Spain must thank the ancient Muslim conquerors if only for what the latter’s occupation of the country a long, long time ago had left behind — their precious Moorish architecture. Such a legacy is largely evident in that little kingdom set in the south of the country known as the Alhambra, in Granada.
Alhambra, which means red castle in Arabic, is actually a complex of palaces, and their courtyards and gardens, as well as a fortress — all rest on top of the famous Sabika Hill.
And so, after our trip to Cordoba, which was so enchanting that most wanted to stay longer and were practically hauled off to the bus, we continued our trek en route to the next destination - Granada.
Our Granada tour focused on the complex and didn’t venture into the adjoining districts such as the famous Albaycin, which is fine as I thought Alhambra alone is what Granada’s all about. I’m sure this is everyone’s opinion as well. Alhambra is perhaps the single reason why the Andalucian city attracts numerous tourists throughout the year.
We arrived at the site at 11.30AM, with the bus stopping near the station where the entrance tickets are collected. Being a large group, we were divided into two; one would enter the palaces at 1.30PM, while the other, which included me, was scheduled at 5:30. The complex is a World Heritage Site, and as a precaution, it has to limit the number of visitors at a given time.
This presented us with a long six-hour lull, to our exasperation as we didn’t know where else to go. Our leader (who got to join the 1.30PM group) advised us to take an early lunch and then use our remaining time exploring the area, giving the assurance that there is so much to see aside from the palaces.
This is exactly we did.
We had our lunch at Restaurante Alberto, with me going for some “healthy” options – mushroom and bacon omelet and fish with spinach. At 17 euros, the menu del dia choices at Alberto are delectable enough, I have to say.
After having our lunch, we deemed it best to wander around the area, realizing there’s still a couple of hours till 5.30. I went alone, apart from the group, and took the pathway between the palaces and Generalife gardens.
Just stunning is what I saw when I walked to the direction of the Alhambra Palace Granada, Palacios Nazaries.
I went further, passing by Santa Maria de la Alhambra until I reached two important sites in this part of the complex – the Palace of Emperor Charles V and Alcazaba.
Palacio de Carlos V
Palacio Carlos V differs from the rest in that it boasts of a western, Renaissance-style facade. The others, in contrast, were constructed while applying Moorish architecture.
The massive 16th century royal edifice was a major work of Pedro Machuca and dedicated to Emperor Charles V. The sheer magnitude of its size is meant to compete with the already existing Islamic palaces at the time. Unfortunately, it was never completed.
The second photo above is the imposing courtyard within the palace’s interior, accented by impressive columns.
The palace also houses the Museum of Fine Arts, the entrance to which is free for European Union citizens and 1.50 euros for non-EU individuals. Entry to the Palace itself is free.
This is the strong fortress of the complex, standing proudly atop the Sabika hills. Built for sole military reasons, it was meant to protect and defend the complex against any enemy threat and invasion. The Alcazaba, the interior of which is filled with historical ruins, is said to have existed long after the palaces were constructed. From inside the fortress, one is afforded stunning views of the town from afar.
Palace and Gardens of Generalife
I still had a good two hours before we could enter the Palacios Nazaries, and so I decided to go back and head to the opposite direction, this time, to Generalife. A major part of the complex, it was touted as the summer palace during the times of the Nazrid reign.
Like other palaces in the complex, Generalife has the walls of its chambers and rooms covered by either plaster or stalactite materials. But what makes it a standout is its lush and colorful garden, which flourished under both Arabic and Christian powers for many centuries, and continues to this day. If only for its rich flora, Generalife deserves to be called the main summer gardens of the Nazaries dynasty.
Tres Palacios Nazaries
Finally, it was our turn to enter the Palacios Nazaries. “Vamos a la cola!” We joined the long line of visitors who were likewise excited to see the site.
1. Palacio del Mexuar
One of the oldest structures within the complex, the palace had an enclosed room where the ruler then used to stay to listen to his surroundings. Within the premises is an area where great views of the Distrito de Albaycín can be enjoyed. The palace has its own courtyard, the Patio de Cuarto Dorado, with a small fountain in its midst.
2. Palacio de Comares
Another old edifice in the Nazaries, it is one with a rather heavy Moorish decor, with the walls displaying Arab writings. Major decoration work were made during the reign of Yusuf I.
