Granada’s Alhambra

DSC_0126The magnificent Alhambra fortress was the last stronghold of the Moorish kingdom in Europe, with a palace that highlighted the decorative splendor of that civilization.   While the rest of Europe dragged through the Middle Ages, Granada blossomed from the 1200’s to nearly the 1500’s.  What you see today is merely a glimpse of what the magnificence must have been.  Time marched on, and in this case not for the better.  The Christians built their own version of beauty on top of some of the Alhambra, it fell into ruin and was populated by the homeless, Napoleon stationed his troops there in the 1800’s contributing substantially to its ruin (he blew up several of the gates), and of course time itself dulls or eliminates the paint and gilding that was once a source of its beauty.  Nevertheless, as you’ll see – it ain’t bad!

You need tickets to see the Alhambra, and they verge on scarce.  Only (!) 300 visitors are allowed A road up to the Alhambrato enter the palace every 30 minutes, and with up to 8,000 visitors a day, that’s a problem.  The good news is that some areas of the Alhambra are accessible and free, and we’ll visit those first.  We’ll walk up the hill, which is pretty steep, as you can see in the picture to the left (and as you want in a fortress).  Note that The Alhambra with surrounding old wallsthe walls of the Alhambra connected with the walls around Granada, the remnants of which you can see in the photo above.  There’s a reason this place was the lone hold-out for 200 years.

Granada goes back in time a millennium or much more, so it is no surprise that there are walls on top of walls on top of repaired walls, and ruins here and there.  When one encounters the fortress walls/towers, they are impressively vertical and remarkably well-preserved.  At one point there were 30 of these towers.

Pictures below show the Justice gate into the fortress (there were only 4 gates).  As you can see, it was built for defense!  Big motha’.  In addition to the gate’s four 90º turns for better defense, it has a metal door that looks pretty sturdy.  And it’s not just a functional gate – there are remnants of decoration.

The sultan's summer palace - and water channel                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The Moors had a thing for water.  To the Moors, coming from the desert, water was precious; they reveled in it and surrounded themselves with ponds, fountains and gardens.  There is a river at the base of the Alhambra’s hill; the Moors diverted water from that river at a point upstream and uphill, running it down through the sultan’s summer home and garden, the Generalife, and then via aqueduct into the Alhambra city complex and palace (summer home and water path shown to the left; details later in the post).  Much of that infrastructure still remains and some is still functional, as shown below.

Once through the Justice Gate, the Wine Gate greets you.  One of the oldest constructions of the Alhambra, it separated the fortress (Alcazaba) from the town (medina) and palace within the Alhambra walls.

Nearby is Charles V’s palace; the conquerors should have their own palace, right?  Not that old one, the Moors’ Palacios Nazaries that we’ll visit shortly.  So in 1533 good ol’ Charles V Charles V's Palace(you remember him, right?  He OK’d construction of the Catholic cathedral in the middle of Córdoba’s Mesquita [post of May 13, 2014; “Córdoba”]) started construction of a new palace, financed by a poke-in-the-eye tax on Granada’s Muslim population.  However, a few years later Charlie lost interest and the project was abandoned without its planned roof.  Like the cathedral within the Mesquita, the architectural style of the palace (Renaissance) looks VERY much out of place in the Alhambra, but it is interesting in its own right.   On the exterior, the building is square, with pilasters framing the entrance.  The blocks beneath the bases of the pilasters have some fine carved battle scenes showing who won and who lost and why this building sits here, just in case you forgot (below, left).  Going into the building, a big

 surprise is that most of it is an open, completely circular courtyard, a circle within a square.  The large courtyard is surrounded by marble columns that create a covered balcony and a gallery (above, right).


The AlcazabaWith tickets in hand, we now pass through the Wine Gate and face the Alcazaba, which certainly looks imposing even from inside the walls.  The courtyard in the front was originally a moat, which would have made it even more impressive!  The fortress is old, from the 1200’s, but is mostly in ruins, much of the destruction caused by Napoleon’s troops.  Pictures are shown below.  Note that the entrance into the fort, shown from different levels, is a back-and-forth path protected by several gates, the approach incredibly exposed from above.  I would NOT want to be part of the attacking party!

We’re now going to walk to the Generalife, the summer palace and gardens of the sultan.  It’s at the other end of the Alhambra complex, past what used to be an urban town (medina) of 2,000 people who lived up here.  The medina was also destroyed by the invading French, and ruins are only sporadically visible.  It is, however, a pleasant walk (see below).

