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Published: February 13th 2011
Over a month after arriving in Spain I am finally getting to do some sightseeing and take my camera out for a bit of exercise. The past month has been incredibly tiring and I have been looking forward to this long weekend for ages. Even more so because a friend and ex-student is coming all the way from Mexico to spend his holidays in Spain and we have planned a visit to Granada! We've discussed the trip over the last week and when I asked which places he wanted to visit he listed Barcelona, Madrid and Granada. I told him to get out a map of Spain and see how far apart the cities are! Still with a long weekend the distance doesn't seem impossible and I have long wanted to see the Alhambra! I took the AVE train from Lleida to Madrid yesterday, and getting up early on a Saturday has become no easy thing for me! I arrived in Madrid feeling exhausted and managed to meet my friend who looked better than I did despite having just got off a long haul flight! Madrid was flooded and the rain didn't cease until after we had been driving a considerable
amount of time. The drive was long and we pulled over at the side of the motorway so the driver could sleep (I might have offered to be the driver but after I had a little panic believing we were going the wrong way round a roundabout we decided it was best to let the Mexican do the driving as at least they drive on the same side of the road as Spain!)
We arrived in Granada. We had no difficulty finding the city, but finding the hostel was more troublesome. We drove up the mountain roads and made the same circuit twice before being able to stop near the hostel. After a considerable wait we volunteered to take rooms in the second part of the hostel down the road as they were slightly overbooked in the main building. We found the new hostel, a bizarre white walled square with a vending machine and a door at the far end leading to the tiniest excuse for a corridor off which led several more doors and the hostel rooms. We dumped our things and went in search of food. Walking down the incredibly steep hills we came out on a large
plaza, filled with people and a fun fair filled with excited children, and found an Italian restaurant which was an easy choice for dinner and full of pizza we trapsed back up the hill to find our beds fo the night.
This morning we woke... not very early at all considering we were planning a full day at the Alambra. We walked back down to the plaza and found a small cafe for what I might call brunch but for the fact it was practically lunchtime already! Oh well, one of us was jet lagged and the other has been worked half to death in recent weeks! Having dosed ourselves with suitable amounts of caffeine we walked upwards again and walked to the Alambra. We walked around the outer area of the Alhambra and then continued to the road as our tickets were timed entry. As we walked we were stopped by some very persistant gypsy women intent on pushing sprigs of rosemary into our hands. Not wanting to be forced into to paying for a plant cutting I could easily pick myself I politely excused myself and not so politely yanked my hand back and made it to the
road just as my friend sauntered up behind me rosemary sprig in hand and no poorer than he was at the foot of the steps. Oh well! We looked in the shops for a time and returned to the Alhambra shortly before 1pm. We joined the queue and were soon walking inside. We stood on a narrow forrested path and eventually wandered along coming first to a small raised garden overlooking a tower. We paused here first and it was soon apparent that while most people were walking round in a logical fashion there was never a logical layout to the Alambra which was not built according to a master design but rather each palace was built individually resulting in many of them being at odd angles to each other.
The Alhambra was being built after the Reconquista, the reconquering of Spain performed by the Christian kings, had begun. It is a reflection of the culture of the last centuries of the Moorish rule of southern Spain. It's Arabic nam, Al-Qal‘at al-Ḥamrā, means literally 'Red Fortress', an apt name for a fortress built from red clay, although the buildings would orignally have been whitewashed.
The first reference to the Alhambra
was during the battles between the Arabs and the Muladies (people of mixed Arab and European descent) during the rule of the Abdullah ibn Muhammad (888-912). During a particularly fierce battle, documents of the time, record the Arab forces taking shelter in a primitive red castle within the province of Elvira, now located in Granada.
The castle of the Alhambra was added to the city's area within the ramparts in the 9th century, which implied that the castle became a military fortress with a view over the whole city. However, it was not until the arrival of the first king of the Nasrid dynasty, Mohammed benIbn Nasr Al-Hamar (Mohammed I, 1238-1273), in the 13th century, that the royal residence was established in the Alhambra.
Mohammed ben Ibn Nasr, al-Ahmar was the Governer of Jaen. As the forces of the Reconquista challenged the Muslim kingdoms, Mohammad Ibn Nasr conquered and united the surrounding Muslim states, and during his rule, the Emirate of Granada possessed: Jaen, Granada and Almeria.
