After wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I crawled out of my bunk bed, took a refreshing shower and then stumbled down to the hostel common area. There I chatted with a few friends I’d made over the previous two days. We checked our e-mail, recounted the previous evening’s adventures and then formed a small group. Today was dedicated to the Alhambra.
I’ve mentioned it before, but have yet to really explain what the Alhambra is. The Alhambra is a large palatial fortress that sits on one of the hills in the heart of Granada. The hill the fortress is on is directly opposite another slightly smaller hill which is home to the Albayzin. The two are divided by a small stream which has cut a path along the base of both hills. The Albayzin is the original Moorish city while the Alhambra houses a series of constructions including an ancient fortress, stunning palatial complex and amazing set of gardens. The site has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and has a rich and exciting history. One of the things I found especially fascinating was that the Alhambra was one of the Moors last strongholds in Spain. I was shocked to learn that the fortress actually didn’t fall until 1492 (same year as Columbus sailed). Quite the significant year for the Spanish! I’ll let those interested read up on it via wikipedia.
Getting to the Alhambra is easy – but make no mistake, also a bit of an adventure. There are two options: the first is paying 2 Euro and catching a bus from the square at the bottom of the hill just off of the Grand Villa which drops you off at the entrance to the Alhambra. The second, and far more entertaining option, is to tackle the mountainside and hike your way to the entrance. Eager to see and experience as much as possible we elected for the latter. The path shoots off from the square and slowly winds up past a series if vendors, hostels and restaurants all clinging to the side of the hill. Once at the entrance to the Alhambra site the city ends and you find yourself surrounded by lush vegetation and periodic water features. The path goes from pavement to dirt and the real trek begins. The photo above is from about halfway up the path. As you can see the benches indicate just how steep the climb is. Huffing away, legs pumping and with my injured knee bothering me, I limped my way up the path, pausing periodically to enjoy the beautiful golds, greens and reds of the trees lining the path.
The walk from hostel to the ticket booth for the Alhambra only took us 20 minutes and was well worth the knee strain. The weather was beautiful. Gray, overcast, and crisp. Luckily the rain had contented itself with a brief morning shower before moving on. The moisture in the air brought out all of the greens in the plants and the colors in the flowers and stonework, adding a certain vividness which was amazing to see. Once at the top we paused briefly for a quick soda and snack. As we caught our breaths and relaxed I snapped the above shot of a local cat and two considerate tourists. With a smile on my face we set to the task of tackling the lines and picking up our tickets.
The Alhambra is a huge tourist attraction. As both a UNESCO world heritage site and major historical monument it draws large crowds, even in off season. As a result ticketing can be difficult. To help preserve the feel of the site they’ve set up an interesting system with two main entrance times. The first entrance period starts at 8:30AM and ends at 2PM. The second begins at 2PM and ends at 8PM. Tickets sell out quickly so it’s important to book ahead or get there early. Once you’ve purchased your ticket you’re assigned a second time window, for a tour of the palatial compound. The tours are small and you only get one shot. The palace is incredible and a must while visiting the fortress – so if you plan on visiting, make sure you know where you need to be at your designated time.
When you go to buy your tickets you have two options. You can brave the ridiculously long line and buy from the ticket windows, or bypass most of the line and use the automatic machines located just past the ticket windows. The machines look and are marked as a place for picking up web orders and advanced tickets, but also allow the purchase of tickets with a credit card. Do yourself a favor and go with the machines – they’re not very different from the automatic ticket machines at some movie theaters.
Tickets in hand we made our way to one of the nearby benches, wiped off a few leftover rain drops and settled in. We had a bit over an hour before 2PM when we would be allowed to enter the site. There were a number of friendly cats wandering around which kept as entertained as we exchanged travel stories and playfully teased each other. Hungry, I pulled out a tin of sardines and quickly set to a rather fishy, but satisfying snack.
