“ The Alhambra (الحمراء) is a palace and fortress complex of the Moorish monarchs of Granada, in southern Spain (known as Al-Andalus when the fortress was constructed), occupying a hilly terrace on the south-eastern border of the city of Granada. It was the residence of the Muslim kings of Granada and their court, but is currently a museum exhibiting exquisite Islamic architecture. The Moorish portion of the Alhambra resembles many medieval Christian strongholds in its threefold arrangement as a castle, a palace and a residential annexe for subordinates. The alcazaba or citadel, its oldest part, is built on the isolated and precipitous foreland which terminates the plateau on the north-west. That is all massive outer walls, towers and ramparts are left. On its watch-tower, the Torre de la Vela, 25 m (85 ft high), the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella was first raised, in token of the Spanish conquest of Granada, on January 2, 1492. A turret containing a huge bell was added in the 18th century, and restored after being damaged by lightning in 1881. Beyond the Alcazaba is the palace of the Moorish kings, or Alhambra properly so-called; and beyond this, again, is the Alhambra Alta (Upper Alhambra), originally tenanted by officials and courtiers. „
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The Alhambra - Granada - Spain
Situated above the modern lower town of Granada, the Alhambra and the Albaycín, sitting on two adjacent hills, form the medieval part of Granada. To the east of the Alhambra fortress and residence are the magnificent gardens of the Generalife, which bloom and blossom over the city in glorious colours and pastels. The gardens where home to the Emirs who ruled that part of Spain in the 13th and 14th centuries. The residential district of the Albaycín is steeped in history and Moorish architecture which blends in nicely with the more modern Andalucian buildings.
Having booked a holiday to Nerja in Spain, we decided that we would spend a day in Granada. We booked our tickets in advance online, months before. I highly recommend anyone visiting Alhambra to do this.
A Day Out
'I can feel it in my fingers, feel it in my toes'. Wet Wet Wet's cover of that famous song usually does dampen my spirits but on the day I visited the slightly more famous Alhambra in Granada it was the torrential rain that dampened my enthusiasm slightly.
I would like to give an account of Alhambra by way of the kind of day we had and an overview in general. I will leave most of the historical facts for you to look up yourself and read about if you visit as that is surely part of the fun on seeing a place for the first time, so I won't spoil it here by writing a non-fiction 'Facts about Alhambra' piece.
Having already booked our tickets online we smugly stood under the entrance to the gift shop to watch the 'It'll be alright on the day' crowd queuing miserably for their tickets. I say smugly but the ten euros for the two below par umbrellas quashed any sense of victory, as did the sheer volume of the crowd, which was made up mainly of tourist groups, which I have to say are the bane of any tourist attraction. Why you would want to follow some guide around as they blurt out their over-tired spiel is beyond me. Do it yourself and find out the facts and history on your own; it is all their in writing all over the place and surely you did some research or you wouldn't be here; would you?
Having stayed in Nerja for the last ten days in thirty-four degree heat I was cursing Sod for his intervention. A woman that had been living in Nerja and the surrounding towns and cities in Andalucía for over forty years told us that it was the worst rainfall she had ever seen. The fact that most of the day would be spent walking around outdoors in gardens full of over-hanging branches and bushes wasn't doing much for my confidence in the hope that the day would brighten up.
I would recommend that anyone who is thinking of visiting Alhambra to book their tickets online through the official website. Alhambra only allows six thousand visitors a day and they soon go.
I won't put our walk down in the exact order that we did it in or I'll have to take a few hours out to trace our paths as due to the rain we were here, there and everywhere.
Generallife: The Gardens East of Alhambra
On making our way through the entrance, which we found after a confusing melee through the slightly miffed and soaked foreigners from various parts of the world, we were greeted with huge open spaces that led onto the first of Alhambra's gardens. There are two routes you can take and we had already found out through research that it was best to visit the Gardens first before moving onto some of the buildings and more famous sites of Alhambra. I will say that on a sunny day that this is probably a good idea as you wouldn't want to leave it until last and then spend your last tired moments after walking all day in thirty-five degree heat in open garden spaces. However, it was not a beautifully sunny day, as I have mentioned once or twice. So to be honest, even though the gardens are a lovely site and well maintained, they are not so fantastic when you have to dodge idiots with badly constructed umbrellas for fear of having your eye gouged out.
There is a good selection of blooms and foliage and with some of them strewn around the edges of the brick work there are plenty of great photo opportunities for the budding photographer. You can get some great shots of exotic flowers with the town of Granada as a back drop and (more so in the sun) it looks really pretty.
By now we just wanted to get to a building where we could at least find a cup of tea and dry out a little. If you do visit Alhambra I would suggest that you wear a good pair of solid shoes that you feel comfortable walking in as a lot of walking will be done over the day. I saw one woman in high heels; the mind boggles.
King Carlos V Palace
The King Carlos V Palace is home to some really interesting museums and was for us a welcome 'get out of rain free card' that we used with much zeal. The Alhambra Museum displays a wonderful collection of furniture, ceramics, coins, paintings and folklore from the Nasrid period. The Fine Art Museum upstairs contains some excellent art work and being an artist myself, this interested me greatly. The building seems somehow out of place to me though, even though it shouldn't be. It seems more solid and angry somehow than the intricate architecture of the surrounding buildings.
The amphitheatre is also quite stunning and is eerie as you stand inside its empty open roof circle. Many festivals and open air music concerts are held there throughout the year. I should imagine there are some great acoustics that echo around those pillars and walls.
Palacios Nazaríes -The Nasrid Palaces
The Nasrid Palaces are the highlight of Alhambra, even on a damp day and for the main entrance to these you will have to book a time when you book your original ticket. If you don't do this you have no chance of seeing them even with your entrance ticket. If you buy your entrance ticket on the day then you will more miss out on this as there will be no times left as all the online bookers will have filled the quota, which, as I mentioned earlier, is six thousand. It was unfortunate that we got a pretty late time, which meant that we could not really take it in like we should because of having to get a taxi back to the bus station for the our bus back to Nerja, which was the last one of the night. After getting soaked all day long the last thing we needed was to fork out another hundred or so Euros on a hotel in Granada for the night. You could quite easily spend a few hours in the Nasrid Palaces as there is a lot to take in. As with the other parts of Alhambra I will not go into too much detail history wise as I think that would spoil a potential visitor's enjoyment of finding out the facts for themselves.
These Royal Palaces were divided into three distinct parts: the Mexuar, the Serallo and the Harem. Each of these palaces contained numerous rooms which were used for many different purposes and they were designed around the courtyard, which stands in the centre. While it is true that they could be described as looking the same it has to be said that they all hold a distinct uniqueness to them. This may be due the fact that each room was designed by a separate builder. I may be wrong but I doubt the same man or crew built all of them.
The Water Palace and The Court of Lions
More water and why not; we couldn't possibly be any wetter. We strode or rather waded into the 'Court of Lions' in the water palace. The architecture here is something to behold and although mostly white in colour there are some tiles which are yellow with a hint of blue in the intricate carvings on some of the walls. There are hundreds of columns here holding up the long court. The lion fountain is also intricately carved and you get to appreciate how brilliant these stone carvers were at their work. There are twelve lions in all and the fountain is in working order. The dome ceilings at either end of the court are amazing pieces of work. As with the walls, the paving in the main square contains some colour in the tiles in the form of blue and yellow.
