Granada and the Alhambra

Thursday 20th October 2011, Granada, Spain
Several months after our return from Morocco it has become impossible to recall details of our journey back along the Spanish coast and into France. Outstanding though was our visit to the Alhambra with its stunning Moorish architecture and peaceful gardens. Ian recalls our visit with the aid of photos taken by our son Neil in 2006

Thursday 20th October 2011, Granada, Spain
Having waited in Granada for two days before any of the strictly limited tickets became available to visit the Alhambra we made our way into Granada on the bus, pausing on the way to look in at the well preserved Arab baths with their vaulted ceilings studded with star-shaped windows in the roof. It felt rather like being inside a massive Fisher Price child’s toy. We almost expected to see some giant chubby fist poke an enormous piece of star-shaped plastic down through one of the holes above our heads.

Although perched high on a hill the Alhambra really only dominates the northern area of the town, the other side of the valley of the Rio Darro. We approached the palace by climbing up from the Rio Darro along the Cuesta de Gomerez, an old street lined with craft shops and eating places. We had a coffee in one pleasantly cool tiled-lined café, accompanied by delicious tostadas lavishly covered by tomato sauce that the proprietor prepared while we waited.

Alhambra from the Rio Darro, Granada, 2004

Further up the street was blocked by the impressive Renaissance gateway erected by Carlos V, the Puerta de la Granadas, so called from the emblem of pomegranates which feature prominently on the décor. We turned off briefly to the right and climbed up the other side of the valley from the Alhambra to see the Torres Bermejas towering above the trees, remains of the 8th century fortifications.

Returning to the valley we found the Pilar de Carlos V, a Renaissance fountain, again scattered with pomegranates. Behind it loomed the forbidding Puerta de Justicia, once the main entrance to the Alhambra with three changes of direction inside to deter attackers. Our route to the present-day entrance climbed up alongside the walls and it was good to see in a clearing a statue of Washington Irving whose romantic Tales of the Alhambra stirred the imagination of so many 19th century travellers.

Puerta de Justizia, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Once arrived at the ticket office to await our time slot there was chaos, with great difficulty in working out the correct queues to join for groups, visitors with pre-booked tickets or those simply hoping to grab one of the very few tickets returned for resale. One American lady was in great distress, having travelled many thousands of miles to see the Alhambra and with no time left to wait for the next available time-slot in a couple of days time. Eventually one of the staff saw us standing perplexed and beckoned us through into the peaceful gardens within the walled complex.

The walls enclosed what was really an entire town. The Alaczaba is the oldest surviving section of the Alhambra, erected by Ziridian rulers in the 11th century and completed by the first Nasrid ruler Muhammad I Al-Ahmar who installed his court there in 1238. He also added the circuit of walls. Yusuf I added the Comares Palace between 1333 and 1354 and Muhammad V the Palace of Lions between 1354 and 1391. The Generalife was built outside the walls, largely in the 14th century.

Much of the medieval complex has disappeared. To one side of the gardens are the low walls that are all that is left of the Palace of Abencerrajes and other foundations of buildings in the medina can be seen amid the flower beds. The Christian occupiers have left their mark as they demolished many buildings and replaced them by structures of their own. Above the hedges rises the tower of the Convent of San Francisco, now an exclusive parador. On the site of the main mosque stands the church of Santa Maria, but just beside it the Arab bath-house still remains.

Most incongruous of all however is the enormous Renaissance place of Carlos V, a fine example of this type of architecture, but its heavy classical ornamentation sits awkwardly amid the lighter more delicate Arab buildings. Its harmonious colonnaded round interior courtyard contains the Museum of the Alhambra, closed when we were there but we were able to glimpse carved lions through the window – and also the Art Gallery. We were disappointed to miss an exhibition on the Victorian decorative artist Owen Jones, curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum which was due to open the following day. Jones had derived much inspiration for his decorative designs from Islamic art. However this was made up for by an exhibition of the work of the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972). His metamorphosing shapes echoed many features of Islamic design and there were fascinating animations of his work projected onto large screens.

