Paradise on Earth: the Alhambra

alhambraA visit to Granada, Spain, December 27-28, 2011
Published in Alexiad, Issue 61. Vol. 11 No. 1, February 2012.

The Alhambra is a complex of palaces, gardens, and fortresses on a hill overlooking Granada, Spain. From the 1200s to the 1400s, successive Moorish rulers of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada built and expanded it in a style to reflect “paradise on earth.” The Alhambra was later used by Spanish royalty as a residence. In 1984 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for two centuries it has attracted visitors from around the world.

When we were living in Spain, my husband gave me trip to the Alhambra for Christmas. I had been there before, though just for an afternoon, and he had never visited it. We booked train tickets (we didn’t own a car) and a hotel through Renfe, the Spanish national train service, and bought tickets to Alhambra through its website. Admission to the Nasrid Palaces are limited with timed entrances control the crowds, and even a month ahead, the best times were taken, so we got entrances at 4 p.m. Tuesday and 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The train departed at 9:05 a.m., so we left our apartment at about 8:15. Because the weather was below freezing and we had a long day ahead of us, we caught a bus around the corner rather than walk to Atocha train station, and two stops later we got off in time to buy a newspaper and drink some coffee before boarding. The doors to the train would close a mere two minutes before it left — so unlike airplane flights.

The train, with comfortable tourist-class seats, was full, and many of the passengers were tourists studying guidebooks in various languages. I could have watched the movie Thor but opted instead to read as the scenery coasted past: hoar-frosted fields, patches of fog, occasional windmills (15% of Spain’s electricity comes from windmills), a couple of castles, and everywhere olive groves that grew more extensive the further south we rode. We lunched in the club car, and the sandwich menu special included potato chips cooked in olive oil.

By the time we got to Granada at 1:30 p.m., palm trees had been added to the mix, and oranges were ripening on trees alongside the sidewalks as we walked six blocks to the hotel. Renfe had given us a wide selection of hotels, and we had chosen on the basis of price and location. Los Girasoles (Sunflowers) Hotel boasted two stars. The room was small and clean, and if the heater had been equal to the December chill, it would have been fine.

We checked in, dropped off our stuff, and found a taxi to take us to the Alhambra: a complicated route up narrow, twisting streets uphill in the Realejo neighborhood. With a thick Andalucian accent, the chatty driver asked us about our ticket times and took us to the best entrance to enjoy the site before visiting the palaces.

Temperatures were about 12ºC/mid-50sF, seasonal for Granada in December, and we were dressed snugly, since it would grow colder as the 6 p.m. sunset approached. We wandered past the medina section where the palace workers lived, and past gardens, ruins (things have not always gone well), archeological digs, the 15th-century monastery (now a parador hotel), the baths of the mosque, the church were the mosque had stood, the Wine Gate, and the Justice Gate.

At 4:30, we fed our ticket into the bar code reader at the door of the Mexuar Council Building and entered the palaces.

The tour started in the oldest part, built in the early 1300s and remodeled time and again. Tile and arabesque plaster work from other palaces that had been torn down were reinstalled there. It would have been gorgeous in any other setting, but here the rooms merely prepared the eyes for the greater splendor to come.

A doorway led to the Patio of the Golden Quarter, an area whose construction started in 1333, named for its gilt ceiling surrounded by elaborate arches. Facing it was the facade of the Comares Palace, covered with tile panels and carved plaster and wood. A low marble fountain burbled in the courtyard. Although today the plaster at the Alhambra is mostly plain white like Greek monuments, we know that, like Greek monuments, at one time it was lavishly painted. The Alhambra used mostly blue and red with gold, and here and there, traces remained.

A door in the palace facade led to a twisting hallway ending at the Court of the Myrtles with its long reflecting pool. At one end stood Comares Tower, which housed the Hall of the Ambassadors. Although it’s hard to mention only one marvel of that enormous space, the ceiling was a vault of three-dimensional inlaid wood in interlacing polychromatic star shapes designed to invoke the seven levels of heaven that a soul traverses to reach Allah. The walls were lined with tiles and intricately carved plaster, the floor was mosaics, and the windows were framed by carved latticework. Look up, down, or around, and beauty awaited.

alhambralionsNext, the Patio of the Lions — and alas! the repairs were almost complete, and the restored lions were back in place in the central fountain, but still wrapped in white tarps as plumbers connected new pipes. The ground would soon be re-covered with marble, and the streams of water would flow again to the central fountain from the halls surrounding it.

The Patio of the Lions, built in the latter 1300s, held some of the most splendid halls, but we could only glimpse them through its forest of columns and move on to the Hall of the Two Sisters — but that hall was the most magnificent of all: elaborate plaster doorways of stunning elegance, tile designs of interlaced strips of color of mesmerizing complexity, and a ceiling of stalactite vaulting of 5000 distinct honeycombed cells. Some windows held complex stained glass, others overlooked the Lindaraja garden, and the arches around the windows created a proportional harmony unsurpassed by the rest of the palace, elegant though it all was.

From there, the route passed through the baths, where much of the original paint survived as a feast for the eyes, the rooms of the Emperor Charles V, where Washington Irving also stayed, several balconies, and the cloistered formal Lindaraja gardens — and then, the palace tour was over.

alhambrapartalBut more paradise awaited. The Partal was an area that included gardens, a palace with a wide reflecting pool in front of its galleries, and archeological remains on a cliff overlooking the Darro River. Even in the chill of December, when many flowers slept, every corner held heavenly beauty, and roses still scented the air. Beyond that, the Promenade of Towers rose alongside the defensive walls, but each of the towers was really mini-palace.