Hall of the Abencerrajes
The ceiling in the main hall of the hall of the Abencerrajes reminded me a little of honeycomb. It is yellow in colour and much of it has gone an off-beaten black, giving the impression that giant worker bees have been busily striding over its surface. The walls look as if the designer intricately chiselled out his pattern and then decided to cover the whole thing in gold leaf. It is a very impressive sight and again many people were taking photographs; some annoyingly using flash on their cameras without a care in the world, after being told not to by security on numerous occasions.
The Hall of Kings
Making our way through the complex passages of ages gone by we came to the Hall of Kings. The ceilings are amazing and I stood in marvel at the craftsmanship. The ceilings are adorned with depictions of Nasrid Princes and Kings and you can get some great sepia and black and white shots of this amazing architecture. I don't want to say too much about it as again it is best to see it for yourself.
The Palacio Arabe or Casa Real is a Moorish Palace, hence the name that leads off a corridor from the Court of Myrtles also known as the court of the pond or the court of blessing. The people who dwelled there at the time of occupancy were said to revere its halls and the echoes were said to bare the battle cries of fallen kings and armies. Galleries pass down either side of the open corridor and there are goldfish swimming about in the large pond which is set deeply into the marble floor. It is another place with good photographic opportunities. There are myrtles growing along the galleries and you can smell the sweet aroma from the white flowers that sprout from this evergreen shrub.
There are so many passages and alcoves that you could easily get lost if it wasn't for the cloying and irritating tour mobs. I would love to visit Alhambra on a quiet day and take it all in properly. However, I don't think there is such a thing as a quiet day at Alhambra.
There is a chance to seek at least a little solace in the Nasrid gardens behind the main palace. There are some nice flowers and shrubs on display and you get a chance to look at the intricate water system in action as it runs to and fro along the stone drainage and watering funnels, which feed the foliage and keep the ponds and fountains running.
The Santa María Church
This early 17th-century church was built on top of a mosque in the Alhambra complex. It's worth a visit to see some of the beautiful sculptures and artwork, most notably Alonso Mena's sculptures of Santa Úrsula, Santa Susana and el Cristo en la Cruz (Christ on the Cross), and the altarpiece, which is strongly influenced by Alonso Cano's work. You really do feel a sense of history in this place and although I am an atheist and not religious in the slightest, I always love the calm and quiet of a church. To my utter delight the crowds did not come into the church while we were in there. Maybe they were out searching for doughnuts and a Mickey D's or something much more important than all this ancient history.
This military fortress was built on the oldest site of the Alhambra and served a purely military purpose as it was situated on the highest part of the hill, watching over the surrounding area and gave the soldiers on its guard ample opportunity to see attacks long before they were close enough to pose a serious threat. Again this can take up a huge chunk of time, so you may want to carry a bottle of water with you, especially if you go right to the top of the fortress. The fortress used to contain over twenty towers but most of them have crumbled away to nothing or where destroyed, which is a shame as it is a formidable sight as well as an iconic one. The views of Granada from up top are fantastic and one of the highlights of the trip for me and it was worth the admission for that without even seeing the ancient palaces and gardens.
Catering, eating and hospitality at Alhambra
I found the restaurants and cafes I visited at Alhambra very poor indeed and the hospitality left a lot to be desired. Did I say it left a lot to be desired? I meant it was none existent. We decided to have an early dinner at around four-thirty to five o clock as our tickets for the palaces were not until around six-fifteen. We made our way to the restaurant that we had seen earlier in our walk that looked like a country pub only to be told that they had stopped serving food for the day? Terrific!
So it was back up with the umbrellas and a thankfully short trek to the more modern looking restaurant that looked like a community centre. Having looked at the restaurant prices and nearly choking we opted for the café in front of the restaurant area that looked alright and seeing as people were eating it mustn't be too bad. A cup of hot tea and a small warm meal out of the rain would do me and so we sat down. My experience of Spanish food had so far not been a good one and most of the food had been some of the blandest fodder that I had ever tasted; sadly the Alhambra did nothing to change that in the slightest and in fact only added to my disappointment.
I opted for a cup of tea, a soup of the day and some croquettes as there wasn't really much else on offer. I don't whether my Neanderthal attempt to order the food in Spanish went down well or not with the waitress but when she returned my food was delivered with all the grace of a Tibetan Yak wearing roller skates. Had my plate been put down any harder I'm sure it would've split straight down the middle. Along with this impromptu performance came the sigh of contempt from someone who obviously wanted to get home to put their feet up and be as far away as possible from these silly foreigners.
The tea was as weak as weak can be and my Grandfather came to mind; 'It's warm and it's wet' I heard him say. Wet and lukewarm it was but at this stage of the day I was done with the wet part. The soup looked and tasted like left over slop from someone's laundry and the croquettes were singularly the blandest food I have ever tasted; or not as the case may be as they tasted of absolutely nothing. I left the tea, I left the soup and I managed to force down a few croquettes just to get something in my stomach. The croquettes strangely came with half a plate of salted crisps, which were also really naff. My girlfriend didn't eat anything either and it all came to about forty pounds; yay for us. Not a good experience to say the least.
The staff were rude and walked about with grimaces on their faces and didn't give a damn who saw them. Very unprofessional indeed.
There were some quaint little shops dotted around the streets of Alhambra but I can assure you that unless you have money to burn then you are not going to find them interesting in the least. Most of course are the tourist souvenir shops that you would expect to find there and not worth bothering with.
The general bookshop near the entrance of Alhambra when you first enter is also very expensive. There are some nice books and souvenirs but not really worth it in most cases. I will speak volumes for the over-hanging roof, which came in handy while we were waiting to get in before we purchased the umbrellas from a woman who would make Elisabeth Bathory quake in her boots. As I handed over ten euros for the two umbrellas I almost expected her to cry 'Beware, the children of the night!'. In all honesty though, the two umbrellas were our saving grace.
Our overall experience of Alhambra was a good one in that it was a nice place to see but it was somewhat spoiled by the torrential rain. I daresay it would've been nicer on a sunny day but saying that I would not like to walk around it in late thirty to forty degree heat as that would be unbearable.
I would recommend seeing it for the history of it and the views of Granada but I wouldn't put it on the list of places to see before you die. I think that is stretching it a little to be honest and in no way is it the eighth wonder of the world in my opinion. It's a good day out and I'll leave it at that.
I had read that the Alhambra was one of the top 100 places recommended to visit 'before you die' and also heard comment that this historical site should be made the 8th Wonder of the World. On a recent trip to the Andalucía region of Southern Spain I was therefore keen to include a few nights in the beautiful city of Granada to enable us to visit this landmark, which since 1984 has been a UNESCO World Heritage site. Having now visited I have to agree that it is a truly outstanding place to visit, due to the sheer beauty of the site, the historical interest and the architectural wonder of how and why parts of it were actually created.
The Alhambra is a castle / palace complex which sits at the top of a hill beside the river Darro in Granada. It is roughly divided into two main areas, the Generalife which is predominantly gardens which overlooks the main building area that consists primarily of the Alcazaba, Nastrid Palaces and Carlos Vs palace.
