What's so special about Granada?
Granada is often described in travel guides as Spain's best-kept secret. It is only in the last few years that visitors to the country have begun to discover just how much the city and the region have to offer, both as a place to live and as a holiday destination.
In the past, visitors to the south of Spain tended to gravitate to the Malaga/Costa del Sol area. The main reason for this was the proximity of Malaga airport, and until recently most British exiles bought property and lived - or kept holiday homes - along this section of Spain's South coast. Most Britons moving to the South coast of Spain wanted to live within a short driving distance of the airport.
There were other factors which deterred new arrivals from visiting or buying property further along the coast. For one thing, the roads were poor, and offered little in the way of services or amenities. Driving long distances in hot weather was also something to be avoided in the days before cars had efficient cooling systems. And driving at night was no less off-putting, in view of the fact that most of the twisting roads along the coast - some skirting the edges of steep, unguarded precipices - were unlit. Britons, by and large, felt safer and more at home in and around Malaga - where, additionally, English was widely spoken.
For many years the Costa Tropical - which adjoins del Sol to the east - went largely unexplored by tourist hordes, and the area managed to avoid the worst excesses of the 1960s property development frenzy. Today, the countryside and the beaches of the Costa Tropical are still unspoilt, and the architecture is characteristically Andalucian, with none of the high-rise sea-front buildings that blight so much of the Costa del Sol.
In the mid 90s, visitors to the South of Spain began to discover the Costa Tropical in increasing numbers. Several factors contributed to this. For one thing, travellers had become more sophisticated in their needs and expectations, and more adventurous in their explorations; and where formerly most visitors had looked for nothing more from a trip to Spain than a comfortable hotel room within walking distance of a sandy beach, people were now interested in the cultural aspects of the country - in Spanish architecture, music, dance, folklore, cuisine, literature, paintings, cinema etc. And whereas previously foreigners had purchased holiday homes in Spain with the idea of spending an occasional week or two languishing under the Mediterranean sun, now they were looking to Spain as a place to live. Surveys have shown that Spain closely follows Australia as the most popular destination for people emigrating from the UK.
As seen on TV
Television also played a large part in putting Granada and the Costa Tropical on the map. Thanks in large part to popular British TV programmes like the BBC's "A Place in the Sun," and Channel 4's "Living in the Sun," which set out to explore locations off the beaten tourist and expat track, people in the UK who were thinking of moving to Spain discovered that the Costa Tropical - the coastline between Nerja and Almeria - had as much, if not more, to offer than the familiar but now overcrowded and overpriced Costa del Sol.
The Costa Tropical beaches were superior, to begin with - and were still largely devoid of humans. The roads here had little traffic, and the countryside was still largely unspoilt. But, perhaps most crucially, property prices along the Costa Tropical were substantially lower than those of del Sol.
The snow in Spain...
Many Britons were also amazed to discover from TV programmes that there is a first-rate ski resort in Granada (Spain is associated in most British peoples' minds with sunshine and golden sand, not with snow!), and that it was possible to ski on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the morning and spend the afternoon sunbathing on the deserted golden beaches of Almeria, just an hour's drive away. In fact the Sierra Nevada ski resort is the most southerly in Europe. On a clear day it is possible to see right across the Mediterranean to the mountains of north Africa!
The natural world
Then several articles were published in British magazines discussing Granada's natural park - more than 300 square miles of open, unspoilt countryside encompassing mountains, rivers, forests, lakes, abundant wildlife (including many rare species), exotic birds and insects, natural springs and blue lagoons of crystal-clear water - all less than an hour's drive from the centre of Granada city! For those interested in outdoor activities like rambling, cycling, horse-riding, rock climbing and so on, and for those interested in exploring nature, the prospect of having this magnificent natural resource on their new doorstep was a huge, additional incentive to consider living in the Granada region.
Despite the fact that it is the home of the Alhambra - often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world - Granada city had also been largely overlooked by most visitors to the South of Spain, and certainly by the British expat community of the Costa del Sol. Few were aware of Granada's rich history, its Medieval architecture, its fascinating culture and colourful traditions, and its stunning natural and architectural attractions which include the gardens of Generalife, the hot springs of Santa Fe, the natural park and the ski resort of Sierra Nevada.
Granada in the spotlight
In the mid and late 1990s, a number of things happened simultaneously to throw Granada into the spotlight. The Internet made it possible for many professionals to work online, and therefore live abroad. It also made it possible for people to check out possible places to live in Spain using search engines, and Granada stood out as an ideal place to live. As mentioned already, the city was also featured in a number of British TV programmes.
