The Alhambra. Just the name conjures up a mental image of the medieval clash between Europe and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam, a time of religious quests and bloody battles. These days, the tales of battles are limited to the legendary queues to obtain tickets to visit it, so after a particularly busy start to the year, I decided to do my duty as a Londoner during the Jubilee double-Bank Holiday weekend and get out of Dodge to make way for the tourists that were on the way in.
An extra day of leave booked either side meant I was heading out to Granada on Friday, then had all of Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and the best part of Wednesday out there before flying home that evening. I booked tickets to visit the palace on the Monday morning and a night-time visit on Tuesday evening, thinking that would be a perfect way to round off the trip, then waited until it was time to head out.
Granada airport is really rather small. Nothing so fancy as a jet-bridge, just steps down from the plane to the tarmac, and if you’re travelling without luggage, as I was, you’re out of the airport in a couple of minutes. I was ready to treat myself to a €20 taxi ride into town, but as I exited, the €3 coach was sitting there, which made the choice simple. I’d left a dull London that was about to head into a rain-soaked weekend, and I couldn’t help but feel a little smug as the sun hit my face.
I’d booked a single room at the hotel, but when I checked in they actually apologised that was all they had available, and promised that when it emptied out a little on Sunday I could move into a double. The single room was quite small, but no smaller than it is in many hotels, and it was very clean. I resisted the urge to head straight up to the palace and wandered around some of the older parts of the town, the Albaicin, for a little while instead, stealing the odd glance of the fort towering over the rest of the city, and trying to ignore the sounds of ‘Eloise’ blaring out of one of the jukeboxes that didn’t quite fit with the feeling of the whitewashed twisty, steep, narrow paths.
In retrospect, the t-shirt and shirt I’d needed at home was perhaps a little overkill for the south of Spain, and even at 9pm I was rather warm walking around, which meant I had to stop off at the odd bar for a cold beer, and in Granada almost every place that serves beer, serves a plate of tapas with it, frequently fried in lots of oil and not uncommonly covered in batter. This is not a place to come to lose weight.
On Saturday, I was prepared. I didn’t know what to expect on Monday, so I was heading up to the Alhambra to pick my tickets up. It was just a fifteen minute walk from the hotel to the ticket office, passing the dilapidated remains of the ‘Hotel Washington Irving,’ named after the American author that in the late nineteenth century spent some time living in the palace and wrote “Tales of the Alhambra.” He also wrote “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and was later the US Minister to Spain, trivia fans.
My worst fears of the ticket office were far from realised. There was a queue, but that was simply a queue if you wanted to tickets with cash for entry that day. A short walk around the corner presented the machines for picking up tickets pre-booked with a credit card, or buying tickets with a credit card for that day, and there wasn’t a queue at a single one of them. Not that it mattered, it felt much better to know I had the tickets as otherwise I’d have known no more than the reputation and would have been worrying whether I’d have ended up paying for a trip to Granada and not having been able to visit the main reason for going there.
Given I’d gone to all the effort of climbing up the hill, I wasn’t in a rush to head back down, and had a wander around the parts of the fort that didn’t need a ticket. Starting with the “Justice Gate”, perhaps the most impressive of the entrances to the complex, the passage inside the gate doubles back on itself twice in an attempt to slow down invading armies that had breached the outer door.
Inside is the palace of Carlos V. An imposing, late addition to the Alhambra. Late in this context means the sixteenth century and it was designed by a pupil of Michaelangelo. Inside is a large circular courtyard and the palace houses two museums, one of the Alhambra and the other, the Museum of Fine Arts. I was pleased and surprised with how quiet it was inside.
Later in the afternoon I had another wander around the Albaicin. I was on the hunt for the Mirador de San Nicholas, supposedly the best place to get a view of the Alhambra, but after finding a small square with a reasonably good view, the Placeta Carvajales, I was confronted with a human traffic-jam. A human traffic-jam in their Sunday best. From the back, I could see a bunch of people, and in front of them a platform with the statue of the Virgin Mary towering 12-15 feet high.