The name Alhambra means red or crimson castle. This seems a pretty good description as the oldest part, Alcazaba or the 'Red Fort' as it is also known is made from stone with a definite red hue to it. It is this part of the complex which is most visible from Albycin, the Moorish old town part of Granada. The Red Fort is the oldest part of the Alhambra and originally dates back to 900AD although it has been modified over the years. The buildings that can now be seen were constructed from 1237 when Muhammad 1 of Ahmar founded the Nastrid dynasty. Its purpose was as a military barracks and it takes the typical form of a castle with large rectangular turrets and ramparts, some of which you can walk around. Much of the internal area of the castle is no longer complete with just the foundations visible, but this clearly shows the cramped living quarters of the barracks.
I found this to be the most tiring area of the whole Alhambra to visit. It consists virtually entirely of stonework and there is barely any shade or greenery. You are outside in the full sun throughout this area, whereas most other parts of the complex include internal areas or shady gardens. For this reason I passed through quite quickly and declined the opportunity to climb to the top of the highest Watch tower and chose instead to take a rest and drink break in a shady garden area just outside. My husband took the climbing challenge however, and I now regret backing out of this as he appeared at the top very quickly and told me that, unlike Warwick Castle in England you are winding around perilous staircases for ever making your way to the top, it was a straight easy staircase to the top. He took panoramic photos so that I could see the amazing views over Granada and the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains. No matter how hot and tired you feel I would recommend making that climb as it really looked well worth the effort - sadly I had reached a point where I wasn't allowed to turn back and find out for myself.
For me the Nastrid Palaces are the part of the Alhambra that makes it stand out from anywhere else that I have ever visited. They consist of three palaces that were built between 1314 and 1391 by the Muslim Nasrid rulers, who continued to rule from here until 1492 when the Alhambra was surrendered to the Catholics. Christian monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand then moved in and used it as a Royal Residence. They are located next to the oldest Red Fort area and are partially hidden away beside the domineering Palacio de Carlos V. You will need a timed entry ticket for these palaces otherwise you will not be permitted entry. This was a little annoying as it prevented us from wandering around other areas at a leisurely pace as we were worried about finding the palace within the vast complex, so whizzed by areas along the route to reach it. However, I totally see why this is necessary as if there were huge crowds of people inside at one time it would be harder to appreciate the immense beauty of the construction and even harder than it already was to take photographs that are not spoiled by hoards of strangers walking across them. Once in however you may take as long as you like to freely stroll around and ooh and aah and gasp at each turn you take. We chose our timed slot one hour after our main entry time; I think 1.5 hours would have been better as we would have had more time to orientate ourselves and enjoy the route. At a brisk walk it takes a good twenty to thirty minutes to reach the palaces form the main entrance as it is at the furthest side of the complex.
The palaces consist of a series of large high roofed rooms with courtyards between. The rooms are empty with no furnishings, but there is still more than enough to look at; walls and archways have the most intricate carved mouldings that I have ever seen totally covering them as well as multiple mosaics and columns. Ceilings are wooden and again ornately carved and often domed with marble floors. The level of craftsmanship is so skilled and really needs to be seen to be believed. The courtyards are breathtaking in their simplicity and elegance, particularly the Patio de Arrayares or Court of Myrtles where in the foreground you survey neat box hedging lining either side of a large rectangular pool with the imposing castellated Comares tower in the background and the red tiled roof and intricately carved arches of a cloister type corridor just in front. This is an image that is widely used when depicting the Alhambra and indeed it is adorning my screen saver as it is just so atmospheric and sums up the magnificence of these buildings. The smaller Patio de Arrayeres is so pretty with its central fountain and small box hedging symmetrical features. The largest courtyard, Patio de Leones, was sadly having restoration work carried out so there was quite a bit of scaffolding and the famous fountain where water comes from 8 lions head was partially covered. It was still obvious how elaborate the decoration was in this area.
**Palacio de Carlos V**
A huge square stone building opposite the Red Fort and next to the Nasrid Palaces is the palace built by Charles V after he visited there in 1526. This is the time of the Spanish renaissance and is considered to be one of the most important architectural works of that time. We were sorely tempted to not look inside; after having already spent quite some time in the Nastrid Palaces and the Red Fort we were starting to feel a little jaded and felt ready to slow our pace down and enjoy the gardens. However, we felt that we should at least poke our head through the door and make sure that we were not missing anything spectacular. We were shocked; the square stone palace was not home to another series of rooms and courtyards. Unbelievably a colossal circular structure with an open roof takes up the entire internal space, just like a Roman coliseum. We couldn't help wondering why it was disguised behind the square walls as it would have looked stunning without these. It didn't take long to quickly walk around this, so it is worth stepping inside those walls, although it has nothing to hold your interest in the way that the Nastrid Palaces did. A museum is housed in the outer area but we were too tired to entertain perusing this and it costs an additional 3 Euros each to go in. It would have been interesting to see some of the artefacts from the Alhambra though and is something that is probably good to do on a second visit.
There are numerous other buildings within this main area including a church, a convent, the baths of the mosque and many houses, as the Alhambra did once house many residents. As you walk around the walls there are also some areas undergoing archaeological investigation.
Although there are gardens as you walk to the palaces from the main entrance, the Generalife which means, 'Architect's garden' is where the main formal gardens are situated and from here there are glorious views across the valley to the palaces. Many of the views have vibrant flowers in the foreground, making a complete abundance of photo opportunities. The Generalife is a distinct area and a separate path needs to be taken to this shortly after leaving the main entrance. It was formed to be a recreation area for the Kings of Granada so that they could escape official routine. It is important to follow the one way route around this area as there are turnstiles that you will need to pass through. We made the mistake of not following this and had to retrace our path , only to walk down it again later on our way out; as much as it was beautiful to walk around we were almost dead on our feet by this point as the gardens were the last part of the Alhambra that we chose to visit, so it is good to be aware of this.
The gardens are formal and arranged as though they are individual rooms and there is a good contrast between types of planting. I loved an area that had tall purple spiky flowers which looked so beautiful against the green background. Walkways have a mass of different colour blooms of every type and colour. There is also a large open area where they had a stage and seating. It was the Corpus Cristi festival while we were there so I'm not sure if the staging was related to this or if it is there all of the time. The water garden was very interesting with its fountains at points along a long thin water channel and rows of scented roses lining it. It was full of lily pads, slithering among which were quite a few snakes, which held our attention for a good long time. After spending time in other barren parts of Andalucía it was refreshing to see the amount of water used in the Alhambra which is distributed from the Royal Water channel via a water staircase. The presence of fountains and water features really helped to keep us cool and everywhere looked very green and is definitely well tended. The one way route leads you to the Casa de Amigos which was a guest house. We didn't go inside as we wanted to sit quietly and enjoy the restfulness of the gardens. Water features heavily again in the courtyard of the guest house and pomegranate trees in full bloom with their bright red flowers were a highlight for me, on our visit in June.
The pathway that leads back from here towards the exit is a covered walkway of oleander trees. They were only just beginning to come into bloom, but having seen other oleanders with their bright pink flowers and scent this should be spectacular later in the summer. This shady walkway was very welcome and led onto a wooded area to cool you as you head for home. I would have loved to have spent more time in the Generalife as it is so tranquil and with many shady spots to sit I could happily have whiled away a few more hours had I been on my own.
