Where do you begin writing about the Alhambra? It's one of the most famous places in the world, yes. It has a history that is both shorter than one might expect, and more complex. A residence, a fortress, a monument, a museum...no easy description. And beyond that, nothing I read in advance could have prepared me for the visual impact of it all...so I will mostly have to let the pictures do the talking.
Like the Parthenon in Athens, and so many other memorable buildings, it is located atop the highest hill, a testimony to its heritage as a defense for its city. That was certainly an active consideration when it was built: it dates to the years immediately after the fall of Cordoba, the capital of Moorish Spain. Granada was newly the capital of what remained, and the city needed a stronghold.
But the military function, reflected in the plain exterior walls which face the city, was only a part of its role. Within its walls, the rulers built a magnificent palace, putting up a brave front and showing their continuing wealth and power.
Fountain in the Court of the Lions
And for two more centuries, they extended that into more palaces and halls; together they are called the Nasrid Palaces, and it is difficult to tell when you have moved from one to another. A proper scholar or a visitor with a guidebook instead of a camera, could put names to all the rooms, and remind you which ruler was responsible for each; I can only tell you that every turn of a hallway, every glimpse into another space is different and special.
But it's not only the magnificent halls and courtyards; it's also the incredible wealth of detail that is molded, carved, colored and shaped into the smallest spaces as well as the large. Islamic art, like that of Orthodox Jews, does not allow paintings of people; perhaps that explains the incredible energy and artistry that went into decoration.
Granada was the last Moorish kingdom in Spain, and these palaces were the last flowering of their culture—but the architectural and decorative styles that continued to be used in Seville and Cordoba long after they fell to the “Reconquista,” and when, in 1492, Granada surrendered to "Los Reyes Catolicos," (Ferdinand and Isabella), the Alhambra remained the royal residence and administrative center. The new rulers did little more than add Christian symbols to a number of rooms and ceilings.
Ceiling insert shows coat of arms representing F (left) and Y (right) for Ferdinand of Aragon and Ysabel of Castile, "los Reyes Catolicos"
That changed, soon enough, when Charles V ruled as both King of Spain and as Holy Roman Emperor; although Granada was not his main capital, he felt the need for an appropriate palace there and had one built next-door to the Nasrid Palaces. It is itself an architectural wonder; a square building of large rusticated-stone blocks that turns out to be the facade for a huge circular patio, with all rooms opening onto the two floors of colonnades surrounding it.
The entire complex—the Nasrid palaces, the Palace of Charles V, the gardens and the Alcazaba fortress and the Generalife—are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it had a long period of decline, disuse and decay, until it was "rediscovered" by early 18th-century scholars and travelers of the Romantic era. Restoration began during that period (and some restoration errors have now been re-restored). One of the great popularizers was Washington Irving, who lived in the Alhambra for several months, and wrote the popular "Tales of the Alhambra" there.
We visited the Alhambra twice, once in the evening and then again the next day; advice we received online made it clear that there are both dramatic differences in light and in crowding; I'd do them both again and would recommend them.
Arriving in the early evening for our 8 o'clock admission time, we were able to wander in the chilly outer courtyards and marvel at the shapes of buildings and trees in the contrasting light, as well as to look down on the historic Albaicin neighborhood that sprawls over the next hill. (for a Gumbo visit to Albaicin, click HERE)
Then, with a few hundred others, we passed through the gates of the Nasrid palaces, almost as if moving through a time tunnel into a very different place. As you’ll see in some of these pictures, the effect is so different at night as to seem almost a different place the next day.
Many parts of these palaces are grouped around open courtyards, so you are constantly passing from rooms with ornate ceilings into courtyards that, at night, seem like rooms with cloud-painted ceilings.
As always throughout our visit to Andalucia, we found ourselves wondering about the lives of the people who lived here through those centuries of conquest and conflict, who passed through periods of tolerance and persecution, and who all left their marks on life in Andalucia today.
And also, as is usual for us, we began to remind ourselves that no matter how brilliant the art, how beautiful the palaces, these were the residences of rulers, not of the ordinary people whose labor and struggle built them. When that happens, we know it’s time to leave!
It's hard to select the right pictures for a blog when you've taken too many...so I've not only included quite a few here...I've left a sizable extra selection in the slideshow below. Please enjoy!
MORE TravelGumbo blogs on Andalucia:
- Granada, Spain: A Walk Through the Historic Albaicin Neighborhood
- The Alcazar of Seville and the Puzzling Palace of Peter I
- The Alcazar of Jerez: A Window into History
- Six Tapas Bars in Seville, Spain
- Cordoba's Great Mosque-Cathedral
The Alcazaba, military heart of the Alhambra
Long-lens shot into Albaicin shows the typical house of old Granada, built around a courtyard, usually with a pool, and rooms opening to the inside of the house only.