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La Alhambra

March 19, 2007

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It is the most visited place in Spain, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the greatest treasures in Europe. The name Alhambra means “red castle” because in some lights the towers take on a golden reddish hue. It dates back to the ninth century and is a fortress (alcazaba), a palace (alcazar) and a small city (medina). Moorish poets described it accurately as “a pearl set in emeralds” and it is  considered a masterpiece of world architecture .

It is easy to do a day trip from our village to Granada where the Alhambra is located, so that is what we decided to do. We had a wonderful tour of our village with our friend and neighbor (who is an American lawyer that has been living with his family here for about eighteen years), so we decided to do a private tour with him.

It gave DaVinci a break from driving our group on unknown roads which is a stress in  itself and our friend knows the area well from many visits, so we loaded up in his van. He also had more of a sense of where to go and when and how to do it with the limitations of our group, so that was also a big help as it is a huge area to explore in this amount of time. We did it on a Monday which worked out good as that is the least crowded day. The drive there was a fast moving, curvy  adventure seeing new countryside, the world’s largest dam, white villages and lots of almond trees in bloom.

The back drop to the spectacular Alhambra complex are the beautiful Sierra Nevada range which still had snow on them. The mountains in California near our visitors home are named after these beauties and  perhaps next winter we will check out the skiing there. We thought we might make it this year, but never got in a ski mood. It was funny for our visitors to realize that their mountains were not the original and were named after these.

My favorite part of the Alhambra were the gardens, which like much of the entire complex, were inspired to duplicate heaven on earth. There were breathtaking views to the Alhambra, the white Albaicin old moorish section of Granada and the snow capped mountains, plus lots of water elements,greenery and flowers.

BJ and I were gasping in awe and were in photo heaven as everywhere we looked there was another better picture opportunity from the one a second before. Sadly our seniors missed this as an attempt to save their feet for the palace, but the rest of us enjoyed it thoroughly. This area is called Palacio of Generalife and was the summer palace and country estate of the sultans of Granada and were built in the early thirteen hundreds. It is one of the oldest surviving moorish gardens and best preserved medieval garden in Andalusia and there once was a covered walkway between the Alhambra and this palace.

My second favorite part was visiting the rooms where Washington Irving lived when he wrote the famous “Tales of the Alhambra” in 1829. It certainly was not as spectacular as some of the other places we saw there, but it brought more perspective to the book and was food for one’s imagination. I liked looking out the same windows that he did and looking at the same ceiling, wondering what he felt as he sat by his fireplace.

Most of the tour went smoothly, but there were some administrative problems on how they now allowed tourists to enter the Palacios Nazaries, the main palace. They have a thirty minute window for everyone
to enter this “must see” section, but we ended up waiting thirty minutes just to enter on this non-busy off season Monday. It was the worst system that I can imagine and our guide says it is the worst system that he has seen there. They were also working on the fountain of the Court of Lions which is one of the most photographed features, but we did not let either of these things bother us.

One can not help but admire this ancient jewel of the Alhambra with all of its intricately carved wood ceilings (8000 pieces in the dome), plaster stalactites made by layering stucco very thickly and then carving into it, walls decorated with beautiful flowers by pressing a mold into the plaster, and filigree windows that were once filled with stained glass. I could imagine what they looked like in their day when the walls were painted brightly and opulent fabrics and luxuries were new and everywhere.

There is plentiful finely carved arabic calligraphy everywhere as decoration, which was very prized at that time since the Moors felt  it is against God to make images of living things. “There is no conqueror but God” is repeated over 9,000 times in the palace which is interesting when one thinks of the history and how Seville and Cordoba had already fallen. Also coincidentally, this is the same phrase used by a Moorish ruler many years before when they were the conquerers and the people wanted to call him victor.

We saw Charles V’s unfinished palace built over his foes palace, that is the most impressive Renaissance building in Spain, but it does not really fit in with the rest, so looks out of place. Our guide pointed out the unusual arches and it looked like a bullring (and bullfights took place there), but it was not a highlight of the tour.

The Alcazaba is the original fortress and oldest part of the complex and the views are stupendous. We let the elders relax and sit while the rest of us explored it and got more exercise climbing and walking. The best part of this section was climbing the largest remaining tower and getting a 360 degree view of the surrounding magnificent countryside and Granada.

Then we all walked a leisurely twenty minutes down tree lined gentle stairs to have lunch in central Granada’s Plaza Nueva. Granada is not known for its food, but we had a fairly decent lunch although the center of attention was a lively political conversation.

We had worn our guests out so only DaVinci, Mozart and I did a quick tour of  the adjacent Granada’s Cathedral, (the only completely Renaissance church in Spain) and Royal Chapel with the elaborate tombs of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (along with the royal  jewels, his sword and paintings by Boticelli) realizing that the grandeur was financed by the conquests of the New World.

We were spoiled by our friend and tour guide who walked back up all those stairs and got the van, while we rested in the shade and looked at gift shops. We avoided the gypsy fortune tellers this time (they got the whole crew when we were in Seville before I could stop them) and had a pleasant ride back home.

Here is a tour online that you can take if you would like to know more (as it is far too much than I could possibly cover in one entry and twelve pictures):
http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/alhambra/flash/intro.html


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Julia

What gorgeous photos!

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