Alhambra, Granada: an Assault on the Senses

We discovered, way before we set off for Spain, the challenges entailed in securing yourself an entry to the hallowed portals of the Alhambra ꟷ part palace, part fortress ꟷ in Granada, Andalusia, set at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We couldn’t even get a general admission ticket online ꟷ  sold out … in April. The guidebooks tell you that a certain number of tickets is allocated every day on a first come, first serve basis ꟷ but then you’ve got to hoof it up the hill very, very early to get in line, and also take the risk you might not get in.

Our next line of strategy: join a tour. Only to find all English-led tours were … sold out. So we thought, you know what, we’ll join a Spanish tour (this without a decent ¡Holá! between us). It was the perfect solution. We hired English audio guides, which also come with beautiful pictures; the tickets were a lot cheaper; and we were expertly led around the most confusing maze of this giant complex, which likely would have had us tied in knots. It was quite an eye opener: hordes of travellers of all nationalities waiting for their tour guides yet it was run with military precision. There were numerous gates and guards and bar-code readers (our tickets were checked and read multiple times throughout the tour). Most importantly, entry to the Nasrid Palaces is carefully timed on your ticket so as to control the flowing crowds.

Granada, in the early 13th century, fell into the hands of a combined Christian army, but the Catholic King Ferdinand agreed to out-going ruler Muhammad al-Ahmar that he be permitted to establish an independent kingdom for himself in the city. Thus began the wealthy Arab Nasrid dynasty, on Sabika hill, with the construction in 1238 of the Alhambra. It went on to exert a powerful presence for close on 250 years, until Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile appropriated the beautiful Alhambra in 1492.

Your progress around the complex starts in the Generalife, beautiful gardens of the ‘overseer’, pronounced with a soft Afrikaans ‘g’, gen-er-ul-eef-ay (and nothing to do with the generalness of life!) and moves to the Nasrid Palaces, then finally to the military complex, the Alcazara. In the gardens, precisely clipped myrtles and cypresses have been tamed into curves, circles and squares; there are symmetrical rows of cone trees; a riotous blur of poppies, peonies and perfumed roses; secretive views through a concertina of arches and into tiny pretty contained spaces. An army of gardeners is constantly at work, cutting, clipping, sweeping.

Then there are the façades and interiors and internal courtyards of the palaces with their ceramic tiles in swirls and geometric patterns, ceiling marquetry in cedar wood, stucco mouldings, and breathlessly fine lacework. Mosques have been turned into churches, new palaces built on top of old fortifications. Inside the palaces, scalloped windows frame garden views; outside, battlement walls offer panoramic views across Granada. We were there for close on four hours. The richness and opulence is dazzling and quite overwhelming, with us quite exhausted at the end by the assault on the senses — yet still in awe of the beauty and exquisite architecture.

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