Mohammed Ibn Nasir entered Granada 1232 AD and the city became his ruling capital in 1245 AD. Granada rapidly increased in size as refugee Moors arrived from the conquered lands of Moorish al-Andalus.
From this period construction on the Alhambra continued. First of all, the old part of the Alcazaba was reinforced and the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela) and the Keep (Torre del Homenaje) were built. Water was canalised from the river Darro, warehouses and deposits were built and the palace and the ramparts were started. These two elements were carried on by Mohammed II (1273-1302) and Mohammed III (1302-1309), who apparently also built public baths and the Mosque (Mezquita), on the site of which the current Church of Saint Mary was later built.
Yusuf I (1333-1353) and Mohammed V (1353-1391) are responsible for most of the constructions of the Alhambra that can still be seen today. From the improvements of the Alcazaba and the palaces, to the Patio of the Lions (Patio de los Leones) and its annexed rooms, including the extension of the area within the ramparts, the Justice Gate (Puerta de la Justicia), the extension and decoration of the towers, the building of the Baths (Baños), the Comares Room (Cuarto de Comares) and the Hall of the Boat (Sala de la Barca). Ultimately the Moors were defeated and Spain united under Christian rule. The Muslim ruler Muhammad XII
of Granada surrendered the Emirate of Granada in 1492 without the Alhambra itself being attacked when the forces of Los Reyes Católicos, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, took the surrounding territory with an overwhelming force of numbers.
We walked down towards the palace of Charles V, built by architect Pedro Machuca after the reconquista in 1527, although not being completed finished until 1927. En route I had to stop to buy camera batteries which thankfully we found in a tiny shop which sells portrait photos of tourists dressed up in Moorish fashions sitting before a replica scene from the alhambra and we also stopped to see the small Arab baths to one side.
We looked at the wine gate, one of the oldest structures in the alhambra complex and beautifully decorated in Islamic tilework and carvings, before entering the Charles V Palace and standing in the central circular plaza. We walked around the upper balcony level and then exited the building and moved onto to the Alcazba where our tickets were checked to make sure we entered only once. This fortress is the oldest part of the Alhambra and believed to be built on
top of older structures pre-dating the arrival of the Muslims and probably the 'red fortress' referred to in the 9th century. The current building probably owes its construction to Mohammad I. We climbed the stairs of the Torre del Cubo where we had amazing views across Granada. The weather had worsened and I was already regretting my skirt and flipflops. We decided to get some photos and a helpful stranger not only took the camera off me but hung on to it while she directed us to each side of the tower to have pictures with the view in each direction.
We hurried on to the torre del homenaje and looked down on the plaza de armas its visible foundations giving it the appearance of a labyrinth. We walked along the terrace of the Gate of Arms and then clmbed the tower, walking through baren rooms of whitewashed arches before emerging at the top where the wind whipped the flags on their poles and we were buffeted as we stepped across to the edge and the spectacular view. Though increasingly cold and dismal the sky at least was not an empty sheet of harsh grey but filled with storm clouds
which when pierced by sunlight looked beautiful over the white city and its surounding hills. We walked down and departed the Alcazba via the gardens along one side which were quiet and peaceful and worth a moment's pause.
We crossed over to the Palacios Nazaries, the most famous part of the Alhambra and discovered our terrible mistake. Our timed ticket was not for entrance to the whole complex but rather this one section and as we had been wandering around for the last two hours we were far too late to gain entry on the ticket. The woman at the entrance directed us back up to a small office past the Charles V palace.
We explained our situation and the woman smiled like it was a mistake she was very familiar with (so why isn't it clearer on the tickets?!) and told us we could go in with the next group. We hurried back to the queue by the palace eager to get in and shortly after the woman from the office arrived with another couple of people, gave a quick explanation to the woman at the entrance and waved us in.
Our first sight was an intricately carved doorway
with endless twisting patterns framed by swirling Arabic script. We entered the Mexuar. It is hard to know what the building orignally looked like as it was badly damaged by the explosion of a powder magazine in 1590 and has had many alterations made to it by the Catholic Kings. The walls are highly decoarted but alongside Arabic script is the coat of arms of Charles V, and Mendoza, the Count of Tendilla who was appointed as the governor of the fortress. At the end of the Mexuar we saw the beautiful Oratory with its inticately carved walls and little arched windows. Beyond that we entered the patio of the Gilded Room, the facade of which has a warm yellow, and passed on into the room. Built by order of Mohammed V and forming part of the Comares Palace. We walked on to the Court of Myrtles where a pond is fed water from fountains at either end. We found more arches here and in fact my lasting impression of the Alhambra is going to be of arches; the whole place is filled with arches supported by colums, arched latice windows, carved arches, arched doorways and all of them intricately
decorated. In the court of the Myrtles and Comares Palace some parts have obviously been damaged over the years and the carvings fade into smooth walls where modern renovations have taken place.
