Granada Stories: A plague of birds and fascist flags amid the romance of the Alhambra

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The Independent Online

I must have crisscrossed Granada's historic Bib-Rambla square - where Castile's conquering Catholics burned hundreds of Muslim holy books one morning in 1501 - three times the other day, and each time workmen were fiercely hosing the cobblestones with water. No, they weren't still trying to expunge traces of heresy. Screaming starlings that swirled in the wintry sky should have given me a clue. This cleansing operation was directed at bird droppings. Sparrows and wagtails packed the trees so densely it was hovering room only.

I must have crisscrossed Granada's historic Bib-Rambla square - where Castile's conquering Catholics burned hundreds of Muslim holy books one morning in 1501 - three times the other day, and each time workmen were fiercely hosing the cobblestones with water. No, they weren't still trying to expunge traces of heresy. Screaming starlings that swirled in the wintry sky should have given me a clue. This cleansing operation was directed at bird droppings. Sparrows and wagtails packed the trees so densely it was hovering room only.

The flower sellers who brighten Bib-Rambla cowered beneath a blizzard of excreta, scraping the sticky, stinking layer that carpeted canvas sunshades and stone benches. They say the bird plague is worse this year than ever before. High-pressure hosing is the latest scheme to counter the noxious invasion. Some years back, an exasperated Granadino hitched bags of sulphur to the trees, then shot them, emitting poison gas that caused flocks of birds to fall dead. Another wheeze was to keep the trees permanently illuminated. But far from being repelled, the starlings huddled to the light bulbs for warmth. Firecrackers were useless: the birds just regrouped after a brief, frightened stampede. There was even a plan - swiftly discarded - to cut down the trees. Unusually warm January days draw the birds to the city's squares, experts say. But the deeper cause is the erosion of their rural habitat: Granada's lush and fertile flood plain is disappearing beneath concrete and brick, driving the birds into town.

They finally removed festive decorations from central Granada last week, which left the twin flags representing Spanish fascism looking even more conspicuous. On the main Catholic Monarchs Street fluttered, on the left, the scarlet and black yoked arrows of the Falange, and on the right the red and gold flag of Spain bearing Franco's black eagle insignia.

It's like seeing a swastika round the corner from York Minster. This is the home of the organisation that crushed Franco's opponents in the Civil War. Repression was savage, and thousands lie buried anonymously in mass graves. Critics say Granada's conservative local authorities tolerate the flag because it reflects their secret political sympathies.

The town hall, however, has a statue of a blindfolded, naked man astride a giant horse on the roof. The sculpture, by Ramon Ramiro Mejias, was installed by the previous left-wing council, and is said to celebrate the homosexual preferences of the artist who inspired it, Guillermo Perez Villalta. It tacitly honours Spain's best-loved poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered nearby in 1936 and whose image is absent from his home city. Cynics wonder which provocative symbol of Granadine political and artistic extremes will be hauled down first.

Bill Clinton famously brought Hillary and Chelsea here to admire the world's most romantic sunset. They watched the Alhambra turn rosy against the backdrop of snowy peaks from a church square opposite. The blank, dreadlocked hippies droning Bob Marley classics were doubtless moved for the presidential visit. Punters must jostle with languid, spliffed-out flautists for a glimpse of the breathtaking spectacle. But I reckon the view is better from the tranquil garden of the mosque next door. The imam would have liked to reclaim the church - built, as they all were, on the site of a mosque - for Granada's first new mosque in 500 years. But the minaret rising from this historic Moorish quarter, shows that Muslims are returning to their old haunts.

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