Andalucia 2012 – Granada and the Alhambra

When your concierge says “you only need to be at the train station five minutes ahead of departure,” take him at his word. So far this trip, my hotels have been 5-10 minutes away from the train station, and a 5 or 6 Euro fare.

In spite of his suggestion, I arrive an hour early for my next destination – Granada and the famous Moorish Red Fortress known as the Alhambra…

I board the train for Granada, which is delayed three times due to accidents and adds an hour to this trip. I arrive at the Abadia, where I check into a pleasant, spacious, modern room on the floor level of a courtyard filled with small palms and tables with umbrellas. I would enjoy coffee a few times during my stay here. I’m a little fatigued this morning and my Google directions have failed. It is still early enough for a cappuccino so I stop in the first cafe I find, for a cup of caffeinated froth and a consult in my travel guide. I’m off to find the Cathedral.

I encountered living statue street performers in Florence, and find one here as well. This one is a Roman soldier who becomes animated as soon as you put coins into his box. I watch him for awhile before heading to the Cathedral, running a gauntlet of gypsies so numerous and aggressive that their attempts to exchange their sprigs of rosemary for coin becomes a contact sport. I think I should have hired the Roman as a bodyguard…

  • The Cathedral is another Christian church built where a mosque once stood. It began as a Gothic structure but was finished in the Baroque style. It is closed today, which is only a minor disappointment since I’m starting to get burned out on cathedrals and religious artifacts this trip. Ferdinand and Isabella are interred in the Royal Chapel adjacent to the Cathedral but I could not locate the building.

There’s an open air spice market just outside of the Cathedral, where I buy tea and saffron, and sample candied aloe vera, which tastes sort of like green tea ice cream. I enter the Calle Reyes, a plaza filled with cafes and shops. I manage to find a sewing shop in every city and Granada is no exception. This one carried mostly yarns and flosses, embroidery hoops on stands, and the rayon that mantilla fringe is made from.  There’s also a statue here of a famous guide and his burro.

I hop aboard a tour bus and head up to the Alhambra.

  • The Alhambra (Al Qal’a al-Hamra,) or “The Red Castle”, was built during the Nasrid Dynasty in 1243 and was the last Moorish stronghold to fall to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492. It gets its name from the red clay the buildings were built from.
  • It was designed to be a palace-city (like the Topkapi in Istanbul) and was further transformed in the 13th century when water was brought up from the Taro River and the castle was expanded into a fortress. The complex contains several gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces, the oldest and most well preserved Islamic palaces in the world.
  • Travel tip:Reservations are highly recommended. Due to ecological concerns, they limit the number of visitors per day and after waiting in line for over an hour, I was one of the three last people who got to the ticket counter before they cut off ticket sales for that day.

Once inside the complex, my first stop is the Tienda Libereria de la Alhambra, the official bookstore. My purchases are governed by how much weight I am willing to carry for the rest of the day. Beyond that there are several souvenir shops selling both antiques and replicas. Among the wooden pistols and knives is a scissor-dagger in a sheath, which I lust over for several minutes before walking away from the case.

Must. Move. On…

Entry to the Nasrid Palaces is timed, so I visited the Generalife, a separate area outside of the Alhambra Fortress, built as a recreational area where the Kings of Granada could escape their official routine.

  • Travel tip: Every eatery here seems to order the same menu of pre-packaged processed foods. I want a salad but never find one, so I end up forgoing lunch. There are plenty of places to sit down here for those wise enough to save their money for books and bring their own picnic lunch. Water and shade are both limited, especially in the area where you queue up to enter the Nasrid Palaces. Bring a hat and your own water bottle.

The Generalife (“Garden of the Architect”) reflects the Muslim concept of garden as it is referenced in the Koran and to reproduce paradise on earth. Dating back to at least the 13th century, it originally included orchards, farmland, and animal pens. It’s gardens are currently planted with citrus, jujube, pomegranate and grapes, cypress, laurel, jasmine, and roses, which are very fragrant. Andrea Navagero, the Venetian ambassador to Charles V, wrote in 1526:

  • “…Although it is not very large, it is extremely beautiful and well constructed and the beauty of its gardens and waters is the best that I have seen in Spain… The water arrives at a stunning green courtyard, which has the appearance of a meadow with a few trees, and by closing off certain channels, the stream that flows through this meadow, I know not how, swells underfoot and dampens everything and then effortlessly retreats without evidence of human hand…
  • For a concise history of the Generalife and a selection of travelers’ accounts between the 15th-19th centuries, please read “The Generalife: Garden of Paradise” by Jose Antonio Garcia Lujan.

The Court of the Myrtles (named after the hedge that surrounds it), previously known as the Court of Alberca or the Court of the Pool, is an example of classic Granada architecture, built during the reign of Muhammed V (the founder of the Nasrid dynasty). Half of the wooden ceiling was lost in a fire in 1890.

Beyond the Patio of the Sultana is the Water Stairway, dating to the 16th century. Under a canopy of bay trees, four sets of terraced stairs are linked by three landings, with a small fountain in the center. The stone handrails have channels carved into them that were filled with water that flowed so fast, they created little whirlpools at the round joints. The sound of birds and water throughout the gardens was omnipresent, and at times, drowned out all other sound. I would remember it as one of my favorite spots here.

I enter the Fortress through the Water Tower and veer right, walking past more gardens and into the section called the Partal. The Palacio del Partal is another of the oldest buildings at the Alhambra. The tower is known as The Observatory and the pond serves as a water tank. Its original roof was dismantled in the early 20th century and resides in the Islamic Art collection in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Next to the Partal Palace lies the Mexuar Oratory, the private place of prayer for the sultan and his retinue. The Mexuar was the first of the Nasrid palaces to be built here. It is oriented towards Mecca and is unusual in that it’s windows are open rather than being enclosed in glass. Its walls are carved plasterwork that I would later see in the Nasrid Palace. John Hoag, author of “Western Islamic Architecture” describes the work as “carved with incredible intricacy on a scale so minute it looks like embroidered cloth.” It’s a very accurate description.

