SPAIN – Day 6: Earthly Paradise

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.

SPAIN – Day 5: Tale of Two Cities


DAY 5 BEGAN in sunny Seville, with a walk along the Guadalqivir River, past the 200-year-old bull ring, below, to Triana, a working-class neighborhood that is home to several ceramics places I had read about in guidebooks and (you’d think I’d know by now) was looking forward to checking out.

Was disappointed to find the pottery mediocre in the extreme. Nothing worth buying; all very commercial. The tiled buildings housing the old factories are better than the wares they’re turning out.


I did a quick circuit of shops I’d visited the day before to pick up items for my Budget Travel shopping story, including a great find in the Santa Cruz quarter called Populart, which sells terra cotta urns and 19th century tiles salvaged from demolished local buildings.

Then back to Seville’s Santa Justa Station, below, for the 3-hour train ride to Granada through fields of olive trees, toward the looming Sierra Nevada mountains.


We arrived in Granada after dark and taxi’d to Plaza de Carmen, where we found ourselves a grown-up restaurant (as opposed to a flourescently lit tapas bar, though I like those too) where the salad was gorgeous (white asparagus, olives, mango, among other things), enormous, and very satisfying. They’re big on ham here in Andalusia, which I don’t eat, so I’ve been making do with eggs, potato, tuna, anchovies, machego cheese, and salads, which is fine with me.

Here’s my travel partner Irvina (at left, below) and me in an even more grown-up restaurant a couple of nights ago at the grand Hotel Alfonso XIII, built for Seville’s 1929 World’s Fair.


Our hotel for two nights is a converted convent on Granada’s main drag, Gran Via Colon, with high coffered wooden ceilings, brick walls, arched windows, Euromod decor, and very fine breakfasts. The concierge sent us to a very cool tapas bar, below, with a faded 1930s mural above the bar, a collection of old bottles in the window, and noisy college students (Granada’s university has 60,000 of them) all in black, smoking up a storm.

One more thing: I’m guest blogging for Garden Design magazine’s website; my first post for them, which I filed from Seville yesterday, is here, if you want to take a look.

SPAIN – Days 3 & 4: The Blogger of Seville

IMG_0837CITY OF ORANGES, Roman arches, and Moorish tiles, of churches and towers and labyrinthine streets (the better to foil invaders without street maps) under ever-changing Andalusian skies.

But mostly of oranges. Charming beyond belief, colorful, civilized, I am in love with Seville, and it’s harvest time. The trees are laden with beautiful but bitter-tasting oranges that the city will export to Britain, where they’re used to make marmalade. There are orange trees everywhere — on the streets, in courtyard pots, in front of the Casa de Pilatos, below, an early 16th century palazzo in High Italian Renaissance style.


Behind the dazzling domed and decorated halls of Real Alcazar, below, 14th century home of Muslim rulers, there are mandarins, too, and grapefruit, and yellow trumpet flowers in bloom, and orange clivia.


Andalusian gardens are so structured, outdoor room after outdoor room, linked by archways and laid out on axes with fountains where they cross, and the climate is so temperate, that it hardly matters that it’s January. One totally gets the idea, though the magnolias and bougainvillea and jasmine climbing the walls won’t flower until spring, when it must be even more breathtaking.

The sunken gardens in the inner courtyard of the Real Alcazar, above, were designed so that fruit could be picked from the trees without having to reach — a notion derived from a Koran passage, our guide told us.

Centuries later, the gardens were re-done in the formal French style, and so they remain, with hedges of myrtle and oleander enclosing acanthus and agapanthus, jacaranda, date palms, and other (to us) exotics, like the Argentinian ombu, or elephant tree.

As I threaded my way today through Seville’s narrow streets (I mean narrow – see below),


I peeked through wrought iron gates into the courtyards within nearly every house, where I saw gargantuan versions of the same common houseplants I’ve struggled to keep in dry, dark city apartments — ferns, spider plants, philodendron — thriving en masse in terra cotta pots, giving me renewed inspiration for this summer’s containers.

I’m in a hotel I can recommend without reservation (but do make reservations, should you come to Seville). The Casas de la Juderia, in the city’s onetime Jewish quarter, is a patchwork of townhouses as early as the 16th century. Below, one of the hotel’s many arched and tile-bedecked inner courtyards.


