The Alhambra — the Moorish last stand in Spain
Looming above the tight downtown streets of Granada, the Islamic Alhambra dominates the city skyline. This fortress-palace-garden preserves the most complete vestiges of the Moorish occupation of Spain.
This amazing collection of buildings along the imposing ridgeline consists of four main areas — the Palacios Nazaries, the Generalife, the Alcazaba and the Palacio de Carlos V. The Palacios Nazaries is the remains of the Caliph’s ornate palace. The Generalife contains the summer palace and the best remaining Moorish gardens. The Alcazaba is the original fort that occupied the tip of the ridgeline, and from which the Caliph supervised the construction of the Palacios Nazaries. The Palacio de Carlos V is a massive white Western palace plopped in the middle of the reddish Moorish splendor in the 1500s.
The Islamic Alhambra is magical
There are scores of guidebooks with plenty of ink used to describe different rooms within the Alhambra and the Palacios Nazaries. Each guide has his own story, it seems. For one, harems scampered through the upper apartments. For another, the apartments were the private residences of the royal family. While one guide may describe the administrative rooms and attached oratory in simple terms, another fills them with stories. One guide’s visit to the Room of the Abencerrajes focuses on the spectacular stalactite vaulting, another tells the story of scores of decapitated heads that were said to have filled the fountain beneath the ornate dome.
However, though these descriptions relate what might have happened within these walls and gardens, they do not totally encompass the altered state that this building can create. Just as the Mosque in Cordoba creates another world through repetition of the simple, the Palacios Nazaries presents another world through the repetition of the intricate.
Islamic Alhambra has no human images, only a mix of calligraphy and geometric design
For the Western mind, a visit to the Alhambra is expanding. The stunning opulent stucco décor covers the walls and some ceilings. Calligraphy mixes with geometric design, whether set in plaster or inlaid in wood, to create a space for liberating thought. Within rooms such as the Hall of the Ambassadors, there is no escape from the detailed opulence. The overall effect is not to illustrate another’s vision, but to facilitate freedom of imagination.
In the West, since the earliest stages of civilization, we have used visual art to impose others’ visions of reality. This artistic presentation has spilled over from statues, murals and paintings to mosaics, photography and film as well. Most of us who have read a book and then see the movie based on the book are disappointed. While we read, our imaginations are free to create our world of the story based on our experiences. When we watch a movie, we are subjected to another’s interpretation of the story.
Let your thoughts swirl freely at the Islamic Alhambra
With Western art, one can appreciate the skill and beauty depicted by the artists that relate a specific allegory, myth or story. With Islamic art, the skill and beauty of the art strives not to tell a story or relate an image, but sweeps the observer into a state of mind where thoughts can swirl freely and imagination can run without restraint.
The most important part of a visit to the Alhambra, and especially the Palacios Nazaries, is time. A visitor needs time to allow magic of the space to sink in, time to focus on the stucco mantra repeated across the massive walls, time to comprehend the lavish workmanship that resulted in such sumptuousness.
Taking time to read about the decorations and to understand some of the images will also add to the Alhambra experience. Doing some homework about the Alhambra, its history and some of its tales before visiting can make a big difference.
Reservations for the Alhambra — IMPORTANT
I have heard far too many stories about tourists who traveled to Granada and never had a chance to see the Alhambra because they could not get tickets to enter. For my visit, even with official help, getting tickets was impossible except by signing up for a guided tour of the ridgeline. Since I have been to the Alhambra several times, I knew that once inside, one can remain until closing, so even with a guided tour I let the minibus filled with the other tourists depart while I stayed to enjoy the Palacios Nazaries in relative peace.
By far the best solution is to make your reservations as soon as you know you will be in Granada. I waited because I was not sure of my timing. That was a mistake. I should have planned my time around a visit to the Alhambra. I tried calling from the U.S. prior to traveling to Spain, but the phone number wouldn’t work. I attempted to sign up for the Alhambra tickets on the Internet; however, the ticketing pages were not working. Immediately upon landing in Spain, I went to the Banco de Bilbao, where I heard reservations could be made, and after a half-hour in line behind everyone with a passbook account or check to cash, I discovered that the Alhambra tickets were sold out for the next two weeks!
The glitches in the system have been worked out, but the important thing to remember is to make reservations as early as possible. Normal tickets can be purchased online at https://tickets.alhambra-patronato.es/en/. Tickets for the Generalife and Alcazaba can be purchased for Euros 7 and then an entrance that includes the Court of the Myrtles and the Courtyard of the Lions can be purchased for a “Moonlight Visit” for Euros 8. This works from March through October.
Finally, guided tours with GranaVision tours cost Euros 49 through the larger hotels in town and some travel agents, or call direct, 958-535-875.
Photos by Charles Leocha, except where noted (top to bottom)
Alhambra Vista from Wikipedia
Court of the Lions
Court of Myrtles
The ceiling in Hall of Abencerrajes
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.