One of the interesting buildings we walk past is the Parador de Granada San Francisco.  A Parador is an historical building that the Spanish government runs as a fancy hotel.  Within the Alhambra the building was a Moorish palace but was subsequently converted to a Franciscan monastery.  As you can see below it’s quite attractive.  How cool would it be to sleep here within the Alhambra!  But, alas, it’s far too expensive for our budget.


Path to the Generalife

We continue to walk to the Generalife.  Tall evergreens line a charming path to the extensive gardens, where more evergreens in many shapes form shady, secluded, hidden areas around fountains and pools.  Everything seems to be in bloom.  It’s hard to capture the beauty of such an expanse in the small area of a photo, but I do take some side shots of flower areas with a view of the Alhambra.

At the end of the gardens is the sultan’s summer home, a cool and quiet escape.  You saw the overview of the summer home earlier (above) when we discussed the aqueduct.  Now we’ll go inside this house.  Even after all these centuries, it’s still pretty spectacular for a “get-away” place.  Pictures below.


Finally, it is our time to enter the Palacios Nazaries (miss that entry time by 30 minutes and you don’t get in).  This is the jewel of the Alhambra, the reason most people come to Granada.  The royal palace was built mostly in the 1300’s and is the best example of the elegant Moorish civilization of that time.  Remember that gorgeous palace in Sevilla’s Alcazar (post of May 1, 2014, “Sevilla’s Alcazar”)?  It was copying the real McCoy here.  We are going to deluge you with photos!  There is much to admire – rooms decorated with molded plaster from top to bottom, beautiful and intricate carved wood ceilings, stucco “stalactites”, intricate ceramic tiles, and beautiful filigree windows.  Notice our repeating “beautiful” and “intricate” words.  What you will see is a lot of repetition in a decoration.  It just keeps going, yet it is not too much – well, maybe some of the tile patterns are optically active, but usually not.  The overall effect is what I call a “visual mantra”.  Something beautiful repeated and repeated and repeated, and you stare at it and your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure drops, and tranquility descends.  And your mind says “Jeez, is this ever beautiful”!  And you turn your head and see a new and different wonderful pattern and the feeling repeats along with the patterns.  We’ll just be showing you picture snippets, but we think you’ll see.  Enough talk!  I’ll divide the tour by rooms.  We’ll start by walking through a few “administrative” rooms, including an oratorio (a Mecca-oriented prayer room).

Administrative Rooms

No words – just walk with us.

The Oratorio

OK, mea culpa, we’re showing this room a bit out of order within the administrative rooms, but we just wanted to highlight it.  Not only is this room beautiful, it has a beautiful view of Granada’s Albayzín.

The Court of Myrtles

It’s named for the two fragrant myrtle hedges.  It’s pretty.  Some chambers were demolished to make room for Charles V’s palace, but happily only a few.  The lateral sections were living quarters for the women (harem).

The Boat Room

It’s so named due to a corrupted Spanish translation of the Arabic; it should read something more akin to “Room of divine blessing and luck”.  It’s a waiting room before entry to the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors, the sultan’s throne room.  My guess is that it was a bit more ornate back then.

The Grand Hall of the Ambassadors

This is the palace’s largest room, the Sultan’s throne room.  It’s a perfect cube – would you expect anything less from these lovers of geometric design?  That domed wooden ceiling is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, with over 8,000 inlaid pieces.  The cornice consists of wooden “stalactites”; the stucco walls are still glorious even without their original paint and gilding.  The filigree windows once held stained glass (and had heavy drapes to block out the heat).  The calligraphic inscriptions are of poems, prayers or praises.  An example:

Oh, God, fighter of the devil, please help me.  In name of God, who is merciful and has mercy.  Oh, God, please be company and salvation for our Master Mohammed and his generation.  And say: May the anger of God and of every devil that allows the disturbance of hell help me; and deliver me from the evil of the envious ones when they are going to be envious.  And no deity but God is alive, whom we must praise eternally.  Praise to the God of centuries“.

The floor was originally marble, but is now tiles from the 1500’s – not a bad update!

When in use, the room would have been in semi-darkness, with the lighting concentrated on a throne opposite the entrance.  A visitor would have stepped from the glaring Court of Myrtles into this dim, cool, incense-filled, intensely decorated world to meet the silhouetted sultan.  Of course you have to imagine the pillows and Persian carpets and throne and ivory-inlaid chairs and vases and hookah pipes and probably gorgeous ladies and scribes and bustling aides.  We would have been impressed, and struggling to make eye-contact with the all-powerful sultan!

