One of Europe’s greatest attractions, the stunningly beautiful and celebrated Calat Alhambra (Red Castle) is perhaps the most remarkable fortress ever constructed. Muslim architecture in Spain reached its apogee at this palace once occupied by Nasrid princes, their families, and their political and personal functionaries. Although the Alhambra was converted into a lavish palace in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was originally constructed for defensive purposes on a rocky hilltop outcropping above the Darro River. The modern city of Granada was built across the river from the Alhambra, about 0.8km (1/2 mile) from its western foundations.
When you first see the Alhambra, its somewhat somber exterior may surprise you. The true delights of this Moorish palace lie within. If you haven’t already purchased your ticket, they are sold in the office at the Entrada del Generalife y de la Alhambra. Enter through the incongruous 14th-century Puerta de la Justicia (Gateway of Justice). Most visitors do not need an expensive guide but will be content to stroll through the richly ornamented open-air rooms, with lace-like walls and courtyards with fountains. Many of the Arabic inscriptions translate to “Only Allah is conqueror.”
The strictly defined pathway of the tour begins in the Mexuar, also known as Palacio Nazaríes (Palace of the Nasrids), which is the first of three palaces that compose the Alhambra. This was the main council chamber where the chief ministers met. The largest of these chambers was the Hall of the Mexuar, which Spanish rulers converted to a Catholic chapel in the 1600s. From this chapel, there’s a panoramic view over the rooftops of the Albaicín.
Pass through another chamber of the sultan’s ministers, the Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room), and you’ll find yourself in the small but beautiful Patio del Mexuar. Constructed in 1365, this is where the emir sat on giant cushions and listened to the petitions of his subjects, or met privately with his chief ministers. The windows here are surrounded by panels and richly decorated with tiles and stucco.
The Palace of the Nasrids was constructed around two courtyards, the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles) and the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions). The latter was the royal residence.
The Court of the Myrtles contains a narrow reflecting pool banked by myrtle trees. Note the decorative and rather rare tiles, which are arguably the finest in the Alhambra. Behind it is the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors), with an elaborately carved throne room that was built between 1334 and 1354. The crowning cedar wood dome of this salon evokes the seven heavens of the Muslim cosmos. Here bay windows open onto panoramic vistas of the enveloping countryside.
An opening off the Court of the Myrtles leads to the greatest architectural achievement of the Alhambra, the Patio de los Leones (Court of Lions), constructed by Muhammad V. At its center is Andalucía’s finest fountain, which rests on 12 marble lions. The lions represent the hours of the day, the months of the year, and the signs of the zodiac. Legend claims that water flowed from the mouth of a different lion each hour of the day. This courtyard is lined with arcades supported by 124 (count them) slender marble columns. This was the heart of the palace, the private section where the emir and his family retreated.
At the back of the Leones courtyard is the Sala de los Abencerrajes, named for a noble family whom 16th-century legend says were slaughtered here, either because they were political rivals of the emir, or because one of them was sleeping with the emir’s wife. It makes a terrific tale, but there is no historical evidence to support it.
Opening onto the Court of Lions are other salons of intrigue, notably the Hall of the Two Sisters, Sala de las Dos Hermanas, which is named for the two identical large white marble slabs in the pavement. Boabdil’s stern, unforgiving mother, Ayesha, once inhabited the Hall of the Two Sisters. This salon has a stunning dome of carved plaster and is often cited as one of the finest examples of Spanish Islamic architecture.
The nearby Sala de los Reyes (Hall of Kings) was the great banquet hall of the Alhambra. Its ceiling paintings are on leather and date from the 1300s. A gallery leads to the Patio de la Reja (Court of the Window Grille). This is where Washington Irving lived in furnished rooms, and where he began to write his famous book Tales of the Alhambra. The best-known tale is the legend of Zayda, Zorayda, and Zorahayda, the three beautiful princesses who fell in love with three captured Spanish soldiers outside the Torre de las Infantas. Irving credits the French with saving the Alhambra for posterity, but in fact they were responsible for blowing up seven of the towers in 1812, and it was a Spanish soldier who cut the fuse before more damage could be done. When the Duke of Wellington arrived a few years later, he chased out the chickens, the Gypsies, and the transient beggars who were squatting in the Alhambra and set up housekeeping here himself.
