Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sweet Home Alhambra

I could live in the Alhambra. Simply put, it is one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited and if it hadn’t started raining, I could have wandered the palaces and their gardens all day. While the walled city of Carcassonne has a dreamy storybook aura from afar, it’s actually a cold, depressing place on close examination. In contrast, the Alhambra appears rather stark and plain on the outside, but up close and from inside, its elegance delights and invites you to pull up some embroidered Moorish pillows and stay. Carcassonne is a fortress in which to cower and be protected; the Alhambra is a garden sanctuary in which to relax and settle in. Although the skies on the day we chose to visit the sprawling complex were steely gray, the beauty and warmth of the place shone through. If it is this stunning under a veil of drizzle, we thought, imagine its resplendence in the sun.

The Alhambra (from the Arabic meaning red fort) is an ensemble of very different structures all within the protection of massive fortress walls perched on a plateau on the crest of a hill. Its construction over centuries followed no master plan so the result is a hodge-podge mixture with individual buildings added piecemeal over the course of the alternating rule of Muslims and Christians. The oldest and most westerly section is the imposing Alcazaba fortress, built upon Roman ruins and providing wonderful views over the city of Granada straight below.

Beyond the Alcazaba stronghold and hanging over the deep ravine of the Darro River (which divides the plateau from the Muslim Albaicín district of the city on the facing hill) are the crown jewels of the Alhambra: the beautiful 14th century Nazrid Palaces of the Moorish rulers, designed to reflect “paradise on earth.” We wandered through the various rooms of the intertwined palaces, were awed by the colorful, delicate tile and plaster decoration of the ceilings and walls and gazed out the arched windows that delighted residents with vistas across the surrounding hills. Unlike so many other immense castles across Europe, the Nazrid palaces were built on a human scale (they are elegant rather than grand) with smaller rooms, gardens and hallways and offered intimate spaces into which I could imagine myself crawling with a good book and a cup of tea for the afternoon. Washington Irving, of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame, stayed at the Alhambra for three months in 1829 and the palace tour includes the room in which he lived, now marked with a commemorative plaque. I’ve done my best to “read local” as we’ve moved along and the entertaining travelogue Irving wrote as a result of his sojourn in the palace, Tales of the Alhambra, was a perfect literary companion for our visit. The book, illustrated with 19th century drawings, helped me conjure up the Alhambra’s days of former glory and the colorful characters who lived in the place. No standard guidebook could appeal to my emotions and evoke the sensual pleasures of the Alhambra as Irving’s romantic collection did. It was difficult to leave the palaces but there was much more to see and so we reluctantly moved on.

Plopped next to and sharing a wall with the Nazrid palaces is the circle-in-a-square 16th century Renaissance residence of Charles V. Boys will be boys and so after the Moors were defeated, the Christian monarch-in-charge built his own imposing palace to dwarf that of the conquered. Were his Renaissance masterpiece on a piazza in Florence, I would have been in awe. But built, as it is, almost smack on top of and crowding the existing delicate Moorish palaces, the stark contrast left me cold; in the context of the Alhambra, it just doesn’t belong. We did a cursory circuit and moved on. After briefly exploring the mosque baths, the Santa María Church (it was built on top of a mosque) and the San Francisco Parador (also once a mosque, then a monastery and now a four-star hotel at whose restaurant we’ll have Thanksgiving dinner), we headed for the summer palace on upper part of the grounds as the rain started in earnest.
As I observed earlier, even in foul weather the Alhambra was gorgeous and the sultan’s Generalife summer estate and gardens were no exceptions. I have always appreciated the symmetry and serenity of a quadrangular Catholic cloister and both the upper Generalife and the lower Nazrid palaces are filled with similar spaces – all rooms open onto a central court filled with the soothing sounds of running water. Cascades, reflecting pools and gurgling rivulets are evidence of the culture’s appreciation of water and its comforting effects. It’s easy to imagine the refreshing cool provided by the fountains in the grueling summer sun. The fragrant gardens within the palace and those that stretch on terraced acres outside are magnificent. With raincoat hoods on and our umbrellas up, we had to use our imaginations to picture them in their brilliant full summer glory. We’ll have to come back again, I promised myself, maybe with our grandchildren in scorching July, when all is in bloom and the cool spray of the fountains can truly be appreciated. After four hours in the Alhambra, we finally forced ourselves to leave, knowing that we’d visited the very best of Moorish culture from the final centuries of their rule in Al Andalus Spain.

Pictures of our adventures:

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