I arrive by train in Granada and check in to the Abadia, a hotel located in a restored 16th century manor house. My room is pleasant, spacious, and modern, just steps away from a courtyard filled with small palms and tables. I would enjoy coffee a few times during my stay here.
I drop off my luggage and find a cup of caffeinated froth. I’m off to find the Cathedral.
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 like green tea ice cream. I find a sewing shop filled with yarns and flosses and the rayon that mantilla fringe is made from.
I encountered living statues a street entertainment 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 head to the Cathedral, running a gauntlet of gypsies so numerous and aggressive that their attempts to trade rosemary sprigs for the coin in your pocket 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. Ferdinand and Isabella are interred in the Royal Chapel adjacent to the Cathedral but I could not locate the building.
Finding the Cathedral closed, 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 was designed as a palace-city (like the Topkapi in Istanbul) and was expanded into a fortress during the 13th century. The complex contains several gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces, the oldest and most well preserved Islamic palaces in the world.
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: Reservations are highly recommended. 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 to gain admission before they cut off ticket sales for that day.
The Generalife (“Garden of the Architect”) dates to at least the 13th century and reflects the Koranic concept of garden — to reproduce paradise on earth. 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 Court of the Myrtles 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.
One of my favorite spots here 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, filled with water that flowed so fast they created little whirlpools at the round joints. The sound of birds and water was omnipresent, and at times, drowned out all other sound.
I enter the Fortress through the Water Tour and enter 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.
Next to the Partal is the Mexuar, the first of the Nasrid palaces to be built here. The Oratory was the private prayer room for the sultan and his family.
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.
The walls in many of the rooms in this complex are carved plasterwork which have been described as “carved with incredible intricacy on a scale so minute it looks like embroidered cloth.” It’s an accurate description. Like my experience at the Topkapi, after awhile I put my camera away and just tried to drink everything in with my eyes.
The Courtyard of the Lions is said to correspond to the Koranic definition of Paradise. It is one of the most private places in the Royal Palace, dating to 1380. The Fountain of the Twelve Lions is currently under restoration. Originally a water clock, each lion spouted water to mark the hour. After the Reconquista, Christians dismantled it to see how it worked, but could not reassemble it.
Scattered throughout my original journal are quotes from “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving, who 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
- “…we passed through a Moorish archway into the renowned Court of Lions… 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, at the opposite end of the Courtyard of the Lions, is the first apartment of the Harem, 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.
The Hall of the Two Sisters, facing out onto the Courtyard of the Lions, is in the best preserved part of the Nasrid Palaces. It is named after the pair of stone slabs that flank the fountain which is imbedded in the marble floor.
- “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…”
The photo below is the exterior of the Royal Apartment where Washington Irving lived in 1829. The interiors were dark, perhaps mahogany paneling, a stark contrast to the carved plaster of the rest of the complex.
- “…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 palace of Charles V, a stark Florentine-looking box which now houses the Alhambra Museum, includes Roman and Islamic artifacts. It is ornamented on the exterior with lion head rings along the sides and eagle head rings at the corners. They reminded me of the rings I saw in the exterior walls in Florence.
The round courtyard was commissioned by Charles for his bride, Isabella of Portugal. The building was abandoned during the next century, having never acquired its roof.
This oldest section of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, built on Sabika Hill, dating to 860. 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. The Watch Tower was where Boabdil relinquished the keys to the city to the Christian monarchs at the end of the Spanish Reconquista.
I end my tour at the Monastery of San Francisco, built by Queen Isabella to fulfill her promise to build a monastery here. Ferdinand and Isabella were originally buried here, but were later exhumed and moved to the Royal Chapel downtown. The sidewalk here is called Granada Mosaic work, accomplished with black and white stones (which I also saw at the Topkapi Palace Courtyards in Istanbul). This door leads to the chapel where Ferdinand and Isabella were originally buried.
The Monastery now houses the Parador Hotel. I could not afford to stay there, but did eat dinner there, a ‘salad’ which arrived as a plate of salted salmon. The dining terrace affords a magnificent view.
- For additional information about the Alhambra, or to plan your own trip there, please visit their website. My original journal at August Phoenix Hats also has additional historic detail and travel tips about this complex.