**A few practicalities for a trip to the Alhambra**
Booking tickets: The Alhambra is open for two or three sessions per day from 8.30am until 2pm and 2pmto 8pm and sometimes it will be lit for an evening visit. We chose an afternoon visit as 8.00 seemed very early and we wanted to make good use of our hotel breakfast too. More tickets are available for the morning than the afternoon however. Full tickets including the palaces were sold out when we arrived but garden only ones were available. Fortunately we were aware that pre booking is strongly recommended, so we were not disappointed. If you haven't been able to book ahead then I would still recommend a garden only ticket as you can easily spend a few hours here alone. I had heard reports of long queues for tickets but I saw no sign of these and perhaps it is only in the mornings that this happens.
I was quite bewildered when I looked on line for tickets as there seem to be so many sites and package options. We have the Lonely Planet, Discovering Spain book and this recommends using www.servicaixa.com which offers online booking in English. This turned out to be part of Ticket Master so I felt reassured that I was using a reputable booking site. Booking was straightforward using a credit card and I was able to print out conformation. This confirmation does not however give you entry.
Instructions on the print out advise that you should take the credit card that you booked with to a ServiCaixa terminal and gives a link to find locations. I found an appropriate cashpoint machine earlier in my holiday but although it had an option for printing event tickets it did not find mine. As soon as we reached Granada I therefore went to the Alhambra and found a row of machines outside their entrance and my tickets printed as soon as I inserted my card, and very pretty ones they are too. Job done or so I thought! Look carefully at your tickets when they are printed - they should all have a barcode on as this will be swiped at numerous times throughout your visit to ensure you only visit each area once.
Our child's ticket had no barcode and we were refused entry and had to go to a separate queue to have our daughters age verified. Looking back at the web site now I see that it does state that proof of age is required for children and pensioners, but I had to make a stressful trip back to the hotel to get my daughters passport before a ticket with a bar code was printed for her. So be warned - take a passport if you are taking a child as you will need to prove their age. I would also recommend doing this prior to your entry time when the ticket booths are quieter.
Ticket prices: We paid 14.3 Euros for our adult tickets and 9.3 for a 12 - 15 year old, for tickets to all areas of the Alhambra. I believe younger children were free. There are however numerous sites offering tickets with guided tours. A time will need to be chosen for entry to the Nastrid Palaces and tickets must be collected at least one hour before this time. Compared to National Trust properties in England these tickets seemed superb value for money.
Information: Audio guides are available for hire at the main entrance. We toyed with whether to get one but as there was quite a long queue we decided against. They cost 6 euros each and 4 euros for just the Nasrid palaces. If you change your mind you can also pick one up outside the palaces too. I'm glad now that we didn't get one as I think we would have dwelled too long in each area listening to copious amounts of information and would have probably seen far less overall before exhaustion set in. I had read quite a bit before we visited so had some background information which seemed sufficient. Guidebooks are plentifully available.
You will be given a map before entering which shows marked routes around the site, but as we headed straight for our timed ticket for the Nasrid Palace we found we missed out on some parts and back tracked later, but in doing this we missed some areas altogether due to turn stile systems and bar codes only letting you in once. We were a little lost initially as didn't realise that the map showed some garden areas outside the walls, so originally took a wrong turn. The different areas are sign posted though and once we got to grips with the map it was fine. A potted history is also provided on this as well as tips for planning your visit.
Toilets are clearly marked on the map in four locations, included ones for disabled visitors. These were clean and there were plenty of cubicles. There are also several cafes and gift shops. We didn't use the cafes as we'd made the most of that plentiful hotel breakfast, but ice creams and lots of water kept us going in the heat. There are lots of drinking water fountains, but we were a bit dubious about using these so stuck to bottled water.
Access: We saw several visitors in wheelchairs and many of the paths are accessible but it is an ancient property so there are also an awful lot of steps. We did notice that guides were opening doors to allow access for wheelchair users that the general public could not use, so they obviously make efforts to maximise the areas that can be seen. I would recommend visiting even if you have mobility difficulties as there is so much to see even form the main paths, but be aware of long distances that need to be covered.
**Finding the Alhambra**
It's a huge building dominating the skyline of Granada - I thought we'd see it for miles off. Not so - we drove around Granada for 1.5 hours without any trace of it - no sign post and certainly no commanding buildings. Our sat nav is a bit out of date and kept trying to send us down bus and taxi only roads or tiny cobbled streets which we could barely turn the corner in. We made it eventually, by luck alone. The road leading uphill to the Alhambra is actually at the most Western part of Granada and the road up to it is just before you leave town and start driving up into the Sierra Nevada mountains. There is plenty of parking at 14 Euros per day.
The walk between the Alhambra and central Granada is steep to put it mildly but very pleasant. From the Plaza Nueva which is bustling with tapas bars follow the pink signs and take the narrow pedestrian only street, Cuesta de Gomerez, with its gift shops on either side and follow this up through the large stone gateway. After this take the left uphill fork of the windy road - this is the steepest part but is shaded by trees and streams of water trickle down either side to cool you and the oldest of stone benches can be used for a rest. Part way up you will come to one of the gates into the Alhambra, but not the main entrance and there is an impressive fountain here to cool off in. The final part of the route is following the walls and gardens of the Alhambra until you come to the ticket office on your left. It takes about 20 minutes, but is a really pretty walk. The number 30 bus and hundreds of taxis will all be waiting eagerly to take you up if you think this is too much for you.
Did you know more photos are taken inside the walls of the Alhambra than in any other monument on earth?*
*Entirely fabricated factoid.
This isn't necessarily true, but it certainly feels like it. From afar, Granada's - and arguably Spain's - most treasured and esteemed jewel begs to be captured on film; inside, it's innumerable times as beguiling. Built by the Moors in the 13th century and retaken by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, the complex is a stunning, striking mass of grand, imposing architecture and fine Islamic detail, forming an entrancing whole.
Viewed from a distance, the Alhambra's most prominent structure is the Alcazaba, a castle complex of imposing angular towers. The reddish walls, intensified by the dying sun and standing aloft in contrast with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada to the south, give evidence to the site's name; Alhambra being "The Amber One" or "Red Fortress". Inside the complex, a variety of structures from different periods and religious backgrounds co-exist in a pleasing, intoxicating medley of architectural ingenuity and aesthetic delight, while just outside, the gardens of the Generalife rise up away from the city walls.
~*"~ Entry times & Tickets ~*"~
Tickets for a six-hour visit cost Euro13 if booked in advance - something which is not mandatory, although the strength of the recommendation to do so is inversely proportional to the amount one enjoys standing in long queues before seven in the morning. Around 6,000 tickets are available per day, with 2,000 of these kept back for sale at the ticket office in the morning - you'll save a Euro if you buy on the day, but purchasing in advance gives you the chance to choose the half-hour slot in which you enter the Palacio de Nazaries, the Alhambra's greatest (and accordingly, most popular) treasure. You can reserve tickets through La Caixa bank (www.servicaixa.com), where you'll also choose a morning (8:30-14:00) or afternoon (14:00-20:00) visit.
Collecting tickets at the Alhambra is easy. Climb the lengthy slope from Plaza Nueva in the town, through the impressive Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of Pomegranates) to the ticket office, pass the gift shop and insert the card you paid with into one of the machines to print off your tickets. If you arrive forty-five minutes or so before you're due to enter, you'll avoid being delayed by queues. There are plenty of cafes and amenities up here.
