This iconic 13th century royal palace was built by Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, on existing Roman foundations and the remnants of a 9th century fortress and has been modified over the years in various styles, called Alhambra, or the romanised Arabic as Al-Ḥamrā (The Red One) reflecting the colour of the stone used in its original construction. You can visit and tour the buildings yourself, but we were advised to book one of the 3 hour guided tour to ensure that the day runs smoothly as access to the most popular buildings is strictly controlled with defined access times and therefore decide on 11.00 Sunday morning.
Up early and on the road by 9, have a thing about being late, and a good idea as things turned out. The Spanish authorities have embarked on a road building campaign around Granada and the map makers (even those that supply the Tourist Info Centre) have yet to catch up and the Sat-Nav was set to Spanish which the hire car people omitted to tell us before they let us loose. After ending in a farm yard and following frantic button pushing on the Sat-Nav screen we managed to enter Alhambra into the system , press all the green buttons we finally had a coherent route to the palace. Ignoring the Spanish lady providing commentary we followed the map and arrive at the car park with 15 minutes to spare. Spending a few moments to catch our breath, then buy some water (needed as the temp was due to top 33oC today) we check in with our English speaking guide, but as it turned out we should have not been overly worried as we were first of our group to arrive.
Off we go starting our tour with the Generalife, the summer palace set under the Dehesa del Generalife is accessed via a gently sloping path lined with tall slim cypress trees that give welcome relief from the sun, we enter the palace complex via the gardens neatly set out and I am struck particularly by the paths which are laid with river stones (because that was what was originally available) set on end in intricate patterns of vines, flowers and geometric patterns picked out with stones of a darker hue, probably not the original ones, but faithfully copying to retain the original aesthetic. The gardens, Jardines del Generalife, are laid out in neat rectangles and also afford us our first glorious panoramic views of Granada and the surrounding area. Our guide calls us together and gives us a brief history of the gardens and views, also giving time for the group in front to clear away to allow us to proceed to the next stop.
Our time comes and we head for the Generalife itself, through the Court of the Dismount (Patio del Descabalgamiento) where visitors would dismount their horses, then up a short flight of steps where visitors would be scrutinised by security guards we pass into a court with arched galleries, where access to the palace itself is gained. However, the actual entrance through a rather small door, a probable nod to security only allowing one person through at a time. Up a narrow staircase (more security measures) to the residence called the North Pavilion (Pabellón Norte), which in turn leads to an arcaded gallery, with five arches and bedchambers, and on to the Royal Chamber (Sala Regia). Connected to the Pavilion is the Court of the Main Canal (Patio de la Acequia), a garden stocked with fragrant flowers and herbs with a channel of cooling water from a spring rising from the hill behind running through the centre.
Leaving the Palace North Pavilion we walk through small closed gardens with paths and courtyards with more intricate patterns, again made from light and dark river stones, that dates back to the period of Arabic rule. We take the Paseo de las Adelfas, or Walk of the Oleanders, leading away from the Generalife and across a bridge to the remainder of the Alhambra on the other side of the defensive moat and enter the military part of the structure. This part has suffered substantial destruction at the hands of Napoleon’s troops and only the foundations of the buildings remain to testify of what was there. We walk past the Parador de Granada, a former monastery now a 40 room 4* hotel, before turning into the main area (?).
Our first stop is the house where composer Ángel Barrios was born and lived, which today is a museum in his honour. The house retains some rooms of the original Grand Mosque’s baths with some rooms still having the star shaped openings in the roof to let natural light into the inner most parts. The remainder of the mosque was demolished and the Iglesia de Santa María de la Encarnación (St Mary Church of the Alhambra) built on its foundations in the 17th century on the site of the Great Mosque as a ‘symbol of the triumph of Christianity over Islam’.
Continuing on the Real de la Alhambra we come to the imposing Palacio de Carlos V, the 63m square, 17m high renaissance palace of Charles V, who wanted a palace fit for an emperor. Its construction was started in 1528 by Pedro Machuca, an architect about who is little known today and is thought to have been a student of Michelangelo. However, for one reason or another, i.e. money and revolts, the building did not have a roof until 1957 and hence the palace was never lived in by its intended recipient. Our party entered through a side door and were directed through into the central circular atrium open to the sky, which is surrounded by two rows of colonnades which separate the covered walkways on both floors from the open atrium. After a brief explanation by our guide regarding the usages the space is put to today, we march on to our next stop, but this time for a well earned rest.
