From Madrid we travelled to Granada where we spent a wonderful few days. Again, courtesy of Airbnb, we got to stay in a funky old 3 story house in a tiny local square in the Albaycin, (old Moorish) district. Word to the wise: if you’re arriving in Granada by train and staying in the Albaycin, cut bait immediately and get a cab, don’t rely for a second on Google to find your street – let your cabbie worry about that (even he had to call in to dispatch to find out where to drop us).
Just walking around the ancient cobbled streets of the Albaycin amongst the whitewashed walled houses is magic and then, of course, there is The Alhambra.
We arrived in Granada during Holy Week, THE busiest time of year, without a reservation to see The Alhambra, particularly, the part that everyone goes for, the Palacio Nazaries, the intricately carved Moorish palace. If you go, during holy week or just if you go at all, don’t make this mistake. Our only option was to queue up at the ticket window starting at 6am, in the dark and cold, in order to have the merest chance of getting some of the few tickets they hold back to sell to woefully unprepared idiots.
This was a case of: wherever you end up it will be fabulous, but they may not let you in if you don’t have rezzies stoopid. As it was, there were exactly 27 people in line in front of us 4 when they opened the ticket window at 8am. At that moment there were about 120 tickets available to see the palace during the day and about 100 to see the palace at night – a handy (and as it turned out, misleading, as you will see) electronic display board gives you the running total of tickets left. All good right? Non. By the time we made it to the ticket window, all the daytime tickets were gone and we were lucky to grab 4 of the last 20 or so to visit the palace at 10pm! We’re not really sure how the tickets sold that fast, there was another line of people to use the automated ticket machines and that may have been a faster way to buy ‘em, or maybe people were buying them online; not sure, but needless to say it was agony.
Very, very glad we made the effort though. The Alhambra is stunning firstly for it’s wonderful hill-top setting. The be-cobbled walk up from The Albaycin (better than the more travelled route up from Plaza Nuevo in my opinion – we did both (ok, both are gorgeous)) is a slow (and steep) journey back in time. The chatter of water is everywhere, the high earth-colored walls tower above you and greenery sprouts from every surface, be it horizontal or vertical.
Inside the Alhambra, the star attractions are undoubtedly the Palacio Nazaries and the Generalife Gardens and summer Palacio. The intricate carving and tilework undertaken by Muslim craftsman from 7 to 800 years ago is unlike anything you will see in even the finest examples of architecture from the European Enlightenment.
Catholic monarch, Charles V, installed his palace in the heart of the Alhambra in the 1500s, after the Muslim inhabitants of the region were conquered, but left it unfinished without the planned domed roof.
One can’t help feeling that his new palace suffered so from comparison with the Moorish wonders around him that he just gave up trying, re-hired those Muslim craftsman that hadn’t been conquered into oblivion and concentrated on finishing the wonderful work they had already started.
The Muslim design aesthetic is all about harmony: balance, symmetry and repeating patterns are designed to calm the mind to bring you closer to God rather than the Christian m.o. of the time based on the power of iconography to instill a general feeling of inadequacy and sinfulness in the poor benighted populace. Where Christian sculptural themes (Crucified Jesus, The Trinity, The Virgin etc) and aristocratic heraldic carvings have been added to the Moorish underpinnings, the contrast is striking or jarring depending on your perspective. The delightfully schizophrenic, Alcazar in Seville is a more extreme example of this juxtaposition – the 16th century palace was built literally on top of the Muslim structure. Seemingly, The Alhambra was allowed to maintain much of its Moorish character by design, even of the conquering nation, and a walk around the palaces and gardens really does seem to calm the mind, however many tourists you bump into.