~*"~ The Generalife ~*"~
Overlooked by the Palacio de Generalife, these gardens (literally, "the Architect's Gardens") are spread out over several tiers, with the most modern restorations at the lower reaches. There are two entrances to the Alhambra complex; take the one by the ticket office and you'll enter into these gardens, with the walled citadel across a bridge to your left. The lowest level of the Generalife unfolds like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, all ruler-straight hedges reaching above your head and cut-out doorways framing your destination and the city below.
Above this initial and most sizeable area, the Palacio de Generalife contains older reflections of the site's past (check what time you need to be at the Palacio de Nazaries before entering, as you can only do some once per visit - leave half an hour or so at least). Pass through the Patio de la Acequia, with its central water channel and myriad fountains and swing around to the right to enter the Jardin de la Sultana, where beneath the 700 year-old cypress tree (now on its last roots), the Sultan's favourite concubine Zoraya was reputed to flirt none too subtly with the head of a prominent family. More of the consequences of this later ...
Keep heading upwards, and take the Escalera de Agua (Water Stairs) to the top where a series of carved busts survey Granada from a shaded terrace. Cool water runs gurgling down the banisters and pools on the landings as you climb - from here, descend a couple of tiers and take the long, leafy walkway back around to the entrance. Depending on your allotted time and preferences, the Generalife can make an ideal start or culmination to an Alhambra visit.
~*"~ The Alhambra ~*"~
Once you've left the Generalife gardens, head through the Medina towards the centre of the Alhambra complex, making sure you look back for some astounding views of the Sierra Nevada's snowy peaks (which keep their white covering right through into May). Pass through a gateway into a courtyard with a couple of hotels and an old set of baths. Continuing on, what might be considered the central plaza is ahead. On one side, the Renaissance Palacio de Carlos V looks rather out of place with its ornate carvings and flowing, heavily-worked curves. Against the strong, angular lines of the rest of the site, it almost looks slightly gaudy. Inside a couple of museums and circular courtyard are worth a look.
To the north of this clearing, the entrance to the Palacios de Nazaries (Nazrid Palaces) will be marked by a substantial queue every half-hour. You must enter at the time marked on your ticket, although once you're in, you can marvel at its many wonders as long as you wish. Although it appears a little over-officious, this system seems to work pretty well - the Palace is utterly beautiful inside, but fairly confined space-wise, so the staggering of visitors helps control the flow somewhat. The earlier you book, the more choice you'll have as to when you enter. Each room seems to hold a new "wow" factor, and impresses on both the large scale, with some wondrous architecture and the small; the carvings, inscriptions and decorations are quite staggering in their skill and complexity. Beautiful carved wooden ceilings, marble pillars, intricately-worked archways and multicoloured tiling exhibit what is said to be the finest collection of Islamic structures on the continent. Sadly, the much-loved centrepiece, the Patio de los Leones (Lion Courtyard) was being restored as of April 2010, although even without the fountain at its centre, the majesty of the space is self-evident.
To the southern side of this patio, a smaller room is significant for the dark stains across the floor that are said to be the blood of the family whose patriarch was found to be engaging the affections of the aforementioned Zoraya, most lovely of the Sultan's harem.
As you leave the complex, you emerge into the Jardines del Partal (Partal Gardens), a series of terraced gardens whose Palacio is the oldest surviving structure within the walls. The final major complex of note in this area is the Alcazaba - the towers offer some dazzling panoramic views of Granada, although little else remains within the buildings. Pass through the remains of the prisons and ascend the Torre de la Vela for superlative vistas across the city and region.
~*"~ Beauty and Balance ~*"~
I could throw a thousand adjectives at the Alhambra without managing to convey quite how stunning and striking the site is (and probably have done above), but it is perhaps best expressed as having both astounding beauty and perfect balance. Throughout the complex, inimitable examples demonstrate the first, but it also all manages to come together as a captivating whole. Overlooking the attractive city of Granada, surrounded by woodland, backed by mountains and scented with rich blossom, the Alhambra is more than the sum of its parts. In a region - Andalucía - lit up by countless wonderful examples of the area's turbulent, multi-layered past, this has to be the ultimate exposition of the Moorish influence on Southern Spain. Take your camera charger. In fact, take five cameras, and you might just be able to capture a whisper of the place's charm.
I first visited the Alhambra well over 20 years ago - out of season, and before it became the well organised tourist destination it is today. I found it so moving and beautiful that I was determined to return, and last year I had the opportunity to take my whole family.
The Alhambra stands on a hill, high above the city of Granada. Lit up at night, or reflecting the harsh sun of a Spanish summer, it dominates the whole town and is Spain's most popular tourist attraction. It is composed of four distinct areas; the original red fort of the Alcazaba, the palaces of the Casa Real, Carlos V's palace and the summer palace and gardens of the Generalife.
Once the residence of the Muslim rulers of Granada and their court, it is a huge, rambling mix of beautiful Islamic architecture, fantastically designed formal gardens, and a huge fortress. Designed by the Moorish rulers in the 14th century, it has often been suggested that the Alhambra should be added to the 7 wonders of the modern world, along with the Taj Mahl and the Coliseum. Its huge walls hide the most fantastic architectural treasures and must count as one of the most magical places to visit in Europe.
Originally designed as a military area, the Alhambra became the residence of royalty and the court of Granada in the middle of the thirteenth century. The Moors first built and used the Al Qal'a al-Hamra (the Red Fort) around 900. Within a generation, they had lost two-thirds of their land in Spain, but Mohammed I ibn Nasr agreed to assist the Christians in attacking Muslim Seville and by paying an annual tribute. The dynasty he founded, the Nasrids, would rule Granada for a further 250 years; with the Alhambra as a symbol of the last outpost of Muslim power in Europe.
Ibn Nasr, laid the foundations of the Alhambra in 1238, incorporating the old red fort into his design, rebuilding parts and encircling the defences with a huge, impenetrable outside wall and high towers which were placed at the top of the steepest drops. The Nazrids extended ibn Nasr's buildings over the centuries, expanding the palace complex into a self-enclosed town with a population of 40,000. Most of the Moors' most astounding work took place in the 14th Century, when the greatest palaces and the Generalife gardens were built.
In 1492 the Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella attacked and took the city from the last Nazrad sultan and lived in the palace for a short while. When it passed into the hands of their grandson, Carlos V, he added a palace to the site with the idea of turning Granada into his seat of power, although war with France intervened before the idea was completed.
In 1812, Napoleon's troops captured the city, looted the Alhambra and used it for military training, before trying to blow up the whole complex when they left. According to legend a wounded soldier was left behind, and removed the fuses to stop the destruction. Washington Irving, the American writer and traveller, rediscovered the Alhambra and made it famous with the publication of his book, Tales of the Alhambra, in 1832. The neglected buildings were quickly declared a National Monument by the Spanish soon afterwards.
Tickets to the Alhambra are limited to 5,100 per day, with timed entry (3000 tickets for 8.30 entry and 2,100 for 2pm entry). It is possible to book online or by phone up to 3 months in advance. Although I knew all of these facts before my visit, I somehow failed to book in advance - only realising the enormity of my mistake once we had arrived at our hotel ! Having travelled there specifically to see the Spanish treasure that I had been raving about for decades, I was determined to get inside, at any cost.
On the advice of our friendly hotel owner, we joined the queue at 6.30am, walking up the steep hill to the ticket office and entrance. There were already had several hundred people in front of us. By 8.00am it had metamorphosed into an enormous snake of people that looped round and round the ticket office and officials were starting to tell people that they would not gain entrance that day. Even though I knew that this was peak summer tourism, I was still astounded.
