recommend such interesting research works as the one by Esther Galera and José P. Cruz if you need more historical information about San Miguel Alto.
Further information about GRANADA