However, I could only see the back, so there then began a slightly comical sequence of events where I’d dash through some back streets, trying to get ahead of the parade, only to end up out of breath and sweating slightly back at the end of the procession. Eventually I managed to pick the right choice of streets, and to be fair I think the procession paused in front of a couple of churches that allowed me to take the lead, and I emerged at a street that was cordoned off ready for the procession to hit it.
Leading the statue were two columns of people, mainly women, on either side of the road carrying large candles. Behind them a man was reading from a text, closely followed by a group of other people. I began to think this was a funeral procession and this must have been the family. Behind them, were some young men and women dressed in robes, swinging incense, and carrying more candles. Then there was the statue. If this was a funeral, perhaps there was a coffin underneath the statue, but it wasn’t obvious. It was borne by almost 20 men and looked heavy. It was moved for a few steps, they set it down and paused, and then moved it again.
Whilst I was standing out of the way to take a couple of photographs, and feeling self-conscious even with that, there were other that were getting much closer to the procession, and even wandering amongst it to take their photos. I’m not convinced that they were all tourists either.
Still not entirely sure what I’d just witnessed, I settled down for some food at the Paseo de los Tristes, the ‘Promenade of the Sad’. I ate here a few times, I’m not sure what that says. It was 9pm, so still on the early side for food in this part of the world. I was surprised it was still light given I was now considerably further south, but perhaps Spain cheats by being an hour ahead of where it should be based on longitude. As I sat there, a pretty good violin player was playing and a woman was writing her diary on the wall, with the Alhambra towering over all of us, as it has done for 800 years. I thought there could be few places on earth that I would rather be at that particular moment.
After dinner I crossed the river and walked up Cuesta del Rey Chico back to the Alhambra. This goes up the other side to the “main” road and is much quieter. It is overshadowed by the imposing stone walls, but like the rest of the Alhambra there is water everywhere. A stream follows the side of the road and at one point there is a drain one of the other parts of the complex pouring water out a short way up one of the walls. For the south of Spain the amount of water that is constantly flowing around the Alhambra is astonishing, and more than welcome. You are never far from the sound of running water.
I reached the top and turned around again, realising that the shallow steps were much easier to see on the way up in the dark than on the way down, so I ambled down, meeting a few more people than I’d met on the way up. Some of them were already pausing for breath, still much closer to the bottom than the top, I was hoping they weren’t going to ask me how much further it was as I wouldn’t have had the heart to tell them.
Following those exertions, a cerveza and tapas was in order, so I went to La Gran Taberna opposite the hotel. Given they come with every drink you buy, the tapas are delicious in some of the bars, as they were in this one. Some bars focus on seafood-based dishes, others meat, others mix them all. It was 11:20pm and there were still families out eating with young children. On the wall of the bar was, I thought, an old poster for some bullfighting. Then I checked the dates and realised it was a poster for this weekend’s bullfighting. I was momentarily tempted, but thought I still had enough to see before I was heading home.
Sunday was a quiet day. This time I was determined to find the Mirador de San Nicholas. It was much higher in Albaicin than I’d expected, and I’d not been as close to it when I was at Placeta Carvajela than I thought I’d been, but worth it for the view. It was busy, not just with tourists but also with its fair share of people selling tourist tat. The view of the Alhambra is fantastic, and I could see the Sierra Nevada in the distance, still with snow on some of north-facing slopes that look towards Granada.
Whilst the Mirador was busy, it was quiet only a street or two away, so I wandered down the side-streets to Fuente del Triunfo (Triumph Gardens, not named after a British motorcycle), and thence a spot of lunch whilst watching the final laps of the Catalunya MotoGP with some seafood tapas. Following the MotoGP there was quite a bit of coverage of the Jubilee celebrations from Britain, which looked rather wet.