At 8.30 sharp the queue started to move, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we got our tickets and stepped through the gates.
The Generalife is without any doubt the most beautiful and peaceful part of the Alhambra, and for this reason I recommend starting a visit with these gardens. While most people will shoot off to the more famous palaces, the gardens deserve to be seen in the early morning peace, without the crowds. At 8.45am we were able to stroll in total tranquillity around these very formal gardens, with only the sound of the tinkling water of fountains and running water disturbing our day. Here I was able to experience the serenity and almost mystical atmosphere as I strolled between high box cypress hedges and walked down ancient stone steps
'Generalife' is translated as 'garden of the architect'; it is a carefully designed series of gardens, patios and walkways. The sultans would retreat here to spend the hot summers amongst acacias and jasmine with their harem, and the 14th century historian Ibn Zamrak writes of celebrations at dusk, with horse racing in and out of the hedges at high speeds, fireworks and tightrope walkers - all to entertain the sultan. The gardens were started in the 13th century but have been modified over the years, and today you will find beautiful roses, manicured shrubbery and long pools filled with lilypads. As I strolled through the archways and walls of green cypress, I loved to imagine the ladies of the harem sitting beside the pools and fountains, watching the acrobats by torchlight and thrilled by the daring horsemen racing in and out of the cypress hedges.
Water defines the atmosphere in the Generalife. You approach the ancient buildings that surround the two enclosed gardens, by walking through the ornate gardens filled with pools and fountains. The most memorable of this is The escalera del agua, or "water staircase" - a stone staircase with water constantly running down a channel in the stone banister - genuinely Moorish in concept - and genuinely unique!
The pools and courtyards filled with moving water were loved by the desert people for the sound as much for the feeling of coolness. The built complex consists of the Patio de la Acequia (the Water-Garden Courtyard), which has a long pool framed by flowerbeds, fountains, colonnades and pavilions, and the Jardín de la Sultana (Sultana's Garden or Courtyard of the Cypress). Romantic legend says that the wife of the last Moorish rule of Granada, Boabdil, used this garden to secretly meet her doomed lover in the shade of this great cypress, which is now called the Ciprés de la Sultana. The tree is so old that it has to be held up with a metal brace.
These gardens have fantastic views across the hills through the ornate open windows, and you can stroll alongside the pools under cover of the colonnades, whilst looking at the many small fountains sparkling in the Spanish sunshine.
~~ The Palaces of the Casa Real~~
The most unique and fragile part of the Alhambra is the series of palaces called Casa Real Vieja, (old Royal House or Palace), which dates back to the 14th century and is the work of two great kings: Yusuf I and Muhammed V. This part of the Alhambra is the most famous, and therefore the busiest. There is no way to avoid the crowds in this area - tickets are timed, but once you have gained entrance, nobody will hustle you out. I recommend sitting in the courtyards to soak up the atmosphere. The crowds will come and go in waves, and once a crowd has dispersed, you will have the place to yourself for a couple of minutes to transport yourself back in time.
The Royal Complex consists of three main parts: Mexuar, Serallo, and the Harem. This series of royal rooms, whether their purpose was administrative, to receive royal guests or to house the harem - is truly awe inspiring. The series of courtyards are surrounded by canopies of great intricacy, with carved stalactites reaching up to the ceiling - the delicate plasterwork looks so vulnerable that you can't believe that it has survived this long. The most famous of the courtyard is the Chamber of Lions (Patio de los Leones). Renowned across the world, the Chamber of Lions must be the most breathtaking Moorish architecture that I have ever seen. I could look at the intricacy of the stonework forever, especially the small chambers to the side, with their domed roofs that have inlaid blues and greens inside the delicate lattice of pale stonework. The Court of the Lions has been compared to a grove of 124 palm trees, around the oasis of the central fountain with its twelve stone lions. The twelve-sided marble fountain rests upon the backs of the lions. Once again, water is a key element in this chamber, spilling from the basin onto the lions' backs and coming out of their mouths to trickle away in stone channels, to all four corners of the compass.
Alcazaba refers to Al-Qasbah, which means citadel - a solid fortress, and the oldest part of the Alhambra. Sultan Alhamar founded the Alcazaba during the mid 13th century, and the current complex was built by Mohammed I, who constructed the ramparts around the previous castle, defences and three new towers: The Broken Tower (Torre Quebrada), the Keep (Torre del Homenaje) and the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela).
The primary reason to visit the Alcazaba is to climb to the top of this tower and relish the spectacular views of the city of Granada and surrounding country side. By this stage the sun is beating down heavily, and the climb up the steps to the top is not easy - but once you are there the views are incredible, looking out over the entire city of Granada and into the courtyards hidden inside the houses, you can look further out across the hills of the Sierra Navada in wonder.
The fortress of Alcazaba is known for holding one of the largest towers, which is known as Torre de la Vela. The name Torre de la Vela derives from the great bell that is hung on the tower top, also known as the Sentinel. A symbol of Chrisianity, this bell could be heard for miles and was used to let the fieldhands know that it was time to stop their work.
~~Carlos V's Palace~~
After the wonders of the Patio de los Leones, this palace is almost a let down, and we nearly decided to give it a miss after a long, hot day of sightseeing. Construction of the palace began in 1527, The building is square, and sparsely decorated, in stark contrast to the opulent buildings surrounding it. Inside, the cool stonework is a welcome respite from the sun, and you can stand in the remarkable circular courtyard with its 30 meter diameter, or walk through the 32 stone Doric columns that surround it. In the Renaissance style, this ground floor courtyard has a second circular floor with a balcony that looks down onto the circular arena.
Architecturally, there is much to admire in this palace, but I found myself passing through fairly quickly, spoilt by the Moorish wonders that I had seen earlier that day.
We chose to walk up the steep path to the top of the hill, via the Cuesta del Rey Chico, which means the Little King's Slope, This street is popularly known as the Cuesta de los Chinos, or Pebble Slope, because of its paving.. Although this was lovely in the cool of the early morning, it is less pleasant in the heat of the day, and definitely not for the unfit or disabled. A more popular and historically interesting path, runs from Plaza Nueva into the Cuesta de Gomérez, but this is also very steep and not for the unfit. There are plenty of buses and taxis that will take you to the top - but I would still recommend the walk, either up or down, if you can manage it, as you pass some intriguing little shops and cafes and some lovely gardens.
There are plenty of restaurants, and shops selling food and drink inside the complex.
There are three types of tickets: Daytime visit, Garden visit and Evening or Night time visit.
It is always advisable to book your ticket in advance, using one of the online ticket sites.
~General ticket: 13.00E (includes all gardens and palaces)
~Concessions: Senior citizens (aged 65 years and over) 9,00E.
~Children up to 12 years of age and visitors with special needs: Free entry
~Ticket to visit the gardens: 6,00E.
The Alhambra Palace is a beautiful palace in Granada, Spain. It has much fascinating History, but I won't say much about it - there are many brilliant websites if you want to find out more- I will just give a brief overview of its history, and then move on to my own opinions and experiences.
The Alhambra palace is a Moorish palace which was completed in the 14th century. The building existed in the 9th century, but was modified in the 13th century by Muhammad III to be his personal residence. It is situated on a hill on the south eastern border of Granada. It looks over the whole city of Granada.
