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GRANADA must have one of the most spectacular settings of any city in Spain, perhaps Europe, maybe even beyond. It lies on a wide, fertile plan with the permanently snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada forming an impressive backdrop. It's these snow-capped peaks which have guaranteed the city's success - ensuring a constant water supply long before humans had even learned how to conjugate irrigation, never mind put it into practice. Combined with it's relative proxamity (sic) to the sea which ensured a milder climate than some of the cities further inland, and you can see why this was an area that many different cultures and civilizations coveted over the centuries.
Granada was first settled in the prehistoric period, and was known at that time as Ilbyr. Then came the Romans, who built their own city here and called it Illibris. Fast forward to 711 and the invading Arabs. They named the city Granada, and liked it so much, they remained until 1492 when it was the last Muslim city to reconquered by the Christians.
So much for history. Although the main attraction in Granada is not the shopping and nightlife, or hands-on, state-of-the-art, visitor attractions; the reason visitors flock to this city is firmly rooted in history, especially its Moorish history.
While Cordoba was at one time by far the most important city of Eastern Islam, as the re-conquest took hold, Granada's importance grew with the influx of more and more displaced Arabs. Eventually, when Cordoba fell in 1236 (with Seville soon to follow), Granada assumed the mantle as the most important city in Moorish Spain.
This was the period when Granada's most important monuments were constructed.
THE ALCAZABA originally dated from the 9th century, but was enlarged and modified in the 13th century by Muhammed III, as his private residence. Apparently, because the clay used in the construction glows so fiery in the setting sun, it became known as The Red Castle - Calat al-Hamra - Alhambra.
This was what we came to see - and if what we had read and heard about it was to be believed, so was much of the holidaying population of Europe. THE ALHAMBRA is described as one of THE places to see, not just in Spain, not just in Europe, but on the planet. It is so popular, that only a limited number of visitors are allowed to visit on a daily basis - don't ask how many, I haven't got a clue. It's recommended that you book your ticket in advance to avoid disappointment. Naturally, having unlimited access to the net (where it's possible to book online) I forgot. Still, what's life without a bit of uncertainty?
It's easy to find the Alhambra, it's signposted from
Pictures of Granada (Spain)
whichever direction you are traveling from. Although it's actually quite close to the city centre, to access it, you really need to follow the ring road. If you're still a little uncertain about finding it, just follow the convoys of tourist busses...that's where they'll all be heading!
We arrived almost at the crack of dawn...OK, it was nearer 9am, but that's early when you're on holiday, right? Our reasoning being that since we hadn't pre-booked, we'd stand a better chance of gaining entry. That, and the fact that we were hoping to beat the crowds (not literally, y'know - like some overzealous cop at a demonstration). Obviously our ploy worked, or this review would be ending right about n....
After handing over our cash (a total of € 15 which allowed access to everything), we marched right on over a drawbridge and through some very unimpressive gardens towards the main gateway. "What's all the fuss about?" I thought to myself, "It's nothing much to write about (although I will)". Fighting our way through the bus party from the school of 'I don't know what I'm doing, so I'll just stand around and get in everyone's way', we entered the inner walled area. This was more like it. This area had the feel of a medieval village, with a few houses dotted around a church. Actually, I was reminded of a hilltop village in the South of France rather than a Moorish bastion, but I digress. Most of the buildings here have been kitted out as shops, ready to pounce on you as you depart. Not much to see here - especially as the shops weren't even open at that ungodly hour, so ever onward and upward we trudged.
The next point of interest was the PALACIO de CARLOS V, an outstanding example of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Again, this didn't have any feel of Moorish history, but that's hardly surprising as it wasn't built till after the reconquest. It's still an impressive building though and has a small museum and art gallery inside which were mildly interesting.
Just behind this, is what is probably the highlight of the whole complex, are Los PALACIOS NAZARIES, the former palaces of the Moorish Kings. Access is limited to these buildings and we had to queue for a little while before gaining entry. Was it worth the wait? I suppose so.
The first room you enter is, not surprisingly, the reception room, and although the building is devoid of any furnishings or fabric, you can still sense the grandeur and opulence that must have struck the visitor in days gone by. Everywhere you look there are multi-coloured ceramics in the most elaborate of designs, and fantastic plasterwork and carved stone detail above.
