Since I heard of it as a teenager, the Alhambra has seemed to be a jewel, a shining, perfect example of comfort, peace and repose for a prince. Pictures in books, TV and the Web presented cool gardens and reflecting pools, fountains gently spewing rippling streams, flowers and fruit trees and shade that made me want to put on a long, loose robe and recline on cushions to read poetry.
Its history as a relic of the Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus, subsequently conquered and claimed by energetically Catholic Spanish royalty, yet preserved in its Moorish-Arabian characteristics, only added to the magic.
From a distance, the Alhambra, the Alcazaba fortress in front of it, and the Generalife pleasure palace behind, all retain a mythical power, situated above the ancient and modern city of Granada. Getting there is not difficult: there are clear signs all the way from the highway. We simply follow the signs, a little uncertain at times as we negotiate roundabouts in the dark.
As we come off the A-44, we encounter a police roadblock at the bottom of the ramp. There are the small Spanish police cars on both sides of the road, pylons and barriers that leave just a narrow lane between them, and what looks like an armoured van to one side. The Spanish police look more like military men, with serious weapons. They stop every car as gets to the end of the ramp, look carefully at the driver, and direct more than one to the side of the road. But the soldier with the flashlight just glances at us and waves us through. We’re not sure whether to be relieved or somewhat insulted. (What, we don’t look dangerous?)
We follow our Google directions through a labyrinth of exits, smaller highways, roundabouts and a tunnel until we start climbing switchbacks that take us above the city lights. The final roundabout is confusing: it seems for a moment that we have to drive in the left lane, along a narrow road that climbs above the parking lots. But our destination is the most popular Parador in Spain, the Parador de Granada, sometimes called the Parador Alhambra.
A Parador is a government-owned hotel located in an old castle or monastery. They’re a great idea. Most of them are priced quite reasonably (the Alhambra is expensive, but no more than you’d expect for such a site). All meet stringent quality and cleanliness standards.
We had decided on the Parador de Granada because it’s actually on the grounds of the Alhambra, located in a 15th-century convent. That location would make it easier to get tickets to the site, and faster access. Also, we would not have to pay for transportation and parking.
We had also thought that if we got there early enough in the evening, we would have time to stroll around the grounds and gardens of the Alhambra, something that only Parador guests can do after closing time.
As it turned out, we made a sudden decision to have supper in another Parador in Jaen, on the road from Toledo. Also, our drive was extended due to some weaknesses in the Google directions. So it was after 11:00 p.m. before we arrived. Still, we could take in the grace of the layout of the old fortress/palace, the intricate mosaic of the walking path in the Parador’s courtyard, the age of the convent itself. As we are traveling in early April, the leaves are just starting to appear on the trees and there are few flowers, which detracts from the reality’s comparison to the pictures.
The walking path of the courtyard outside the Parador de Granada is a mosaic of rounded stones.
The Parador de Granada is a high-end luxury hotel. While the building is 600 years old, the interior is very modern. It’s sparkling clean, with chic, modern furniture. Switches on each side of the bed control all the lights in the room, even in the bathroom. It’s a nice touch.
From our window, we can see the Generalife. That’s a palace the Moorish Nasrid princes who ruled Granada in the 14th century built as a retreat from the comparative stress of the Alhambra.
Getting into the Alhambra
Even though we’re on the grounds of the Alhambra, we have to purchase tickets to get into the ancient fortress and palaces. Following the advice of a couple of guide-books (Frommer’s Spain in particular), we have purchased our tickets in advance, over the Web. The ticket specifies a time to be there, and recommends you arrive either an hour or a half-hour before that time (depending on which part of the ticket you look at). If you don’t get there at your time, you don’t get in. Unfortunately, the only time we could reserve was 8:30 a.m.
Worse: the hotel doe not serve breakfast until 8:00 a.m. I have learned that you cannot be in two places at one time when you are traveling, and the hotel is a 10 to 15-minute walk from the gate to the Alhambra proper.
I ask the early-morning desk man, Juan, around 7:00 a.m. if there is a way to get an early breakfast. “Just a moment. I will check the kitchen,” he replied. A few minutes later, he arrives at our room with a tray of delicious muffins, cookies and other treats for a sweet breakfast—no charge.
After breakfast, I jog down to the gate to exchange our ticket vouchers for actual tickets. I am dismayed by the line-up already there at 8:00, but that’s the line for people to buy tickets. The voucher-exchange line is much shorter, and both lines move quickly. The take-away here is: tourist sites anywhere are not that crowded in early April. However, I still recommend booking your tour well in advance here.
Another jog back up the hill to the entrance of the Alcazaba and the Nasrid Palaces. Here, the Spanish officials are very punctual: they keep about 20 visitors waiting on the plateau, behind a rope barrier, until precisely 8:30. It’s not so bad, though: we can look at the exterior of the Nasrid palace and the Palace of Charles V—a Renaissance European building that looks completely out of place among the Moorish architecture—and the view over the city and the plain beyond.
The buildings are deceptive: the columns and walls look delicate with their lace-like stone-work and mosaics, but this was, after all, a fortress. The Alcazaba, at the edge of the cliff, looks more imposing and business-like, but the palace is all cool shade.
The lace-like stone, plaster and woodwork of the Moors was unparalleled.
Unfortunately, we seem to have arrived in maintenance season. The fabled Lion Fountain is half-covered in boards; workmen and -women chip away at marble tiles or drill into stone; parts of the exhibit are covered.
Yes, there ARE palm trees here, although I’m not certain whether these are native to the area or were brought a millennium ago by the Moors.
The Moors loved water: there are pools and fountains in every building in the palace. There is of course the famous Lion Fountain and the long reflecting pool in the Court of Myrtles, and there are other, smaller fountains, just a low spout in the centre of a square or round pool, feeding narrow channels that I presume will run with a shallow stream of clear, cool water when all the work is finished. In the Generalife, we see the fabled Water Stairway: a staircase leading up from the central garden court that has running streams on each side. They’re tiny, but their effect is very peaceful.
There are several groups here, but the place is not crowded. Teenagers seem more taken with the local cats than with the art and architecture.
While there is a lot of history here, and audio-guides to follow and signs to read, you can also get a lot from the Alhambra and Generalife just by acting like a Nasrid prince: stroll slowly, enjoy the flowers, breathe the air. All these centuries later, it’s still one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in the world.