A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland – The Final Leg

This is the conclusion to my series documenting my road trip through Scotland’s remote rural areas. Start at the beginning (highlands), jump to part II (Skye), or see Part III (Ullapool to Durness). 

The crisp morning air made it difficult to drag myself out from beneath the mound of heavy down blankets the hostel had opted for in place of heaters. With a groan and a roll I pulled myself upright and then wormed my toes into my boots. It didn’t take long before I started to come back to life as I noticed that beyond the nearby windows, the weather looked pleasant. A revisit to Smoo Cave with its subterranean waterfall chamber had been one of the primary draws which had pulled me towards the northwestern tip of Scotland. With a yawn and a stretch, it was time to hurry down for one of the first cave tours of the day – all in the hope that I would beat out the inevitable flooding that came each afternoon as the Scottish summer rains dumped their load on to the rain-drenched hillsides of the rugged Scottish glens situated a few miles to the south. Inevitably, when the rains found their way to already damp creek beds it would quickly flood them and turn each into small rivers racing gleefully, like highland sprites, towards the coast.

A Cold Beach - Northern Scotland

The evening before had been uncharacteristically dry by the time I reached Smoo with naught but a gentle rain earlier in the afternoon. In the fading light of the late afternoon, I had paused to capture the beautiful colors and otherworldly visage of the waterfall from a wooden platform carefully constructed just inside the chamber long ago carved out by the falls’ hammering fists. Both that evening and the following morning found the falls relaxed, gentle, and calm. Nowhere near the raging torrent I’d encountered some years back during my first visit.  At that time, even to approach the railing left us with water in our eyes and our jackets soaked through.

The Portal to Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

To my delight there were only a couple of us waiting to commence the quick tour. With 4 GBP in hand I donned my hardhat and kept myself busy wandering the grand chamber that serves as the mouth to the cave. The chamber, carved by the sea, is a wondrous thing and the type of place that has shaped and inspired the greatest of stories through the millennia. From a dragon’s fossilized maw to a dark and treacherous home to trolls and sea sirens, Smoo Cave could easily serve as inspiration for it all.

A Cat In Kos Castle’s Court – Weekly Travel Photo

Cat Guarding Kos Fortress

While the sound of men at arms, craftsmen  local officials, and traders has long since vanished from the stone walkways and carefully fitted walls that shape Kos Fortress one small army still remains.  The fortress of Kos is manned by a small band of warrior-hunters. Predators that seek out vermin, set upon them, and then plop down in the grass to carefully lick themselves clean, paws stretched high into the air.  Some might argue that they’re the purrrfect guardians for a castle that served its purpose in times of peace and war for generations but which has now retired from service. These guardians casually tolerate visitors – the occasional tourist who makes his way across the site of the old draw-bridge, pays his three lira and gains access to the castle grounds.  Grounds that, at the time of my visit, looked more like a garden for wild flowers than former military instillation. The scent of pollen was thick in the air, mingling with the fresh aroma of ocean salt to add a wonderful sweet perfume to the air. The low rumble of purring cats was accompanied by the audible buzz of the fortress’ airforce – thousands of bees hard at work darting from flower to flower while being equally careful to avoid the casual swat of bored cats relaxing in the late-afternoon sun.

The old crusader castle at Kos, built in part by the Knights of St. John in 1315, was one of my favorite parts of my day-long visit to Kos. The mixture of wild grass-filled moats, and wildflowers so thick they covered the ground with bands of color reminiscent of a rainbow, was deeply relaxing and soothing. It led to an hour of pure relaxation and bliss, made that much better by the nearly complete absence of other tourists.  As far as the guardians?  Well, the cats kept a close watch on me – suspicious but hospitable – as only cats can be.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – A Danish Windmill in Snow

Copenhagen in Winter

The historic Kastellet military fortification is located in the heart of central Copenhagen. The fortification is hailed as one of the best protected fortifications in Europe and in its heyday connected to the series of ramparts which encircled the historic city and protected it from invaders. While the Kastellet fortification is fascinating and dates back to 1624, what’s more important for the sake of this post is the Windmill situated within the fortress’ sloped earthen walls. This windmill was built in 1847 and replaced a previous windmill that had stood in the same spot for over a hundred years. Unbelievably, the windmill is still working, though it was closed for the winter during my visit.  This photo showcases leftover snowfall, the windmill and one of the city’s many cathedrals in the background on the opposite side of the fortress’s moat.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos?  View past travel pictures here.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – Kronborg Castle Caretakers Hut

Kronborg Castle - Caretakers Hut

Located just behind Kronborg Castle, the fortress that inspired Hamlet, there is a small caretaker’s hut built alongside the castle’s outer wall.  This cute extension of the fanciful stonework that decorates the castle serves as a fascinating contrast between royal opulence and the humble lifestyle of the common man (or woman).  The building, with its oddly aligned walls, cute doorways and faded paint has an intoxicating charm, which made it one of my favorite parts of my visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site, which is located in Helsingor, Denmark.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos?  View past travel pictures here.

