Gypsy for a Night
It was dark in the dusty grass where I squatted. All the light was on the opposite hillside. The Alhambra, that iconic Moorish fortress, glowed the electric yellow of streetlights and floated, majestically, in the night sky.
Up to my left was another glimmer: the bonfire I had just left. The sound of laughter and music glided down to me as if riding on the thermals of the warm May air. It beckoned. But I had a problem. I had peed on myself.
I called for my friend, who was crouching just downhill: “Anna!”
“Yeeeees,” a familiar voice replied.
“I had a liiiittle accident,” I said.
“Did you pee on yourself?” Anna cut to the chase, adding her infectious Nebraskan laugh.
“A little… Just on my shorts. Stop laughing!”
“Here,” Anna responded, her silhouette stepping toward me through the darkness. A glinting gold shawl bulged from her outstretched hand. I recognized the fabric from a trip to Morocco that a group of us Americans had taken a few weeks prior. All the women had bought headscarves in the Fez medina. Anna and I wore them on a camel trek through the Sahara desert; to a midnight drum circle with the Bedouins; and out to the dunes at sunrise, where the gold scarf combined with Anna’s wavy red hair perfectly complemented sun and sand.
I grabbed the shawl and tied it around my hips like a sarong. I dropped my shorts beneath it, then hung them to dry on a prickly shrub. “Venga, vale, vamos,” I said, reciting the v-word trio that Spaniards love to say in rapid succession whenever they’re antsy to go somewhere. I gestured in the direction of the bonfire. I didn’t care that my shiny new skirt—which revealed one entire leg—looked as if it had been swept off the set of MTV’s Spring Break. I didn’t care about much in Granada, Spain.
We hiked the dirt path back to the blaze. Around it sat fellow travelers from England, Scotland, Australia, the Czech Republic. There were guitars and bongo drums, violins and a didgeridoo, Alhambra beers and hash (which Spaniards call chocolate). An English woman, Emily, dipped two poi balls into the fire then twirled them into flaming scribbles that hung over the terracotta rooftops of the historic Albaicín district below.
Behind us was the crumbling entryway to a cave. A Scottish musician named John had been living here for the past several months. It was his last night in town, and this was his going away party. In a way, it was also my own farewell.
I had first heard about the caves of Sacromonte, or las cuevas de los gitanos (the gypsy caves), from my worldly aunt Meredith. She spoke of flamenco legends growing up inside the earth just outside Granada’s city walls. After the Christian conquest of Granada in 1492, it is said that Jews and Muslims joined the gypsies in settling the surrounding hills. They carved free-form dwellings into the land, which was a malleable mixture of clay and pebbles. Arabic culture combined with a gypsy spirit, ultimately creating flamenco. People have lived above the law in these caves for hundreds of years, and more recently, Sacromonte has attracted young hippies and artists looking for free rent—or the best view in the city.
By the end of my three-month study abroad stint in Granada, I had made Spanish friends, with whom I could speak the language. I had discovered the best cafés, my favorite places for tapas and tinto de verano, and which tetería could provide instant calm if I felt homesick, or sick to be homebound. I was finally starting to feel like an insider, yet I still hadn’t been inside a real gypsy cave.
It’s not that I hadn’t tried. Two months back, I had organized a day hike through the village of Sacromonte. We saw rows of caves from the outside and wondered what lives unfolded within. But traveling with a big group of American college students wasn’t exactly a ticket to entry. One night, a few of us made the 20-minute climb from downtown to a subterranean dance club called El Camborio. On the way, someone threw eggs at us from a car window. One cracked on the ankle of my leather boot. Despite the tunnels and surreal views of the Alhambra, we couldn’t help but feel a little unwelcome.
Tonight was different, though. Anna—the sparky redhead who had become my adventure accomplice in Morocco—had extended an invite to see her friend John’s folk band play at a local cafe. After the show, we heard some murmuring about a going away party in a cave.
“If there’s any way we can go, we are going!” I told Anna.
The ragtag group of musicians and artists mingled in the cobbled plaza outside the venue while Anna and I stood watch. The mass started moving and funneled into the dimly lit alleyways of the Albaicín. We followed.
Passing the whitewashed homes, many of them draped in vines and bougainvillea, I recalled the memories that had been scattered in these streets: intimate conversations in Arabic tea houses; getting lost in this very maze of alleys trying to find the Mirador San Nicolás; the day some friends and I discovered a Moorish ruin, squeezed through a gap in the chained wooden door, and made ourselves at home on the rooftop. We returned a few nights later with beer and wine and spent hours watching our new city pulse from above.
When we reached the edge of the Albaicín, cobblestones turned to dirt, the scents of flowers and paella to those of wild grasses. Finally, the punctured hillside came into view. We had arrived at Scottish John’s cave.
