Many cuevas in Granada are just outside outside the old wall to the east of the Albaicin. This was the area where the Gitanas (gypsies) lived; and many of their descendants still inhabit the area. The cuevas whitewashed exterior walls, sky blue doors and window shutters, and white ‘chimneys’ (necessary for ventilation) protruding from the ground, create a motley patchwork of shapes on the green hillside.
The Museo de la Mujer Gitana (Museum of the Gypsy Women) is a rambling former cave dwelling. Hand hewn from the sedimentary rock, its layout was designed to facilitate its purpose: i.e. sleeping areas deep inside, kitchen at the front where there is natural light. The exterior wall is plastered brick. The temperature of these homes is a steady 19 degrees C year-round. The cuevas in this area have had power and water laid in.
The forested mountain behind the Alhambra, we discovered when on a walk, is also peppered with cave dwellings. But these are small, crudely excavated, squalid places – and not readily visible unless you are close. The openings of some have been roughly bricked in, and small windows and doors installed; others have a piece of canvas to keep out the weather.
Water can be collected from any of several springs which gush from the rock face, then carried along very narrow tracks that meander across the mountainside. Slip, and it’s a long, steep tumble through open timber to the river far below. In wet weather the track would be treacherous. I don’t know who lives here, but I saw a group of people sitting around a smoky fire outside a cueva.
Guadix is famous for its cuevas. There are more than 2000 of them in the immediate vicinity of the town, still occupied by over 5000 people. The landscape looks bizarre – as though its covered by gigantic anthills. What is even more peculiar are the ‘hatted’ chimneys and TV aerials rising straight out of the ground. The houses are all curves and grassy slopes. It’s like visiting the Shire from The Hobbit ! It was a quiet day for the ticket seller at the Museo de las Cuevas, installed in a large cueva above the town. She merrily chatted about life in the cuevas (but don’t call any cave dweller a troglodyte) and explained that life in these dwellings is difficult. The skills required to dig a cueva were shown in an excellent video presentation: the terrain has to be suitable for digging, not subject to flooding, ceilings have to have the right curvature (no beams are used).