Connecting Rooms

There are connecting passageways to private rooms of the royal family (and servants, of course).  We’ll just show pictures.

The Courtyard of the Lions

This is the private quarters of the royal family, and probably the most famous area of the Alhambra.  We’re just going to show you the pictures (a lot of pictures), and then we’ll talk.

The design of the courtyard refers to Persian gardens of old.  It’s divided in quadrants symbolizing the four corners of the world, and irrigated by water channels (that went to the apartments of the royal family) symbolizing the four rivers of the Quran’s Paradise ; the theme is thus an architectural manifestation of Paradise.  The slender column forest has been said to represent the palm trees of an oasis in the desert.  Originally there was a below-level garden in each of the 4 quadrants, the top of the plants cut to be level with the courtyard.  Today the courtyard floor is white marble, in the center of which is a white marble fountain from the 1000’s, a dodecagon-shaped basin resting on top of 12 lions – one of the more important examples of Moorish sculpture (which ordinarily prohibits images of animals or humans).   There is a (long) poem in calligraphy on the basin rim, part of which is:

…Such a translucent basin, sculpted pearl!
Argentic ripples are added on it by the quiet dew
And its liquid silver goes over the daisies, melted, and even purer.
Water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.
Don’t you see how water overflows the borders
and the warned drains are here against it?
They are like the lover who in vain
tries to hide his tears from his beloved…”

Another poem decorating a wall goes:

“How beautiful is this garden
where the flowers of Earth rival the stars of Heaven.
What can compare with this fountain, gushing crystal-clear water?
Nothing except the fullest moon, pouring light from an unclouded sky.”

The Courtyard is beautiful indeed, then and now.

Hall of the Abencerrajes

This was the Sultan’s living room, with an exquisite ceiling in the shape of an eight-sided star.  It has a history – a sultan took a new wife and wanted to disinherit the children of the first marriage, so he invited them (the Abencerrajes) to dinner and killed all 36 – nearly the entire family – but he missed the son who would ultimately assume the throne (some of the blame for the decline of the Muslim world had to do with such constant infighting.  The Catholics weren’t your only enemy).  Why am I not showing you pictures of this incredible room?  It was closed.  Bummer!  Below is a picture of the outside of the building, and next to it an internet picture of the ceiling.

Hall of the Kings

This is just a connecting hall at the back of the Courtyard of the Lions.  It is, of course, gorgeous.

Hall of Two Sisters

It’s named for the two slabs of white marble on the floor flanking the fountain carrying water to the Courtyard of the Lions.  It is the center of a series of chambers where the sultana and her family lived.  The ceiling is incredibly beautiful.

Well, that’s the shooting match.  There is still some beauty to be seen on the way out of the Palace, such as the Patio of Lindaraja, but it’s not on the same scale.

The sultan and his favorite wifeThat’s it!  It is a beautiful palace, putting the monstrosity of Charles V’s palace to shame.  He thought he could improve on the Palacios Nazaries???  We thought the art of the Moors was amazing.  Hope you enjoyed it.

Our next stop in Spain is Madrid.


Hills of olive treesThroughout most of Spain, the trip to any city is past hill after hill planted in rows of olive trees.  Grenada, nestled at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, is no exception.  Pretty, isn’t it?

As Cordoba declined, Granada grew, and for a time Granada was the grandest city in Spain – and ultimately the last city in Spain under The AlhambraMuslim rule.  The  Alhambra fortress, the last stronghold of the Moorish kingdom in Spain, finally fell to the Reconquista in 1492.  Until then it was the greatest Moorish palace, highlighting the splendor of a Moorish civilization that nowhere else shone as brightly.

The modern city of GranadaToday Granada and suburbs have a population approaching half a million; it’s a modern city, as shown to the left, but the historical center is absolutely a world apart.  It dates back a thousand years, and as one of Europe’s top sights, draws up to 8,000 visitors a day (!), mostly to see the Alhambra.  However, Granada offers many more antiquities to see, among them a beautiful cathedral and the Albayzín, the best-preserved Moorish quarter in Spain.  The Albayzín The Albayzin, taken from the Alhambraflows down a steep hill across the river from the hill on which the Alhambra was built.  It’s a picturesque place, and strikingly different from the rest of Grenada!  That picture of  modern Grenada shown above was taken from the Albayzín; you stand in a Moorish world from the 1400’s, and look through a time warp into a modern, bustling city.


