This article isn’t about a city, an island or a region. It’s
about a single building: the Alhambra.
This mighty medieval fortress is in southern Spain. Behind it stretch the
snow-capped hills of the Sierra Nevada. Below it, the modern town of Granada.
It sits between the two, forever on the midway point between civilization and
nature. It was built in the middle ages by local Muslim rulers - Arabic
invaders had conquered much of Spain from north Africa hundreds of years
previously. However, by the time the Alhambra was built Muslim Spain was on the
retreat, pressurized by Christian reconquistas – reconquerors. Granada was one
of the last great bastions of Muslim Spain until it too fell to Christian
forces in 1492.
The Muslims left a lot behind them, but the Alhambra is perhaps
their most lasting gift to modern Spain. It’s an interesting combination of
medieval European and classical Muslim architecture – a richly patterned
fortress of endless delights. It served as both a fortress and a luxury home
for the Muslim sultans of Granada.
The military area – the Alcazaba – is mostly a ruin these days. But make sure
you climb the Torre de la Vela. The views from up there over the mountains and
the city are superb. The civilian area within the Alhambra walls was called the
Medina. It housed civil servants, traders and officials who made up the
household and court of the Muslim rulers.
It’s a beautiful area to walk around, and although many of the
towers have been extensively rebuilt since medieval times, you can still get a
sense of what it was like to live in the great fortress when it was at the
height of its power and influence. The Medina contains not one palace, but
many; each successive ruler (it seems) built his own, trying to outdo his
predecessors in grandeur and show. If you’re feeling the heat of the midday
Spanish sun, wander down through the Medina to the Partal Gardens to enjoy the
cool air near the gardens’ enormous pond.
The grandeur and luxury continues outside the walls of the fortress proper, at
the Generalife – nothing to do with senior army officers, but a luxurious
palace and gardens build outside the crowded Alhambra, on land where there was
plenty of room to be expansive and lay out a landscape on a large scale. The
gardens of the Generalife are supposed to mirror the descriptions of Paradise
in the Qu’ran. It’s thought that the name of the Generalife is derived from the
Arabic for ‘the garden of the Architect’ – the architect in question not being
the guy who built the place, but God himself. Probably the most wonderful of
the garden’s features is the so-called Water Staircase, the most original water
feature in any garden anywhere on earth. It is designed so that cool water from
ponds and cisterns higher up the hillside is released and allowed to trickle
down the marble banisters – wonderfully cooling in the middle of summer! One of
the many other sights worth having a look at in the Generalife area is the
outdoor amphitheatre, which is used for staging events all year around.
Beware of the heat. It might be part of Europe, but in terms of
climate Granada is rather more like north Africa. Even when there is snow on
the high peaks of the Sierra it can be blisteringly hot in the city and in the
fortress. Cover up and take sunscreen. Most important, wear a wide-brimmed hat
and drink plenty of water.
The other difficulty you may encounter at the Alhambra is actually getting in.
Only a certain number of visitors are allowed on the site during any one day in
order to minimize overcrowding and the risk of damage through wear and tear to
this fantastic ancient monument. A great time of year to visit is during
off-season, in the winter. You’ll never have the place entirely to yourself,
but it can be much quiet than it becomes during the peak tourist months.
Certain time restrictions apply to all tickets all year round, so it’s a good
idea to check when you’ll be there and book well in advance. You can solve a
lot of problems – and eliminate ‘what shall we see next’ decisions – by taking
one of the professional guided tours. These are available in English and start
at 10am every day. If you book a private tour with one of the official guides
you can pretty much determine your own itinerary.
Precious little eating and drinking, and no shopping: the
Alhambra is scarcely a vacation destination by itself. But visit it once and
you’ll never forget it.