Granada, first settled by Greeks who set up a trading depot with the local Iberian tribes in the fifth century B.C.E., was the last capital of Moorish Spain, from 1238 to 1492 C.E. It thrived on trade in silk and pomegranates, both locally produced. It is set at the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and so is much cooler in the summer than other parts of southern Spain. (In fact, it had rained heavily during the week before we arrived, so the mountains were snow capped when we arrived, as you can see from the photo below. By the end of our week there, all of the snow had melted.)
We stayed in the medieval town, called the Albaicín.
An attractive local custom has many inhabitants attach tile plates to the sides of their houses.
We stayed in a great three-story, one-room-wide townhouse.
We are on the first story terrace; the entrance is below us.
The views from our rented home: on the left, the Albaicín neighborhood, and on the right, the Sacromonte hill rising up behind.
(The Sacromonte was once known for the gypsies who lived in the caves carved into its sides; now it is mostly hippies who inhabit them but
descend in the evenings to drink wine and play their guitars in the public squares in the neighborhood--we called them "hippsies").
Because our place was carved into the side of the hill, it had "cave" rooms, as you see here,
a sitting area and bedroom beyond. They were very cool--too cool to sleep in, even in June.
In Granada can be found several beautiful old mansions, most built around open courtyards with pools or fountains. Many were built before the Christian reconquest in 1492. Although Muslims were promised the free practice of their religion as part of the settlement, only a decade later in 1502 all were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Those who stayed were known as Moriscos, and often treated as second-class citizens despite their wealth. Most of these old mansions belonged to Morisco families. (An excellent novel on the reconquest of Granada is Tariq Ali's Under the Shadow of the Pomegranate.)
Medieval Moorish Granada was built on the side of a steep hill leading down to the Darro River. When the Christians conquered it, they established a new town center on the flat land further to the west. Here is where the buildings and monuments from the Renaissance and Baroque eras are found.
The interior of the cathedral. (We have no photos of the exterior of the cathedral, which is surrounded by other buildings.)
Sixteenth-century busts of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castile, from the cathedral of Granada.
Granada and the last of Moorish Spain were conquered by Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella, Queen of Castile, who first united their two kingdoms as Spain and were known as the Catholic Monarchs, in 1492. Once the war was ended, they could use the funds they had diverted to the war effort to other projects, including the scheme of a mariner (Christopher Columbus) to sail west across the Atlantic to reach India.
The glory of Granada is the Alhambra, situated across the Darro River from the medieval town on the opposite bank, an equally steep slope. It was built in the Moorish era as the royal palace for the ruler of Granada (called the emir). But it quickly developed into a small town in its own right, as the administrators of the kingdom and the courtiers moved to work and live near to the emir.
From the top of the Albaicín hill you get a great view across the Darro valley to the hill of the Alhambra.
Likewise, from the walls of the Alhambra you get a great view back to the Albaicín neighborhood.
The Alhambra is an elegant clustering of buildings, courtyards, pools, and fountains.
The style of this last Moorish dynasty, called the Nazrids, includes
delicate stonework that has been compared to lace or honeycombs.
Part of the Alhambra is the summer palace of the Nazrid Emirs of Granada, known as the Generalife.
It is small but its rooms are open, with views of the surrounding mountains and
hills on one side and of peaceful courtyards with pools and fountains on the other.
The gardens of the Generalife.
The main part of the Alhambra is surrounded by walls and gates--it did, after all, need to be defended.
This gate, called the wine gate, separated the barracks where soldiers lived from the royal palace proper.
When Granada was conquered in 1492, even its new Spanish rulers recognized how beautiful the palace was, and used it as their royal residence whenever they visited. At the same time, they also had great admiration for the new Renaissance styles emanating from Italy. Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson, who ruled Spain as Charles I (but is more commonly known as Charles V, because he was also Holy Roman Emperor and the fifth of that name) decided to demolish some of the buildings of the Alhambra to build a new residence for himself. It now houses an art museum.
The Palace of Charles V is completely square on the exterior, and each of its sides is identical.
Nonetheless, the central courtyard in the Palace of Charles V is completely circular, with loggias providing walkways all around the building.
Anywhere else, it would be a lovely building, but in the midst of the Alhambra it really looks out of place.
The highlight of a visit to the Alhambra is the tour of the actual royal palace. It receives so many visitors that you have to book weeks in advance and get a half-hour window period in which you may begin your self-guided tour. We went twice, at night and during the day, and much preferred the daytime visit (things weren't as lit up at night as we had expected).
You enter through a restful open-air courtyard filled with fragrant orange trees.
In this open-air room, the emirs held public audiences and received visitors.
(You can see how many visitors there are even today!)
More of the lacework decoration of the Alhambra.
This large and graceful courtyard connects the public areas of the palace to the actual residence of the emirs and their families.
One of the most beautiful and most famous parts of the Alhambra is the Courtyard of the Lions. In the middle of each side of the courtyard is a small pavillion thought to represent the four corners of the earth and the four rivers flowing into the Garden of Eden. Notice the small channels of water that run out of each along the floor toward the fountain in the center. The implication is that the Alhambra is an earthly paradise. (Unfortunately, the lions holding up the fountain at the center of the courtyard had been removed for restoration when we visited.)
Nothing can really prepare you for the opulence of decoration in this part of the palace, the private rooms of the emirs.
Room after room is filled with graceful carvings on archways and domes (and note that this dome is not the same as the one above).
In keeping with Muslim tradition, the artistic emphasis is on geometric shapes and calligraphy,
the formal writing seen here, for example, in the square frame around the archway on the right.
We hope you can see from
our photos how utterly overwhelming is the beauty of the Alhambra.
It was recently in competition as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
During our stay in Granada we drove out into the nearby countryside. On the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains are a series of hillside villages called Las Alpujarras. These were once bustling towns, but in the aftermath of the Reconquista, after the Muslim religion was banned, the use of Arabic names and dress was soon also banned, and the region broke out in revolt. When the revolt was put down, the population of the region was mostly deported to other parts of Spain.
We then drove back through
the mountains to Granada. Where the mountains
let out into the plain was built this great castle (below), called La Calahora.
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