THE SERALLO is probably the most serene room of the palace. It's an open space housing a long rectangular pond complete with some fine specimens of fish. the surrounding columns and arches are reflected on the mirrored waters. The serenity only broken by swifts diving down to the water to drink, and the whirring and clicking of a thousand cameras. There are further rooms, courtyards and chambers, each seemingly more intricately adorned then the next, and I'm afraid my dearth of descriptive scribbling could never do justice to their rich decoration. The following link has some images that can perhaps give you some idea of what it looks like: http://www.subir.com/rushdie/alhambra.html
The downside of being so hugely attractive to people, is that huge crowds of people are attracted. Although visitor numbers are limited, and we were there when it was relatively quiet, you couldn't help feeling hemmed-in and rushed through. I'm just glad that the numbers are restricted, or it would be impossible to appreciate it in any meaningful way.
At the very extreme end of the complex is THE ALCAZABA, the original red stone fort. There's not a lot to see here, apart from the fabulous views over the city and the surrounding mountains. It's a nice spot to take a breather and eat that ice cream you bought from the little stand just outside the entrance though.
Had enough of fancy palaces and intricate stonework? Yeah, me too.
THE GARDENS of the Alhambra, just below the palaces, were quite something. Although there was a bit of work in progress, and some areas were roped off, there were a great many little corners in which to sit and ponder. Water plays a big part here and somehow or other, those ancient engineers had managed to divert water to the top of this hill and irrigate the gardens, thereby transforming them into a lush, sub-tropical paradise. Some of the views from here, framed by flowers, shrubs and trees, and reflected on the surface of the many ponds, are quite spectacular.
So much for the Alhambra, now it's a short walk over to the GENERALIFE.
Contrary to what the name might suggest, the Generalife is not in fact the HQ of some greedy, grasping insurance company, but another palace with attendant gardens. Although nowhere near as grand and splendid as the Alhambra, it's still quite magnificent. The Generalife was like a little getaway for the Sultan, and the gardens were used as an orchard for the palace. It's a lot quieter than the Alhambra, and it's nice to sit a while here and look across to the bustling crowds in the Alhambra.
After our visit, we thought about having lunch. but incredibly, there are almost no opportunities to do so in or around the Alhambra. Fine. We'd had enough of the place anyway and headed over to the hill facing the palace and the ALBAICIN - the old Moorish casbah, or medina. Easier said than done. It may be just across the valley, but it's a long torturous route to get there. The Albaicin is a steep...make that VERY steep maze of narrow streets and alleys chock-full of tiny whitewashed houses in typical Moorish style. I suppose that not so long ago this area was downbeat and home to some of the poorer inhabitants of the city, but not now. It seems to be undergoing a gentrification and coming over all trendy. There are lots of restaurants and bars with some quite interesting shopping. We had lunch in a quiet little plaza which seemed very popular - I'm not surprised, the lunch was lovely.
The focal point, not to mention one of the highest points, of this area is the PLAZA de SAN NICOLAS. The view from here across to the Alhambra is arguably the best from anywhere in the city - it feels as though you could stretch right out and touch it. Either that, or slap the face of one of those galoots who stand around and block doorways. Anyhoo, around this plaza a few stalls of a hippie variety have assembled and that, together with the street entertainers and buskers, makes for a quite lively atmosphere whilst sipping a beer at one of the many cafes. Lovely.
I'm afraid we didn't do an awful lot more in Granada. Oh we tried, but the first evening we were there, we headed into the centre and spent the best part of a couple of hours driving around in circles - Granada is NOT a car-friendly place. I'm sure the Cathedral and the many museums and art galleries are worth visiting, but we didn't, so I can't say for sure.
Having said that, I don't think many people visit Granada for the shopping or the nightlife. No, the number one attraction by far is the Alhambra - everything else pales into insignificance. It's pretty impressive and a must-see if you're in the region. However, I was a little underwhelmed with it. I think there were several reasons for this. One was because the Mezquita in Cordoba had impressed me so much that I had very little awe left to be inspired. Another was the sheer hype that's heaped upon the Alhambra - it's almost impossible to live up to the mantle of "one of the wonders of the world". Thirdly, it was nearing the end of an excellent, but exhausting holiday and we were tired, and perhaps a little overloaded with Moorish 'stuff'. And lastly, our hotel was a disappointment and had us on a downer before we even started.
Still, all-in-all, it was pretty amazing and I wouldn't want my negativity to detract from the absolute splendour of the Alhambra. There's no place on Earth quite like it.