The Alhambra of Granada is one of the top attractions of all Spain. It was built during the 14th century as a palace for Moorish princes in Southern Spain. They were Muslims and favoured rich floral and geometric ornamentations. When the Christian kings defeated the Muslims in 1492, the new Christian rulers also used the Alhambra as a palace. Today it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and high on the list of tourists from all over the world. We have therefore booked a ticket well ahead, even in a sluggish season during the Corona pandemic. We also booked two nights in the town of Granada in order to be able to spend a full day in the Alhambra of Granada. After visiting the Mezquita in Cordoba and the cathedral in Sevilla this was another highlight of our Andalusia trip.
A mountaintop full of fortresses and palaces
We got an early start and walked up to the Alhambra from the Old Town of Granada. Our tickets indicated a time slot later in the morning, but actually most of the area of the Alhambra is freely accessible. The time slot only regulates the number of visitors to the Nasrid Palace, the top attraction of the Alhambra palace. The name “Alhambra” derives from the Arabic al-quala al-hamra, the red palace. Thus, it refers to the reddish stones used for the buildings.
First, we have walked through some garden areas and ruins of the former Moorish town. A former monastery on the castle grounds is now the luxury Parador Hotel of Granada. We have also passed the old bath house of the Moorish mosque (of which nothing remains).
Somewhere inside the large Alhambra mountaintop area, we spot a formidable queue. This must be the entrance of the Nasrid Palace, the place where we need our time slot ticket. A few minutes later, we are about to enter the fairy-tale world of the Nasrid Palace.
The Nasrid Palace – a giant sightseeing buffet
The Nasrid Palace in the Alhambra of Granada is a bit like a giant dessert buffet. It’s fantastic, and you want to take it in all at once. But at the same time, you know you should go slowly, because otherwise it can be too much. So overwhelming is that onslaught of decorations, of patterns, of swirls and colourful tiles. Fantastic!
The original decoration followed Muslim rules and therefore shunned figurative representations. Instead, all surfaces were covered in ornamental patterns. Those could be floral, or geometric designs, or beautiful Arabic calligraphies. Only in a few places, the decorators buckled: One ceiling has an image of debating elders. And in the famous Lion’s Courtyard in the Harem – you guessed it – cute lions are holding the fountain. We spent more than 15 minutes taking in the iconic courtyard view from several angles.
Charles V and the Christian appropriation of the Alhambra of Granada
Later, the Christian Emperor Charles V had some of the Arabic inscriptions replaced. Instead of “Allah”, he inserted his own insignia – a double-headed eagle or Latin letters reading “Plus Ultra”. This means “Further beyond”.
It was a fitting motto for an enormously powerful ruler whose empire seemed to be endless at the start of the 16th century. Because Charles V was the head of the Holy Roman Empire, but also of Spain and all its new overseas colonies and a number of other countries, his lands were indeed quite spread out. In fact, we met with his aspirations as far apart as Panama, where the emperor already wanted to dig a canal.
Contemporaries called Charles V’s lands the “empire on which the sun never set”. In terms of time zones, that may not have been totally correct, but the message was clear. Charles wanted to conquer ever more of the world.
His grandparents were Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the so-called “Catholic Monarchs” of Spain. They had started the conquering by defeating the last Moorish Kings in Spain. It was thus very appropriate for Charles to leave his mark on that last Moorish Palace. And the tombs of the Catholic Monarchs are also in Granada, in a lavish side chapel of Granada’s Cathedral.
Other palaces on the Alhambra mountain top
Apart from changing some details in the Moorish Palace of the Nasrides, Charles V also built his own palace in the Alhambra of Granada. This palace with its unusual circular inner courtyard – in a big square building – now serves as a museum. On a Monday, it is closed but we would find it difficult anyway to squeeze a museum visit into our day in the Alhambra! A reason to come back for another visit.
After all, there is also the Alcazaba to see. The Alcazaba is the oldest fortress on the Alhambra mountain. It is a massive defence structure built by the first Arab and Moorish invaders who captured Granada. Inside there isn’t much to see. Nevertheless, we climb on all the walls and turrets to get a great view over the town of Granada. Right opposite is the quarter of Albaicin, on a similarly steep hill. Head there for some amazing sunset views on the Alhambra. From the walls of the Alcazaba we also get a good view on the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The Garden at the Alhambra of Granada
After we have seen all the palaces and buildings on the mountaintop plateau of the Alhambra of Granada we continue our sightseeing at the Generalife. Not the headquarters of some insurance company but a beautiful Islamic garden with a small summer palace. In Spanish, Generalife doesn’t mean anything – the original name was jennat al-rife and meant Gardens of the Architect. And indeed, the mansion is particularly notable for its beautiful gardens stretching all around the building and in the courtyard. It has ponds and fountains and also a beautiful view over the Alhambra and beyond, to Granada and Albaicin.
Spending a full day in the Alhambra of Granada
We spent about one-and-a-half hours just in the Nasrid Palace. You have to enter within the time slot but may then stay as long as you want. Buy your online tickets at the official Alhambra site. There is very little written information within the Alhambra grounds, but there are rental audio-guides on offer. We were happy with our guidebook and spent the whole day visiting the different parts of the Alhambra of Granada. Afterwards we had that full and happy feeling like after an enormous meal – if you could burp from art and culture, this would be the place.
In the evening we walked up to Albaicin, the oldest part of Granada. The path along crooked lanes wouldn’t be easy to find if it weren’t for all the other tourists walking to the viewpoints. From the Mirador de San Nicolas, a plateau in front of a church, we got a perfect view over the Alhambra of Granada.
What else to do in Granada
Granada is not only a lively student city but also has a large immigrant community. The town quarter of Albaicin is perfect to sample some Arab food. A number of pastry shops sell delicious Arab sweets! In addition, we tried Spanish specialities like the Torta de Granada, a sweet, flat pie.
Spending the whole day in the Alhambra, we did not even have much time for other sights such as the bullfighting arena and some churches. However we did have a look into the Cathedral and the attached Capilla Real, the resting place of the Catholic Monarchs.
Have you been to Granada? What are your thoughts about the city and the Alhambra? Let us know in the comments!
NB: Our trip to Andalusia was not sponsored in any way and all expenses were paid by ourselves.
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