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The Alhambra.

Granada, Spain

This article isn’t about a city, an island or a region. It’s about a single building: the Alhambra.

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.

Alhambra 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.

Alhambra 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.

Garden 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.

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