Let me start by showing you this historic center, home of a grand cathedral, the burial chapel of kings, the old silk market, Moorish baths, and a surviving caravanserai (a roadside inn for merchant travelers and their camels).  Although the modern city has infiltrated and surrounded these landmarks, the shops and plentiful restaurants absorb both the locals and hordes of tourists remarkably well.  Also doing well are the street performers, who are quite good, as shown below.

Some of the city’s North African heritage can still be seen in the open-air market for spices and herbs, and the many open-storefront grocery shops that abound.


Granada was under Muslim rule for 700 years, the last 200 seeing it grow as the Reconquista slowly drove refugees here.  By 1400 Granada held 120,000 people, very large for Europe at that time.  The plazas here were bustling with the city’s main (and rich) markets.  Later, under Catholic rule, this area became the Moorish ghetto.  Then, with the Inquisition (1500), thousands of Arabic books were burned, the mosques razed, Muslims evicted or forced to The Granada Cathedral (and adjacent Royal Chapel)convert, and the Cathedral built on top of the old mosque.  And oh my, a statement was made with the Cathedral!  It’s the 2nd largest in Spain after Sevilla’s (post of July 11, “Sevilla and its Cathedral”).  It was built in Spanish Renaissance style, and finished 181 years later with Baroque decoration.  It’s hard to get a picture of the Cathedral from the outside, since it’s surrounded by other buildings, but it practically screams “Triumph!”.  A picture of the impressive exterior, and pictures of the equally impressive interior, are shown below.

The Cathedral houses a collection of illustrated music sheets, mostly Gregorian chants from the 1500’s.  The artwork in these miniatures is amazingly beautiful!!

At about the same time as the Cathedral was being built, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel decreed they wanted to be buried in the city of their final Reconquista triumph and ordered a Royal Chapel be built for Royal Chapelthat purpose.  500 years ago, this was the finest that money could buy – they spent 1/4th of their wealth on it.  It was completed in just 15 years.  The style is Plateresque Gothic – Gothic simplicity combined with Mudejar decoration.  Externally there is not much to see, since 3 sides are connected to other buildings (including the Cathedral).  Pictures were not permitted inside; the marble figures of the king and queen in repose are impressive – carved in Italy.


Originally this was an important Moorish silk market with 200 shops (sufficiently important that all of it’s 10 gates had armed guards ).  Destroyed by fire in 1850, it was rebuilt later that century for the tourist trade.  Today it has (unmanned) gates, a series of interconnecting narrow walkways, and marble columns defining the many very touristy shops.


The name “carbon” comes from the earlier use of this building as a coal storage facility(!).  This is the only survivor  of Granda’s original 14 “caravanserai”.  Here, just a block away from the Alcaicería, merchants could rest their camels, get a bite to eat, and get a good night’s sleep.  It was built in the 1300’s and has a pretty fancy Moorish door for your roadside inn, as shown below.  Inside it’s plain but elegant, with surviving architecture and

brickwork .  The 1300’s!  Doesn’t the inside look an awful lot like today’s motels?  You park your camel instead of your car.  It’s always amazing how the basic things we need really don’t change that much through time.  Even 2000-year-old houses that we saw in Pompei, Italy looked very livable and inviting!


Public baths were a big part of Muslim community life, not only for cleansing but as a place to socialize or do business.  After the Reconquista, the Christians assumed that conspiracies might also be hatched there, so few survived.  Below is a survivor from the 1000’s, with the traditional cold room, warm room and hot room, and the heating below the floor.  It’s all very Roman, except the Romans had pools; the Muslims just doused.


The Christian City Hall Just across from the Royal Chapel is the Muslim madrassa or school, which became Christian Granada’s City Hall.  Today the outside has a strange paint job – those mortar joints are not real (picture, left)!   But inside, there is a lot of true 1400’s Muslim decoration (not Mudejar), and it is outstandingly beautiful.


We’re staying in the Albayzín; on arriving we discover that it has a dearth of streets allowing car access; most “streets” are much too narrow, steep, and often have stairs; foot-traffic only.  Read: we had to struggle up cobblestone streets  with our backpacks quite some distance to reach our apartment!  The streets are narrow for a purpose, so that the surrounding buildings will provide shade from the hot sun.  For unknown reasons the streets are also maze-like, and even with a map you will get lost, guaranteed.  Finding the apartment we’d rented was not easy!  The instructions were to go to the cafe –

The 4 Gatos (you can see the patio umbrellas and awning in the first picture above) – and turn left.  Well, that takes us into a closed courtyard surrounded by building walls!  Eventually we discovered an alley at the very end of that courtyard that goes off to the right but was invisible from the street, (red arrow in left picture above – you’ll need to click on the picture to see it) – and eventually found the right building. Welcome to the maze!  Our small apartment is on the 2nd floor of the house shown by the blue arrow in the left picture above.  On the inside, picture to the right, it’s definitely Moorish; old wood timbers and columns and an interior courtyard that was the style then.  The apartment isn’t much, but that courtyard is pretty cool.