It is said that this courtyard, the Patio de los Arrayanes, or the Courtyard of Myrtles (so-named because of the two long hedges of myrtles alongside the pool) like many others, has not undergone any major changes in the design or structure, or even the way the vegetation are arranged.
3. Palacio de los Leones
The particular palace is famous for its graceful courtyard surrounded by delicate stilts or columns. The structure possesses no window on which to look through and see the outside of the complex. In the midst of the patio are twelve stately marble lions that are sculpted to look fully alert. They seem to shelter and protect the fountain from anyone who threatens to go near it. The presence of the lion statues surprises everyone as it is an Arabic custom not to create representations of any life form.
More of the Nazrid Palaces – Features and Designs
The plastered or ceramic covered walls of the Palaces are bold and rich in its linear and geometric designs. On many parts of the wall are carefully rendered Arabic inscriptions. Mysterious to most, some of these writings are portions of popular poetic creations of palace poets, while the others are praises to Allah.
Ceilings are as elaborately built as the walls. Note how the windows are positioned near the ceilings, which I presume is meant to allow more illumination to come in. The first image is a stalactite-decorated ceiling. Top left picture is the ceiling to the golden room.
Windows, arches, and columns
Few Tips when visiting Alhambra Granada Spain
Are you a serious history lover, or someone who appreciates ancient Arabic architecture, or perhaps a traveler raring to fly to his next exotic destination? If so, then make Granada your next conquest.
Remember however that traveling is not all pleasure, but also involves a lot of planning, preparation and sorts. Just follow the usual common steps to easy and sensible traveling and you’re bound for the adventure of a lifetime.
From my part, I’d like to impart a few tips – hopefully they will be of help in any way. Most are the usual travel tips, they just serve to remind. In a way, I drew them from my own experience in Granada.
1. If you plan to visit during the summer season, remember to bring along two or three bottles of water, or what you can conveniently place inside your bag. I didn’t bring any, and so, I bought a number through the course of the day. Pretty expensive since I bought them within the complex.
2. Wear visors or sunglasses that protect the eyes from the glare of the sun. The complex has lots of wide and open spaces, which means the possibility of too much sun exposure. Use sun screen for skin protection.
3. Bring food if you can – you can eat them in the public gardens or at picnic grounds. There must be only two restaurantes within the complex (an estimate) as well as a few alimentaciones (small convenience stores). Believe me when I say these restaurants are expensive. Albeit meals for the day (Menu del dia) at Alberto Restaurant are available at 17 euros, which is friendlier to the budget than if you opt for the multi-course meals.
4. Since Alhambra tours tickets are in demand during summer, it’s best to buy them in advance. They’re available at La Caixa Banks, Corral del Carbon, or online. The time and day of access to the palace is indicated on the ticket. Be there on time, otherwise, you forfeit your chance of entering the palace.
5. If you’re going to the site itself to buy your ticket there, entry will be on the same day. You cannot buy for an advanced date. For groups, one individual can buy tickets for a maximum of ten people. So, if you’re 30, assign 3 persons to buy the necessary number of tickets. Lines are long if you’re buying in person, this is aside from the fact that tickets sold for the same day are limited. Hence, see to it that you will arrive early at the Alhambra ticketing office.
6. While traveling on your own or with buddies might possibly double the excitement, it’s also possible that you will miss seeing important sites and attractions. The complex covers a very wide area where sites are scattered, and so, it can be very confusing. If you insist on traveling alone, know more about your destination by researching beforehand — like which sites are a must-see, and what are the best routes to take for easy roaming around once you’re there.
Still, I thought the best way to see Alhambra is by joining a guided tour — it’s an assurance that you will visit all there is in your destination. Some tour packages cover only the Nazrid Palaces and the Generalife Gardens, others include a tour of the historic Granada districts of Albayzin and Sacromonte. Go for the one that offers the flamenco show, which is certainly an delightful treat.
Other interesting facts:
1. Days open: Every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day
2. Is it a city or a town: Neither. It is a cluster of monuments [palaces and fortress]
3. Distance between Madrid and the Alhambra, Granada: Almost 430 Kilometers
4. Travel time from Madrid: From 4 to 5 hours, depending of the mode of transportation (bus or train).
5. Weather in the fortress: During summer, Alhambra is summery hot, has clear skies and little to no wind. During winter, the weather is cold, especially in the months of January and February.
6. It is declared, together with the Generalife Gardens, as a World Heritage Site in 1984.