There is nothing in this life like the grief of being blind in Granada
(Mexican Poet, Francisco A. de Acaza)
Of course you won’t miss it – because it makes every ‘must do’ list for Spain doesn’t it so you can’t exactly claim that you never heard of it!
Is it worth the hype? I think so. Perched on a rocky hilltop, overlooking the city of Granada and the River Darro, this is so much more than a Palace. Spread across about 26 acres, the citadel boasts more than a mile of walls and 30 towers while its rather austere outer walls house numerous palaces and gardens, not to mention the stunning architecture and art.
A bit of background:
Location! Location! Location!
Al-Sabika Hill was the ideal place for a fortress. Its plateau provided the perfect vantage point, offering great strategic views of the surrounding countryside. There would be no surprise attack here!!
899 – The first written reference to a military camp on Al-Sabika Hill.
1237 – Muhammad I – founder of the Nasrid dynasty – moves his court to Granada. The Moorish king builds a new defensive fort.
1333-54 – Yusuf I converts the fort into a royal Palace – the Palacio Nazaries.
1492 – Muslim rule comes to an end and Spain is unified under a Catholic Monarchy. Alhambra is is used by Christian rulers who introduce a renaissance touch to the palace. The mosque is replaced by a church.
1527 – Palacio de Carlos is built as a permanent residence for the monarch.
By the 18th Century, the Alhambra has been abandoned.
1812 – Parts are destroyed by a French force during the Peninsular War.
1821 – An earthquake causes further damage to the complex.
The building is occupied by squatters and falls into a severe state of ruin.
After years of neglect, Alhambra is rediscovered by European scholars and travelers. In 1870 it is officially declared a national monument and intensive restoration works commence.
1984 – Alhambra and the Generalife are collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The name Alhambra is of Arabic origin meaning ‘the red‘ or ‘the red one’. It is presumably derived from the red soil in the area.
Alhambra comprised three main sections. The Alcazaba was a military base for guards and their families. The Palatial Zone with its several palaces, built first by its Islamic and then Christian rulers, reflected styles belonging to varied times and cultures. The Medina was where court officials lived and worked.
Nowadays, much of the complex – mosque, schools, barracks, administrative buildings, public baths, etc. – is in ruins or has disappeared altogether, but there is still plenty to enjoy.
Heading towards the Palaces…..
The pathway towards the main complex is lined with gardens and the foundations of fine homes.
The Gate of the Seven Floors – Puerta de los Siete Suelos – was built during the reign of Yusuf I on top of a smaller earlier gate. The closest outer gate to the Medina, it probably had a ceremonial function since tournaments and jousts were held in front of it.
Muslims knew it as Bib Al-Gudur or Gate of Wells because of the dungeons located in the fields in front of it that were used to hold prisoners. Its current name comes from the notion that under its bastion were seven underground floors – only two of which have been actually discovered.
Most of this wall, including the gate, was blown up by Napoleon’s retreating army in 1812. The gate was rebuilt in the 1970s with the help of old paintings and photographs.
St Mary’s Church
The Royal Mosque of the Alhambra was built in 1308 but, after the Christians came to Granada, the Iglesia del Santa Maria de la Alhambra was built on the site..
Puerta del Vino
The Wine Gate (Puerta del Vino) is thought to be one of the oldest structures of the Alhambra. This was an inner gate – as it is today – and the main entrance to the Medina. It would not have required as much protection as the outer gates but it would still have been guarded and was closed daily after sundown.
The name Puerto del Vino is assumed to be a mistake – it is most unlikely that the Moors called their great gate after something so sinful! The Christians mistranslated Bib al-hamra, meaning Red Gate or Gate to the Alhambra for Bib al-jamra, meaning Wine Gate!
The architects of the Alhambra set out to cover every single space with decoration. Bright colours covered the walls. Now faded, blues and greens were used in private areas with reds and gold dominating the official reception rooms. Walls were inlaid with cedar, which was in turn inlaid with ivory. Carved cedar also extended to ceilings. Tile mosaics served as panelling for columns and arches.
Interior walls – a mixture of plaster and alabaster – were soft enough to write on when wet. Arabic inscriptions from the Koran, poems praising the palace and the Sultan, anecdotes from history and government edicts covered every surface. The most common engraving however, was the Nasrid motto ‘Wa-la galib illa Allah’, meaning ‘There’s no greater conqueror than Allah’ – a reminder to mortals of who was in power.