The “streets” are also interesting.  Down near the base of the Albayzín, just off one of the cities’ main avenues, there are small food stores, pubs, cafes, and a bit further up, a lot of

tourist shops, many of the latter sprawling into the street itself.  As you climb (and climb) higher, all that falls away and its just you hemmed in by close-set buildings on narrow twisting streets/alleys, until you turn a corner and are surprised by a small stone water fountain, or colorful tiles, or a cafe with umbrellas, a view of a residential patio garden, or a delightful small shady park.  Stopping at a cafe for a sangria or mojito on the hot climb is pure heaven!  Let me show you examples of the streets.  Notice that many of the streets are actually steps.

Examples of nice surprises.

There are 20 or so small churches here in the Albayzín, all sitting on spots that were once mosques.  They are often simple, to make it easier for the (you-better-convert-or-else) ex-Muslims who were not used to worshiping among images.  Below are two pictures of such a church (the alter was not so simple!), along with a picture of a picture of a convent from the 1500’s – it looked like it would be impressive, but it was closed when we came by.

There is another interesting aspect to Granada – it has a distinct gypsy population of about 50,000, and although they’ve been in Granada since the 1400’s, they remain unassimilated.  Many of these gypsies live in a district directly connecting with the Albayzín, the Sacromonte.  This very colorful low-rent district (cave-dwelling is common, for example) also attracts “hippies” and some of Spain’s youthful unemployed (50% The Alhambra at night, from the Albayzínunemployment for the under-25!).  Many gypsies work the tourist crowds, and in general, deserved or not, they have a less-than-sterling reputation.  Put it all together, and guide books voice strong concerns about being in the Albayzín after dark.  Certainly Ginger had some reservations – after all, the place is nothing but dark alleys – but this is Spain, the land of the mid-day siesta producing a time-offset; restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 or 9pm, it’s cooler then, and the Alhambra seen from the Albayzín is gorgeous at night, as you can see from the picture on the left.  So with a little prodding from me, off we went into the nights, and happily we had zero problems.

I really wanted to see the Sacromonte; there are tours that take tourists to bars and the gypsy Zambra dance (a flamenco variation), but we’re wary of (non-authentic) tourist shows.  I decide to walk there (in daylight), but Ginger is not enthusiastic; I’m on my own.  So I scale the Albayzín, and then down, and then up the Sacromonte, and it is sunny and I am hot, but it’s interesting.  From where I am the Sacromonte looks normal and well kept, until I realize that it’s not quite normal; most of the buildings and houses I’m seeing are just fronts with no depth; the houses are built into the hill (or into a cave, who knows?).

It’s similar to an Italian hill town, except the town is mostly hill!  Also I notice that I seem to be the only person in the world.  It is siesta time, and other than an occasional car coming by, nothing but nothing is stirring.  I see a sign announcing there is a  restaurant/bar up this driveway, and I’m hot and thirsty, and maybe I can find me a gypsy!   So up I go, up quite a steep, curving driveway, which continues up for much longer than I anticipated.  And up!  It’s a bloomin’ mountain!  I get there, and it is closed.  Drat!  Learning: Gypsies take their siestas very seriously.  Time to go home.  On the way out, I come across a guide with a family on tour, on Segways.  We’re at the top of a quite steep and long hill, looking down, and the guide is talking to a young lady on her Segway “You just release the brake and lean forward ….”   Think Olympic ski jump ….  After I reached the bottom, walking, the Segways were still up there.

Let me finish with a view of Granada food.  It wasn’t too shabby!

San Nicolas Viewpoint from the AlhambraNot only is the food quite good, but it often comes with a great view, particularly in the Albayzín.  One of our favorite restaurants has an impressive view of the Alhambra.  It’s at a popular spot, the San Nicolás viewpoint, and as you can see in the picture a lot of people hang out in the small park there to catch the sunset.  Just below that gray wall (and across the street) is the restaurant – those dark bays above the white wall are the restaurant windows.  In the pictures below we’re inside that restaurant looking out, and we’ll share the view of the sunset with you – oh, and maybe you’ll notice the Alhambra is part of the view ….

Romance?Is that romantic or what???

Next post – inside the Alhambra!