The Day I Fell In Love With Copenhagen

Cathedral and Lily Pond - Copenhagen, Denmark

The day started off well.  After an absolutely fantastic evening out on the town, during which my friend Kevan introduced me to Danish nightlife I rolled out of bed and headed to the common area. There I ate breakfast, changed and then set out to meet Kevan at the nearby 7-11. Yep, that’s right. I said 7-11.  Believe it or not they’re everywhere in Scandinavia.  When you think about the primary focus and business model behind the company it makes perfect sense, but you can imagine my shock.  McDonalds? Subway? Burger King?  Sure. Those are expected. But some of the others were definitely a surprise. 7-11 was the main one, but TGI Fridays in Norway was a close second.

A Tall Ship - Copenhagen, Denmark

Kevan had volunteered to play guide and show me around the city.  We met up mid morning and then set out down the main shopping boulevard.  We wound down past city hall, through several large squares and then eventually paused at Tivoli Gardens.  Tivoli is a world famous amusement park located in the heart (and I do mean heart) of Copenhagen.  The park opened in 1843 and is the second oldest amusement park in the world. Impressive right?  From Tivoli we continued along the boulevard and quickly arrived at the central train station.  The station itself is beautiful.  A large sprawling building, it has most of the traditional charm of early turn of the century trains only unlike many of its peers the station’s massive ceiling is built from and supported by intricate wooden timbers.

Fountain and Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

After making special note of the train station’s location (I’d arrived through the airport, but would be departing by rail) we cut down towards the harbor.  The route wound through ancient cobble-stoned streets, most of which were lined by trees and periodically ballooned into small squares. As Kevan shared random tidbits of Danish history and lessons in local culture we wound past parliament and the new opera house – a beautiful building located along the central waterway which feeds København’s picturesque deceptively named ‘New Harbor’ which was completed in the mid- 1600s.

Main Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wound past the harbor I was left with what seemed to be a perpetual grin stuck on my face.  The whole area is a historic district dedicated to old “tall ships”.  As a result, every open space available along the canal has some sort of aged vessel moored in place.

Cathedral's Dome - Copenhagen, Denmark

Some 5-10 minutes later we arrived at Frederick’s Church which is also commonly called the Marble Church.  A large cathedral, it looks and feels very similar to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and boasts the 4th largest dome in Europe as well as the largest dome in Scandinavia. The Cathedral was bright and beautiful with a very clean build and a massive organ. As with most of the great cathedrals throughout Europe and Scandinavia it leaves visitors feeling small, insignificant, and awed.

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

With stomachs rumbling Kevan and I headed back to one of the cafes along the new harbor.  Over the course of our walk the topic of local foods had come up.  To my surprise we’d pieced together that the origin of the US slang smorgasbord (an extremely diverse set of options), has its roots in the Scandinavian Smörgåsbord and more regionally the koldtbord in Denmark.  Kevan suggested a restaurant with a spectacular view of the harbor and then introduced me to a beautifully presented Smörgåsbord.  It featured a delicious dipping sauce, fresh beef, bacon, and fish as well as a delicious chick/potato salad.  Good food is always a plus…good food, a bit of history and an incredible setting? A rare delight!

A Gargoyle - Copenhagen, Denmark

With fully belly’s we struck off towards the Gefion Fountain. A beautiful fountain that depicts the Norse god Gefion in a chariot pulled by a number of large animals.  The fountain sits beside a beautiful small church and a stones throw away from Copenhagen’s old fortress Kastellet, or the citadel.

The Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

The old earthen fortifications are still visible and well maintained.  The wide moat which surrounds them boasts a picturesque mixture of goldfish, swans and lily pads.

Dog with Geese - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wrapped back around the fortifications and moat towards the main entrance to the fortress we paused briefly to watch a dog at play.  Set to the backdrop of the cathedral, the dog slowly tried to herd a small group of lounging geese.  The geese, who were anything but concerned, slowly made their way into the moat and then floated just out of reach taunting the frustrated dog.

Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

After crossing a wooden bridge which included a draw-bridge esque component, we passed through the Kings Gate and entered the inner compound.  The compound is still an active military facility with service men on site. As Kevan explained some of the history associated with the fort he also explained that he’d served a portion of his time in the Danish armed forces as a guard – which was a fun insight.

Canon and Bench - Copenhagen, Denmark

Enjoying the brilliant summer weather we continued along the top of the fortification, pausing to take in various sights. Some (like the photo above) reminded me of civil war era-fortifications along the North Eastern part of the U.S. while others were decidedly more modern. The most comical was a view from the fortification wall of the found Danish mermaid statue. Not overly interested in the statue from the get go, I wasn’t terribly disappointed to learn that it had actually been shipped off to the world fair where it was a piece of the Danish pavilion. I was, however, extremely entertained to learn that to make up for it, a webcam had been set up and was broadcasting an imagine of the statue into the harbor where the statue would normally sit.

