25 April 2014
In the courts of the Gardens of Paradise
and in the city of dreams and music
One day in mid-week, before dawn broke, I took a two-hour journey by bus from the coast at Torremolios to the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 738 metres above sea level, to see the city of Granada and the Moorish citadel and palace at Alhambra.
The city of Granada was once described by the composer Andrés Segovia as “a place of dreams where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.”
After breakfast along the way, our first stop was at the Mirador de San Nicolás in one of the highest points of the old hill-top quarters of Albayzin, for the spectacular views across the city and the Darro valley, to the Alhambra and the Generalife Gardens to the south, with the Sierra Nevada in the background.
We climbed through the sloping, narrow cobbled streets of the Albayzin, paved with river stones, to the square crammed with tourists catching their first glimpse of Alhambra. There, as we stood and sat in wonder, we were entertained by a pair of busking Andalucían gypsies – a Flamenco guitarist and dancer.
We retuned through the university city of Granada to reach the Alhambra, the Generalife and the Gardens.
The Alhambra dates from 889, but it was thoroughly rebuilt in the mid-11th century by Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar, the Moorish King of Granada who built the palace and walls. Later it was turned into a royal palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, in 1333. The palaces were built for the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslim emirs in Spain, and were finally surrendered to Spain’s “Catholic Monarchs”, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492.
The Emperor Charles V built a new palace on the site in 1527, but eventually the whole place fell into disrepair, damaged by neglect, plunder, earthquakes and even an attempt by Napoleon’s army to blow the place up.
The Alhambra was rediscovered in the 19th century by writers and travellers, and was romanticised in 1832 by Washington Irving (1783-1859) in his Tales of the Alhambra – he also wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle. The new attention created an interest in restoration, and today this is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Throughout the Alhambra, the buildings and the gardens are designed to reflect the very beauty of Paradise, with gardens, fountains, streams, a palace, and a mosque, all within an imposing fortress wall, flanked by 13 massive towers.
We made our way first through the gardens to the Generalife (Jennat al Arif, “The Garden of Lofty Paradise”), with its secluded courtyards, gardens, patios and villas, protected by towers fortifications, underground cisterns, stables and the former garrison. Here the sultans of Granada could escape from the palace intrigues in the Alhambra and the busy life of the city in their search for tranquillity.
But the main part of the complex is the Palace of Alhambra, with its creative architectural combination of space, light, water and decoration to create one of the most intriguing works left behind in Spain after almost eight centuries of Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula.
The palace buildings include the rooms opening onto central courts, squares and rooms connected with each other by smaller chambers, passages, arches and colonnaded and pillared arcades, fountains with running water, pools designed to reflect the buildings, and a creative use of blue, red, and a golden yellow throughout.
The buildings are covered with calligraphic inscriptions and sacred arabesque and geometrical patterns, the walls are panelled with painted tiles, and the ceilings are decorated with stalactites.
Alhambra was a castle, a palace and a courtly residence. The royal complex incorporates three main parts: the Mexuar, the Serallo and the Harem. The Mexuar houses the functional areas for business and administration. The ceilings and floors are made of dark wood and are in sharp contrast to the white, plaster walls. The Serallo, built in the 14th century, contains the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles). The Harem is elaborately decorated and contains the living quarters for the wives and mistresses of the monarchs.
The large Hall of the Ambassadors was the grand reception room with the throne of the sultan. Later, it was here that Christopher Columbus received formal support from Isabel and Ferdinand for his project to sail to the New World.
A low gallery supported on 124 white marble columns surrounds the Court of the Lions. The Fountain of Lions in the centre of the court is an alabaster basin supported by the figures of 12 lions in white marble, representing strength, power, and sovereignty. It is said that each hour, one lion would produce water from its mouth.
Muhammad XII of Granada, known as Boabdil, was the 22nd and last Sultan of Granda. He surrendered of Granada, the last Muslim-ruled city in Spain, in 1492 without the Alhambra itself being attacked, to the forces of the Spain’s “Catholic monarchs,” King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile.
When Boabdil burst into tears after his surrender at Santa Fe, burst into tears, his mother reproached him, saying: “You weep like a woman for what you couldst not defend as a man.”
The Alhambra reflects the culture of the last centuries of the Moorish rule of al-Andalus, reduced to the tiny Nasrid Emirate of Granada. It is a testament to Moorish culture in Spain and the skills of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian artisans, craftsmen, and builders of the era. It remains a captivating example of Muslim art and architecture in its final European stages, relatively uninfluenced by Byzantine styles.
On the way back down the slopes, we stopped briefly to visit the Palace of Charles V, a 16th century Renaissance palace that was still awaiting completion when it was abandoned.
From the Alhambra we made our way back down to the city of Granada, and as we sat out for lunch in a café in the Plaza Bib-Rambla, we were entertained once again by a busking Flamenco troupe that included a guitarist, a singer and two dancers.
From there we walked through the narrow side streets to the Capilla Real or Royal Chapel of Granada. After they had taken Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella chose the city as their burial place, and the Royal Chapel was built over the former terrace of Granada’s Grand Mosque.
Spanish visitors and tourists alike queue to enter the crypt where the Catholic Monarchs, are buried beneath their effigies, alongside their daughter Juana la Loca (“the Mad”) and her husband Felipe el Hermoso (“the Fair”).
Outside the doors of the Royal Chapel, we peered into the Palazzo de la Madraza, originally an Islamic university and now part of the University of Granada.
The lengthy queues precluded a visit to the neighbouring cathedral, built on the very site of the Nasrid Grand Mosque shortly after Granada was taken by Ferdinand and Isabella. But from the plaza in front we admired its architectural styles. The cathedral is modelled in the Gothic style of the Cathedral of Toledo, but was completed in a Renaissance style, with five naves instead of the usual three and later Baroque additions.
We also stepped inside the Ayuntamiento or City Hall facing onto Plaza de Carmen. The first things the visitor sees are large statues of Ferdinand and Isabel. But this building is designed in a distinctively Moorish style, with an elaborately carved entrance, an ornate stairway and a central in Moorish-style courtyard with a fountain.
There was time for one last double espresso in one of the many cafés on Plaza de Mariana Pineda. This one of Granada’s many pretty squares and is named in honour of Mariana de Pineda y Muñoz (1804-1831), a revolutionary heroine from Granada who is generally known as Mariana Pineda.
Mariana married a revolutionary army officer, but by the age of 18 she was widowed in with two children. In 1828 she aided a jail break by condemned revolutionaries. When a search of her house uncovered a flag emblazoned with the slogan “Equality, Freedom and Law,” Mariana was arrested and charged with conspiracy. After a failed escape attempt, she was publicly executed by the garrotte on 26 May 1831.
The playwright Federico García Lorca based his play Mariana Pineda on her story, and she became a popular figure in the resistance to Franco’s regime.
From this “place of dreams” that could “put the seed of music in [your] soul” we returned through the countryside of Andalucía, beneath the slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Torremolinos and the beaches of the Costa del Sol.