Monday was the day I’d been looking forward to. This was the day I was visiting the Alcazabar, the Palacios Nazaries and the Generalife at the Alhambra, the day I’d been building up to. I had a morning ticket, which allows entry from 8:30am to the ‘untimed’ part of the Alhambra, and I had a timed 10:30 entry to the Palacios Nazaries. I decided to start at the Alcazabar, the oldest part of the Alhambra and the western-most part, looking out of the city. I was there at 8:20 waiting for it to open, and I was the third person in through the gates.
Looking out over the rest of the city and the valley stretching westwards, the views from the towers of the Alcazabar are fantastic, and all the better for getting there ahead of the crowds. When the Cross was first raised on the Torre de la Vela (Bell Tower) on January 2nd, 1492, the fleeing Boabdil (Muhammed XII of Granada) who was heading for exile, cried, and was admonished by his mother with “you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”
Next was the Palacios Nazaries. You can only enter this within a 30 minute window printed on your ticket, but once inside you can stay as long as you want. You enter into the council chamber, and from there take a route through to the Hall of the Ambassadors, the largest room in the palace, the Court of the Myrtles, the Court of the Lions, the Hall of the Abencerrages, the Queen’s Tower, the Patio de la Lindaraja before exiting to the Partal Gardens.
Parts of the palace are undergoing renovation, but that doesn’t stop each new room from making your jaw drop. Not only are they impressive to see, but the history that has taken place in each of them. The Hall of the Abencerrages, for example, is beautifully intricate room with a eight-sided vaulted ceiling. It is also where according to legend, Boabdil’s father killed sixteen princes of the Abencerrage family after one of them had fallen in love with a woman of the royal family.
The Court of the Lions is nearing the end of a lengthy restoration and it’s centrepiece, a fountain mounted on the backs of lions, was half open from the protective wooden shroud that has been surrounding it for some time.
From the Partal Gardens, you walk to the gardens and the palace of the Generalife. This is a much more modest building, but surrounded by a number of gardens with trees, fountains and neatly tended flowerbeds.
Before heading back down the hill for a spot of lunch I dropped into the Palace of Carlos V again. A stage was being set up inside for some event or other, so I was glad I had taken some photos on Saturday. There was also a chap there employing what appeared to be the ‘blunderbuss’ method of photography. With a relatively expensive camera set to continuous shooting, he kept the shutter pressed down and waved it around. I know that at the end of the holiday I had trouble cutting down my 450 photos to under 200. I don’t know how long it would have taken him to edit his album. I presume he must have a mighty hard drive on his computer.
It had taken the better part of the morning to explore the palaces, but there was still the afternoon to fill, so I stayed on the cultural theme and headed to the Convento de San Jeronimo. You enter into a cloister that surrounds some orange trees, off which are a number of rooms — a refectory, a sacristy, and with the names of past abbots set in tiles in the floor. As you near the end of the cloister you enter the church and my eyes widened. You have to be a little bit insane to be the architect of a cathedral, and the architect of this one was certainly a few collonades short of a cloister.
A little bit of a walk north and I ended up at La Cartuja, another former monastery. Walking around the cloisters here, most of the rooms are now full of art related to martyrdom, but again as you get to the church at the end of the walk around the cloisters you have to pause for a few moments. The church is full of stucco ceilings and has a chapel that has columns on the wall that appear to be all capitals and no column.
At first glance the marble altarpiece is reflected in a series of mirrors behind it, then you realise that the mirrors don’t match the altarpiece, and they are actually windows into a room behind with another, much darker, altarpiece in complete contrast to the white and light church. Photographs are not permitted in La Cartuja.
Granada feels like a relatively small city, and several times wandering around I saw the same faces again and again. Some of those will have been tourists on the same path as I was, but others were definitely locals.
