Tuesday, 26 November 2013 3:37 PM
I’d been wanting to visit Granada’s impressive Alhambra Palace ever since I was a teenager, backpacking around Spain. Standing at the entrance, I’d realised that I didn’t have enough money to enter. Years later, I am living in Granada, am a full-time travel writer, and find the entrance fee of €13 a reasonable amount.
During my first month here, I often stared at the palace, looming over the city like a magical castle and often wondered what was to be found inside. A few weeks ago I finally got my chance to find out.
The first hurdle of visiting was buying a ticket – Alhambra seems to be one the most complicated UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve ever been to. Even for a seasoned traveller and a Spanish speaker, I found the various ticket options confusing. There are the daytime visits in the morning or the afternoon, night time visits of just the Nasrid Palaces, night time visits of the palaces and a visit to the Generalife gardens the next morning, as well as an option to just visit the Generalife. To make matters more confusing you are allotted a specific time to visit the Nasrid Palaces and are only allowed to visit them during that time, otherwise you miss out. Make sure you book a few days in advance too, to avoid having to queue for hours at the gate and avoid any disappointment.
I decided to book the most obvious option – a daytime afternoon ticket, which allowed me to visit the whole complex within four hours. Since my allotted time at the Nasrid Palaces was at 2pm (the same time I was allowed to enter the Alhambra), my initial glimpse of the inside of the complex was hurried and rushed, trying to navigate my way across the gigantic 142,000 square meter site. However, once inside the palaces, peace and tranquility reigned – trickling fountains could be heard echoing through the rooms, and ornamental ponds made dancing shapes of light on the intricate ceilings above. Moorish poets once described the Alhambra as 'a pearl set in emeralds'.
The audio guide in my ear (which I highly recommend getting) perfectly described each scene and put it into historical context so that I could imagine Sultans on their thrones being waited on by turbaned servants and Nasrid princes striding through the archways in elegant white robes.
The palaces were originally constructed in the 13th century by the founder of the dynasty, Alhamar, however many of the buildings that remain today are from the 14th century. I was lead by the flow of visitors through the maze of rooms and buildings – The Mexaur, Yusuf I Palace and the Patio of the Lions – where the famous lion fountains resides. Each room was more spectacular than the next – ornate patterns and Arabic scriptures covered every inch of the walls and small arched doorways lead out into impressive halls with serene ponds and white marble.
When my time in the Nasrid Palaces was up, I headed for the more modest living chambers of King Charles V, who conquered the Alhambra and the city of Granada – one of the Moors’ last strongholds. Not all King Charles V’s modifications to the palace were modest though, he also built his own palace within the complex, which is not unlike Rome’s Coliseum. It is decidedly European in its architectural forms and contains busts and sculptures instead of ornate arched doorways and central patios filled with orange trees. Today, it houses the Alhambra Museum and the Granada Fine Arts Museum, both of which I unfortunately had to pass on as there simply wasn’t enough time during my visit to see the whole complex and the museums.
Next it was on to the Alcazaba, the oldest part of Alhambra – a walled fortification that was used for defense. It is not known when the Alcazaba was actually built, but is thought to have been around before the Muslims arrived. The first reference to it was in the 9th century. From here, I enjoyed one of the best views of Granada city down below – a maze of pearl coloured boxes gleaming in the sunshine.
The last part of my visit took me to the Generalife, built in the 13th century by King Abu I-Walid Isma'il and was a place for Muslim royalty to relax and simply hangout. It did not actually become part of Alhambra until the 1920s though, despite its close proximity. The stunning maze of gardens leading up to the Generalife were one of my favourite parts of the complex and I could have done with a few more hours to sit by the fountains and hide in amongst the labyrinth of green archways. Bright purples, oranges, pinks and yellows bloomed in every corner, providing the perfect frame to the city of Granada below. Inside the Generalife the garden theme continued with exotic plant-filled patios, pools and fountains – I could definitely see why the Sultans had used this a place for relaxation and contemplation.
After my allotted four hours looking around the Alhambra, it was time to leave. I had not sat down once during the whole afternoon and although mesmerizingly beautiful, I felt that perhaps the time had not been enough to truly see it all properly and to relax and admire its gardens. I suppose that that’s the magic of Alhambra though, you need to return again and again to explore different parts, admire new patterns and contemplate the beauty of each individual part.
By Esme Fox