I visited the Alhambra Palace in Granada in the summer. We stayed in Granada for a couple of days, and having heard so much about the Alhambra Palace, we had booked to go about 3 months in advance. This brings me on to a slight disadvantage of it; If you want to go at a popular time, i.e. summer, you have to book it quite a bit in advance, as they only sell so many tickets, and they sell out fairly rapidly.
The Palace is beautiful, and the gardens even more so, however, I can't help but feel that it is slightly overrated. I guess it depends what kind of person you are, but I felt that towards the end I was getting a little bored of it. Also, if you go in summer, it is very hot and there are an awful lot of people there.
Another slight disadvantage, although it depends how organised you are, is that they are very picky about what time you can go into the palace. There are three time slots available, the morning, afternoon, and the evening session. Each session has an allotted time, and you have to enter at that time- this applies for both the palace and the gardens. Although admittedly this was our own bad planning, we got there about an hour before our time slot, thinking that we would be able to visit the gardens, before going into the palace itself. We were not allowed to do this, so we ended up hanging around for an hour in the midday heat. Not great fun. However, like I said, if you are organised and plan it well, you should have no problems with this.
It's quite a long walk (but very pretty) from the centre of Granada to the palace, and uphill. (It's all good exercise!) However, if this is not for you, there is a bus service that runs from the centre up to the palace which comes frequently and is very efficient.
If you're going to Granada, the Alhambra palace is definitely worth seeing, and I am very glad I went, but I wouldn't necessary go to Granada purely to see the Palace.
"Here we go again," I thought, as my wife and I joined the long queue waiting for the Alhambra ticket office to open at 8.30 in the morning.
It was not the waiting I was worried about. Having struggled out of bed in time to be there I was still half-asleep in any case, and to shuffle forward somnambulantly was little extra discomfort. It was more the realisation that I had only a month or so earlier written a review about the tendency of World Heritage Sites to attract so many visitors as to spoil the experience of visiting them. In the context of this theme, would I be able to find anything new to say about the Alhambra that I had not already said about the Taj Mahal?
The parallels did not stop at the crowds, either. Having lazily deleted some, but not all, of my Indian photographs from the memory chip of my digital camera before visiting Andalucia, I found it hard, when I downloaded on return, to distinguish the shots taken of Mughal palaces, gardens and mosques in India from those taken of their Moorish equivalents in southern Spain. There is a unity of concept in Islamic architecture, ornamentation and garden design that easily straddles the distance between Agra and Granada.
Even the name of the Alhambra derives from the Arabic for "red castle", echoing that of Agra's Red Fort, though the reddish undertones of the Alhambra's rock are very muted compared with the vermilion of Rajasthani sandstone.
There were differences too, however, and I came away having enjoyed the Alhambra rather more than the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal, despite the latter's sublime architectural beauty.
* History *
The site of the Alhambra has probably been fortified for as long as there have been humans around to fight each other. It is one of those places, perched on a hilltop above the confluence of two rivers, that seem to attract ramparts and towers like magnets attract iron filings. Except where archaeologists have excavated, though, few of the earliest traces remain.
Most of the Alhambra that we can visit today dates from the later Moorish period, and specifically from the Nasrid dynasty that ruled hereabouts from 1232 to 1492. With Granada their capital and the Alhambra, sitting as it does on the hill above the city, their palace and stronghold, the Nasrid sultans maintained an Islamic presence in Andalucia long after Seville and Cordoba had succumbed to the Christians.
The sultanate's final downfall, marking the end of Moorish power in southern Spain, coincided with the 'discovery' of America by Columbus. The Middle Ages were drawing to a close, and a new era dawning. Later additions and alterations to the Alhambra by its Spanish conquerors, even where they date from not long after the conquest, look out of place - as incongruous in period as they are in culture - but they do not detract from the atmosphere, or from the enjoyment of a visit. Indeed, they add to the interest of the place.
* The site *
The hill on which the Alhambra sits is one of many foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that lies to the south-east of Granada. From the battlements one can see the Sierra rear up across the horizon, its highest peaks still capped with snow even as summer draws near. Away from the mountains, one can peer down over the sheer drop to the north into the Darro Valley, with the ancient Moorish quarter of the Albaicín lying across the stream, or west over the modern city as it sprawls out onto the plain.
The outer walls enclose the crest of the hill, perhaps 750 metres long by 250 at its widest point, not a vast area but one that encompasses a great variety of relics from different periods.
At the western extremity, closest to the city, is the Alcazaba, the main keep or fortress. Next, working west to east, come the Nasrid palaces (yes, plural), the palace subsequently built by Charles V, the Partal gardens, the parador of San Francisco and the ruins of the convent of the same name, with still more gardens, and many significant defensive towers. Then, in case you haven't had enough Moorish architecture and horticulture, on an adjacent hill is found the Generalife, a retreat of courtyards and gardens where the sultans could seek solace from the cares of office. This is included in the visit.
Several of these features are worth a comment in their own right.
* The Alcazaba *
The fortress of the Alcazaba is the oldest part of the complex, and there is a military austerity to its architecture. It consists of solid walls with little ornamentation, the remains of guard-rooms, barracks and dungeons. Characteristically, the open spaces are parade-ground bare with little greenery, although there is a surprising little terrace-garden tucked in between the tiers of its ramparts to the south, which also affords one of the best views of the Sierra Nevada's snowy peaks.
Indeed, to me the views were the best aspect of the Alcazaba. The Torre de la Vela ('watch-tower') at its western end commands a magnificent panorama across the whole city of Granada and beyond. A guidebook to the Alhambra published in 1904 that I have read since returning claims that: "in this tower is hung a famous bell, to be heard, it is said, at Loja, thirty miles away. It is rung on the anniversary of the conquest of Granada, on which day it is the custom, according to local superstition, for damsels desirous of husbands to strike it with all their strength."
Alas, I did not see this custom enacted. Maybe it has fallen into disuse, or, more probably, I was simply there on the wrong day.
* The Palace of Charles V *
Turning back into the Alhambra from the Alcazaba, one emerges into an open courtyard, the view dominated by the square stone palace of Charles V beyond, its monolithic facade only softened by an intervening terrace with shrubbery.
This is something of a ghost palace. Although conceived as a grandiose gesture to stamp the authority of Catholic Spain on the old Muslim capitol, it was barely completed and never occupied by the emperor. The interior rooms are said to be in poor repair and cannot be visited, except for a few that have been converted into museums - both archeological and fine arts.
The visitor can, however, wander at will around both storeys of the central patio, which is surprisingly circular in contrast to the square exterior. Somehow, the upper balcony, its roof supported by columns, looking down on the bare disc of the courtyard below reminds one of the tiered galleries that surround bull-rings. It is an atmospheric place, a complete contrast in mood and style to the Nasrid palaces that hide behind it, although there is much more to be seen in them.
* The Nasrid Palaces *
Architecturally, these are the highpoint of any visit to the Alhambra, and the hardest to take in during the course of a short visit.
A full catalogue of everything to be seen within them would be equally hard to take in during the course of a short review of this kind, so I shall not attempt to describe them comprehensively, or in anything like the detail they deserve. Suffice it to say that the complex encompasses several different palaces, built for different sultans at different periods, but interlocking and joined by passages and patios. In these, cloisters provide shade, pools and fountains coolness and planting greenery. The effect is inward-looking, but sudden, surprising windows and balconies offer views across the surrounding hills.