The architects are said to have left unnoticeable imperfections in their work – a homage to their God who was the only one who could achieve a level of perfection.
Entrance is through the Mexuar – probably a reception or waiting room. Straight away you’re drawn towards the splendour of the decoration…
Palacio de Comares was the official residence of the king and probably only accessed by ministers and special dignitaries. As with other areas of Alhambra, most rooms open onto a center court, the source of water and shade.
The 34m marble pool in the Court of the Myrtles has a fountain at each end and is lined with myrtle. It served not only to cool the interiors of the palace but also as a symbol of power. Only a mighty sovereign could access the complicated engineering required to deliver an endless supply of precious water from the river up to the top of the hill.
You might have to wait around for a few minutes before getting your reflection shot!
Patio de los Leones
The Patio de los Leones is just stunning with its intricate stucco carvings and geometrical patterns .
The centrepiece is the Fountain of the Lions and another classic photo opportunity! An alabaster basin is supported by twelve lions in white marble.
Sala de las Dos Hermanas – the magnificent domed ceiling is honeycombed with tiny cells, all different, said to number 5000.
The beautiful Daraxa’s Mirador overlooks a lovely space – Patio de Lindaraja.
Patio de Lindaraja is the most garden-like of the patios.
Back downstairs you can sit and enjoy the shade before moving on to other parts of the site….
The Alcazaba is one of the oldest buildings here and was used as fortification in the 9th century. In Arms Square are the ruins of old Moorish houses and the dungeon.
The bell on top of the highest tower – Torre de la Vela – was once used to inform local farmers of the best time to water their crops. Nowadays, it is rung on January 2nd each year to commemorate the conquest of Granada in 1492.
Traditionally, the single women of the town raced to be the first to ring the bell, superstition dictating that whoever did so would marry before the end of the year!!
Today, the tower offers great 360-degree views over the city…
Some of Granada’s walls date back to Roman times. As the city expanded, so did the walls and it’s possible to find different wall structures dating back through different eras.
Palacio de Carlos V
Charles was ruler of Spain and most of southern Europe. His grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, had used rooms in Alhambra but Charles wanted something new – something unique.
Architect Pedro Machuca had studied with Michelangelo. He created a square palace with an enclosed circular patio. The Renaissance structure is such a contrast to its decorative neighbours!
Today, it houses the Hispano-Moorish Museum and the Fine Arts Museum (included on entrance ticket).
We head back along Paseo de las Torres, which follows the castle wall.
This villa, dating back to the beginning of fourteenth century, is separated from the main Alhambra complex. The multi-level gardens are modern – not Arab – and feature pebble mosaics, pool, fountains, columns and arches.
Sitting as it does on a hill across from the rest of the complex, there are nice views looking back at the Alhambra.
Visitor numbers are restricted (300 per half hour) and this is a VERY popular landmark so buy your ticket as early as possible.
The general ticket (€14) grants access to all areas open to the public.
You will need a minimum of 3 – 4 hours. You will cover about 3.5kms.
You can enter the complex at any time with your ticket.
I’d suggest arriving at least an hour before your allocated time.
Your allocated entry time is for the Nasrid palaces – You need to park, queue to have your ticket scanned (remember to bring ID) and then there is a 800metre walk from the entrance to the palace.
The time-slots are for for entry to the palace – not the actual complex itself. If you miss your time slot you will probably be denied access.
There is always a queue at the palace. Alhambra staff usually go along checking that everyone with tickets for a particular time gets in so if you arrive with only a few minutes to spare, make sure to gain their attention. If you arrive early you won’t get in ahead of your time slot.
Once inside the palace, you can stay as long as you wish -(but bear in mind that if you linger a long time, the next group of 300 will descend upon you!)
If you have plenty of time, you can enjoy the walk and visit the Church, Arabic baths and souvenir shops en route. While most people visit the palaces first and then the Generalife, if you are VERY early, you could do the Generalife gardens first.
Only small bags are permitted ( there are coin lockers at the entrance).
No baby buggies allowed in the Nasrid Palace.
Limited supply of food and drink options.
Toilets at the Wine Gate and Generalife ( none inside the Palaces).
You can walk ( but it’s steep!), bus or taxi from Granada itself. If driving, car parks are close to the entrance and well signposted.