Nasrid Palaces, Alhambra / Granada, Spain / May 2016
On tapas and churros in Granada, the majestic Alhambra and its mind-bending patterns, and finding alone time.
While Granada is often thought of as synonymous with the Alhambra (much as Agra is with the Taj Mahal), we were in town a full day before I saw the real version not emblazoned on a coaster, t-shirt or decorative plate.1We’d spent that time largely eating tapas2in loud local spots where you place orders while dodging pig haunches hanging from the ceiling and eat standing over a barrel while having elbow fights with your neighbors, and snacking on long snakes of churros and chocolate while people watching in Plaza Bib-Ramblas. The Alhambra of course looms large, but it is surprisingly possible to enjoy Granada without it.
That said, we set out the next day for a glimpse by wandering the steep and narrow alleys of Albaicin, which is an old quarter built on the hill directly opposite the Alhambra with the Darro river running in the space in between. The houses in Albaicin are all perfectly smooth and white villas, with terra-cotta roofs, wrought iron accents, and walls covered in leafy vines and bursts of colorful flowers. Around one corner, we took the stairs up to a mirador (“lookout”) and then gasped. Straight across was the Alhambra, perfectly framed on its hill covered in cypress trees with the snow-capped (even at this time of year) Sierra Nevadas in the background. The sight was so astonishing that I paused to watch others’ reactions, each person ascending the stairs, turning, and whispering “Oh my god” in a reverential tone. Ah yes, I thought. We definitely have to see the Alhambra.
It’s important to have this moment, the one in which you agree with yourself that it is important and necessary to see this monument. I say this because entry to the Alhambra is heavily regulated and perpetually in-demand, so if you have not booked tickets many or at least several months in advance, you will need to jump through some hoops to get in. For instance, on the day you want to go (and no other day), you will need to wake at the crack of dawn and get yourself bleary-eyed to the top of the hill with the Alhambra (where the ticket office is located) by at least 7:30am, preferably earlier. You will need to stand in an ever-growing line until the box office opens and hope the entire time that they do not sell out of last-minute tickets before you get to the desk. With every announcement, visible panic ripples through the line. There is a separate line, just for credit cards, which moves more quickly but bears the added risk that your foreign card may not be accepted. And if you are lucky enough to get tickets, you may find that it’s 8:15am but due to the timed entry system, you can only come back to the complex at 2pm, and enter the palaces at 5pm.
Having successfully navigated this system, we returned to the hill in the early evening, tickets in hand, and finally entered the Alhambra. Originally a fortress (which may date back to the 9th century), the most celebrated aspects of the complex – the palaces – were added by the Nasrid Dynasty3in the 13th century. The fortress walls and turrets are plain stone with a reddish hue4and completely mask the elaborately-worked treasures within. An entire city grew within the nearly 26 acres behind the walls, including palaces, markets, gardens, orchards, baths and quarters housing those working and guarding the rulers.
The Nasrid Palaces have an understated elegance which ingeniously melds public and private spaces. You pass from intricately-tiled dark halls to citrus tree-filled courtyards, from stucco pavilions with painstaking all-over detail to open patios with shaded walkways. Latticed windows provide lookouts, the grills shielding the persons within while allowing them to look out. Water also features prominently throughout the complex, including in the reflecting pool in the Court of the Myrtles, the lion-ringed fountain in the Palace of the Lions, and the parallel canals running through the maze-like bushes of the Generalife.
Each space exists with perfect harmonious symmetry, and colorful geometric tile or plaster patterns line the walls. Some patterns are often so intricately worked that it takes a second glance to notice the Arabic calligraphy and Quranic verses formed from wall-to-wall arabesques and flourishes. These tessellations5are a hallmark of Islamic design, so easy to lose yourself in that it’s no surprise the mind-bending Dutch artist M.C. Escher once called the Alhambra the “richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped.”
Unfortunately, the timed entry system makes it very difficult to wander and give yourself over to the unmistakable grandeur of the place. Walking through the Nasrid Palaces, admiring the decorated surfaces, you are surrounded by hundreds of others attempting to do the same. Out in the gardens of the Generalife, though, where the Nasrid kings once went to relax, the crowds begin to thin out. Sitting on a bench, I heard the wind rustling the trees and a fountain gurgling nearby. The smell of roses wafted to me on the breeze, and for one moment, I finally beheld a vista with no people: just the red fortress walls and the white and terra-cotta houses of Albaicin climbing the hill across the valley.