There are imposing castles. There are opulent palaces. There are magnificent gardens.
And then … then there’s the Alhambra. It’s all three in one and far more spectacular than any place I have ever been. Plus, it’s in a most scenic location, surrounded by groves of cypress trees with the Sierra Nevada in the distance.
Its name is Arabic. Al-qala’a al-hamra means the Red Castle. Although parts of it are thought to date back to Roman times, most of it is steeped in the Moorish culture that Spain was immersed in for almost a thousand years.
Changes were made to it after Granada was reconquered by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492. Their grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, tore down some of the Moorish palaces to make room for a Renaissance monstrosity that was never completed. Much later, Napoleon’s army attempted to blow the whole thing up. But since the mid-nineteenth century, the Alhambra has been a protected site, with much restoration work already completed and more still ongoing.
I was up early on my first morning in Granada, despite a late arrival the night before, as I could not wait to explore. After a quick breakfast of café con leche and toast smeared with tomato in a local bar near my hotel, I started out for the Alhambra, intending to walk up the hill. (“It can’t be that far. It’s right over there!”) I soon realized I had no idea where I was going, so I backtracked to a major street and hopped on the first bus I saw that said “Alhambra.”
Within minutes of my arrival, I was admitted with my prebooked timed-admission ticket (a necessity, even in November) and was approaching the palaces via this magnificent walkway.
This is the thirteenth-century Alcazaba, or fortress, with the Torre de la Vela (watchtower), which offers a fabulous view over the whole of Granada.
And it also provides this view of the Palacios Nazaries (left) and the Palacio de Carlos V (right).
The Palacio de Carlos V, named after the man who commissioned it, consists of a two-level circular courtyard with 32 columns, surrounded by a square building — a circle within a square, in other words. It was designed by an architect from Toledo who is thought to have been a student of Michelangelo’s.
The Palacios Nazaries are a series of interconnecting palaces and courtyards that served as both the official and personal residences of the Muslim rulers while Granada was under Moorish control. The name comes from the Nasdrid dynasty whose emirs ruled Spain from 1230 to 1492. This first courtyard is called the Patio del Cuarto Dorado (Courtyard of the Gilded Room). It’s where the ruling emir would hold his audiences.
Here’s a closer look at some of the intricate carving in this courtyard.
This next courtyard is called the Patio de los Arrayanes (Courtyard of the Myrtles).
Here it is from the opposite end. Surrounding this courtyard is the palace that served as the official residence of the emir.
The Patio de los Arrayanes leads to the Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), where the emir’s private quarters were located. Its four halls are filled with intricate arches like these …
… and mesmeric ceilings like these.
Within the Palacio de los Leones is the Patio de los Leones (Courtyard of the Lions), which is partly shown below. Its centrepiece is a majestic fountain formed by 12 marble lions arranged in a circle, but, sadly, it was under wraps for restoration work when I was there. (Of course, this means I have to come back one day to see it properly.)
This, the Palacio del Partal (Partal Palace), is the oldest palace in the Alhambra.
And this building used to be a mosque for the private use of the emir. It was later converted to a chapel.
These are some of the gardens in the Palacios Nazaries complex. I can’t imagine living in such a place, but there’s a part of me that would love to, just for a little while.
Next to the Palacios Nazaries is the summer palace of the emirs, the Palacio de Generalife.
It’s surrounded by a series of interconnecting gardens. Here is the Patio de la Acequia (Courtyard of the Canal).
And this is one section of the Jardines Nuevos (New Gardens), a set of gardens built in the early twentieth century.
As much as I wish they could, my photos really don’t give the Alhambra justice. I was in Granada in the late fall, which meant there were fewer crowds to deal with, but also gloomy skies. And even though the gardens were lovely that time of year, I promised myself I would return some day in the springtime. Night visits of the Alhambra are also possible.
Wandering around a Moorish palace after dark? Now that would be seriously cool.
On my third and most recent trip to Spain, I did a whistle-stop tour of Andalucía. Andalucía is another of Spain’s autonomous communities, like Castile La Mancha and Castile and León. If you think of the country as divided in four parts from east to west, Andalucía fills up the bottom fourth. It lies along both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; Castile La Mancha is directly to the north.
My first stop was Granada, which at one point was one of the richest cities in Europe. It was from here that the Moors were finally driven out of Spain back to Africa. Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, known also as Boabdil, surrendered Granada to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492. As he left the city, Boabdil turned for one last look and let out what has been immortalized as “the Moor’s last sigh.”
Touring the Catholic Monuments of Granada can take a whole day — with my limited time, I had to squeeze it into a morning.
Remember when I wrote that Ferdinand and Isabella originally planned to be buried in Toledo, and built a monastery for that purpose, but then changed their minds after they saw Granada? Yeah, about that. This, the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), is where they ended up instead.
Right next door is the Cathedral, the second largest in Spain. Like the Capilla Real, it was commissioned by Queen Isabella, but building didn’t start until after her death. It was completed in 1704 and it’s a hodge-podge of architectural styles: Baroque on the outside and Spanish Renaissance with Gothic roof vaults on the inside.
As I exited the cathedral, I was greeted by Roma women offering me sprigs of rosemary. I shook my head as I had to keep moving. My next stop was the Monasterio de San Jeronómo and its cloisters, which I’ve posted about before.
As prevalent as the Catholic presence is in Granada, there is also heaps of Moorish history. This is the Albayzín.
I would have loved to spend an afternoon getting lost in the maze of streets that make up this old Moorish quarter, but due to my time constraints, I had maybe an hour.
What I did get to see of the Albayzín was this: the viewpoint from the terrace at Iglesia de San Nicolás (Church of Saint Nicholas).
People flock here to take this photo.
That would be the Alhambra, with the Sierra Nevada in the distance. The Alhambra is the reason most tourists visit Granada, and deserves a post all its own.