Granada, Spain Part II – The Alhambra
Of all the things to see and do in Granada, the Alhambra is undoubtedly the most spectacular of all.
It is not a mere object or a place, but a city that grew over three centuries. Perched on the Hill of the Sun, its red façade glows in the morning light and it’s so large that the entirety of its splendor can only be seen from afar. It is a contraction, but also a mix. Its walls are strong and imposing, anchored by a substantial fortress on its western end and no less than twenty-two watchtowers along its perimeter. Yet inside there is softness and lush gardens, meditative courtyards lined with silent pools, and layers upon layers of carved wooden surfaces that are so intricate and fragile it seems impossible they’ve survived.
The fact that it has indeed endured is more luck than plan.
From the 13th century through modern times the Alhambra has seen waves of change that should arguably have destroyed it. From Muslim rule to a Christian court, from a palace seat to military barracks, though wars and even earthquakes, large parts of it were indeed lost, yet the essence of Al-Ḥamrāʾ, ”The Red One” held on. Perhaps its 10,000 inscriptions have blessed it, or its beauty so captivated that even conquerors could not bring themselves to destroy it all. Whatever the secret, it remains the finest example of Islamic art left to us in the West, and those who have the rare chance to see it will never forget.
So come join me my friends, to visit one of the most extraordinary places we’ve seen. Perhaps one day, you will get the chance to experience this gem for yourselves.
Its History Is Like A Flower
The Alhambra is much like a flower, that first started as a small bud and then grew and blossomed over multiple centuries.
The Alcazaba, the old citadel and fortress on the western tip of the Alhambra existed first. References date it back to the 9th century, although large parts of it (including the massive towers) were expanded and added-on in later times. This remains the oldest part of the complex.
The main part of the Alhambra however, the center of its beauty and scent; its city, baths, dwelling, stables, gardens and Islamic palaces were all built during the Nasrid Dynasty, starting with Muhammad I Ibn al-Ahamar in ~1237 and ending with Muhammed XII Abu-Abdi-Llah I in 1492. This was its greatest period of splendor where no less than 22 or so Sultans* (and their wives) strolled the palace gardens, court officials occupied the the Medina and the gardens were lush with beauty and produce. The Alhambra became the massive size that you see today (~26 acres) during that time.
The final bloom happened after Christian takeover in 1492. Part of the Muslim complex was destroyed and Charles V massive Renaissance Palace built (never quite finished, as they ran out of money), followed by a church (to replace the Alhambra’s mosque) and a Franciscan monastery. The mix of Christian and Muslim architecture you see today stems from that period.
A few key historic moments did damage the flower after this time (Napoleon caused significant damage and tried to blow up the Alhambra during his retreat in 1812, plus an earthquake caused more damage 1821), but despite this, the core of Alhambra managed to survive. It was granted well-earned UNESCO Heritage status in 1984.
*Why so many Sultans? Being a Sultan was a tenuous business during the Nasrid dynasty. Each Sultan had multiple wives and multiple sons, the best-suited of which was destined to rule. This was a noble idea of course, but one that led to rather a lot of violence in practice, with fathers ousted by their sons, brothers ousted by each other and a fair few “sudden” deaths. The exact number of Sultans that ruled during the dynasty isn’t even really known. Can’t imagine family dinners were much fun?
Everyone Gasps When They See It
When you first see the Alhambra you can’t help but gasp a bit.
It’s much larger than most folks expect, covering 26 acres with more than a mile of walls, and it glows a most lovely, sizzling red at sunrise, a stunning sight.
As you walk around inside it, you encounter architectural wonders that are ingenious in their design, even by today’s standards. Courtyards with central pools of water designed not only for beauty, but also for air flow and coolness. A system of divertible watering canals supplied from a 6km long aqueduct that allowed pressurized water to reach the palaces and baths, as well as keep gardens and produce in ample supply. Columns oriented so that each would light up as the hand of a sun dial….and so much more.
All superbly cleaver stuff.
The Nasrid Palaces are a big part of what folks come to see here, and rightly so. They look almost bland from the outside with square blank walls and few windows or views, but they open up to an astonishing beauty on the inside, reflecting the Muslim belief that one must look inwards in all things. Fountains are designed for meditation, walls imbued with elaborate carvings and repetitive designs, ornate arches supported by pillars to represent those of Islam, inscriptions to honor Allah, and central courtyards open to the sky so one can reflect upwards towards the heavens.
They’re astonishingly beautiful.
Finally you have the Christian buildings which turn outwards in their glory rather in, grand and imposing structures meant to humble and awe any who enter or pass. Charles V Palace is the most elaborate of the lot, and took so long to build they ran out of money before it could be finished. Still, it’s an impressive structure that takes your breath away when you first see it.
In summary there’s a whole lotta “wow” moments as you walk around the Alhambra.
Fun Palace Fact: The stories say that the size of the Court of the Lions inside the Alhambra is the size of a “Marjal”, from the Arabic al-mrah or al-marah, an old agrarian measure equivalent to 100 Granada estates (around 528.42 m²), which became the standard unit of measurement for all agricultural transactions in Granada, and still is today! Not only that, but the water allowances in rural Granada farms are still based on a lunar calendar and how long it takes to water a Marjal. Not all of this is exactly true, but all dates from the Nasrid age.
We’re Not The Only Fans
“How unworthy is my scribbling of the place” Washington Irving, circa 1828
We’re not the only ones to rave about the Alhambra.
In 1828 Washington Irving lived in the Alhambra and became so enthralled with the city that he was inspired to write a collection of essays, “Tales From The Alhambra” (#commissionlink). Much of it was fictional stuff, based on myths he heard or inspired by stories of the Alhambra, its architecture and surroundings, but he did interweave some real history and the book became famous enough that it’s credited with reintroducing the Alhambra to Western audiences.
