…(according to Wikiquote) The poet Francisco Alarcón said this to a girl who did not give a blind beggar charity and regretted that the blind could not enjoy the beauty of the city of Granada.
Friday 27th August has been logged in my memory as a pretty near-perfect day. It was the mid-point of our holiday in Andalucia, and possibly the hottest day of the week. We spent the morning mostly doing not very much; reading, writing postcards home with the girls, playing UNO, and in the swimming pool, where every day was a joy to me to see Hannah & Eleanor jumping, playing, splashing and swimming with such confidence and enthusiasm.
After a terrific late lunch of crusty bread with fresh beefsteak and plum tomato salad, serrano ham, avocado and manchego cheese, we got ourselves ready to go to Granada to visit the Alhambra. We’d booked tickets online in advance, hoping to avoid the worst heat of the day and queues of visitors.
The A7 Autovia del Mediterraneo is a masterpiece of engineering. The whole thing stretches from Algeciras at the Southern tip of Spain over 1,300km practically to the French border. It makes for an amazing drive along, or rather through and over the rocky Andalucian coastline. Large sections of the road from Nerja to Motril are either viaducts over gorges or tunnels through the mountainous terrain. As you turn inland to head North towards Granada, the drive gets even more spectacular. Alongside the roads of the Lake District and the French Autoroute over the Millau Viaduct and South towards the Mediterranean, this is one of my favourite drives…
In barely 30 miles the road travels from sea level to 860m over the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Moor’s Sigh), so named after Muhammad XII, the last Moorish sultan of Granada, crossed the pass in 1492 after being ejected from the city and loudly sighed while looking back and longing for his palaces; an act which moved his mother to whip him with the famous “Now you weep like a woman over what you could not defend as a man” (ouch!).
When we arrived in Granada around 4pm, the car thermometer was reading 38.5º Celsius (in the shade). Despite having acclimatised to temperatures in the low-mid 30s over the previous few days, getting out of our air-conditioned car was like stepping into a sauna: dry, intense, soul-sapping heat.
Thankfully, the clever Moorish architects and designers (and indeed the current Alhambra management) thought to build shaded courtyards, paths and gardens which help reduce the searing heat of the full sun.To be honest, it’s a minor miracle that the gardeners could keep so many flowering plants alive in such heat.
The Generalife Gardens (as indeed is the whole palace) were designed to recreate ‘paradise on earth’, with column arcades, birdsong, flowers and the sound of running water. Even on a scorching August afternoon among thousands of visitors, I was astonished at the peacefulness, the silence and the greenery on such a bleached hillside above such a bustling city.
At the other end of the complex, the Alcazaba was like an open-air oven. Perched on the end of the promontory above Granada, this 10th Century fortress is forbidding indeed. Thick, thick walls, indeed layers of unforgiving walls and monolithic towers give amazing viewpoints over the surrounding plateau. Hannah and I climbed the Torre de la Vela. It was cooler inside the walls, but the stairs were steep and high. By the time we reached the top, she was almost literally melting into collapse, and I was worried about having to carry her down. But the overview of both the city and the palaces was terrific.
But while this is all mightily impressive, the real joy, the uplifting inspiration of The Alhambra that elevates it above other places I’ve visited comes within the Nasrid Palaces. We had timed our tickets so we had the last entry slot of the afternoon at 7pm. By now it was gradually beginning to cool, and the shade within the courtyards made it almost pleasant!
I’ll try not to go completely overboard with my adjectives in recalling my reactions and response to these Palaces. The precision and simplicity of design is amazing. The quality of work and detailing is astonishing. The display of wealth and power is in every arch, every ceiling, every niche, but so too is the dedication to Allah.
My ‘left brain’ loved the tessellating tiles, the repetitiveness of patterns and motifs, the extraordinarily clean lines and symmetry in the design of arches, doorways, and courtyards.
My ‘right’ brain was constantly dazzled by the colours, the intricacy, the beauty of the workmanship way beyond the functional requirements; the detailing and ‘over-specification’ of the ornaments. Every door, every arch, every niche, every ceiling is stunningly conceived and decorated. It’s mindblowing. And over 600 years old.
When the Christian monarchs overthrew the Moors in 1492, they evidently recognised the tremendous value of the Alhambra, both as a fortress and symbol of power, but also its artistic brilliance, and they preserved its heritage, including the never-ending devotion to Allah. I’d seen this before in Istanbul, where Muslem and Christian ‘conquerors’ recognised the beauty and intrinsic value of the other religion’s artefacts, and did not destroy them, nor seek to impose their will and values over them. Hmmmm…
And after all that, we didn’t even have time to explore the wonderful Albaicin, the old Moorish Quarter of Granada, that spreads over the hillside facing the Alhambra.
Instead, we ate at Cafe Central, just a few yards from the Plaza Nueva in the centre of the city. The food and service was fantastic, and we enjoyed terrific Salmorejo soup (similar to Gazpacho), a sausage of black pudding wrapped in filo pastry and deep-fried, wonderful cod steaks and arroz con leche with amazing almond icecream.
We also had a terrific time watching the tapeadors sampling the delights of Granada’s bars. As we left around 11pm, the city was truly alive, and there were families with children everywhere. Toddlers were snoozing in their buggies while their parents grazed or walked with friends. The heat was finally dissipating (it was still around 80º), and it was the end of a brilliant day.