By then it was growing late, so we crossed the ravine to the Generalife area, a labyrinth of gardens with flowers and vegetables and orchards mixed together, a pattern still common in Spain today. We had come see the sun set over the Nasrid Palaces. Unfortunately, the sky was clear as crystal, without a cloud, one of the least spectacular sunsets possible, but even so it was a pleasure.

Then the staff chased us out at closing time, 6 p.m. We caught a bus at the entrance — a mini-bus to negotiate the narrow streets — downhill to the end of the line in front of the cathedral. We took the opportunity for a brief visit to the cathedral and its soaring Renaissance apse.

Then we wandered through the twisting old streets to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, and found a restaurant for dinner. We started with patatas bravas, then Jerry had ox steak and I had salt cod with garlic-olive oil sauce — very traditional Spanish food.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We got up early, breakfasted on ham-and-cheese rolls and madeleines, and left. The hotel desk clerk told us, “It’s chilly, bundle up,” but we’re originally from Wisconsin and were already wearing all the clothes we needed. It was a seasonable 3ºC/37ºF when we found a taxi, and this time the driver took us right inside the monument so we could be at the opening of the Nasrid Palaces on time.

With our breaths hanging in the air, we were among the first to enter at dawn. As at sunset, the sky was cloudless and plain. But the light was good and the crowds were sparse. We had time to enjoy our favorite sights from the day before, more wondrous in their familiarity. More details stood out, and the fascinating variety of embellishments was easier to observe.

The designs were based on mathematics, and the decorations were interlaced with poetry that my guidebook translated: “Are there not in this garden marvels that God has made incomparable in their beauty and in their sculptures of transparent clarity, whose edges are decorated with pearls of dew? Molten silver flows between the pearls, which shine like the pure and beautiful sunrise. It seems that water and marble mix, and we cannot tell which is moving.”

We were surrounded at dawn by mathematics and poetry transformed into architectural joy.

alhambraviewWe lingered, then went to the Generalife across the ravine to see the morning sunlight illuminate the palace exteriors. Great tits, the local version of chickadees, flitted in the trees and bushes, and fountains splashed in the gardens.

We moved on to the Palace of the Generalife, delighting in the patter of the long row of fountain jets in its gardens even before we climbed the stairs to see them. We arrived just in time to be buffeted by successive hordes of Japanese tourists, who were utterly delighted by the beauty. But they were on a schedule and we were not, so we waited for them to move on, and soon we shared the palace with comfortable numbers of fellow admirers. The changes that Fernando and Isabel had made to the palace were interesting to study, and the view across the ravine from the windows was stunning.

More gorgeous gardens awaited above the palace, and finally, in no hurry, we headed back to the Palace of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, next to the Nasrid Palaces. He had begun its construction in 1526 and then ran out of money, so his square palace with a circular courtyard was not finished until the 1920s. These days the handsome Renaissance building, totally out of harmony with it surroundings, serves as a museum and exhibition space.

We toured an exhibit about Owen Jones, a Victorian-era artist who visited the Alhambra and was among the first to recognize the underlying mathematical precision in the patterns of its decorations; and an exhibit about M.C. Escher, whose visits to the Alhambra and studies of its decorations greatly influenced his own artwork.

Then we stopped for a late lunch at the parador’s café. I had a grilled sandwich of rula goat cheese (sort of like brie) and quince jam, and my husband had a serving of tortilla española (potato omelet) — very traditional Spanish food. We washed it down with Alhambra-brand beer. I don’t like to drink for lunch, but I wanted to have an Alhambra in the Alhambra.

Thus fortified, we moved on to the fortress, climbing up and down its walls and towers. From the top of the tallest watchtower, we enjoyed views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. We descended and passed through more gardens (paradise must be filled with flowers) on the way out of the fortress. Had we seen everything at the Alhambra? No, not at all, but we were getting tired.

We bought a few souvenirs and caught a bus to the Plaza de Isabel la Católica, then wandered back to the hotel, pausing for warm drinks and to admire the thousand-year-old city walls and gates in Granada’s oldest neighborhood. We picked up our suitcase from the hotel and admired modern sculptures of outstanding Andalucian citizens in a park as we walked to the train station.

The train left at 6:05 p.m. sharp. I ignored the movie, The Tourist, with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. We arrived in Madrid ten minutes early at 10:45 p.m., promptly caught a bus in front of the train station, and soon we were back in our well-heated apartment.

Distance traveled:
434 km/270 miles each way between Madrid and Granada by train, plus taxi and bus trips, and plenty of walking.

€173.56/US$225.62 for the train tickets and hotel, and €14.30/ US$18.59 for each of the four tickets to the Alhambra.

Books read:
La Alhambra y la Generalife, Guía oficial de visita, 191 pages. El Conde Lucanor by Sir Juan Manuel, a medieval book from 1335 CE, a compilation of moralizing short stories; one of them is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Souvenirs purchased:
Postcards, a 2012 photo calendar to re-live the trip during the coming year, and a half-liter of olive oil from the Alhambra’s own groves.