Wherever you live in the world, it is likely you have heard of the Alhambra in Granada. The only Muslim palace to survive from the Middle Ages, it was originally Al Qal’a al-Hamra which means ‘the red fort’ hardly an inspiring description for such an amazing building.
The Alhambra has had an incredible history. It is believed that it began its life as a citadel in the ninth century. Additions, demolitions and refurbishments continued right through until the mid-fifteenth century. It has been used both as a fortress and a palace. It has found itself abandoned and revered, inhabited by royalty and by gypsies. The symbol of medieval enlightenment and repression.
There is perhaps no definitive agreement about some periods in its history. Much remains a mystery and there are nearly as many myths surrounding it as facts. As Christians and Muslims struggled for power, important documents were lost and destroyed and stories invented to fill in the omissions. Some of these are real flights of fancy. For example, legend has it that the Hall of the Two Sisters owes its name to when two sisters were imprisoned and died of desire on seeing a couple of lovers in a nearby garden.
Light and water
It is an awe-inspiring building. Perhaps for the detail and certainly for the way in which the light is managed that rises and sets around it. It is a photographer’s dream of a subject. The views are amazing too. Situated on a hillside in Granada the builders were careful to make sure that the surrounding area was captured spectacularly from the carefully positioned and angled windows.
Water as well as sunlight is a key element. The River Darro was diverted in order to supply the main fountains and water features around the building. It was a great engineering feet at the time and did not just contribute visually but practically too. Water is used to particularly good affect in the Court of the Myrtles and the Court of the Lions. The use of shade and water was designed to keep the courtyards cool. It is evidence of just how much the Arabs did bring in terms of geometry, culture and imagination.
Taking care of it
The Alhambra hasn’t always enjoyed the amount of protection and respect it now has. Emperor Carlos V was guilty of demolishing a whole wing in order to build the Renaissance palace. The Palacios Nazaríes was even used as a prison at one point and was inhabited by gypsies and homeless people. The building suffered further humiliation at the hands of Napoleon and his forces who looted and damaged it as they retreated from the city.
It was the writer Washington Irving who perhaps really brought the spotlight back onto the Alhambra and highlighted its virtues, if with a little poetic licence. The American author wrote his ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ and the English-speaking world became entranced with his interpretation of the past and present. His writing brought a number of visitors and more authors who chose to use the building as a backdrop to their work.
Its restoration is still a work in progress and some previous attempts to restore it have not always been faithful to its original design. In fact it is likely that those building it never expected it to last so long. The building was put together in a piecemeal fashion and not always the best materials were used. But somehow the superimposition of tile over tile and wall next to wall does not detract from the overall impression that this building together provides.
Visiting the Alhambra
If you can you really must make the effort to visit. It is quite a complex mix of buildings and you can easily find yourself lost. There are three separate sections to navigate:
* The Palacios Nazaríes (Nasrid Palaces)
* The Generalife
* The Alcazaba
It takes a long time to explore and to see the full complex you probably need two or three days at least. Comfortable walking shoes are a must. You can book your tickets before hand and this is strongly advised as it is a popular tourist attraction. Having booked online you can collect your tickets from the booking office at the palace itself.
There are slots available to see the Palacios Nazaríes, as numbers are restricted. You do have to enter within the half hour time slot allocated or miss your turn. There is no restriction on how long you stay. If you can, you would be well-advised to visit the palace at night as well as during the day.
Guides are readily available if you want to be sure to hear the full story but you can also benefit by just concentrating on forming your own impressions and allowing the tremendous views, inside and out, take you in.
It isn’t a fairy tale palace as such and you should approach it with an open mind. Not everyone is as enthusiastic on seeing it. However, if you have the opportunity, you need to visit it yourself, take your time and form your own opinions. You will find yourself lost in discussion about your favourite views, rooms and features for a long time to come.