What You Should Do When You are in Granada

A detail on an arabesque pattern

Where the walls are alive with the sound of music.

If you have never been to Granada, a city in the south of Spain, you should head there. Not because I say so, but because it is a fabulous city that is oozing with history and romance, and was one of the centers of civilization a millennium ago. But also because I say so.

If you have never been to Granada, you should know that it is just as beautiful as Sevilla, three hours to the west. But I have friends and family in Sevilla, and I fear my recommendation will be tainted by the wonderful experience that comes with being there in the company of loved ones, so I will not ask you to go there. Go to Granada instead. Go there in the spring, or in the summer.

But wait. Before you go to Granada, you should do some homework first. Read up a bit about Moorish Spain –  specifically, about the most famous architectural remnant of that era.

At Granada, in 1248, Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar (1232–73) ordered the erection of Spain’s most famous edifice, the Alhambra—i.e., “the red.” The chosen site was a mountain crag bounded by deep ravines, and looking down upon two rivers, the Darro and the Genil. The emir found there a fortress, the Alcazaba, dating from the ninth century; he added to it, built the great outer walls of the Alhambra and the earlier of its palaces, and left everywhere his modest motto: “There is no conqueror but Allah.” The immense structure has been repeatedly extended and repaired, by Christians as well as Moors. Charles V added his own palace in square Renaissance style, solemn, incongruous, and incomplete. Following the principles of military architecture as developed in Eastern Islam, the unknown architect designed the enclosure first as a fortress capable of holding 40,000 men.

(Excerpt from The Age of Faith :Volume 4 of The Story of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant)

So yes, the Alhambra. If you do not book tickets in advance, you will probably be in for a shock when you turn up at the gates. There will be lines, and you will probably not get in if you stand in line after 10 AM in the morning. You could do the right thing, and book tickets in advance and waltz right in, like I did the first time I went there in 2011 (or rather, as Pablo did. That man is an organizational wonder). But should you choose to be adventurous – and I heartily recommend it – walk to the gates of the Alhambra at 6 in the morning. You will see the streets in a new light – pun intended – and you will also notice the unique design of the street-lamps, brazenly modern compared to the city’s vibe. You will also see a name you did not think to associate with the place – the writer Washington Irving, who wrote his famous Tales of the Alhambra way back when, and made the place even more famous than it was. There is a fountain in his honor and a beautiful bronze statue, on which time has woven a respectable green patina.

My recommendation is to spend about 6 hours in the Alhambra. Visit the Generalife gardens first. It’s a good warm-up for what is to come, and there is nothing like walking through flowers in bloom accompanied by the sounds of water gargling through fountains and stairways (yes, water stairways). The Palace of Carlos V, with its museum comes next. When I was there in 2011, there was an MC Escher exhibit that took nearly an hour of my time – Escher’s work was apparently inspired by the intricate mathematically-precise patterns in the Alhambra. This time, the museum showcased the work of Andalusian artist Carmen Laffon, whose smoky landscape and still-life painting gave me goosebumps. Also take the time to go to some of the bath-houses and the cathedral. Take a fifteen minute break. And then go inside the Palace of the Nazaries.

The more luxurious taste of the next two centuries gradually transformed this fortress into a congeries of halls and palaces, nearly all distinguished by unsurpassed delicacy of floral or geometrical decoration, carved or stamped in colored stucco, brick, or stone. In the Court of the Myrtles a pool reflects the foliage and the fretted portico. Behind it rises the battlemented Tower of Comares, where the besieged thought to find a last and impregnable redoubt. Within the tower is the ornate Hall of the Ambassadors; here the emirs of Granada sat enthroned, while foreign emissaries marveled at the art and wealth of the tiny kingdom; here Charles V, looking out from a balcony window upon the gardens, groves, and stream below, mused, “How ill-fated the man who lost all this!” In the main courtyard, the Patio de los Leones, a dozen ungainly marble lions guard a majestic alabaster fountain; the slender columns and flowered capitals of the surrounding arcade, the stalactite archivolts, the Kufic lettering, the time-subdued tints of the filigree arabesques, make this the masterpiece of the Morisco style.

(Excerpt from The Age of Faith :Volume 4 of The Story of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant)

To say that the Nazaries palace is stunning is an understatement. It is an Orientalist’s wet dream, the ornamental outpouring of a civilization at its peak, a period where conquest was replaced by consolidation and decoration. One might argue (and the Durants make a mention of this) that the Moors went beyond elegance to excess, but why should one complain against beauty that has lasted centuries? Against precise geometric patterns that manage to give us weak knees and purified souls even in this day and age? I have to admit that I went a little crazy over the arabesque designs.

The palaces deserve at least a few hours of your time. From various points around the courtyards and corridors, you see vistas of the city, red and white lego blocks clustered all along the horizon. But the lighting is bad, and your pictures will probably come out over-saturated. The best panoramic views of the city are seen from the western fortifications, called the Alcazaba. There, atop the Torre Quebrada and the Torre del Homenaje, you get an inkling of how the defenders of this fortress and its 40000 inhabitants kept a close watch on the land surrounding it.

Later in the evening, you should think about walking through the maze of streets and alleys that weave through buildings ancient and modern. Orange trees cast magical shadows on red tiles, and as you turn into random alleys, it feels like being transported into a different century. The sound of running water is everywhere, not the petulant glug of sewers or the furious energy of a river; what you hear in Granada is the murmur of fountains, a gentle gurgle that calms you down, and asks you to drink in the sights without worrying about missed schedules. Occasionally, you peek through the grilles of gates, and sniff at the smell of oranges wafting through well-manicured gardens. A cat saunters fearlessly across the street, pauses and stares at you, indignant at your intrusion into its neighborhood. Every now and then, you pass by clusters of tourists, a multitude of tongues and camera models immersed in and creating worlds of their own. There are times when you may have to flatten yourself against a door to let a brash, overconfident vehicle pass you by – seeing a chariot or two would not be surprising, but these are our familiar beasts of iron and smoke, both buses and cars. Take care, because Moorish bathhouses and medieval villas remain frozen in time and semi-hidden throughout these streets, and most of them are free to enter and gasp at. If you look closely at the tiles, you will find them covered with saplings – there is silent life everywhere, in Granada.

When it is dark, and you are back in the modern part of the city, walk over to this bar called Poe’s. It’s run by a British guy and his Spanish wife, and they serve a free tapa with every drink you order. Try all 9 items on the food menu. By the time you are done, there is a happy buzz in your head, though you realize that the day is over and it will be time to leave soon. But you will be back. Oh, you will be back.

Panorama from the Alcazaba

A view to remember


2 thoughts on “What You Should Do When You are in Granada

  1. I read this just now – having got back from my trip last night! We spent a day in Granada and it was just beautiful! We had a hotel room 5 mins away from Alhambra (I realise “the al-hambra” is a redundancy) and had a great view of the city (we’d prebooked tickets so no lines). And the city itself was fantastic, as was the food we ate there!

    We were tired after 3 hours of wandering around Alhambra (Palacio Nazaries, Alcazaba, Carlos V palace, etc.) so decided to skip Generalife! And we had a bus to catch that day

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