If you see only one town in Spain, it should be Granada. For here, extraordinarily well preserved and in a tremendous natural setting, stands the Alhambra – the most exciting, sensual and romantic of all European monuments. It was the palace fortress of the Nasrid sultans, rulers of the last Spanish Moorish kingdom, and in its construction Moorish art reached a spectacular and serene climax. But the building seems to go further than this, revealing something of the whole brilliance and spirit of Moorish life and culture. There’s a haunting passage in Jan Morris’ book, Spain, which the palace embodies:

“Life itself, which was seen elsewhere in Europe as a kind of probationary preparation for death, was interpreted [by the Moors] as something glorious in itself, to be ennobled by learning and enlivened by every kind of pleasure.”

Built on the slopes of three hills, the rest of the city basks in the Alhambra’s reflected glory. Because the Moorish influence here was so ruthlessly extinguished following capitulation to the Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel, Granada tends to be more sober in character and austere in its architecture than Andalucía’s other provincial capitals. Many visitors, once they’ve viewed the Alhambra, are too jaded or can’t be fussed to take in the city’s other sights, which is a pity, for Granada has much to offer.

The hill-top Albaicín, the former Moorish town, is a fascinating quarter full of narrow alleyways and small squares, and a great place for an hour’s stroll. Not far away, too, is the cathedral with the gem of the Capilla Real attached to it, the final resting place of the Catholic monarchs who ended Moorish rule in Spain. Add in an archeological museum, Moorish baths and some fine churches, including a spectacular La Cartuja monastery, and you have more than enough to start you thinking about extending your stay.

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The Alhambra

There are three distinct groups of buildings on the Alhambra hill in Spain: the Palacios Nazaríes (Royal Palace, or Nasrid Palaces), the palace gardens of the Generalife and the Alcazaba. The Alcazaba was the fortress of the eleventh-century Ziridian rulers, and was all that existed when the Nasrid ruler Ibn al-Ahmar made Granada his capital. It's reddish walls gave it it's name: Al Qal’a al-Hamra which translates to “the red fort” in Arabic.

Ibn al-Ahmar rebuilt the Alcazaba and added to it the huge circuit of walls and towers that forms your first view of the castle. Within the walls he began building a palace, which he supplied with running water by diverting the River Darro nearly 8 km to the foot of the hill; water is an integral part of the Alhambra and this engineering feat was Ibn al-Ahmar’s greatest contribution. The Palacios Nazaríes was essentially the product of his fourteenth-century successors, particularly Yusuf I and Mohammed V, who built and redecorated many of its rooms in celebration of his accession to the throne (in 1354) and the taking of Algeciras (in 1369).

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The Alhambra after the Moors

Following their conquest of the city in 1492, Fernando and Isabel lived for a while in the Alhambra. They restored some rooms and converted the mosque but left the palace structure unaltered. As at Córdoba and Seville, it was Emperor Carlos V, their grandson, who wreaked the most insensitive destruction, demolishing a whole wing of rooms in order to build a Renaissance palace. This and the Alhambra itself were simply ignored by his successors, and by the eighteenth century the Palacios Nazaríes was in use as a prison. In 1812, it was taken and occupied by Napoleon’s forces when invading Spain, who looted and damaged whole sections of the palace, and on their retreat from the city tried to blow up the entire complex. Their attempt was thwarted only by the action of a crippled soldier (José García) who remained behind and removed the fuses; a plaque honouring his valour has been placed in the Plaza de los Aljibes.

Two decades later, the Alhambra’s “rediscovery” began, given impetus by the American writer Washington Irving, who set up his study in the empty palace rooms and began to write his marvellously romantic Tales of the Alhambra (on sale all over Granada – and good reading amid the gardens and courts). Shortly after its publication, the Spaniards made the Alhambra a national monument and set aside funds for its restoration. This continues to the present day and is now a highly sophisticated project, scientifically removing the accretions of later ages in order to expose and meticulously restore the Moorish creations.

Getting to the Alhambra

The standard way to get to the Alhambra is along the Cuesta de Gomérez, the semi-pedestrianized road that climbs uphill from Granada’s central Plaza Nueva. The only vehicles allowed to use this road now are taxis and those belonging to residents. Alternatively, a dedicated minibus service, the Alhambrabus (lines #30 or #32; operating daily between 7am–10pm, every 10 minutes; €1.20), departs from Plaza Isabel La Católica near the cathedral. This will drop you outside the Alhambra’s entrance and ticket office.

To get there by car, you’ll need to use the route that is signed from the Puerta Real, to the south of the cathedral; this guides you along paseos del Salón and de la Bomba, eventually bringing you to the Alhambra’s car park, close to the entrance and ticket office on the eastern edge of the complex.

