Perched on a plateau and dramatically framed by the Sierra Nevada mountains behind, the Alhambra sits serenely overlooking the city of Granada. Walking the maze-like alleys of the ancient Muslim quarter of the Albaicín, you get tantalising glimpses of the Alhambra between buildings. Climb the hill to the Mirador San Nicolas though, and the full glory of the Alhambra reveals itself.
There are several Alhambra miradors, but the little square in front of the Church of St. Nicholas (better still, climb the church tower) offers uninterrupted views. It’s a lively gathering place for people, and often has amateur music and flamenco performances. The view is beautiful at any time of day, but the reddish walls glow in late afternoon sun. We took the view on our first day in the city, the next day we had tickets to visit.
Everyone knows that in Spain it mainly rains on the plain. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. I don’t know how often it rains in Granada (not often I’m guessing), but we woke the next day to a grey, dreary and cold day of drizzle and downpours. Not ideal for wandering around the Alhambra, much of which is outdoors. It was disappointing to visit in bad weather, but we were determined the rain wouldn’t dampen our spirits.
The Alhambra started life as a fortress, the Alcazaba, in the late 9th century, 180 years after the Umayyad Caliphate had established itself in Spain. Cordoba and Seville were the centres of power, Granada little more than a backwater. It wasn’t until 1238 that work began on the royal palaces. By then, the Caliphate was already in retreat, having lost over half the territory it controlled at its peak to Christian kingdoms in the north.
Over the next century the Alhambra grew to be the majestic complex of today. The Palacios Nazaries, considered by many to be the finest example of Islamic architecture in Europe, was constructed in this period. The mix of exquisite rooms, courtyards with fountains, beautiful carved roofs and tiles with mesmerising geometric patterns and Arabic inscriptions, make it hard to argue with that assessment.
This is the real highlight of a visit to the Alhambra. Even with tour groups sweeping through and selfie stick-wielding tourists, it’s hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all. We spent so long in the Palacios Nazaries that when we emerged into the Gardens of the Partal Palace it had stopped raining. We wandered the gardens on our way to the Generalife, taking in the fantastic views over Granada.
The whole place exudes a sense of balance and harmony. The original buildings and gardens compare well to the disastrous later additions made by King Charles I (better known as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V). His Renaissance-style Palacio de Carlos V is like a wanton act of vandalism, a huge unsophisticated lump imposed upon the more refined and delicate vision of earlier rulers.
Walking through the Alhambra today, it’s incredible to think this glorious complex of fortress, palace and pleasure gardens, was abandoned in the 18th century and largely forgotten until the early 19th century. Interest in the Alhambra surged after celebrity American author, Washington Irving, published his Tales of the Alhambra in 1832, kick-starting the slow process of protecting and restoring the entire site.
The Alhambra’s obscurity ensured that it survived largely intact, and what you see on a visit today is the 13th or 14th century original. If anything, today it’s become a victim of its own success. More than two million people visit each year, and that must take a huge toll on the fabric of the buildings. Even on a rainy day in winter there were crowds of people, and plenty of disregard for signs asking people not to touch. That can’t be sustainable in the long term.