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Report 856: The Romance of Moorish Spain

By janie and geoff from Canada, Fall 2004

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Page 11 of 13: Granada and the Alhambra, finally

photo by Geoff Chambers

Intricate plasterwork inside the Alhambra

Monday

“Give him alms woman, for there is no greater pain in life than being blind in Granada” – inscribed on a wall of the Alhambra

We had booked for one night in Granada, and set out early from the condo. Our strategy was to make for the Alhambra to ensure that we could pick up our 2 pm entrance tickets. All the guide books and the telephone sales people made dire, veiled warnings about what happened to people who missed the 2 pm time slot. We made only one stop for a morning coffee at a truck stop, and set off on the highway through more agricultural land and soon we could see the snows of the Sierra Nevadas. With only one false loop we made it to the grounds of the Alhambra, parked, got our tickets and then had lunch at one of the many tacky touristy restaurants for a truly bad lunch. The restaurant was home to semi-feral cats who sat politely beside the tables waiting for food to fall. It turns out that we came up the less scenic but more convenient route. It’s possible to ascend to the Alhambra through twisty narrow residential streets and we did this on the way down.

Finally, the 2 pm shift started and we practically galloped our way to the Nasrid Palace. The Alhambra is more beautiful than one can imagine, not just for the decoration of the ceilings, walls and columns but for the symmetry and serenity of its proportions. It is such a large place that the crowds disperse a bit after the first few rooms, and the palace manages to retain a serene beauty. The ornamentation, despite being more intricate, does not wound the senses the way too much Baroque does (and Spanish Baroque is more “exuberant” than most). The fineness of the plaster carving causes the effect to be more texture than pattern, rather like lacework. I’ve always liked cloisters and here the Moorish style of courtyards enclosed by rooms has been enhanced with water features and gorgeous decoration. The Courtyard of the Lions was my favorite, all those slender columns evocative of palm trees in an oasis, like a grove of columns. And of course I was transported by the stories of Washington Irving and the romanticized life of the Nasrid kings.

The Alhambra is huge, its walls once protected an entire fortress-city with market gardens as well as the palace. The gardens of the Generalife were a surprise, and almost the most wonderful part of the day. An avenue of cypress hedges formed a grid with intersecting paths, and at each intersection were fountains or benches. The cypress hedges were at least 12 feet high and formed green rooms with arched openings cut into the hedge; these were like a suite of palace rooms, each one containing roses or a small fountain, or some stone benches. Along one part of the avenue was a long rectangular fountain, and in every direction were squares of flowerbeds of rose bushes, larkspur, bougainvillea, marguerite daisies, canna and lilies. We were a bit past the prime of the gardens, but it was still wonderful enough that when I got to a corner where I couldn’t see other tourists, I felt like the princess in the gardens of an enchanted castle. From the highest terrace of the Generalife gardens we were able to see the classic Alhambra view, which I never knew until now was taken from above it, from the Generalife.

We take water engineering for granted, but before the Nasrids, the only irrigation was channeling and flooding via aqueducts. The builders of the Alhambra used a reservoir above the city and used natural water pressure to drive the fountains, while redirecting the flow and pressure so subtly to the pools that they are of a constant level and the balance of flow and escape are always the same.

The fortress is enormous and the views of the city and the Sierra Nevadas are spectacular. We kept trying to guess where our hotel was located, since we knew it was right in the middle of the old town, beside the Darro river. Geoff was gratified to find that the refreshment kiosk sold beer as well as ice cream and soft drinks.

We spent about four hours in the entire Alhambra and shopped in the souvenir store. There were so many books to choose from! The shops were located in a low building that once must have had some official function because the same delicate ornamentation was on the walls, but they were not maintained at all apart from signs asking you to not touch or photograph the walls. We were really, really footsore by the end of the day but it was worth it.

As usual, finding our hotel was an adventure in itself, but by now we had a different attitude. We got as close as we could without anyone losing their temper and then walked. There was a street we needed to get on, but the entrance to it was blocked off by low metal posts with round caps on them, like mushrooms. As we circled back to this intersection for the umpteenth time, the car ahead of us drove up to the mushrooms, put a key card into the machine by the curb and the mushrooms sank into the pavement. Geoff wasted no time and followed him through. That got us to where we needed to be, and we parked in front of a church located on a flight of steps above the hotel. The Palacio Santa Ines sent a porter to the top of the steps to get our luggage and whisk away our car to some unidentified parking lot, and that was the end of our worries about where to park.

This hotel was very interesting. It’s a 16th C Mudejar mansion that was extensively restored. The mansion consisted of rooms looking into two courtyards. One courtyard is now the reception area, and the walls are covered in a partially restored fresco, uncovered during the restoration. The hotel itself is located on the Cuesta (slope) Santa Ines, which is one of the tiny streets leading down to the Calle Darro beside the Darro river. This was just a tiny trickle of water. The Calle Darro is very narrow and very historic. One side is a wall separating the street from the river below and the other side is lined with restaurants. We flung ourselves against the walls of the shops whenever a car came through. The locals just barely nudged over a bit to make room for the car and kept walking. Even their dogs looked very unfazed. At one end is the Plaza Nueva, with the Mudejar style church of Santa Ana and the town hall facing the square.

We went for a stroll before dinner. We looked at some clothing, but did not buy anything (again). There is a huge statue of Isabella handing Columbus his charter (or is that his funding) and once again, you are reminded of the wealth he gave Spain access to, and how significant a decision Isabel made. I’m sure it exceeded even her wildest dreams. And I’m sure the patrons who Columbus approached and who turned him down were gnawing their fingernails with regret. We found a plaza, the Plaza Bib-Rambla which looked like a good place for dinner and in fact we did dine there that night – and nearly froze since the evenings in Granada were a lot colder than elsewhere. We also found the Corral del Carbon and put that on the list of places to visit the next day.

The pomegranate is the symbol of Granada, and there are pomegranate fruit designs everywhere in the city: on parking barricades, on street lamps, on walls, fountains.

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