The labyrinthine complexity of the layout is unified by a consistency of decorative style. In places the decoration has suffered from damage or neglect in the centuries that followed the conquest, as have the buildings themselves, but what remains is still staggering in its elaboration and extent.
The decoration includes tiles and mosaics, but is especially notable for moulded stucco or ceramic, no less impressive in its intricacy than if it were carved stone. Layered screens of calligraphic design admit glinting rays of light. Vaulted ceilings are encrusted with 'mocarabes' - painted plasterwork in geometric patterns like orderly, albeit truncated, stallachtites.
Particularly notable are:
- Patio of the Lions. A cloistered courtyard, surrounded by a gallery supported on fine alabaster columns, while the fountain in its centre rests on the backs of a dozen marble lions - a rare example of figurative Islamic art.
- Hall of the Kings. Entered through three porticos, this complex room is surrounded by niches and side-chambers, each with its own decoration. The ceilings are especially impressive, whether covered with mocarabes or leather-lined and painted - as in the case of the painting of Nasrid rulers on the central dome.
- Court of the Myrtles. A simple rectangular pond, fed by fountains and flanked by trimmed myrtle hedges, dominates this courtyard and offsets the arched cloisters at either end.
- Hall of the Abencerrajes, named after an offshoot of the royal family whose princes are said to have been beheaded there, although the reputedly ineradicable blood-stain in the marble fountain has since been proved to be mere rust. Even without those macabre traces, though, the decoration is something to be wondered at.
- And many other chambers and courtyards beside. I should never have started listing them; there are too many to do justice to without turning this review into a catalogue.
* The Partal Gardens *
These are behind the Nasrid palaces, and consist of an ascending series of terraces. As with all Moorish-influenced gardens, water plays a major role; pools, fed by tinkling fountains or by marble gulleys down which the water cascades, are an integral part of the design, as are symmetrically arranged hedgerows to break up the space and provide structure for the beds of roses, lilies or geraniums. Cypresses and palms provide shade from the summer sun.
This is a good place to rest, relax, reflect and settle any cultural indigestion caused by having tried to absorb too much rich ornamental fare within the palaces.
* Generalife *
If the Partal gardens and patios within the Alhambra itself have acted as horticultural appetisers, the Generalife rounds off the banquet. This pleasance, which descends in steps down the neighbouring hillside, encompasses a sequence of courtyards, as attractively ornate as those in the Alhambra itself, which have since been extended with parterres and terraces, with pergolas and covered walkways. One strolls through them to the splash of water and the hum of bees, as well as the click of cameras and the monotonous drone of the tour-guides' commentaries. In early May, when we were there, the air was filled with the scent of orange-blossom.
The celebrated Patio de la Acquia ("Canal Courtyard") appears a classic of its kind, although purists tell me its current design is not quite the original, in which it would have been divided into four by its water-courses, the resultant quadrants enclosing sunken beds for flowers and fruit-trees. But to the untutored eye the surrounding greenery is still a perfect backdrop to the jets of water than arch up, over and into the central pool from either side.
Also at the Generalife is an open-air theatre, where night performances are held during the annual Music Festival. The effect in such a setting must be magical. A good reason, if any were needed, to go back another time.
* Visiting *
This is where we came in. As a World Heritage Site and one of Europe's best-known ancient monuments, the Alhambra is in great demand and the number of visits is restricted. This doesn't prevent it from becoming overcrowded, of course, but at least some limit is placed on the crowds.
It is possible to book in advance through the official website, but if, like us, you've failed to do this, your best hope is to turn up as early as possible. The queue is kept informed by loudspeaker as to how sales are going and, so far as I could tell, 600 tickets for morning entry, and another 600 for afternoon entry are reserved for sale on the day. You want to try for morning entry because there is too much to see in a single afternoon. Our visit lasted from 9.00 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. and we could easily have spent longer. Additionally, the tickets stipulate a half-hour slot for entry to the Nasrid palaces, so as to avoid bottle-necks in these, the main attractions. Having entered during your allotted half-hour, though, you can remain inside as long as you like.
We thought the ticket arrangements we very well handled, given the demand, with the queue being kept informed and able to assess the chances of being in line for one of the places. There is also a café beside the entrance, so you can buy a takeaway coffee to keep you awake while you wait. There are also two tabby cats at the café to converse with (and two black ones you will meet later in the Generalife garden).
Once within the Alhambra complex, the grounds are extensive enough and the attractions varied enough to find peaceful spots to escape from the crowds. But the more famous parts are inescapably busy, and in the Nasrid palaces in particular one has to try to wait for gaps between the guided tour parties - who invariably seem to think they have pre-emptive rights to push through, block doorways and chatter deafeningly - to enjoy the place to the full.
Tickets are good value at 10 a head, 7 for concessions (approx £7 and £5 respectively) to which you must add 3 if you want a hand-held audio guide, well worth it for the sheer volume of background information about such an extensive site.
* How to get there and where to stay *
Granada is now served directly by Ryanair from Stansted. Alternatively, especially if you are thinking of touring more widely in Andalucia, many airlines fly from various UK airports to Malaga or Seville, from which Granada can be reached by train or rented car.
If you're well-heeled and fancy treating yourself, you could stay inside the Alhambra itself at the Parador de San Francisco - paradors being state-sponsored luxury hotels in Spain's historic sites. We dropped in for morning coffee on its scenic terrace, paying twice as much as we later paid for a drink at the other hostelry within the grounds - the cosy and characterful Hotel America.
Alternatively, you can stay anywhere in Granada, which is crammed with hotels, hostels, etc., and is a great place to wander out for tapas and a drink in the evening. If you're still feeling fit early in the morning you can take a pleasant walk up to the Alhambra through the wooded parkland below the ramparts, or catch a shuttle bus up for 1. Even a taxi will only cost you a few euros from the middle of town.
Despite the crowds, the Alhambra is a fascinating and even charming place to visit. On a more general note, and writing as one who has never numbered Spain among his favourite countries, I found that not only Granada but inland Andalucia at large to be welcoming and full of interest. A week's drive around was only an appetiser, and I would gladly go back for more.
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, May 23rd 2006
""The Alhambra (الحمراء) is a palace and fortress complex of the Moorish monarchs of Granada, in southern Spain (known as Al-Andalus when the fortress was constructed), occupying a hilly terrace on the south-eastern border of the city of Granada. It was the residence of the Muslim kings of Granada and their court, but is currently a museum exhibiting exquisite Islamic architecture. The Moorish portion of the Alhambra resembles many medieval Christian strongholds in its threefold arrangement as a castle, a palace and a residential annexe for subordinates. The alcazaba or citadel, its oldest part, is built on the isolated and precipitous foreland which terminates the plateau on the north-west. That is all massive outer walls, towers and ramparts are left. On its watch-tower, the Torre de la Vela, 25 m (85 ft high), the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella was first raised, in token of the Spanish conquest of Granada, on January 2, 1492. A turret containing a huge bell was added in the 18th century, and restored after being damaged by lightning in 1881. Beyond the Alcazaba is the palace of the Moorish kings, or Alhambra properly so-called; and beyond this, again, is the Alhambra Alta (Upper Alhambra), originally tenanted by officials and courtiers.""