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A definite for your bucket list
Alhambra Palace (Granada, Spain)
Member Name: MelissaRuth
Alhambra Palace (Granada, Spain)
Advantages: Spectacular architecture. Beautiful gardens and flowers. Great views. Interesting history.
Disadvantages: Difficult to find. Proof of age required.
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.
Summary: The Moorish palaces and gardens in Granada make an impressive and scenic day out.