When I was thirteen, I picked up the flamenco guitar and dreamt of Spain. The intricacies eluded me, but within my head the music sang loud and true. I was a better painter than musician, and here too a fantastical world formed, inspired by Salvador Dali’s visions, mindscape merging with landscape. Crowning this dreamworld was an ancient palace of a vanished kingdom: the Alhambra. Someday I would go there, blend with its mystery in the shimmering heat of southern Spain. Almost fifty years later it comes to pass.
It’s my second day in the high city of Granada. Man, it’s cold. I had intended taking the bus to the main entrance but wandered instead down winding alleys from Plaza De Campos to Plaza Nueva close to the high western edge of the Alhambra. Beyond Plaza Nueva the city of Granada begins to shimmer and fade, blending into the landscape and replaced by a chimera of imagination and folk memory centred on the Alhambra, red bastion rising on its green and rugged plinth.
Alhambra signifies the Red Castle, from the blood toned colour of its stone. The Moors had built a fortress here in the ninth century but the existing complex dates to 1333 when Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, established his royal palace. It was to be the last bastion of the Moor in Spain, In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, completed the Reconquista when they defeated the Emirate of Granada. The two monarchs entered Granada clad symbolically as Moslems, promising friendship and tolerance of religion. It was short lived. The Moors rebelled in 1500 and the treaty lapsed. Moslem and Jew were required to convert or leave. The institution of the Spanish Inquisition was set up to police this law.
1492 was also the year when Italian explorer Christopher Columbus came here to receive the support of the Monarchs in his ambition to sail to the New World. This is when the Western World was born. An early history of Columbus was written by an Alhambra resident in the 1820s. Washington Irving, joker that he was, is responsible for perpetuating the myth that, pre Columbus, Europeans thought the earth was flat.
The entrance is through the Puerta de las Granadas, or Pomegranates, which gives the city its name. Inside the grounds the Alhambra reveals itself, tantalisingly peeking above the trees. With the gathering pilgrims, I push uphill. A fountain sprouts. The Pillar of Charles V dates from 1554. The ubiquitous Carlos V was a mere Carlos I until his elevation to Holy Roman Emperor. He didn’t even speak Spanish, to begin with, but his subjects warmed to him as he learned.
I rest on a bench. A quaintly dressed man stands nearby. He gestures to the glories spread above and wonders is it possible to capture the beauty and intensity of the place. I show him my camera and the shots I’ve taken, which he finds interesting, perplexing too. It’s words he means. How unworthy is my scribbling of the place, he says, and tells me of his Tales of the Alhambra, a history woven with imagined tales the walls must hold. What a great idea that is! Unfortunately the man must return to his home in America, but vows to come back to this most picturesque and beautiful city. I hope he does. I would wish to also, in warmer days. Again there is that faint shimmer in the air, and I find myself fading upwards along the path, past the statue of a writer I feel I must know.
I enter through Puerta de la Justicia, imposing russet tower with its distinctly Moorish horseshoe arch. The procession of pilgrims has melted away and I am left alone. From the ramparts, I see Granada tumble from the hillsides across the plain, the Sierra Nevada shining white across the horizon. When the Moor last looked out here, the Alhambra was entirely a construct springing from the Islamic culture of northern Africa. Within a couple of decades there was a notable intrusion of European style. The Palace of Carlos V was built by order of the Emperor in 1527 in the Renaissance style. Newly confidant Europe had rediscovered the glories of Greco-Roman antiquity and honed it into the distinctly modern style of the merging continent. The entrance patio is a startling homage to Classicism, with its two story colonnade holding us in its entrancing circle.
The temperature has dropped and I have forty five minutes before my appointment at Nazaries. A sign for coffee and services is misleading. This leads to a modernist concrete shack, cold and crowded, with one scabby machine offering hot beverages. The instructions are less than helpful. Yes, it takes money and credit cards, but how much? None of mine, for sure. I buy water and Doritos off a nearby Gypsy. The queue for the Nazaries is long but not long enough and when I reach the head ten minutes early I must stand to the side. I’m frozen blue, four degrees and falling. Global warming my ass!
The Nazaries unfolds on entering, a stone flower opening into more spaces than anticipated from the outside. Stone becomes fire and flickers to intricate tracery; water turns to glass and beckons to a perfect nether world. What paradise this must be in heat; water stone and plants working to scent and quieten the air. This cold emphasises its abandonment and defeat; its very existence a time capsule of a vanished age.
There are three palaces within the complex. First, the public area dealing with justice and administration. Then the Camares Palace which was the royal residence. Finally, the Palace of the Lions, a harbinger of heaven where the harem was located. A magnificent centrepiece is the Court of the Lions with its sculptured lions forming a circle within magnificent, delicately rendered cloisters. There is an abiding sense of harmony between the ancient Islamic order and the newly flowering Christian Renaissance. You could float on this river forever and ever.
Having exited inadvertently I slip back in. A female guard calls after me. However, she is hugging a heater in her sentry post, and indisposed to follow me. In truth, I’m prone to quitting. The absence of a decent cafe, or any place of warmth erodes my will. I come across the American Hotel and find a seat in its tiny tearoom. A sturdy Tuna Sandwich and two hot Americanos later and I’m suitably fortified. A friend had recommended a visit to the terrace at the Parador Hotel with splendid views of the Alhambra. But it’s not a patio day and the interior has that lowrise furniture peculiar to hotels and innimmicable to relaxation.
The Alcazaba is the fortress at the business end of the Alhambra, its towers giving the most majestic views over Grenada. I find myself earwigging a conversation between a Gypsy and two Americans. The Gypsy gives a brief account of their origin, relating the reasonable alternatives. Origination was somewhere in the near east, or refugees from the margins of the crumbling Roman empire. Some say we came from Egypt to wander the margins of empire. If people asked from whence we came, the answer was Egypt, which half heard, sounds like Gypsy.
From here, I take the path that fades down towards the entrance through beautiful gardens. The first blooms are appearing but t’s not quite come to life just yet. Across a ravine and climbing the next hill takes us to the Generalife, the Gardens of the Architect. Beautiful gardens surmounted by an elegant villa provided a retreat for the Royal Household from the travails of the Alhambra. And provides glorious views of it too.
On exit, I put into the first available bar. Below the walls of the western Alhambra, there is shelter and sufficient warmth from the sun to allow me bask outside with a beer and tapas. I walk back downhill past the northern walls alongside a rapid stream. I emerge onto the banks of the Darro river which heads back towards Plaza Nueva.
This area overlooking the Darro is the Albaicin, dating back to the 13th century and rich in Moorish heritage. The streets meander past high walled villas, dazzling white washed walls and towering palms and pines. Becoming impossibly narrow so you feel you must turn back, then widening unexpectedly into sparsely imposing squares. Quiet and weird; at times I feel I’ve strayed into a Dali scenario; Outskirts of the Paranoiac, perhaps.
Stranger still, lounging by the riverside cafe terrace with another beer and tapas, soaking in the first true warmth of the day, the waiter hurries by, imploring us to retreat under the canopy. It had certainly darkened off to the west, and a smudge of rain was sensed. Then it came upon us. The sky scowled and snow fell in curtains across the backdrop of the Alhambra.