I love the south of Spain. The rolling hills outside San Pedro de Alcántara, the white-painted hillside urbanizacións nestling in greenery and pink hibiscus, the sports-car-and-gin-palace showiness of Puerto Banús, the warm evening air which hits you as you get off the plane at Málaga.
This year, I found another reason to love the south of Spain — the Alhambra Palace. Located at the top of the hill of the Assabica in Granada, the palace was built by Islamic rulers in the 10th century. In fact, Al-Andalus, the region of Spain now know as Andalucía was part of a significant medieval Moorish empire which encompassed parts of Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and France. The name Alhambra derives from a colloquial Arabic phrase; ‘the red fortress’.
In 1492, the Christians retook the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims and set about adding extra palaces along with a monastery and garrisons. Unfortunately, it fell into disrepair after the 18th century before being rediscovered in the 19th century and gradually restored to its current glory. The complex is large, with several main areas so be prepared to do some walking if you visit. Also, depending on what time of year you visit, remember that being at the top of a hill, it’s pretty exposed and the sun can beat down relentlessly, driving hordes of sticky tourists into the few pockets of shade.
The nearest palace to the entrance is Generalife. It sounds like an insurance company, but its views over the valleys are breathtaking and its cascade of gardens were where the kings of Granada went when they wanted to get away from the official goings on in the palace. It’s really two groups of buildings which are linked by the rather mundane-sounding Patio of the Irrigation Ditch (it sounds much better in Spanish — Patio de la Acequia). The gardens are almost indescribably lovely. Fountain after fountain fills the air with the relaxing sound of tinkling water while flowers, tiny stone steps and abundant foliage somehow manages to be different and striking in every new garden you enter.
The Alcazaba fortress is the oldest part of the Alhambra and thought to have been built before the Muslims arrived in Granada. There’s not a whole lot left of it except for the Watch Tower, the Arms Tower and Arms Square, where you can see the foundations of the houses which belonged to the community who lived there. From the top it looks maze-like, a warren of alleys and rooms.
The Nasrid Palaces are probably what most people visit Alhambra for. You need to buy a ticket in advance as they only allow a certain number of people in at a time. Beware — people tend to queue as their allotted time approaches and the place where the queue is is in full sunlight so prepared to be baked while you wait.
Divided into three areas, Mexuar, Serallo, and the Harem, the palace is absolutely enormous. Room after room after room of marble floors, delicate and intricate middle-eastern carving and yet more fountains. The scale of it all and the beauty of it are astonishing. So much of it is open to the sky too, the rooms themselves sometimes nearly indistinguishable from the interconnecting courtyards.
The Mexuar was intended for conducting business and administration and is relatively modest in its decor. No-one really knows what the original layout was as numerous reconstruction and restoration has changed it, not to mention a catastrophic explosion of a powder magazine in 1590 which destroyed a large part of it.
The Serallo contains Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles) with its 34x8m pool. The pool was a big statement of wealth and power — the amount of water required for the pool (and all the fountains) was enormous and the cost of keeping them all filled was prohibitive. Against popular belief, the Harem apparently wasn’t where the sultan kept a plethora of wives, it was just a set of private apartments where the family lived.
The Patio de los Leones (Patio of the Lions) has been under restoration for the last nine years and was only granted public access again in July this year. The attention to detail of the restoration is quite amazing and has followed the original 14th century design to the letter. The restorers even sourced white marble from the same town as the original lions, just to retain that vital authenticity. It wasn’t just the lions either — the water system for the fountain was complicated and required a lot of research to make a modern-day equivalent. The whole thing cost a cool 2m Euros.
After pretty much a whole day of tramping around palaces and gardens we were all palaced-out. There are a couple of cafes within the Alhambra Palace complex but if you want to sit down and have something to eat, try the Hotel America. It’s got a gorgeous courtyard restaurant shaded by vines and it’s the perfect place to enjoy a restorative beer.
If you’re visiting the Andalucía region, a trip to the Alhambra Palace is a must.