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Gardens of the Alhambra, Granada


Where Gumbo Was #505

For many people, the first thought that comes to mind about the Alhambra is the collection of palaces and fortifications atop a hillside above the city; built and rebuilt and added to first by centuries of Islamic rulers and then by the conquering Catholic monarchs after 1492.


But the buildings, as fascinating as they are, are not the only story in the 35 acres of the Alhambra. Equally fascinating and beautiful are the gardens that ornament the buildings, surround the buildings, and even enter the buildings.


Though the gardens have undergone many changes over the centuries, that relationship with the buildings is part of the Alhambra's Islamic heritage, which used courtyards and gardens to provide relief from heat, and to allow places for tranquility and contemplation. Water and shade were key elements from the beginning.


Walking in the gardens today, it is nearly impossible to identify which elements are from before the 'Reconquista,' which are medieval additions or changes, and which parts have evolved over the past couple of centuries of the Alhambra's 'rediscovery' and preservation.


It doesn't matter, I think. The overall effect is wonderful. There are flowers and fountains, formal designs and informal, shaded and sunny. Because it they are so interwoven with the buildings and with the slopes of the hill, it is possible to re-encounter something you've seen, but from a different height, a different angle.


The gardens also serve another, unstated, role: Because only a limited number of visitors at a time can tour the rooms of the palaces, which are not huge, the gardens serve as a pleasant waiting room while waiting for your time. Perhaps the most pleasant queue I've ever experienced!


While the gardens today are primarily decorative, that wasn't always so. Many of the plants grown there in ancient times were planted for their medicinal (as well as culinary!) properties. Among them, ivy, laurel, thyme, lavender, sage and rosemary, all with medicinal uses.


Vegetable and fruit production were also important, and there are several vegetable patches in various parts of the gardens today. Kale, onions, cabbages, beans and more fed the court and military. Fruit and nut trees of many sorts can be found. Artichokes were grown, but not to eat; they were used to brew beer and various tonics.


There are fountains and water features here and there throughout the gardens, as well as the calm ponds in some of the courtyards. A 'water staircase,' above, has water  running in its hollowed-out handrails to feed a fountain at the bottom.


The core of the Alhambra's buildings include the Nasrid palaces, the seat of the Islamic caliphate of Granada, with its multiple courtyards and chambers as well as the palace built next door by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Generalife, a sort of summerhouse built by the caliphs a few hundred yards away. The gardens stretch among all of them; occasionally guidebooks refer to them all as 'Gardens of the Generalife,' but wandering, you'll experience them as a varied whole with no real division.


This was my third visit to the Alhambra, and the first in which I spent so much of the time wandering the gardens. Visiting the gardens, by the way, is free; tickets are required for visiting the buildings, so it can easily be a visit of its own.


And, if you have the time, before or after, Granada bears exploration of its own, whether an unguided wander through its historic center with markets and churches, or a guided tour through the Albaicin neighborhood below the Alhambra. It still has its street grid from the Islamic period, and many historic houses and other buildings of the medieval period.


Congratulations to this week's solvers who recognized the gardens as our mystery location: George G, PortMoresby and ProfessorAbe.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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