Palacio de Carlos V, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Palacio de Carlos V, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Remembering the real purpose of our visit we made our way back into the sunlight and passed through the elaborately decorated Puerto del Vino (used in the 16th century as a wine cellar) into the Plaza de los Aljibes to face the formidable curtain wall of the Alcazaba with its tall Homage Tower. The main gate led into the Plaza de Armas, not an area for parades now as it is filled with the excavated foundations of medieval buildings. The eastern ramparts offered wonderful views across the valley of the Rio Darro to the Albaycin but the best views of all were from the top of the Torre de la Vela (Watch Tower) at the furthest point of the spur between the valleys. This tower, now topped by a bell, was where on 2 January 1492 the cross and banners of Castile and Aragon were planted after the conquest of Granada. The sight brought tears to the eyes of the last ruler Boabdil as he departed for exile, earning the rebuke from his mother “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

Plaza de Armas and Homage Tower, Alcazaba, Alhambra, Granada, 2004

View from the Alcazaba, Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Albaycin from the Alcazaba, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Returning through the Plaza de Armas we entered the Nasrid palaces, passing through a series of magnificently decorated rooms. Elaborate though the decoration was, there were no human figures and indeed very few depictions of animals. The elaborate stucco work was an intricate mosaic of panels with patterns, both geometric and floral, with inscriptions containing extracts from the Koran. In the vaulted ceilings these frequently burst out into pendants like some wonderful cavern full of stalactites. The walls were covered with tiles in a multitude of patterns and pierced by doorways surmounted by intricately patterned archways. These led into courtyards, often with arcades or colonnades, elaborately decorated and with pools or fountains. Tucked into the midst of the complex are the inevitable baths with an intact vaulted roof visible through a window.

Patterned tiles, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Patterned tiles, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Stucco decoration, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Stucco decoration, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Stucco decoration, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Doorway, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Bath-house, Comares Palace, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Recollecting our visit several weeks later, the unending series of rooms merges into a shifting kaleidoscopic mirage and the pictures that our son Neil took when he visited do not necessarily reflect the same order as our visit, so identification is often difficult, but among the most memorable places visited are the Patio de Arrayannes (Court of the Myrtles) with its arcades reflected in a peaceful pool, the Sala de Dos Hermanas, the Salon de Embajadores where the unfortunate Boabdil signed the deed of surrender in 1492 and the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions). The marvellous Lion Fountain was being restored when we visited although we were able to inspect the restored lions at close quarters in a special exhibition (no photography allowed) which also revealed quite how advanced Arab hydraulics were in the kingdom of Granada. However when Neil visited they were in situ, so we can show pictures of the fountain as it normally is.

Torre de Comares, Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Sala de los Embajadores, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Mirador de la Daraxa, Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Sala de los Abencerrajes, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Sala de las Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Patio de Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles), Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Colonnade, Patio de Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles), Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Outside the cluster of the Nasrid palaces stands the beautiful Partal Palace, its portico reflected in a still pool. To the left stands the Torre de las Damas, to the right a little oratory building while the arcades of the portico itself overlook the Albaicin and the hills beyond where the medieval walls climb up far away above Sacramonte.

Partal Palace, Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Partal Palace, Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Partal Palace, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Outside the walls across a valley are the gardens and palace of Generalife, not so named because it is sponsored by an insurance company – it means something like “Garden of the Architect”. It was the recreation area and summer palace of the court with beautifully restored gardens where walkways pass through arches in the carefully trimmed hedges to clearings where fountains play. Above the terraces and flowerbeds, filled with luxuriant blooms, there are views across the valley to the romantic silhouette of the Alcazaba. There are two main courtyards in the Palace, the Patio de la Acequia with a long double row of fountains and the Patio de la Sultana with its graceful porticos. In the upper gardens there is the so-called water stairway where water tumbles down balustrades on either side of the steps, a final demonstration of the love-affair of the Arabs with life-giving water which adds at once life, coolness and tranquillity to their gardens and the courtyards of their buildings.

Generalife gardens, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

Alcazaba from Generalife gardens, Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel), Alhambra, Granada, 2004

Water Stairway, Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, 2006

The Alhambra was about to close when we left and made our way down through the San Matias district, an attractive residential area with pleasant squares to the Rio Genil where we picked up our bus back to the campsite.