The Alhambra

Ah, the Alhambra. To quote Wikipedia, “The Alhambra (Arabic: الحمراء = Al-Ħamrā’; literally “the red”) is a palace and fortress complex of the Moorish monarchs of Granada, in southern Spain (known as Al-Andalus when the fortress was constructed), occupying a hilly terrace on the south-eastern border of the city of Granada. It was the residence of the Muslim kings of Granada and their court, but is currently a museum exhibiting exquisite Islamic architecture. “

The Alhambra and it’s gardens (Generalife) are “the thing” to see in Granada. It is one of those places where you fill up your memory stick or kill your battery (or in the days of film, blow through all your spare rolls) before you even get to the good stuff. And of course your photos don’t do the place justice. It was recently in the running to be one of the new “7 wonders of the world” (didn’t win). You are wise to book your tickets at least a week ahead of time, as the hundreds of people who were up at 6am to wait in line for a meager allottment of released tickets found out.

I was assigned a time to visit the Palace rather late in the day, so I toured the gardens first. They are both beautiful and functional. Food is/was grown there and they provided shade, tranquilty and privacy. I believe I read that in Islam, a beautiful garden is a reward. It is the same for water (and in many Arab cultures water is revered for the life it supports) so throughout the gardens, there are pools and fountains everywhere. Combined with the huge variety of colorful plant life, they create cool oases, calm and private resting places, and playful, fun and interesting spaces. I may have said this before but many of the plants in the region are similar to those from central Texas. I believe it is a bit more temporate but still very dry with similar soils. I saw many tourists taking photos of exotic (to them) plants that I have in my own backyard. Please check my pile of photos at under the Alhambra set. As I said, they don’t really do the place justice. There were interesting courtyards, rooms and passage-ways around every corner.
The Palace itself is devoid of interior decor, but it was easy to imagine the furniture, wall-hangings and so on that filled the place. The detail is incredible and everywhere aestetics & functionality are combined. In Islam art, images of things are frowned up, so the designs are an ornamental style reflecting nature (plants mostly) and abstract design. These abstract designs are based on math — there is no beginning and no end, which invokes the Universe. Note of interest: M. C. Escher’s visit in 1922 inspired his following work on regular divisions of the plane after studying the Moorish use of symmetry in the Alhambra tiles.

The glazed tiles on the walls still retained their color but most of the paint had long since faded. There were gorgeous wooden doors and ceilings. And most amazingly, wall after wall decorated with a relief-like pattern of abstract design that was mind-blowing.

Inside the palace, water was also used for aestetics as well as to moderate the environment. I found the design and function of this particular courtyard fascinating. In the summer, the air was drawn across the water where it cooled. The fine wooden lattice (filigree) on the windows above allowed the air to circulate, cooling the inside (it also afforded the women the discretion required of them – ugh – but still allowed them to observe the goings on). In the winter, the sun warms the walls and the water, making the courtyard itself a warm retreat, and again the lattice circulates the air, this time warming the inside.

There are a couple of other parts to the complex, like a castle built by Charles V because he had to have something cool up there too, but I was too tired to see them. You have to walk A LOT and you take in so much intriguing beauty that it is just exhauting. I spent close to 5 hours wandering. There were hundreds of old folks on bus tours there – I’m talking old-old with bad feet and everything. And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seem so many exhausted old people who looked so happy. No grumpy old men waiting on benches while their wives looked around and no purse-lipped old ladies unhappy about this or that. Nope, everyone was beaming and obviously satisfied. But tired. Including me.

¡Me encanta Granada!

Granada is really special. If you’ve been there, you know. I was sick the entire time I was there with a nasty cold. And while I was sad to be sick in such a beautiful city, I was glad to be sick there because I wouldn’t have enjoyed anywhere else in the condition I was in!

The city is at the base of the Sierra Nevadas, a physically beautiful spot. Architecturally, it has a very strong Moorish influence. The location has been inhabited since humans first lived in cities and eventually became an extremely important center for trade. Granada is commonly referred to as the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain but was always a multi-cultural city. For generations, the Moors, Jews & Christians co-existed in the city (some times more peacefully than others). But in 1492, same year as Columbus set sail for the new world, the last Moorish leader surrendered control of Granada to Isabel & Ferdinand. The Jews were immediately expelled from the city and the Muslims were forceably converted to Christianity. Of course, I am no historian and I cannot do the history justice. The point is that the Moorish influence is everywhere. Their structures were both beautiful and functional. At a time when most of Europe was mired in the dark ages, soaking in their own sewage, Granada had sewers and canals to control the water.
There is an obvious arab influence to the food, which was just dandy for me. Except for some tapas, I had ethnic food at every meal. I enjoyed huge, cheap (2.50euro) falafel wraps most days, Indian curries, even sushi (I hoped the wasabi would clear out my head…nope).

My hostel (Funky Backpackers, baby!) was in an excellent location (by Plaza Nuevo) and I lucked out having a room with only 3 single beds (in a hostel, the fewer people in your room, the less chance there is that someone will saw logs all night. In this case, ironically, it was me who snored…). It was easy to meet people and I went on a walking tour of the city my first morning. A group of us planned to hit the beach one day (1.5 hours by bus, over the mountains) but the bad storms they had wrecked the beaches for a bit.

So I did a lot of wandering in El Albayzín and a lot of eating and window shopping. For 2 days, I was pretty sick and it’s all I could really manage. There are fun shops at every turn, selling colorful goods from Morocco, Turkey, India, Nepal. I found the prices quite good, although I resisted buying things because i plan to head to Turkey myself. Plus my bag is way too small to lug a bunch of souveneirs. The streets are very steep – sometimes they turn from roads into steps – and narrow. There are a lot of buskers (street performers) and college students (Univ of Granada is very popular for Study Abroad) and some Roma and a smattering of colorful hippies who often live in the caves above the city and of course lots of tourists. It makes for some excellent people watching!

I also enjoyed an Arab bath – it was the cleanest I’d felt in about 2 weeks. There were 3 pools (one hot, one cold and one tepid). You showered before getting in, then just soaked yourself silly, bouncing between the pools and sipping sweet mint tea.

On Wednesday, I had my ticket to the Alhambra. It gets it’s own post. Thursday, an awesomely positive Scottish woman named Gillian and I went to Sacromonte, the Roma (gypsy) neighborhood, to an open-air museum high on the hill, where we learned how people did (and still do) live in caves. We really enjoyed the museum because it also addressed the natural history of the area. She had come from England where she taught English in the summers to visitors from across Europe. She is contemplating getting a job teaching English in Spain for the winter. I really do envy people from the EU – they can move to a different country the way we move to a different state. Obviously there are language barriers, but employment is possible without all the crazy visa hassles.

There is more I could write about Granada, but I’ll summarise by saying that I am pretty sure I’ll be back (hopefully with a lover since it is a very romantic city! 😉