Should you decide to walk up the hill along the Cuesta de Gomérez (a pleasant 20min stroll from Plaza Nueva), after a few hundred metres you reach the Puerta de las Granadas, a massive Renaissance gateway erected by Carlos V. Here two paths diverge to either side of the road: the one on the right climbs up towards a group of fortified towers, the Torres Bermejas, which may date from as early as the eighth century. The left-hand path leads through the woods past a huge terrace-fountain (again courtesy of Carlos V) to the main gateway – and former entrance – of the Alhambra. This is the Puerta de la Justicia, a magnificent tower that forced three changes of direction, making intruders hopelessly vulnerable. It was built by Yusuf I in 1340 and preserves above its outer arch the Koranic symbol of a key (for Allah the Opener) and an outstretched hand, whose five fingers represent the five Islamic precepts: prayer, fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage to Mecca and the oneness of God. The entrance and ticket office to the Alhambra – at the eastern end, near to the Generalife – lies a further five-minute walk uphill, reached by following the wall to your left.

The Citadel

Within the citadel stood a complete “government city” of mansions, smaller houses, baths, schools, mosques, barracks and gardens. Of this only the Alcazaba and the Palacios Nazaríes remain; they face each other across a broad terrace (constructed in the sixteenth century over a dividing gully), flanked by the majestic though incongruous Palacio de Carlos V.

Within the walls of the citadel, too, are the beautiful Parador de San Francisco (a converted monastery, where Isabel was originally buried – terrace bar open to non guests), and the palace hotel, Hotel América. There are a handful of drinks stalls around as well, including one in the Plaza de los Aljibes, just beyond the Puerta del Vino, and another in the Portal gardens (towards the Palacio de Carlos V after you leave the Palacios Nazaríes).

The Alcazaba

The entrance to the Alhambra brings you into the complex at the eastern end, near to the Generalife gardens. However, as you will have a time slot for entering the Palacios Nazaríes (usually up to an hour ahead), it makes sense chronologically and practically to start your visit with the Alcazaba at the Alhambra’s opposite, or western, end, entered through the Puerta del Vino – named from its use in the sixteenth century as a wine cellar.

The Alcazaba is the earliest and most ruined part of the fortress. At its summit is the Torre de la Vela, named after a huge bell on its turret, which until recent years was rung to mark the irrigation hours for workers in the vega, Granada’s vast and fertile plain. It was here, at 3pm on January 2, 1492, that the Cross was first displayed above the city, alongside the royal standards of Aragón and Castile and the banner of St James. Boabdil, leaving Granada for exile in the Alpujarras, turned and wept at the sight, earning from his mother Aisha the famous rebuke: “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.” To gain access to the Palacios Nazaríes you need to recross the Plaza de los Aljibes. In Nasrid times, this area was a ravine dividing the hill between the Royal Palace on one side, and the Alcazaba on the other. Following la reconquista, the ravine was filled in to hold two rainwater cisterns (aljibes) and the surface above laid out with fortifications. During the construction of Carlos V’s palace in the sixteenth century, the area was cleared to create a parade ground, the rather desolate form it retains today.

Entering the Palacios Nazaríes

It is amazing that the Palacios Nazaríes has survived, for it stands in utter contrast to the strength of the Alcazaba and the encircling walls and towers. It was built lightly and often crudely from wood, brick and adobe, and was designed not to last but to be renewed and redecorated by succeeding rulers. Its buildings show a brilliant use of light and space, but they are principally a vehicle for ornamental stucco decoration.

Arabic inscriptions feature prominently in the ornamentation. Some are poetic eulogies to the buildings and builders, others to various sultans (notably Mohammed V). Most, however, are taken from the Koran, and among them the phrase Wa-la ghaliba illa-Llah (There is no Conqueror but God) is tirelessly repeated. This became the battle cry (and family motto) of the Nasrids upon Ibn al-Ahmar’s return in 1248 from aiding the Castilian war of Fernando III against Muslim Seville; it was his reply to the customary, though bitterly ironic, greetings of Mansur (Victor), ridiculing his role as a feudal puppet of the Christian enemy.

The palace is structured in three parts, each arrayed round an interior court and with a specific function. The sultans used the Mexuar, the first series of rooms, for business and judicial purposes. In the Serallo, beyond, they received embassies and distinguished guests. The last section, the Harem, formed their private living quarters and would have been entered by no one but their family or servants.

The Mexuar

The council chamber, the main reception hall of the Mexuar, is the first room you enter. It was completed in 1365 and hailed (perhaps formulaically) by the court poet and vizier Ibn Zamrak as a “haven of counsel, mercy, and favour”. Here the sultan heard the pleas and petitions of the people and held meetings with his ministers. At the room’s far end is a small oratory, one of a number of prayer niches scattered round the palace and immediately identifiable by their distinctive alignment (to face Mecca). This “public” section of the palace, beyond which few would have penetrated, is completed by the Mudéjar Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room), decorated under Carlos V, whose Plus Ultra motif appears throughout the palace, and the Patio del Cuarto Dorado. This has perhaps the grandest facade of the whole palace, for it admits you to the formal splendour of the Serallo.

