Sixteenth in a series of posts about a recent trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada
Sinbad. Lawrence of Arabia. The Arabian Nights.
It’s impossible not to be captured by the romance of the Alhambra, steeped in legend and more than a bit of mystery. Do men feel the same allure when they visit? Do they imagine themselves to be powerful caliphs surrounded by a wife or four and fawning concubines?
“A little fruit, my lord and master? Or perhaps this pastry? Let me fan you.”
Collette and I arrived in Granada, primed for our rendezvous with the Moorish palace. On that clear and cool spring evening, the white light of the setting winter sun cast an almost fluorescent glow on the stonework in the entrance of the Paradores de San Francisco, a former sixteenth century convent. We dropped our bags and walked down the steep hill to Plaza Nueva, busy on a Friday night with tourists packing the outdoor cafes.
We turned up a narrow lane crowded with Moroccan import shops and entered the Albaycin, the old town, looking for a Moroccan vegetarian restaurant I remembered from a visit in 2005. In its place, I found a hookah joint, which seemed to have cloned itself every few shops. Eventually we found a restaurant with a promising Moroccan menu, Al-Faguara, on Calenderia Nueva. Larger than it looked, it was a warren of five or six small niches and rooms, a tea house that also served homemade food. Our dinner of stewed eggplant, lentil soup, chicken with couscous and raisins, meatballs and “Arab” pastries plus two beers was a very reasonable 30 Euros (and tasty).
In the morning, I quickly collected our Alhambra tickets when the ticket office opened at 8 a.m., able to take advantage of the much shorter advance ticket line. (If you go, be sure to have an ID that you can leave as security for the audio guide.)
At 9 a.m., we joined the long line of people arriving for the first fifteen minute entrance period into the Nasrid palace. The unimposing entrance where guards would have stood provided little hint of the beauty within.
The Muslim palace is the finest example of its type still standing from the Middle Ages, largely because its Christian conquerors viewed it as a trophy, but also owing to powerful fortifications. Other palaces, many of which were reportedly far grander than the Alhambra, relied on manpower to repulse attackers. They fell, were destroyed and sacked, but the Alhambra, surrounded by concentric rings of walls, survived. After Boabdil surrendered it to Ferdinand and Isabel of Castilla in 1492, the royal pair preserved it as a palace, supposedly enchanted by its beauty.
It is rock, rose-colored rock, that provides one’s first impression of the Alhambra. The complex of buildings — several palaces, a hamam (bathhouse), the convent, a medina and the military fortifications and towers — is surrounded by a massive wall constructed of the area’s red stone.
But one’s second impression is likely to be water. Approaching the gate through the wall at the crest of the hill, you see and hear it: water coursing down ledges through an opening in the wall, sparkling and tinkling. After visiting the Nasrid Palace and Generalife (the gardens), you realize how that water has traveled. It has flowed down the hollow banister of the staircase above the Generalife, fed the gardens, filled the many shallow pools, been sent airborne through spouts, and rushed through channels. It has rested the eyes and refreshed the spirit.
And then there is pattern, pattern everywhere: Escher-like tile designs, caligraphy, arches, columns and ceiling embellishments that look like honeycombed stalactites.
Finally, there is color. Against the rose of the fortifications and the white stucco walls, complementary colors stand in harmony: green, azure, ochre, turquoise, black and orange.
I found myself wishing I was alone, transported back in time — though I would rather not have been a concubine (still, as a woman, better to be a wife or concubine than many other fates). The palace, according to Robert Irwin, would have been richly furnished with pillows, rugs and hangings in geometric motifs. Only the mosque inside the medina would have had hanging lamps; the palace was lit with thousands of lamps and candles. The rays of light fracturing through tall myrtle trees helps me to imagine the magical shadows that would have been cast through columns, arches and lattice-work. As water was meant to symbolize the four rivers of Muslim paradise, so the light must have made the decorated ceilings seem like a celestial sky.