Before you proceed to the Emperor Carlos V’s palace, look at some other gems around the Court of Lions, including the Baños Reales (Royal Baths), with their lavish, multicolored decorations. Light enters through star-shaped apertures. To the immediate east of the baths lies the Daraxa Garden, and to its immediate south the lovely and resplendent Mirador de Daraxa, the sultana’s private balcony onto Granada.
To the immediate southeast of these attractions are the Jardines del Partal and their perimeter towers. These beautiful gardens occupy a space that once was the kitchen garden, filled with milling servants preparing the sultan’s banquets. These gardens are dominated by the Torre de Las Damas (Ladies’ Tower). This tower and its pavilion, with its five-arched porticoes, are all that are left of the once-famous Palacio del Partal, the oldest palace at the Alhambra. Of less interest are the perimeter towers, including the Mihrab Tower, a former Nasrid oratory; Torre de las Infantas (Tower of the Princesses); and Torre de la Cautiva (Tower of the Captive). Like the Damas tower, these towers were also once sumptuously decorated inside; today only some decoration remains.
Next you can move to the immediate southwest to visit Emperor Carlos V’s Palace (Palacio de Carlos V), where the Holy Roman emperor lived. Carlos might have been horrified when he saw a cathedral placed in the middle of the great mosque at Córdoba, but he’s also responsible for some architectural confusion in Granada. He did not consider the Nasrid palace grand enough, so in 1526 he ordered Pedro Machuca, a student of Michelangelo, to design him a fitting royal residence. It’s quite beautiful, but terribly out of place in such a setting. Carlos financed the palace by levying a tax on the Muslims. In spite of its incongruous location, the final result is one of the purest examples of classical Renaissance architecture in Spain.
The square exterior opens to reveal a magnificent, circular, two-story courtyard that is open to the sky. Inside the palace is the Museo de la Alhambra (tel. 95-822-75-27), a museum of Hispano-Muslim art with its salons opening onto the Myrtle and Mexuar courts. They display artifacts retrieved from the Alcázar, including fragments of sculpture, as well as unusual braziers and even perfume burners used in the harems. The most outstanding object is a blue amphora that is 132cm (52 in.) high. It stood for years in the Hall of the Two Sisters. Also look for an ablutions basin dating from the 10th century and adorned with lions chasing stags and an ibex. The museum is open mid-October to mid-March Sunday to Tuesday 8:30am to 2:30pm, Wednesday to Saturday 8:30am to 6pm; from mid-March to mid-October Sunday to Tuesday 8:30am to 2:30pm, Wednesday to Saturday 8:30am to 8pm.
Before leaving the Alhambra precincts, try to see the Alcazaba, which dates from the 9th century and is the oldest part of the complex. This rugged fortress from the Middle Ages was built for defensive purposes. For a spectacular view, climb the Torre de la Vela (Watchtower). You look into the lower town onto Plaza Nueva, and you can also see the Sierra Nevada in the distance. From the tower you can also view the Generalife and the “Gypsy hill” of Sacromonte.
Exit from the Alhambra via the Puerta de la Justicia, and then circumnavigate the Alhambra’s southern foundations until you reach the gardens of the summer palace, where Paseo de los Cipreses quickly leads you to the main building of the Generalife, built in the 13th century to overlook the Alhambra and set on 30 lush hectares (74 acres). The sultans used to spend their summers in this palace (pronounced Heh-neh-rah-lee-feh), safely locked away with their harems. Don’t expect an Alhambra in miniature: The Generalife was always meant to be a retreat, even from the splendors of the Alhambra. Lying north of the Alhambra, this country estate of the Nasrid emirs was begun in the 13th century, but the palace and gardens have been much altered over the years. The palace is mainly noted for its beautiful courtyards, including Patio de Polo, where the visitors of yore would arrive on horseback.
The highlight of the Generalife is its gardens. Originally, they contained orchards and pastures for domestic animals. Of special note is Escalera del Agua (the Water Staircase), with water flowing gently down. An enclosed Oriental garden, Patio de la Acequía, was constructed around a long pool, with rows of water jets making graceful arches above it. The Patio de la Sultana (also known as the Patio de los Cipreses) was the secret rendezvous point for Zoraxda, wife of Sultan Abu Hasan, and her lover, the chief of the Abencerrajes.