The Serallo

The Serallo – the part of the complex where important guests were received – was built largely to the design of Yusuf I, a romantic and enlightened sultan who was stabbed to death by a madman while worshipping in the Alhambra mosque. Its rooms open out from delicate marble-columned arcades at each end of the long Patio de los Arrayanes (Patio of the Myrtles).

At the court’s north end, occupying two floors of a fortified tower, is the royal throne room, known as the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors). As the sultan could be approached only indirectly, it stands at an angle to the entrance from the Mexuar. It is the largest room of the palace, perfectly square and completely covered in tile and stucco decoration. Among the web of inscriptions is one that states simply “I am the Heart of the Palace.” Here Boabdil signed the terms of his city’s surrender to the Catholic kings, whose motifs (the arms of Aragón and Castile) were later worked into the room’s stunning wooden dome, a superb example of lacería, the rigidly geometric “carpentry of knots”. Here, too, so it is said, Fernando met Columbus to discuss his plans for finding a new sea route to India – which led to the discovery of the Americas. The dome itself, in line with the mystical-mathematical pursuit of medieval Moorish architecture, has a complex symbolism representing the seven heavens. Carlos V tore down the rooms at the southern end of the court; from the arcade there is access (frequently closed) to the gloomy Chapel Crypt (cripta) of his palace, which has a curious “whispering gallery” effect.

The Harem

The Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), which has become the archetypal image of Granada, constitutes the heart of the harem. The stylized and archaic-looking lions beneath its fountain (due to be returned to their place in 2012 after a lengthy restoration) probably date, like the patio itself, from the reign of Mohammed V, Yusuf’s successor; a poem inscribed on the bowl tells how much fiercer they would look if they weren’t so restrained by respect for the sultan. The court was designed as an interior garden and planted with shrubs and aromatic herbs; it opens onto three of the palace’s finest rooms, each of which looks onto the fountain.

The most sophisticated rooms in this part of the complex, apparently designed to give a sense of the rotary movement of the stars, are the two facing each other across the court. The largest of these, the Sala de los Abencerrajes, has the most startlingly beautiful ceiling in the Alhambra: sixteen-sided, supported by niches of stalactite vaulting, lit by windows in the dome and reflected in a fountain on the floor. This light and airy quality stands at odds with its name and history, for here Abu’l-Hasan (Boabdil’s father) murdered sixteen princes of the Abencerraje family, whose chief had fallen in love with his favourite, Zoraya; the crimson stains in the fountain are popularly supposed to be the indelible traces of their blood, but are more likely to be from rust.

At the far end is the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings), whose dormitory alcoves preserve a series of unique paintings on leather. These, in defiance of Koranic law, represent human scenes; it’s believed that they were painted by a Christian artist in the last decades of Moorish rule. The second of the two facing chambers on the court’s north side, the Sala de las Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), is more mundanely named – from two huge slabs of marble in its floor – but just as spectacularly decorated, with a dome of over five thousand “honeycomb cells”. It was the principal room of the sultan’s favourite, opening onto an inner apartment and balcony, the Mirador de Daraxa (known in English as the “Eyes of the Sultana”); the romantic garden patio below was added after the Reconquest.

The Peinador de la Reina

Beyond, you are directed along a circuitous route through apartments redecorated by Carlos V (as at Seville, the northern-reared emperor installed fireplaces) and later used by Washington Irving. Eventually you emerge at the Peinador de la Reina, or Queen’s Tower, a pavilion that served as an oratory for the sultanas and as a dressing room for the wife of Carlos V; perfumes were burned beneath its floor and wafted up through a marble slab in one corner.

The Baños Reales

From here, passing the Patio de la Lindaraja (added in the sixteenth century – though the basin of its marble fountain was taken from outside the Mexuar), you reach the Baños Reales (Royal Baths). These are tremendous, decorated in rich tile mosaics and lit by pierced stars and rosettes once covered by coloured glass. The central chamber was used for reclining and retains the balconies where singers and musicians – reputedly blind to keep the royal women from being seen – would entertain the bathers. At present, entry is not permitted to the baths, though you can make out most of the features through the doorways. The visit route exits via the exquisite Pórtico del Partal, with the Torre de las Damas (Ladies’ Tower) and elegant portico overlooking a serene pool. What appears no more than a garden pavilion today is in fact the surviving remnant of the early fourteenth-century Palace of the Partal, a four-winged structure originally surrounding the pool, the Alhambra’s largest expanse of water. The Jardines del Partal lie beyond this, and the nearby gate brings you out close to the entrance to the Palacio de Carlos V.