We continued our wanderings and for lack of a tour guide I awas not always sure which room were in. Every space we entered was beautiful and filled with artwork. The Hall of the Ambassador's is a room completely covered in inscriptions, poetry, praises to God or the emir, the Nasrid's motto and texts from the Koran.
We found the Palace of the Lions, much featured on the local postcards, and unfortunately for us partially covered in scaffolding and undergoing renovations. Mohammad V is credited with the creation of the Palace of the Lions. The palace was built within the angle between the baths and court of the myrtles and was the private quarters of the royal family. We visited each of the halls off the main courtyard here all of them decorated with geometric designs and some still showing blue painted details.
We followed the other visitors across a balcony looking down on Daraxa's Garden and the impressive fountain in the centre. The fountain was made in
1626 from the big basin which was originally in the Patio of the Gilded Room. We quickly passed over the balconies away from the now biting chill of the wind and down the steps eventually leaving the closed area of the palace.
Our visit was still not over and as we exited we found ourselves in the Garden of the Partal. Undeniably beautiful the gardens were slightly spoiled by the now rather gloomy weather. We found a few feral kittens sheltering under a bush and though I tried my best to get a cuddle they were too wary of people to let me get close.
We walked on to the Generalife which was built in the 13th century, but redecorated by the king Abu I-Walid Isma'il according to an inscription from 1319. Unlike the Alhambra this area is not ornate and the building is a relatively simple white walled construct with a pretty garden. The most striking feature is the patio of the irrigation ditch from which we entered the complex. The patio is 48.70 meters long and 12.80 wide and is the most important part of the Generalife, although the appearance of its buildings and gardens has changed since
the Arab period.
From here we finished our visit, walking up the stone steps, the hand rails intrestingly carved with a dip through which water ran, and then took a long detour through the gardens.
We returned to the hostel for a much needed hot shower and a rest. We briefly ventured out for dinner finding a small restaurant in the plaza but soon walked off our dinner as we climbed the steep slopes back up to the hostel and further to the main building of the hostel. For the evening we had booked a visit to the flamenco show. En route I found the first Spanish cat willing to stop and greet me and was very excited since I am missing my cats back at home. We met the bus at the hostel in the evening and were driven to the barrio and given a walking tour. This I would have understood had we booked to go during daylight but by night it seemed a little pointless. Still, we trailed dutifully along a darkened courtyard and walked up to the Mirador de San Nicolás to view the Alhambra by night. We walked on and I had no idea where
we were or where we were headed except we were promised flamenco at the end of it. At one point we were trapesing down the road to find a tour bus driving slowly behind us. The narrow road was such that we had to hop up on the wall running alongside, something I would have been happier about had there not been a long drop on the other side. We giggled and clutched at each other to keep our balance and on seeing how close the bus was to those who had chosen to merely flatten themselves against the wall I was glad my toes weren't down there!
We finally reached what basically looked like a bar. An old woman sat outside seling castinets which made a constant burr in her hands. We squeezed inside and some of the dancers were leaning against the bar in their dresses. We were ushered into a small room with a curved white ceiling and a tiny raised stage. Just as we settled ourselves comfortably we were told to move next door. The next room along was similar though we sat on chairs around the edges. The curved walls were crowded with brass pots
and pans, old photos and various other paraphernalia. Drinks were brought round and soon the dancers and musicians came in, performing on wooden boards placed on the floor. The crowded little room was soon echoing with music and the sounds of the dancers feet. We watched one group who then switched rooms with another group, but all were fantastic. The atmosphere was a little subdued at times as tired tourists stared from opposite sides of the room and the dancers seemed to be looking forward to the end of their work day. Still the dancing was impressive and two of the men in particular beat their feet so quicly we were lal leaning forward in disbelief. It was a great end to a very long day and when we eventually made it back to the main road and distinguished our bus from the others I was glad to curl up in the seat and doze until we arrived back at the hostel.
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