The Alhambra's red crenelated walls glowing at sunset after the 6,000 daily visitors have departed

The other day I was seeding a pomegranate, such a sensual fruit with its ruby-red arils clustered together. It got me thinking about Granada, the Spanish city whose name comes from a combination of Arabic words meaning word pomegranate and hill of strangers.

The main reason tourists go to Granada is to see the Alhambra, a complex complex (double word intended), a red castle on a hilltop above the city. Although it’s a Moorish legacy, the Alhambra is a varied architectural assortment of palaces, churches, towers, gardens and plazas (our map lists 66 features) built and rebuilt over eight centuries. It covers the equivalent of three football fields. With that kind of complexity, Magellan and I pre-booked a tour. When we arrived, we were assigned to the “Woman’s Tour,” the 10 am special-of-the day for English-speaking tourists.

The three interconnected Nasrid Palaces built in the 14th century by the Nasrid Sultans are the most famous section of the Alhambra. I liked the Comares Palace and Palace of the Lions best. They represent the time under Yusuf I and Muhammad V (1333-1354 and 1362-1391, respectively) when, according to our guide William, the Muslims, Jews and Christians got along.

They also represent the splendour of Moorish decoration. Inlaid cedar carved delicate as my mom’s crocheted doilies, plaster fashioned into intricate geometric patterns, Arabic script drawing the words of the Koran into calligraphic art and azulejo tiles hand-painted in the colours of emeralds, rubies and onyx. Maybe Liam Lacey from The Globe and Mail took the same tour given his description of the honeycombed ceilings that “seem to sway like pearl-and-lace wedding dresses.” William explained that the exquisite ceilings of the Sala de abencerrajes have planned imperfections because “Only Allah is perfect.”

This being the woman’s tour, we visited the harem. Not a happy place with the bullying and beating (to the death in some cases) that went on among the women striving to become the preferred mistresses and chosen wives of the Nasrid kings. The king in power had his first, second and third wives housed in royal apartments removed from this mayhem. “I think I’d like to have been wife number one,” I told Magellan as William showed us her private apartment on the top floor. “For now you still are,” Magellan laughed.

Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the Catholic monarchs who unified Spain by ousting the last of the Moors from Andalucia in 1492, installed the Royal House in the Alhambra. In the space of a few metres our group jumped ahead a few centuries to the Renaissance palace architecture of Carlos V, the grandson of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand who orchestrated the rebuilding of this palace. Compared with the integrated delicacy of Moorish design in the Nasrid Palaces, the architecture here is a bit jarring, heavy and mish-mash, described by one writer as “a stepchild of history.” William concentrated our attention on its more feminine aspects, like the fountains.

He led us through the Generalife, used by the Nasrid kings as their summer palace and designed to be paradise on earth with the scent of jasmine, intricacy of passionflower and blue of plumbago. We decided to return for a self-guided night tour when darkness creates a magical spell over the Alhambra and softens the decay of the buildings in Generalife.

But back to daytime and the “Woman’s Tour.” Leaving the Alhambra, William pointed out the Royal Water Channel, a feat of elaborate engineering devised by the Arabs to pump fresh water up to the Alhambra. At the Cathedral of Granada, we saw the sacristy tombs of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, but it was the cathedral’s openness, white marble and the sculpture of Alonso Cano that captivated us.

By now it was lunchtime. “Our last stop is Carmen de Victoria, a former convent, now inhabited by only a few nuns and used as a residence for guests of the University of Granada. We don’t often offer it on our tours, but we can go there today. How many of you are up for it?” A handful of us said yes.

Carmenes, we learned, means a grand house with an Arabic garden planted with vines. Carmen de Victoria is the only public carmen in the city that’s retained its house-garden function. The darkened wood, the smell of incense and polish and the quiet sanctity within made us forget our hunger. Until I smelled baking. William explained that the nuns in residence here (I think he said there were eight of them), make a special cookie. Would we like to buy some? Uh huh. William knocked on the door of a small, lazy susan at waist height, put a note on it and gave it a spin. Minutes later, Magellan and I were saying good-bye to William and hello to Carmen’s sugar cookies.

Carmen de Victoria is in the Albayzín, the old Moorish quarter, a labyrinth of narrow cobbled alleys and whitewashed houses. Fifteenth-century traveller Hieronymus Münzer wrote that “one mule can’t allow another to pass, unless it be in one of the more famous street, which have a width of four or five elbows.” We wandered up the twisting streets, past plazas with wide views to the city below, listening to the quiet hum of a neighbourhood where most residents and shopkeepers were behind closed doors for an afternoon siesta. At a little restaurant that would have been at home in San Francisco in the ‘60s, a bescarfed woman said yes, they were open and she still had some moussakka. It was time for this woman to eat.

Navigation

You need a full day to see the three UNESCO areas: the Alhambra, the Generalife and Albayzin. A word of caution. Pay very close attention to where the tour (which was excellent) meets. We got lost several times trying to find the obscure building and were racing to be there by 10 am. (The attendants told us this is common.)

Dating back to the 11th century, the El Bañuelo Moorish bath complex is the oldest preserved building in Granada.

While exploring the endless narrow streets in the Albayzin, check out the Plaza Larga with its panoramic view of the Alhambra against the Sierra Nevada at sunset. We watched the sun go down at El Huerto de Juan Ranas, a restaurant just a few steps down.

Here’s the link to Liam Lacey’s article in the Globe and Mail.

Beyond Albayzin lies the gypsy quarter of Sacromonte, with its cave homes and flamenco dancing. We had dinner and watched the dancing at Venta El Gallo.

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