Across Andalucia: Granada’s “Garden of the Architect” – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me from Venice to Florence, Genoa, and Istanbul. In 2012 it brought me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule. My next stop is Granada.

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, 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’m a little fatigued this morning and my Google directions have failed. It is still early enough for a cappuccino so I stop for a cup of caffeinated froth and consult my travel guide. I’m off to find the Cathedral.

I had encountered living statue street performers in Florence, and find one here as well. This one is a Roman soldier who becomes animated (and his dog who lays dead) when you toss coins in 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…

There’s an open air spice market just outside of the Cathedral, in the Plaza de la Romanilla, 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 almost every city I visit, and Granada is no exception. This one carries mostly embroidery yarns and flosses, needlework hoops on stands, and bolts of the rayon that mantilla fringe is made from.  The pomegranate is the symbol of this city, and you will find versions of it everywhere. This is one of the concrete barriers that separates the street from the sidewalk. It looked more like a grenade or a torpedo to me. The last photo is a bronze statue titled: “Man with Donkey” which is dedicated to the men and women ‘aquadors’ who came into the city to sell fresh water, I presume gathered from the mountain springs.

The Cathedral was 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. I had come here principally to see the resting places of Ferdinand and Isabella who are interred in the Royal Chapel adjacent to the Cathedral, but I could not locate the building.

I arrive to find the Cathedral closed. There’s always something closed!
So 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 consists of several gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces, the oldest and most well preserved Islamic palaces in the world.

Travel tips:
Reservations are highly recommended. Due to ecological concerns, they limit the number of visitors per day. After waiting in line for over an hour, I was one of the three last people to get to the ticket counter before they cut off sales for that day. Every eatery here seems to order the same menu of pre-packaged processed foods. There are plenty of places to sit down with your own picnic lunch. Water and shade are limited, especially in the area where you queue up to enter the Nasrid Palaces. Bring a hat, food, water and patience.

Once inside the Alhambra 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 and east of the Alhambra Fortress. It housed the ‘country estates’ of the Nasrid sultans and served as their retreat, as well an agricultural area, originally including orchards, farmland and animal pens to produce food for the Alhambra itself.

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. Its gardens are planted with citrus, jujube, pomegranate and grapes, cypress, laurel, jasmine, and roses which are very fragrant. It is also built on several levels to adapt to the landscape.

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…

Alexander Dumas wrote in 1847: “…What is truly wonderful about the Generalife…are the gardens, the waters, the views. So remain for as long as you can in the gardens, drink in the perfume that you will not find anywhere else in the world…”

The Court of the Myrtles (shown below at left and named after the hedge that surrounds it) is also known as the Court of Alberca or Patio de la Acequia. It is an example of classic Granada architecture, and dates to the 19th century. The center photo below shows a fountain located in one of the arbors and surrounded by pools of goldfish. The photo at right shows an example of the hedges here that are pruned to such precision that the gardens in Florence were primitive in comparison.

Beyond the Patio of the Sultana is the Water Stairway (shown below at left), 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 are filled with water that flows so fast that they create little whirlpools at the round joints. The sound of birds and water throughout the gardens is omnipresent, and at times, drowned out all other sound. I am impressed at how water is used in the gardens here (as well as in the Alcazar in Cordoba). It remains one of my favorite spots here.

I enter the Alhambra Fortress and continue this story in my next post…

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.

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