In one of the city squares whilst I ate a meal in the evening there was what appeared to be a flamenco competition or demonstration. On top of the procession I was starting to think I’ve been quite lucky.
Tuesday was my last full day in Granada and I started it off by heading to the remains of the Arab Bath House on Carrera del Darro, the road winding along the river that runs through Granada. Following this was a bit of walk to the Sacromonte Caves, a museum of the cave dwellings that were used until quite recently. They’re well preserved and there are detailed signs, in English as well as Spanish, telling the stories of life and industry in the area. Of course, it also has the obligatory panoramic view down the valley towards the Alhambra and the rest of the city. The caves weren’t the easiest to find, and as I got back to the city to the Paseo de los Tristes I overheard a couple of other tourists trying to find them, so I pointed them in the right direction.
In the afternoon I headed up to Carmen de los Martires, a nineteenth century stately home and ornamental gardens. I’d read there was a great view of the Alhambra from there (what, another one?), but when I reached what I thought was the viewing platform there were trees and grass blocking the view. Then I noticed another pathway that climbed further up. I followed it, zig-zagging as it wends its way up towards the top wall of the gardens and then I realised that was where the view was. If you’ve been to Granada and not found the way up to top of the gardens, you have missed another great view of the Alhambra. If you are going to Granada, don’t give up until you’ve reached the wall at the top of the hill in the garden for a view of the palace, the valley, and behind you, the Sierra Nevada.
When you get back down, don’t forget to have a walk around the rest of the gardens, filled with grottos, fountains, and a small lake with a keep in the centre of it.
As the day drew to a close, it was time for the second visit to the Palacios Nazaries, but this time by night. It follows much the same route as the daytime visit, but the floodlighting adds a different view. It is also much quieter, so I had more time to pause along the way. Alas, the amount of light means that photography with a compact camera is difficult and requires a steady hand.
Finally, Wednesday dawned. I checked out of the hotel, which had been very helpful and friendly throughout my stay. There was still much to see before I left for the flight though! Starting with the Royal Chapel, which contains the tomb and displays the coffins of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos) under whom other religions were expelled from Spain. One one hand, Ferdinand and Isabella approved Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World. On the other hand, they segregated communities and created ghettos for Jewish people.
The altarpiece in the Royal Chapel continues the theme of martyrdom with scenes of John the Baptist being beheaded and John the Evangelist being boiled alive. Also in the chapel are a crown, sceptre and sword from the fifteenth century. They look simple, but it is evocative to think of them being used 600 years ago.
To round the visit off, the cathedral was the final stop I had planned. I had seen the cathedral from the Alhambra and it is large enough to dominate a fair part of the city from there, it appears even larger when I got inside. The organ has four banks of pipes that dominate the nave and lead up to another stunning altarpiece, this one several stories high covered with art.
So that was that. Lunch, coach and back home. Except when I left the cathedral there were queues of people lining the street. I might as well hang around and see what is going on. I say “see” what is going on, because I still have no idea what actually was going on. There was a procession of four large models, that looked perhaps like Ferdinand and Isabella, perhaps followed by two Moors? Following them was a dragon with a women in a white dress standing on its back, then people dressed in various costumes and at the end a number of people wearing papier-mache heads who were going around bashing kids on the head with paper balloons.
If anybody can fill me in on what this was, I’d be very grateful. Put together with the other procession and the flamenco event I either planned my trip very fortuitously, or this was just another random weekend in Granda.
I worried that the roads weren’t going to be open again in time for the coach to get me to the airport, because taxis were also pretty thin on the ground, but it all worked out.
From 35C at lunch, when I got back to Heathrow it was 12C or less, the tube was broken due to flooding at Stratford and I spent 25 minutes standing outside Walthamstow Central station until the last bus of the night arrived at 12:15am to get me home just before 1am (I’d landed just after 10pm), in time to watch the weather forecast with warnings of wind, rain, and possible localised flooding. Welcome home.