The hotel’s central courtyard, below, has been enclosed and furnished in livable Victorian style, with a grand piano, oriental rugs, doily-draped armchairs, urns on pedestals, maps in gilded frames — and, not to worry, WiFi.


My Sevillian home for two nights is Room 21, below, a high-ceilinged suite with cheery yellow walls, where I am comfortable and very happy.

My drink of choice here is fino, the crisp, dry Andalusian sherry that goes down very easily with garlicky grilled shrimp and tortillas potatas (a potato and egg pie), which is what Irvina and I ate last night in a bull-themed tapas bar that in another season might be filled with tourists, but in mid-winter was just us and the locals.

SPAIN: Day 2 – Rambling ‘Round Madrid


Velasquez in front of the Prado

TRUE TO MY WORD, I did all that I set out to do today in Madrid – the flea market and Plaza Mayor in the morning, the Botanic Garden and the Prado in the afternoon. Everything came up a bit short. As Buddhist monks say, “Expectation brings disappointment.”


The Plaza Mayor, above, is a unified 17th century square of great architectural integrity but no great beauty. I’d rate Brussels’ Grand’Place, Paris’ Place des Vosges, Rome’s Piazza Navona, and Cracow’s market square far above it. Perhaps I’ve traveled too much and am jaded. Or maybe I’m just a crotchety old lady.

El Rastro, the flea market, had the same stuff you’d see anywhere in the world – mostly scarves and bags from Nepal, far as I could tell. Nothing handcrafted, nothing old. Unless I was in the wrong place.

The Real Botanic Garden – Real as in Royal – is probably much lovelier and more colorful and fragrant in a month other than January. It was peaceful, that I will say.


And how can I admit I wasn’t thrilled by the Prado, above, for godssakes? I visited the Goyas, Velasquezes, and El Grecos, and strolled through some of the rest. Because of the breadth of the holdings, I now have a good sense of what each contributed to the history of painting, and it was a quantum leap in each case. Velasquez in the 17th century did his share of aristocratic bread-and-butter portraits, and the only crucifixion scene I’ve ever actually liked, against a surreal black background. El Greco’s acid colors and elongated forms took standard Bible scenes and made them almost psychedelic – 400 years ago.

Not being a devout Catholic, the religious works, which make up most of the Prado’s holdings, don’t move me particularly. Much of the rest is military in nature — battle scenes, group portraits of militias, historical scenes of surrender and execution – dark, gory, scary, depressing. So my visit to the Prado wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as yesterday’s sojourn at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, amongst the pretty secular art.


Irvina and I had dinner at a fun place called Los Gatos (The Cats). It hit the spot. We had a huge salad with tuna, olives, roasted peppers, and tomatoes; langoustines in the shell; and a plate of manchego cheese, washed down with a white Rueda at 3.50 euros/glass. No complaints there.


“Living wall” spotted after I took a wrong turn out of my hotel

Tomorrow, onto Seville via the high-speed AVE train that will, I expect, put the American railroad system to shame.

Andalusia, Here I Come

Alhambra - Granda - España by Nino H.

LATER THIS MONTH, I’m heading to Spain for a week with a friend and a camera. This trip is a radically abbreviated version of a dream I’ve had for years: spending the entire winter in southern Europe. But ya gotta start somewhere.

I’m going first to Madrid, then taking the train south to Seville, Granada, and Cordoba. It’s mainly a vacation and not a press trip, and I’m thrilled about that (though I have to pay for it). Still, I’ll be researching historic gardens and taking lots of notes and pictures, because I just can’t help myself.

We’ll go to the Alhambra, of course, but it’s the intimate courtyard and patio gardens I hope will inspire me for my own backyard. No doubt I’ll be bummed I can’t grow orange trees and oleander here on Long Island, but I’m sure there’s much to learn from the structural elements of Spanish gardens, even in winter.

So far, even though the trip is only two weeks away, I’ve done little advance planning, and I’ve never been to that part of Spain before. So if anyone has suggestions for places to stay, eat, go, or see, please let ‘em rip in the comments, and gracias!

Photo: View of the Alhambra, from Nino H’s Flickr photostream