Former US president, Bill Clinton, also helped popularise Granada when he revealed that the city was one of his favourite retreats. In a TV interview in Granada in July, 1997, he described the view of the sunset from San Nicolás square in Albaicin as "the best in the world".
In 2010 Barack Obama gave his presidential seal of approval when he visited Granada with his wife Michelle and the couple's 9-year-old daughter Sasha. In the photo on the right, Michelle Obama takes a stroll through the Albaicin area of Granada.
Living in Spain
Another important development was that, whereas previously ownership by British expats of villas in Spain had largely been the prerogative of wealthy individuals with a private income, now young families were coming to Spain and buying modest village houses and fincas with the intention of living and working in Spain, learning the language and becoming part of the local community. Previous generations of British expats had, in the main, avoided becoming assimilated into Spanish life.
By the year 2000, businessmen and investors had become aware of Granada's rapidly-growing importance as a destination for visitors to the South of Spain, and as a desirable place to live for those taking up permanent residence in the country.
Quality of Life
For families with young children, in particular, the city of Granada has a great deal to recommend it. It one of the safest cities in Europe, the air is clean (the city is 662 meters above sea level), and, with a population of just over a quarter of a million, it is most peoples' idea of the perfect size for a city: large enough to provide everything a visitor or resident might wish for in the way of shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, cinemas, art galleries, museums, libraries, parks and other amenities, yet not so big as to be cold or anonymous. In fact Granada is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city that somehow manages to retain the charm and intimacy of a village. The schools are superb, and Granada University is regarded as one of the finest in the world. Add to that an excellent health service, a reliable transport system and a cost of living that is one of the lowest in Europe, and Granada's attraction as a place to live is obvious.
Investment in Spain
Huge sums of money - EU, local government and private - have been invested in Granada (into road and transport improvement, restoration of heritage buildings, construction of parks, swimming pools, shopping centres, sports facilities and various other cultural and artistic projects). A tram system is planned for the city, and there is talk of running a cable car between the city centre and the ski resort. The downside to Granada city's growing popularity is that, with so many people wishing to live here, property prices in Spain have risen at a faster pace than anywhere else in Europe over the past five years - even outstripping the UK market. Research by mortgage lender Halifax found the cost of a Spanish home had doubled between 2001 and the end of 2006, leaping by 57% in the past two years alone.
Between 2007-2008 the domestic Spanish property market - that is, properties bought by Spaniards (Spain has a higher percentage of homeowners than any other eurozone nation, with 82% of its inhabitants being owner-occupiers) - came to a virtual standstill, partly as a result of developers and construction companies building too many houses, and partly as a result of the global economic crisis, and particularly the recessions in the UK. However, the slowdown in the Spanish market is seen by many economists as a necessary adjustment which prevented property prices from spiralling out of control. In some areas, values had trebled over the past several years. Apartments in the centre of Granada that could be bought for as little as 75,000 Euros in 2003 were being snapped up for upwards of 200,000 Euros by 2006.
At the time of writing (January 2013) the property market is showing signs of recovery, with a steady increase in property values. The leading Spanish developer Taylor Wimpey de España sold 25% more properties in 2012 than they did in 2009, resulting in nearly 100% of their completed and built property stock all over Spain being sold.
The concensus in the Spanish real estate industry is that the market is set to recover within the next 1-2 years. If true, this means that now is probably the best time to buy property in Spain. That is certainly the view of international financial advisors, who are recommending Spanish property as one of the best investment options. In particular, Chinese interest in Spanish real estate is also growing. There are many advantages for Chinese citizens buying property in Spain, including permanent property ownership (there are strict controls on property ownership in China) and the possibility of gaining permanent residency rights.
Financial crises and property crashes may come and go, but at the end of the day Spain will always remain a popular destination. The 2012 Travel Trends Report from Skyscanner, one of Europe's leading travel search sites, confirmed that Spain is still the top destination for British holidaymakers - as well as for French, German, Swedish and Spanish travellers.
At the moment it is possible to find properties in the Granada region, especially in villages just outside Granada city, for as little as 70% of their pre property crash prices. There are also opportunities for those willing to buy and reform dilapidated properties, or to buy and rebuild ruins. Prices are lower the further one looks outside the city. For those who are prepared to live 10 miles or so outside Granada, there are many bargains to be had - though for how much longer is anyone's guess.