This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
The hills of Granada are full of people who decided that, instead of poisoning both their souls and lungs with big city life, they'd rather up and move to a cave in southern Spain. The majority of these caves can be found in Granada's Albaicín and Sacromonte districts—areas protected by World Heritage Site status [areas selected by the UN as national landmarks].
Back in 1963, the then-inhabitants of these caves were evicted from their homes by the Franco government, after heavy rainfall caused landslides and flooding across the city. However, over the last few decades, those abandoned caves were reoccupied. Some families have successfully applied for housing permits, but many others haven't bothered.
The Albaicín cave community is largely made up of immigrants and those looking to embrace an alternative way of life—all of them are welcoming of outsiders looking for a short-term place to stay.
Sacromonte, meanwhile, is split into two communities—one that is home to families that have lived there for generations, the other comprised of travelers and free spirits. Regardless of where you live, though, you'll be treated to some of the best views of Granada, where you'll spot some of Spain's most popular landmarks.
Enrique Carmona is Roma and a professional flamenco dancer. He owns Maria La Canastera, a traditional flamenco bar in Sacromonte that has attracted both Spaniards and tourists for half a century. Enrique took his first dancing steps next to his mother, María—a famous figure in flamenco culture. The Canastra's cave, named after his mother, is one of the most popular spots in the area.
Carmona aims to preserve the flavor and authenticity of Sacromonte flamenco—he avoids putting up spotlights and using microphones to amplify the sounds of his performers, and he prefers the dancers perform directly on the cave's floor without a platform, always close to the audience.
Singer Curro Albaicín has been running around the Albaicín caves since he was a child in the 1950s. At the time, the community welcomed Hollywood actors and celebrities to their famous flamenco shows.
"That's how we learned," Curro tells me, "by watching, listening, and singing." It was the way the community combined their passion for the culture with daily life, Curro adds, that made this place special.
Today, Curro teaches many of the young people the traditions of the community and flamenco scene, setting up his cave as a living museum of memory and art. "Even if young people leave their own modern imprint, the important thing is that they don't forget the traditions because there aren't many of us left. If we die, it will be lost forever, unless it's passed on," Curro explains.
Ibulay is from the small town of Passi in Senegal. The 46-year-old has lived in Spain for 17 years and now works as a driver. "Life is calmer in the caves," he tells me. "I suffer less racism than in the city and I live in a community here with people from my country."
He feels sad about the lack of integration across the country and confesses that when he first arrived in Europe he never imagined that life in Spain would be like it is. But here in Albaicín, Ibulay loves the fact that each cave proudly tells a different story.
Mbacke, 34, is from Touba, 120 miles from Dakar. He arrived in Spain illegally in 2015 and is still waiting to legalize his stay. His friends were quick to tell me that he has found life difficult in recent years, moving between Bilbao, Madrid, and Almeria, but that they've been there to support him and now he feels settled in the community. "We protect ourselves and we keep each other company," Mbacke explains.
Still, the residents are constantly living with the fear of being evicted. "There were some cave evictions in 2013," says Lola Boloix, a representative of the Albaicín Neighborhood Association. The community, Boloix adds, is committed to finding a long-term solution. "We understand that due to the nature of the people the caves attract, it's important for the authorities to know who is living here and why."
Last year, Miguel Angel Fernandez—the local councilor in charge of urban planning—claimed that the area had been designated for multi-purpose use, but as is tradition in Andalusian politics, nothing has been done to explain to the community what that will mean for their future. Even the government has argued that its protected status makes any future plans to build on the area difficult.
In the meantime, the residents of Granada's famous caves say they will continue to fight accusations that their community is full of drug addicts, violence, and rabid dogs. They want people to know that though each person takes care of their own cave in their own way, there is a strong, wider community that makes life in these caves worthwhile, and worth protecting.
Scroll down to see more photos from the Albaicín and Sacromento caves.
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