Pilar, owner of Loja’s Posada Rincón, told me that her establishment opened its doors to travelers in 1810, and she recalled when its outer patio had not yet been roofed and was used to stable mules. Loja’s museum has mid-19th-century photos of the town square showing men in gallant dress just as Irving described them, with wide-brimmed hats, tight-fitting riding breeches and short jackets. An engraving dating from 1585 shows the castle walls fully intact, and even David Roberts tried his hand at capturing the citadel’s tower in his Spanish Series.
On television, the nightly half-hour live broadcast of flamenco direct from Seville is followed by a “friendly” soccer match between England and Spain. It attracts most of the Posada Rincón’s guests—some pensioners, some transients. One in particular, who holds the remote control, has an eye-to-chin scar that surely would have scared off Irving’s most ferocious contrabandista.
Yet this was not likely Irving’s inn, “the inhabitants of which seem still to retain the bold fiery spirit of the olden time,” whose name he reported as the Corona. No trace of that posada can be found today even on the barrio alto’s tiny Calle Washington Irving. And at the Rincón, when the final whistle blew with Spain ahead 1–0, my fellow soccer fans were gently snoring and the entire town pretty much shuttered—not quite the fiery spirit Irving had reported.
Some things in the town remain unchanged, however. In the Alfaguara quarter (“bountiful spring” in Spanish, from al-fawwarah, meaning “jet of water”), Loja’s most famous fountain, with 25 spouts, continues to fill its stock trough, plenty for both Irving’s long-eared mule and the Citroën’s 75 horses, confirming Ibn al-Khatib’s praise for his town’s “copious currents” more than a half millennium ago.
The next day, Irving entered onto the Rio Genil’s table-flat plain. He called it the “far famed” Vega de Granada and stopped at midday in the Soto de Roma, “a classical neighborhood…, a rural resort of the Moorish kings, in modern times granted to the Duke of Wellington.” His muleteer and majordomo Sancho set out one last picnic beside a stream, and seen “in the distance was romantic Granada surmounted by the ruddy towers of the Alhambra, while far above it the snowy summits of the Sierra Nevada shone like silver.”
I was caught in the rain here, so no summits shone like silver for me, yet I determined to find the Almohad watchtower known as the Torre de Romillo, the only one still standing on the Vega, now alongside an asparagus farm. Workmen were busy securing its cracked walls, but they told me with some excitement that an archeologist from Granada had just discovered a ceramic-tiled well under a meter (39") of earth in its basement. The tower would have been newly built and its well still full in the year 1319, when, according to Ford, 50,000 soldiers died in a battle here between Muslims and Christians.
In the nearby town of Chauchina, outside the parish church, stands a broken column from a local quarry. Destined for the Alhambra’s Palace of Carlos V, it tumbled off a transport wagon in the mid-16th century and was left behind. Its 32 perfectly matched sister columns, one of which no doubt is Chauchina’s hurriedly cut replacement, still support the palace’s second-floor arcade.
Approaching the fabled city of Granada, Irving was steered by a wily tout to what he promised was the city’s best inn, with chocolate con leche (hot chocolate made with milk), camas de luxo (soft beds) and colchones de pluma (feather pillows). “Ay, señores,” he told Irving and Sancho, “you will fare like King Chico in the Alhambra.” But this proved another cosa de España. “We found before morning,” Irving wrote, that “the little varlet, who was no doubt a good friend of the landlord, had decoyed us into one of the shabbiest posadas in Granada.”
Yet Irving’s diary entry for May 31, 1829 recounts the happiest of endings to this story. “You will I am sure congratulate me upon my good luck—Behold me, a resident of the Alhambra, even in the old Moorish palace of Boabdil!” He goes on to explain how the governor of Granada had invited him to lodge in some unused rooms of the palace itself. “We gladly occupied it and here I am, as much a sovereign of the Palace as Rey Chico.”
Irving stayed through the summer and wrote much of The Alhambra there, inspired by midnight walks through “these great halls and courts and gardens” and conversations with a fellow guest, a certain “Moor of Tetuan,” who translated for him the “aroma of the poetry” inscribed on its walls. A modern traveler, though he may have the best connections, is rarely invited to overnight in the Nasrid Palace—not even in the two side rooms that Carlos v redecorated in Spanish style in the 16th century and where Irving slept 200 years later.
On the route from Seville, I had found Irving accurate about many things, but in this day of 120-kilometer-per-hour (75-mph) autopistas and cell phone reception all along the A-92, it is no longer true, as he wrote, that the route makes for “tedious travelling through a lonely and dreary country.” But he was right on target in his next observation: “Granada, however, repays one for every fatigue.” It certainly did for mine.