Palacio de Carlos V

The grandiose Palacio de Carlos V seems totally out of place here, its austere stone-built architecture jarring with the delicate Oriental style and materials of the Moorish palace. Begun in 1526 it was never finished – the coffered ceilings of the colonnade were added only in the 1960s before which the Ionic columns had projected into open sky – as shortly after commissioning it, Carlos V left Granada never to return. Despite its incongruity the edifice is, however, a distinguished piece of Renaissance design in its own right – the only surviving work of Pedro Machucha, a former pupil of Michelangelo.

Museo de Bellas Artes

On the palace’s upper floor – reached by steps from a circular central courtyard where bullfights were once held – is a mildly interesting Museo de Bellas Artes. Here are displayed some notable examples of andaluz wood sculpture by seventeenth-century granadino Alonso Cano among others, as well as some vibrantly coloured abstract works by twentieth-century artist José Guerrero, who spent part of his life in New York and was influenced by American Expressionism.

Museo de la Alhambra

The lower floor holds the Museo de la Alhambra (aka Museo Hispano-Musulman), a small but fascinating collection of Hispano-Moorish art, displaying many items discovered during the Alhambra restoration including fine woodcarving and tilework. The star exhibit is a beautiful fifteenth-century metre-and-a-half-high Alhambra vase (Jarrón de las Gacelas), made from local red clay enamelled in blue and gold and decorated with leaping gazelles.

The Generalife

Paradise is described in the Koran as a shaded, leafy garden refreshed by running water where the “fortunate ones” may take their rest. It is an image that perfectly describes the Generalife, the gardens and summer palace of the sultans. Its name means literally “Garden of the Architect”, and the grounds consist of a luxuriantly imaginative series of patios, enclosed gardens and walkways.

By chance, an account of the gardens during Moorish times, written rather poetically by the fourteenth-century court vizier and historian Ibn Zamrak, survives. The descriptions that he gives aren’t all entirely believable, but they are a wonderful basis for musing as you lie around by the patios and fountains. There were, he wrote, celebrations with horses darting about in the dusk at speeds that made the spectators rub their eyes (a form of festival still indulged in at Moroccan fantasías); rockets shot into the air to be attacked by the stars for their audacity; tightrope walkers flying through the air like birds; and men bowled along in a great wooden hoop, shaped like an astronomical sphere.

Today, devoid of such amusements, the gardens are still evocative – above all, perhaps, the Patio de los Cipreses (aka Patio de la Sultana), a dark and secretive walled garden of sculpted junipers where the Sultana Zoraya was suspected of meeting her lover Hamet, chief of the unfortunate Abencerrajes. Nearby, too, is the inspired flight of fantasy of the Escalera del Agua, a staircase with water flowing down its stone balustrades. From here you can look down on the wonderful old Arab quarter of the Albaicín.

Moorish Granada

Granada’s glory was always precarious. It was established as an independent kingdom in 1238 by Ibn al-Ahmar, a prince of the Arab Nasrid tribe that had been driven south from Zaragoza. He proved a just and capable ruler, but all over Spain the Christian kingdoms were in the ascendant. The Moors of Granada survived only through paying tribute and allegiance to Fernando III of Castile – whom they were forced to assist in the conquest of Muslim Seville – and by the time of Ibn Ahmar’s death in 1275 theirs was the only surviving Spanish Muslim kingdom. It had, however, consolidated its territory (stretching from just north of the city down to a coastal strip between Tarifa and Almería) and, stimulated by refugees, developed a flourishing commerce, industry and culture.

By a series of shrewd manoeuvres Granada maintained its autonomy for two and a half centuries, its rulers turning for protection, in turn as it suited them, to the Christian kingdoms of Aragón and Castile and to the Merinid Muslims of Morocco. The city-state enjoyed a particularly confident and prosperous period under Yusuf I (1334–54) and Mohammed V (1354–91), the sultans responsible for much of the existing Alhambra palace. But by the mid-fifteenth century, a pattern of coups and internal strife became established and a rapid succession of rulers did little to stem Christian inroads. In 1479, the kingdoms of Aragón and Castile were united by the marriage of Fernando and Isabel, and within ten years they had conquered Ronda, Málaga and Almería. The city of Granada now stood completely alone, tragically preoccupied in a civil war between supporters of the sultan’s two favourite wives. The Reyes Católicos made escalating and finally untenable demands upon it, and in 1490 war broke out. Boabdil, the last Moorish king, appealed in vain for help from his fellow Muslims in Morocco, Egypt and Ottoman Turkey, and in the following year Fernando and Isabel marched on Granada with an army said to total 150,000 troops. For seven months, through the winter of 1491, they laid siege to the city, and on January 2, 1492, Boabdil formally surrendered its keys. The Christian Reconquest of Spain was complete.

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