Anna and I sat mesmerized watching Emily spin her fireballs. She wore feathers and patchwork fabrics, and her olive-skinned body shimmied like a modern-day gypsy. A man with long hair and dark eyes played the classical guitar beside me. Between songs, I learned that his name was Vincent, and he was from southern England, or wherever they say “fink” instead of “think.” Across the fire, Anna kept inching closer to the didgeridoo player, a dreadlocked redhead from the Czech Republic named Zdenek. We drank rioja and got friendlier, and friendlier, with our new musician friends until their attention turned from their instruments to us. We stood up, stomped our feet, and clapped our palms to the drumbeat. Vincent leaned down for a kiss. The fire flickered in his pupils. Was it me or the girl in the gold skirt? I wondered. It didn’t matter. Tonight, I was the girl in the gold skirt.
The party eventually moved inside the cave. The air was cool and filled with the musty odor of dampened earth. A metal wire bisected the ceiling; a single light bulb dangled from its center. Flamenco caves were historically decorated with copper pots and sepia photos. This one had bare white walls, black bench seating, and an Apple laptop that cast a silvery gleam. There was even a bathroom, I learned, a few hours too late.
John, who wore a gray pinstriped vest and a bowler hat, took the conductor’s seat at the deepest end of the cave. He led the musicians in renditions of everything from flamenco ballads to Jeff Buckley songs.
The notes from his guitar bounced off the rough walls and landed softly in place. His Scottish accent made the lyrics sound like old Celtic hymns, and I imagined we were in the nearby Sacromonte Abbey, which was built underground in the 17th century. Sacromonte means “sacred mountain.” People had been coming here for centuries to strengthen their spirits or seek salvation. And today, here we were, a tribe of nomads, joined together in song and dance. Each of us had wandered to this foreign land in search of something. Or someone. Maybe a higher version of ourselves.
The next time I checked my mobile phone, the screen read 6 a.m. Anna came over and whispered in my ear that she was going back to Zdenek’s cave to sleep. Vincent came next and offered me the same proposition. I politely declined, but suggested we go watch the sunrise. “Brilliant,” he said.
Vincent and I walked over to the old city wall. He helped me up its stone grooves—my shawl-skirt wasn’t very flexible—and then climbed up beside me. Emily joined us on the grass below, where she danced again with her poi balls, this time without fire.
Before we could see the sun, it projected a rosy beam across the Sierra Nevada mountains. It made the Alhambra blush, and then flooded the Darro River Valley with light. Roosters crowed and church bells chimed, signaling the start of a new day.
Emily hopped up on the wall. “You see that over there,” she pointed to a green thicket on our side of the fortress. “That’s where I’ve been living, under an almond tree.”
“Beautiful,” was all I could muster.
“Not always,” Vincent said. “The gypsies like stealing from foreigners. And the police have been cracking down, raiding tents, cementing caves.” He paused, his intense eyes still fixed on the Alhambra. “But we don’t need to talk about that right now....”
He pulled a plastic sandwich bag from his pocket. A few white tablets were sealed inside. He offered one to Emily, then looked at me. “Time to wake up?” he asked.
“Speed,” Vincent said. “Unless you’d prefer sleep.”
I had spent the last 10 hours with musicians from around the world. Most of them inhabited caves. One lived under an almond tree across the canyon. Two of them were now sitting with me on an ancient Spanish wall, watching the sunrise and popping speed pills. Is this the gypsy life I had been searching for?
I was tempted to join them, to bridge a cultural gap and deepen this shared experience. If ever I had a chance to run away and join the circus, this was surely it. But another part of me didn’t want to taint the previous night by seeing things too clearly during the day. My brain computed one thing for sure: I was already high on chocolate.
Luckily, my internal monologue was interrupted. “Serena!” a voice called out.
Anna was standing in front of a wooden cave door, her messy red hair sparkling in the sunlight.
I turned to Vincent and Emily. “Thank you, but it’s time for me to go home.”
Anna and I descended the dirt trail in near silence. The landscape looked different, but I recognized something in the distance: a pair of green shorts marking a place where we had been, what felt like a long time ago.
I peeled them from the dewy bush and stepped into the leg holes one by one. “Here,” I said, returning the gold shawl. “Back to reality.” Down the hill, Anna and I parted ways and took our individual paths through the city.
A swift current of Spaniards flowed toward me, men in button-down shirts and fitted jeans, women in floral skirts and modest heels—the morning commute to work. Or school, where I was supposed to be. I passed through the crowd in a dreamlike haze, attracting stares for my tank top, flip flops, and new favorite shorts. Eyes lowered to my legs. I looked down and saw that they were streaked with dirt. I didn’t care. In fact, I felt proud. I knew it was clay from a sacred mountain.
Serena Renner is an American writer and editor who is passionate about travel, culture, nature, and life’s journeys. Her work has been featured in such magazines as VIA, The Intelligent Optimist, San Francisco, and AFAR. In October of 2013, Serena left her job as assistant managing editor of AFAR to relocate to Sydney, Australia. There, she’s currently searching for adventures—above and below ground.
Photo credit: Indra Galbo/Flickr