Earlier on this month, twenty ‘young professionals’ took over the stunning rustic property of La Jarilla, in the hills of Andalucia. In the middle of no where, surrounded only by vineyards, olive trees and the beautiful rocky hills and with not another house in sight, we spend a week to remember. So much so that a neighbouring village could actually hear us. We enjoyed the sun, the pool, the tennis court, played games, ate well and, of course, drank copious amounts of whatever we could get our hands on. A typical holiday I suppose. And it was brilliant.
Thankfully our debaucherous, relaxed week of doing nothing and slowly but surely killing ourselves took a turn for the better towards the end. My friend Vita and I decided that since it’s not every day you’re in Andalucia, so close to Granada and the incredible World Heritage site of Alhambra, we should actually put some clothes on and enjoy some culture. And so we did. Of the twenty, by some miracle we persuaded thirteen to pile into boiling cars and drive up the windy roads of Andalucia to the beautiful city of Granada.
None of us knew anything about the Alhambra, and of course the wise idea of reading up about it BEFORE we went never actually materialised. So when we got there I headed straight for the over-priced tourist shop and bought the ‘official guide’ to ‘The Alhambra and the Generalife’. So I became the (pretty poor) tour guide, ushering the group from palace to kasbah to garden and trying to explain a few things on the way.
For those that don’t know what Alhambra is, it means ‘the red one’, or less the literally, ‘the red fortress’ in Arabic. It was built in the in the early 13th Century by the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslims to rule over the Iberian Peninsula. Instead of just one palace, which I thought was going to be the case, the Alhambra is actually a ‘palace-city’. It’s huge. You can spend a week walking around and still not have seen it all. Apart from a few breath-taking palaces there is a vast expanse of garden; the most beautiful in my opinion is the area called the ‘Generalife’ which was the country estate commissioned by Muhammad II at the end of the 13th century.
The palace itself there is wonderful, but it is the land around it, the ‘market garden’, which really stands out. It is incredibly peaceful and thus understandable that this is where the Nasrid sultanates came when they wanted to rest. Much of the gardens are shaded and the ‘Water Stairway’ is a true highlight, with railings consisting of a short wall with small channels on top through which water flows. It is romantic and idyllic.
While much of Alhambra is clearly built in an Islamic style, with the characteristic arches, marble and mosaics, one palace looks out of place. A huge Renaissance palace stands in the centre of the compound – built by the Catholic Emperor Charles V during the early 16th century, by which time the Muslims had lost their power in Spain and had relinquished their cherished Alhambra to their enemy. The palace looks like it should be in Rome.
It was never finished during Charles V’s life, and was only completed in the 20th century. It is impressive, vast and dominating, which was exactly what Charles V had in mind. In his eyes, the reason he chose the Alhambra to build his residence in was to ‘express the triumph of Christianity over Island’. Charles V kept all the ancient Islamic structures in place to serve as a counterpoint to the size and style of the new palace. The courtyard is massive, the centre point of the palace, which had many different cultural uses over the centuries – from theatrical shows to bullfights. There are also a few museums in the upper galleries, one the Fine Arts Museum of Granada and one which is my favourite and has a charming ensemble of Joaquin Sorolla’s paintings of the Alhambra and Granada.
After about 2 and a half hours of wondering around we headed towards the exit where I sat down in the shade and flicked through my guide book. I’d loved what I had seen but felt like something was missing. I’d seen some beautiful palaces but nothing which really stood out. Suddenly I came to a few photos of the interior of a few beautiful palaces I was sure we had not seen. After a quick read I shamefully realised that we had missed out the thing to see – the Nasrid palaces and the seat of the sultanate’s court. The pride and joy of the Nasrid rulers. I couldn’t believe that we had been so close to leaving Alhambra without having seen the main spectacle. And so we trundled back into the vast compound, past the medina and joined the long 7pm queue to see what we hoped was worth waiting for.
I am so glad we went back. And I am so glad I saw those photos in the guidebook. Because the Nasrid Palaces are truly spectacular. The simple walled compound look plain and ordinary from the outside and the fact that they are tucked away behind Charles V Renaissance Palace was another reason why we just completely missed it. But the palaces which lie within the walls are breathtaking. There are three independent – though connected – areas: Palacia del Mexuar (the oldest), Palacio de Comares and Palacio de los Leones and they are all completed different.
The ornamentation is so delicate, so stunning that it is hard to describe. Photos will do it some, but not full, justice. You really need to see it for yourself. I was really moved by what I saw, and despite the presence of other tourists, felt a peace and tranquility come over me as I admired the ornate ceilings, the courtyards and the oratories. I felt like I was in an oasis, especially in the Partal area, which reminded me a bit of a Tuscan garden. I think perhaps this is what the Sultans must have felt – a chance to get away from everything and relax.
It was a long day. But so worthwhile and I know everyone felt that. Something I highly recommend doing is combining a day of sight-seeing at Alhambra with dinner in Granada. While we sadly did not get to spend much time there it looked like a beautiful and vibrant city, so I am sure it’s worth spending at least a few days there. We had to make do with dinner on one of the busy and fun streets. The tapas restaurant we chose was not outstanding, but it was the only place which could seat 13 people on one table. Apparently Bodehas Espadafor and Los Diamantes are both amazing though. I will simply have to go back again to see for myself…
Tickets to the Alhambra are best bought ahead of your visit to avoid them being sold out. They are easily bought online (http://www.ticketmaster.es/nav/landings/en/mucho_mas/entradas_alhambra/index.html – go for the general daytime visit) for €14.