The clock struck 2 and we were off. Through the gates and into the garden area of the Alhambra. Outside of the fortress proper the gardens are a sprawling mixture of beautiful buildings, amazing greenery and beautiful water features. Our adventure started at a large, modern amphitheater which has been built near the entrance to the Gardens. With it to our back we immediately found ourselves in an incredible garden maze (pictured above) with high walls and beautiful fountains. Despite the late time of year (December) there were still blooming flowers everywhere.
Once through the maze we were greeted by beautifully terraced areas full of fruit trees and with large areas used for crops during summer months. The photo above is down the hill from the garden area and is of the outer fortress wall and beginning of the palatial section. The whole area is covered in orange trees all of which were heavily laden with fresh fruit.
Down a narrow walkway and through a small courtyard full of orange trees we entered the first building in the gardens. With a fantastic view of the Alhambra proper, the building was covered in beautifully carved Moorish script. The artistry and complexity of the stonework is positively awe inspiring. In many areas it seems as though every single exposed area is covered in intricate stonework. Even the windows and ceilings are covered in carved stone or intricate wooden inlays.
The man hours and skilled craftsmanship required to create these buildings left me speechless. As impressive as it all is, many of the areas also appeared to have been painted at one point in time. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. As amazing as it was, it ended up being minor when compared to the sprawling palace located within the fortress.
The view out from the Gardens was amazing and I regularly found myself caught visualizing how it must have looked, felt and smelled 600 years ago. After taking the shot above I turned to my right and looked out across at the Albayzin.
Further along the hill and on the other side of the old city wall that surrounds the Albayzin, there is a series of gypsy caves. These caves are carved into the soft limestone and are a famous landmark. Some (like the Cave Bar I blogged about earlier) are heavily improved with electricity, bathrooms and the like. Others are little more than rough-hewn caves. One thing is constant, very few of the caves are actually owned and many operate on a co-op like system with travelers and gypsies contributing odd knickknacks and/or small improvements before moving on and leaving them for the next visitor. You can see a number of the caves in the above photo. The buildings at the bottom near the river are almost all caves with improved entrances, while those further up the hill are more basic/cruder in nature. The cactus you can see covering parts of the hillside was originally used as a defensive measure, and now grows wild.
The Moors had a passion for water, one that shows in the construction and layout of the Alhambra and its gardens. It’s almost impossible to go any distance within the sprawling compound without the sound of trickling water and a light feeling of humidity. As we finished our tour of the Gardens we paused to collect a few of the stragglers that had fallen behind before backtracking to a fork in the path which led us down, across the moat and into the fortified section of the Alhambra.
Once on the far side of the moat we wrapped around the outer edge of the hilltop and left the lush vegetation of the garden area behind. The whole area was still green and populated by periodic water features but more manicured and open than the garden had been. The first sight that greeted us was a series of reflecting pools with a more recent looking cathedral built in what I’d guess was 1600s styled architecture.
As we wound past the first cathedral we quickly came upon a second, far more impressive one. It’s hard to tell if it was originally a mosque or not, though I imagine it probably was. Immediately next to it was a small bathhouse and museum which we explored. Even the street had a small water feature running down it’s side. I still can’t fathom where all the water used to beautify the Alhambra comes from or how it finds its way up to the top of the hill.
From the main walkway we made our way into the Palace of Charles the V…a beautiful, large, square building with a massive circular central courtyard. Though most of the building was closed, one small section was open. The open area had a series of interesting pieces of modern art, the most impressive of which was a large lion with flowing mane made completely out of old tires. It was absolutely fantastic! Unfortunately, they were not allowing photos. They also had a fun 3D room setup. The 360 degree circular room had image boxes projected with various video clips which you could control and interact with through a pointer. The whole thing was 3D and a pretty cool interface.
As I finished exploring the Palace of Charles the Fifth my 4 o’clock tour of the palace was fast approaching. However, I’ll leave my tour of the palaces, voyage into the old fortress and rest of the evening in Granada for a 2nd follow up post. I’m afraid this one has gotten a bit long!
Stay tuned and remember you can view all of the photos included in this post and a large number of others via my online gallery!