The Alhambra Granada


Roman ruins, Baroque cathedrals, and starchitecture galore, sure, but Spain's best building draws on an oft-overlooked turn of Iberia's history: North African and Arab Moors ruled territory in Spain for a stretch of nearly 800 years, until their ultimate expulsion in 1492. While the mosque-turned-cathedral of Seville and the architectural vernacular of southern Andalusia draw on Arab motifs, the pinnacle of Islamic construction here is undoubtedly Granada's hilltop fortress, the Alhambra.

That the history of the structure should be shrouded in considerable mystery is perhaps unsurprising: the citadel was built over centuries by successive generations of the Nasrid Dynasty, the ultimate Moorish rulers of Andalusia, lending ample time for legends to flower. But the first defensive structures here pre-date the Nasrid rulers, and the Alhambra traces its roots to as early as the 800s, though some of its most spectacular features weren't built until the 1300s. The building has been well-preserved by a quirk of history: Because it was taken by monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, it remained whole, perched above Granada as an untouchable monument to Catholic victory.

For visitors, the structure is best thought of in parts: The Palacio Nazaríes, or Palace of the Nasrids, the original fort, or Alcazaba, the Generalife gardens and the palace of Carlos I, which also houses two museums. It's the Nazaríes that architecture-lovers will want to focus on, thanks to fluted arches, arabesque detailing, babbling fountains anchoring colonnaded courtyards. Also here is the Washington Irving room, where the author did more for the building's fame than anyone since the Moors themselves: After living inside the fortress in the summer of 1829, he published his book The Alhambra in 1832, reintroducing the forgotten treasure to the Western world.

Timed tickets for a visit are available in advance and are recommended during Holy Week and during the summer high season (www.servicaixa.com). A visit by night is particularly enchanting, as Irving wrote: "The effect of moonlight, too, on the Alhambra, has something like enchantment. Every rent and chasm of time, every mouldering tin and weather-stain disappears; the marble resumes its original whiteness; the long colonnades brighten in the moonbeams."

Getting there: Granada is located in the deep south of Spain, 266 miles from Madrid, and is most conveniently reached by bus (www.estaciondeautobuses.com). The Alhambra is a 25-minute walk -- or a 10-minute cab ride -- from Granada's main cathedral. -- Paul Brady