I was not prepared for the visual feast. There are so many viewpoints framed by architecture that at times it becomes surreal, and feels more like I am standing in a painting instead of a landscape. Like my experience at the Topkapi, after awhile I put my camera away and just tried to drink everything in with my eyes, confident that much of what I would see would be included in the stack of books I was adding to my Islamic arts library.

  • For those of you who would like a deeper dive into these buildings, I suggest “Reading the Alhambra: a visual guide to the Alhambra through its inscriptions” by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez (published by the Alhambra and Generalife Trust and EDILUX s.l.,) This book might also be helpful in translating the Kufic and Arabic script that you see in the tiles, carvings and other art pieces here.

The Courtyard of the Lions is said to correspond to the Koranic definition of Paradise and is also called “The Garden of Happiness”. The channel at the feet of the lion fountain symbolizes the four “rivers” running off in the four cardinal directions. It is one of the most private places in the Royal Palace. This courtyard dates to 1380.

The Fountain of the Twelve Lions is under restoration. Originally a water clock, each lion spouted water to mark a specific hour. After the Reconquista, the new Christian inhabitants dismantled it to see how it worked, but could not reassemble it. It has never worked as a water clock since that time. The lions are thought to date back to the 10th century; two of them are on display in Palace of Charles V. The top of the fountain was removed to another garden in the Generalife complex. I have included a black and white photo of the original fountain in my corresponding blog at Daveno Travels.

Washington Irving, author of “Tales of the Alhambra” and “Sleepy Hollow” lived in the Royal Apartments in 1829 before becoming the ambassador to Spain. My vacation was extended by reading his book, and retracing my steps through his eyes. I quote him periodically throughout the rest of this journal:

  • “…we passed through a Moorish archway into the renowned Court of Lions. There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty… for none has suffered so little from the ravages of time. In the center stands the fountain famous in song and story. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops, and the twelve lions which support them cast forth their crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil…”

The Hall of the Abencerages is at the opposite end of the Courtyard of the Lions. This is the first apartment which constitutes the Harem, this section reserved for the Sultana. This was also the site of an assassination, and the blood spots are still said to be visible on the marble floor. When Washington Irving lived here, he was told that this part of the palace was haunted by the event, and that sounds of low voices and the clanking of chains could be heard late at night.

Facing the courtyard is the Hall of the Two Sisters, the best preserved section of this palace. It is named after the pair of stone slabs that flank the fountain which is imbedded in the marble floor. A channel leads the water from this fountain to the center Fountain of the Lions. There is a network of pipes below the surface which recirculates the water back to the fountains.

  • “The lower part of the walls is encrusted with beautiful Moorish tiles… the upper part is faced with fine stucco-work invented at Damascus, consisting of large plates, cast in molds and artfully joined, so as to have the appearance of having been laboriously sculpted by hand…”

Washington Irving resided at the Alhambra in 1829. I poked my head into his lodgings in the Royal Apartments. The interiors felt Italian in style, in what looked like mahogany paneling, a dark contrast to the carved plaster of the rest of the complex. I later read in Irving’s account of these rooms in his “Tales of the Alhambra.”

  • “…the door opened to a range of vacant chambers of European architecture…there were two lofty rooms, the ceilings of which were of deep panel-work of cedar, richly and skillfully carved with fruits and flowers…”
  • “…I found on inquiry that it was an apartment fitted up by Italian artists in the early part of the last century, at the time when Philip V and the beautiful Elizabeth of Parma were expected at the Alhambra and was destined for the queen and the ladies of her train…”

The fountain and the garden he later describes, are still there, although I am sad that I did not arrive home with a photo of it.

The palace of Charles V, a stark Florentine-looking box which now houses the Alhambra Museum, includes Roman and Islamic artifacts. The building is expansive on the inside but as it is not furnished, it is hard to tell what it may have looked like in period. Its round courtyard was commissioned by Charles for his bride, Isabella of Portugal. The architect was Pedro Manchuca, who was born in Toledo and studied in Italy under Michelangelo. The building was abandoned during the next century, having never acquired its roof.

  • “…With all its grandeur… it appeared to us like an arrogant intrusion, and passing by it, we entered a simple unostentatious portal, opening into the interior of the Moorish Palace…”

This oldest section of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, built on Sabika Hill, where a castle already stood, dating back to 860. It was renovated and became the defensive fortress for the entire Alhambra Fortress. It is separated from the rest of the fortress and the Nasrid Palaces by the Wine Gate, where tax free wine was sold during the medieval period. It was here that Boabdil relinquished the keys to the city to the Christian monarchs at their successful end of the Spanish Reconquista.

I end my tour of the Alhambra at the Monastery of San Francisco. It was built by Queen Isabella in the 15th century to fulfill a promise she had made to her church, to build a monastery next to the Moorish palaces in the Alhambra. It stands on the site of a mosque, palace and gardens built in the previous century. Ferdinand and Isabella were originally buried here, but were later exhumed and moved to the Royal Chapel adjoining the Cathedral downtown.

The Monastery now houses the Parador Hotel. I could not afford to stay there, but did eat dinner there, where I ordered a salad but was served a plate of salted salmon instead. The dining terrace affords a magnificent view.

For additional information about the Alhambra, or to plan your own trip there,please visit their website.

Now that you’ve read my tale, see more of the Alhambra via my photo-blog at Daveno Travels.

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