The Alhambra, Granada
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
We had been told by many people that when we go to Granada we MUST visit the Alhambra. And so we did...
On our second day in Granada, the rain had cleared and the sun was shining when we set off to check out the highly recommended fortress that is perched on the top of a hill, in front of the Sierra Nevada and overlooking the city.
The Alhambra is a complex of medieval and Renaissance residential palaces and courtyards wrapped within fortress walls - it was a city, complete with communal baths, cemeteries, places for prayer, gardens, and reservoirs of running water. It was the home for royalty, both Muslim and Christian but not at the same time.
Alhambra's iconic architecture is characterised by stunning frescoes, decorated columns and arches, and highly ornamented walls that poetically tell stories of a turbulent era in Iberian history. In the 18th century it was abandoned and some of it’s towers were destroyed by the French during the Peninsular War. Fortunately from 1828, it underwent a series of restoration efforts and has been historically rehabilitated, preserved, and accurately reconstructed - for the tourist trade.
On our first evening in Granada, we had seen the Alhambra from Albaicin on the facing hill (see my previous post) and our guide had explained to us that it had been built during the mid-14th century as a palace for the Moorish princes. After the Moors were driven out of Spain in 1492, the Christians continued to use it as a palace and added churches, gates, and palaces to the complex.
Sad for Granada, but how very fortunate for us, the peak tourist season for Granada and the Alhambra was a bust because of the Covid pandemic; and so as Spain eased itself out of the 2021 Covid winter, we had one of the most beautiful buildings in the world pretty much to ourselves. It was at a time when the gardens were almost at their blooming peak and when the climate was comfortably temperate instead of searingly hot; so rather than getting stressed-out weaving our way around what would normally be a throng of tourists, we spent five hours slowly wending our way through the palaces, courtyards and gardens, absorbing their beauty, and stopping often to sit and appreciate the history, the tranquility and the sheer magnificence of the place.
Our first stop was the Nasrid Palaces (or the Royal Complex), that were built in the 13th and 14th centuries as the official residences for the Moorish kings of Granada. They consist of a series of beautifully decorated rooms, courtyards, and hallways. It seemed like almost every surface was intricately carved or had dazzling, vibrantly coloured patterned tiles. I found the arches and doors exotic and mesmerising, and as for the ponds and fountains - well! I have a bit of a thing for water features and the ones both within the palaces and in the gardens did not disappoint...
1. These first pictures show the Mexuar - the public reception hall of the Alhambra, where the Sultan and his visors heard the requests of the populace.
2-4 Hall of the Ambassadors - the most majestic hall of the palace, where the throne was and where official receptions took place.
5-6 Mirador de Daraxa in the hall of the two sisters - that looks out onto Daraxa's Garden where there are cypresses, acacias, orange trees and box bushes surrounding a big central marble fountain.
The next palace was the Palacio de Comares, the official residence of the sultans and kings, with a central courtyard that was dominated by a very large pool and galleries and porticoes at each end.
1 The courtyard is called The Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes) so named because of the myrtle bushes that surround the central pond and the bright green colour of which contrasts with the white marble of the patio.
1-6 Islamic details include column arcades, fountains, reflecting pools, geometrical patterns, painted tiles, arches and intricate wall carvings of arabic inscriptions of poems and stories from the Koran.
The Lions Courtyard
Named for the figures of twelve white marble lions that support the alabaster basin, the lions were not designed with sculptural accuracy but as symbols of strength, power, and sovereignty. Each hour, one lion would produce water from its mouth. Apparently there is a poem on the edge of the fountain that praises the fountain’s beauty and the power of the lions as well as describing the ingenious hydraulic systems and how it actually worked.
The courtyard is enclosed with a gallery that is supported with 124 white marble columns with an ornate pavilion at each end.
Palace windows looking out over Granada
Our next stop was the Partal - with an arcade and tower and a large pond with mesmerising reflections.
Next to the Partal is the site of the Palace of Yusuf III (built between 1408 – 1417), which fell into ruin after the Christian takeover; There is very little left of Yusuf's palace and in 1930 the site was landscaped into terraced gardens and ponds. The gardens have little relation with any original Nasrid-period elements, but the landscaping allowed for further archeological investigations and replaced what was at that time an unkempt area
And then we turned around and looked back at this...
Looking across the gardens of Yusuf's former palace, we could see the tower of the Church of
Santa María of the Alhambra which was built between 1581 and 1618 on the site of the complex's original mosque; and the former Saint Francis Convent which was an Arab palace until it was turned into a convent and is now a luxury hotel.
Right next to the Alhambra was another palace the Generalife (definitely not pronounced General-Life… it’s more like Hen-err-ahl-lee-fay) - the summer palace and ‘Garden of Eden’ of the Moorish princes
The palace itself has wide open arcades that displayed vistas of the city and were designed to catch the cooler winds in summer. But we were there to see the gardens for which this palace is famous.
The Alcazaba are military ruins and the oldest part of the complex. All that remains are its massive outer walls, towers and ramparts. On its watchtower, the 25 m (85 ft) high Torre de la Vela, the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella was first raised as a symbol of the Spanish conquest of Granada on 2 January 1492. Today the flags for Spain, Andalucia, Granada and the European Union are at the top of the tower as well as some spectacular views.
In my life, I have experienced few travel moments that were breathtaking and spellbinding - in fact there are only two that I can think of at the moment - the Taj Mahal in India and now the Alhambra in southern Spain - it is that good!