Since then many others have waxed poetically about the place.
The artist MC Escher visited the Alhambra in 1922 and 1936 and was so inspired by the geometry of its mosaics that it became the basis for many of his famous drawings. Earnest Hemmingway declared the sun itself must conceal inside the Alhambra. And finally, Bill Clinton stood at Mirador San Nicolas in 1997 and declared sunset over the Alhambra “the most beautiful in the world”. According to many locals he’s the reason, for better or worse, that the overlook is so mobbed these days.
It’s got quite a few fans, and yes…we all struggle to do it justice.
You Must Plan Ahead
My one key piece of advice before you come? Book your Alhambra tickets as soon as you’ve booked your travel to Granada!!
The Alhambra is one of the most popular monuments in Spain, with over 2.5 million visitors per year. Access is strictly limited in number, with tickets that are ID specific (your passport will be registered and checked) so if you want the full experience it’s essential that you plan well in advance.
My three tips:
- Book Well Ahead: Tickets open up a year in advance, and often sell out around a month ahead (in non-COVID times). You can get lucky with last-minute tickets, but may not be able to see the Nasrid Palaces this way.
- Make Sure Your Ticket Includes the Nasrid Palaces: Entry to the Nasrid Palaces is a separate, timed ticket (you must enter within a half hour of the time on your ticket), and quantities are strictly limited. Night-time visits are also possible and highly coveted, but even more limited. Whenever you go, make sure your ticket includes the Palaces!
- Consider a Guide: The Alhambra is so big, so overwhelming and has so many intricate details that IMO a guide is the absolute best way to absorb it. Both group and private tours are offered by multiple agencies.
A complete entry to the Alhambra only costs EUR 14 through the official site. We booked a private tour through GetYourGuide, which cost EUR 50/person but IMO it was SO WORTH IT!! Our tour took 3 hours which is about the absolute minimum time you’d want (honestly you could easily spend several days here), and we all felt we learned and absorbed so much more than we would have on our own.
My only regret? I wanted to go back and do a night shoot of the Nasrid Palaces, but stupidly didn’t book ahead, so by the time I got around to it all those tickets were gone. Arghhhh!
Other, Practical Tips:
- Parking Is Easy: The Alhambra has 5 massive parking lots within walking distance of the main entrance, including an oversized lot for motorhomes. They’re pricey, but there’s plenty of space and it’s zero stress. Just show up, park and go.
- No Dogs** Allowed: Sadly, dogs are not allowed anywhere inside the Alhambra, even the outdoor areas. Guide dogs are an exception, and are permitted.
- No Strollers In The Nasrid Palace: Kids are welcomed and strollers allowed everywhere in the Alhambra except inside the fragile Nasrid Palace. There is a place to drop them off (the strollers, not the kids), so if you’ve got young-uns just prepare to bring a sling or kiddie backpack for that part of your visit.
**Fun Cat Fact: you’ll see tons of happy, well-fed cats when you visit the Alhambra. They are actually protected and kept on-site to keep rodent populations down. Taggart and Rand would have approved.
You’ll Need Several Photography Outings
For the photo buffs amongst you, I did want to add a few words on how to photograph the Alhambra itself.
Inside the monument there are obviously tons of great shots to take with lots of great framing opportunities (soooo many arches), masses of fascinating details (inscriptions, carvings, mosaics etc.) and fabulous views of the city of Granada. Plus if you manage to get a night ticket for the Nasrid Palace, you’ll (apparently) get some awesome night-light shots too.
For an overall view of the Alhambra however, it’s so big that you have to get away from it in order to get any perspective at all. Thankfully I found this wonderful blog post and had a few weeks to scope it out. These ended up being my fav 5 spots:
- Mirador San Nicolas: By far the most famous and most “full-frontal” view of the Alhambra, but also the most crowded. Sunset shots are popular here, but you have to snag your spot on the wall well in advance to ensure you get an unobstructed view.
- Mirador Silla de Moro: This is an easy walk uphill, directly accessible from behind the Alhambra parking lots. The road is gated at the bottom, so there’s no traffic, so it’s wonderfully quiet and scenic. Great views and honestly my fav site of the lot!
- Paseo De Los Tristes: A lovely spot to get a upwards-looking view of the Alhambra from the Darro river down below.
- Sacromonte Abbey: The furthest spot of the lot. You won’t get up-close and personal here, but it’s the perfect place to get a panoramic shot of the Alhambra and downtown Granada in one frame. Plus the Abbey a worthy place to visit.
- Generalife Gardens: Technically this is inside the Alhambra, but it’s away from the center in the across-the-way Generalife gardens. If you visit the Alhambra, make sure to walk over here both for the gardens and the views.
Of course, I’ve made a map :))
I’m So Glad We Made It
One of the main reasons we came to Granada this winter was to visit the Alhambra.
We booked our tickets almost a month in advance and cried when we saw the weather forecast for that week. Solid rain (a complete rarity) for almost 6 days straight with no hope of re-booking after that. Alas the rain did come and relentlessly so, but for some miraculous reason the sun decided to peek in for the very three hours we planned for our tour.
I don’t know which Gods smiled upon us that day, but the magic of the Alhambra certainly did its work. We had a wonderful tour guide, beautiful weather and comparatively light crowds (one thing I can thank COVID for). And although I can’t say we saw it all (that would take a lifetime) we were certainly imbued with its essence in a way that we will not soon forget.
I am so very glad we all got to experience it.
Though the shadows of these walls have long since gone, the memory of them will live on as the final refuge of dreams and art. And then the last nightingale to breathe on this earth will build its nest and sing its farewell song among the glorious ruins of the Alhambra.
F. Vallaespesa (plaque beside the Gate of the Pomegranates)
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