We stop at the Puerta del Vino (the Wine Gate) for a 10 minute break, the first in the 2 hours since our start, which by general consent is a tad short, but a welcome break none the less to stock up on water supplies, enjoy an ice cream and a sit down where we could find a space on a low wall. 11 minutes later (an outbreak of empathy perhaps) with ice creams licked, munched or nibbled, we are gathered together and start out to complete the tour by passing through the Wine Gate into the Alcazaba the 13th century fortress of the Alhambra, which would prove to be the most arduous.
We walk up a slope to the entrance to Torre del Cubo and climb up a number of worn stone steps before reaching the top and are greeted with stupendous views of Granada way, way below and the imposing hills with the remnants of the old city walls in the distance. Continuing our tour we begin our step back in time and walk past the foundations of the old barracks buildings of the Alhambra’s defenders over the years. Passing through Torre del Homenaje (tower of homage/tribute), then Torre Quebrada (Broken Tower) so named because of the large crack running up the east side, the Alcazaba (the original fortress) and finally the Torre de la Vela (La Vela tower). Why it is called La Vela is buried deep in history as ‘La Vela’ is Spanish for sailing and Granada is a long way from the sea. A short walk from Torre de la Vela brings us to a small projection on the main wall which afforded glorious views of the south and west of Granada. There is also a good view of the ground, a long way beneath, and what with the thick walls and the sheer cliffs under-pinning them I am beginning to realise why this place has been a fortress for so long.
After spending a few minutes enjoying the views from the walls and as they say ‘what goes up, must come down’, we begin the long walk out. Along the almenas (or battlements) down the numerous steps and twists and turns towards the building that is probably the reason the majority of people visit the Alhambra in the first place, the Nasrid Palaces. Exiting the tower onto what could be considered the ground level of the structure, containing some patios and a garden we approach a door that could be considered the ‘tradesman’s entrance’ leading into the fabled Nasrid Palace.
Once inside what greets you does not disappoint, the ornate tiles laid in intricate geometric patterns, the plaster mouldings around the doors relating passages from the Quran. Passing through rooms we enter the covered floor to ceiling with carvings and more tiling and floors with yet more intricate tile patterns and doorways with high ornate arches and yet more carving. The carved ceiling of the Gilded Room and the imposing majesty of the Hall of the Ambassadors, the most imposing room in the palace, where the throne was and where official receptions took place are something to behold. The ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors is a representation of the Seven Heavens of the Islamic Paradise, with God’s throne on the eighth heaven. The hall is completely covered by decorative inscriptions: niches, arches, walls and dressing rooms are all covered by poems. Is there a square inch of the palace that is not decorated? The biggest surprise is, however, how the palace managed to retain all its Islamic splendour following the Cristian conquest and the resultant fervour in replacing the old with the new, but I suppose some things are just too good to spoil.
Stepping once again into the sunlight we step into The Court of the Myrtles placed in the centre of the complex. Although known by different names over the years its current name is due to the myrtle bushes that surround the central pond. The resulting bright green colour of the bushes contrasts with the white marble of the patio. It was also called the Patio of the Pond or, the Reservoir. Once again we pass through another archway and into another ornately decorated room, I think I am are getting to the point where one room starts to look like any other, am I coming down with the dreaded Nasriditis?
Coming out the other side we enter the Patio de los Leones with a large fountain bowl in the centre supported by 12 lions, then through further rooms with less tiling and more wood carvings that have a more medieval feel and then as in a clip from Back to the Future, we step outside into a series courtyards and footpaths made of grey river stones, with patterns picked out with darker stones that lead back to the Real de la Alhambra. Here our guide bids us goodbye, before going to start the next tour, you’ve got to be fit to be a guide here. We gather our thoughts and rest our weary bones before calling it a day and hoping we remember where we left the car.