I DON’T NEED TO SEE 1,000 places before I die — just a few. Yesterday I made it to one of the spots on my bucket list: the fabled Alhambra, last stronghold of the Muslim rulers of Spain. High above the modern city of Granada, extraordinarily intact in all its spectacular decorative detail, the 13th century citadel is surely one of the world’s wonders, richly deserving of all the tourists it gets. (They limit tickets to 8,000 a day, which isn’t a lot considering the busloads from Japan and Russia. If you go, buy tickets online in advance to avoid disappointment.)
Our knowledgeable guide, Robert Muguerza — half English, half Basque, and a resident of the city since his university days — seemed pained that the original village on the slopes surrounding the Alhambra, which once had 3,000 residents, workshops, houses, and hammams, has disappeared, replaced by a forest-like park that was a gift in the 19th century from the Duke of Wellington. But if not historically accurate, the grounds are lush and green, and the main walls still stand, along with three royal palaces and their pools, fountains, and gardens.
In 711 A.D., Robert explained, Moslems from the north of Africa invaded Spain. It took only seven years for them to occupy almost the entire Iberian peninsula, and eight centuries for the Christians to get it back. They left behind a vast architectural heritage, of which the Alhambra is considered the outstanding example.
The architecture felt familiar from our visit to Seville’s Real Alcazar of approximately the same period two days before, but the Alhambra is larger and more dramatically sited. The Christians left the major buildings intact, for the most part, adding to it here and there over the centuries (the palace of Charles V, a circular pavilion of the 16th century in classical Roman style, and a Franciscan monastery that is now a parador, or five-star hotel run by the Spanish government, are also part of the complex).
The three main buildings are the palaces of justice and diplomacy, and the private living quarters of the sultans and sultanas, all in a cohesive style, with graceful Moorish arches and columns and intricate bas relief decoration that covers walls and ceilings above the level of multi-colored ceramic tiles. Made of plaster, marble dust, alabaster, and egg white, this decoration was originally painted in brilliant blue, red, and gold, of which you can still see traces.
The interior spaces are dark and cool, with small window openings (it can reach 115 degrees here in summer). In the open courtyards, pools are filled with water diverted from the Sierra Nevada mountains, capped with snow much of the year, via an elaborate system of aqueducts and ditches. Interestingly, architectural decoration was only on north- and south-facing walls, with east- and west-facing walls reserved for grape vines, though these days they are bare.
The Alhambra is 40% restored, which means, amazingly, that 60% of it was intact, even after being abandoned for over 100 years in the 18th century, when vagabonds and gypsies squatted there. American author Washington Irving is seen as the modern-day savior of the Alhambra; he is very much celebrated in Granada. Irving visited in the late 1820s (his spartan room is on view) and wrote a book about the monument’s history and plight, Tales of the Alhambra, which was an international best-seller (and which I now must read). It attracted the attention of educated, wealthy people the world over, and spawned a save-the-Alhambra movement.
Above the main palaces, a gentle climb along paths lined with cypress trees and 300-year-old magnolias brought over from the New World, there are additional 13th century structures used by the sultan as a summer palace, along with stables, pools, and a formal garden. This area, above, called the Generalife (from the Arabic Jennat al Arif, or “Garden of the Architect”) was reorganized in the 1920s and ‘30s by landscape designer Torres Balvas in the then-fashionable style of Versailles (think topiary and parterres, symmetrical and manicured).
At the moment, the gardens look “a bit dull,” Robert apologized. In May, he said, there’s “an explosion of roses” which lasts through November. The greenest section of the Generalife in winter is the pool court, where sunken gardens in the Islamic style contain lavender, myrtle, thyme and other herbs, irises, and pomegranates.
From the Generalife, we looked toward the Sierra Nevada mountains, down upon the Alhambra itself, and straight across to Granada’s old Albaicin neighborhood, with its white stucco houses and red-tiled roofs. That, said Robert, is pretty much how the village once surrounding the royal palaces looked many hundreds of years ago. How remarkable is it that we can observe the scene today and so easily visualize the past?
To see an amazing topiary hedge in the Generalife and read my latest entry on Garden Design magazine’s blog, go here.