Windmill - Copenhagen, Denmark

Chuckling, we wrapped along the back half of the fortress wall and paused to take in a large windmill, which dates back to the 1840s and is still operational. The mill was built in case of a siege to aid in the milling of supplies such as flour and rolled oats.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

Starting to feel a bit footsore we wound back the way we’d come, pausing briefly when we stumbled on a gorgeous swan resting along the banks of the fortress moat.  If you could train wild birds for picture perfect moments, the swan would have been a prime contender.  As I paused to snap a series of photos the swan largely ignored me, focused on its grooming and enjoying the afternoon sun.  It was the perfect addition to what was already a picturesque backdrop.

The Old Opera House - Copenhagen, Denmark

Our next destination was the Freetown of Christiania. Our path wound us back past the new harbor, through a large central square, and in front of the original opera hall before we crossed a bridge and wound towards the small section of the city occupied by Christiania.

Locals at Rest - Copenhagen, Norway

The walk towards Christiania was gorgeous.  It took us over the main bridge, and across a second smaller canal which was awash in people resting, socializing and eating.

The Canal - Copenhagen, Denmark

Though slightly less picturesque than their Dutch counterparts, the Danish canal system is absolutely gorgeous and adds a lot of beauty and extra character to Copenhagen.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we neared Christiania I realized we were near one of the more unique fixtures of the Danish skyline: the Church of our Savior.  To my surprise Kevan mentioned that you could climb the external spiral, which seemed like too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

View from the Spiral - Copenhagen, Denmark

The rout to the top was a long one, but well worth it.  The first half wound through the internal workings of the cathedral, including a large room which holds one of the largest sets of bells in Europe.  From there it broke free into the spiral which starts out fairly wide and slowly wraps upward.  The higher you get the narrower the stair becomes before it is literally absorbed into the top of the spire. While rather difficult to navigate, especially given our collective size (we are both over 6’4″) the view was well worth it.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

After taking a few minutes to enjoy the fresh air, and view of the city we wound back towards the organized chaos of the city. Eager not to get stuck in the bell room when the hour struck, we hustled down the stairs, dodging rafters and ducking past old wooden supports before pausing briefly to watch the massive mechanical clock mechanism slowly crank away.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As the afternoon began to slip towards dusk, we reached Christiania.  The area – about the size of a city block is an odd thing. The buildings were originally a Danish military facility which was abandoned in the 60s.  By the 70s, local hippies moved into the area and began to lay claim.  The area has continued to evolve and was largely left alone by the local government. It has developed its own flag, currency, culture, and set of laws. Additionally, it is partially protected by a law passed in 1989 which transfers responsibility for the supervision of the area to the Danish government, instead of the local city.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

As a hippy mecca, the area is most famous for having a lax/largely unregulated approach to soft drugs (though all hard drugs have been banned via a local law) and in many ways acts as the Danish equivalent to Amsterdam’s coffee houses.  Weed and Hash are openly sold along the central street from freestanding stalls.  That said, there’s far more to Christiania than just soft drugs.  The area is awash in art, music, crafts and food.  As we walked through the small area, there were a series of musicians performing, sandwiched between shops selling everything from silly tourist knickknacks to a plethora of Christiania-specific items, most of which sport the local flag: A red bar with three yellow dogs. The district even has its own branded beer which is available for purchase.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

With mention of things like Dutch Coffee shops and street vendors hawking tubs of marijuana it’s easy to assume that the area would be dangerous, or family unfriendly.  Interestingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The area is a creative commune first and foremost, built around mutual respect, investment and cooperation.  As a result, it’s mostly family friendly and not uncommon to see parents with young children at one of the local eateries relaxing, listening to music and grabbing a bite to eat. Hungry, Kevan and I found an open picnic table in an open area, sandwiched between a sculpture from Arthurian legend of a sword in a stone and a large oriental obelisk.  For just under $10 USD (which by Danish standards is dirt cheap) we ordered a delicious flank steak served in a thick portobello mushroom sauce with a side of egg sized boiled potatoes.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

After a hearty meal, it was time to wind our way back towards the hostel.  First, however, we paused at the new harbor where everyone was out and about relaxing and listening to a jazz singer performing at the foot of the canal.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

The golden light of sunset brought out the color in the buildings and boats, and put everything into a magical twilight. As we wandered casually through the crowd, we paused again at one of the small courtyards off of the main harbor.  In the entrance to one of the small museums in the area, another set of musicians were set up and performing.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

Exhausted, we headed back to the hostel to collect a few of the girls, before heading back out on the town to explore Copenhagen’s night life.  Kevan was a fantastic guide and host who offered a special insight into the city.  I can’t wait to find my way back to Copenhagen and can easily say it is hands down one of the most delightful, friendly, and enjoyable cities I’ve been to.  As far as national capitals go, it is easily one of my top three favorites in the world.

If the opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate! Head to Copenhagen and enjoy everything the city has to offer!

Alhambra – The Palace

I stood in the area roped off by security and impatiently checked my watch.  My assigned entrance time for the old Moorish palatial section of the Alhambra was 4 o’clock. Ever so slowly the line seemed to grow. Periodically dodging stray umbrellas wielded by careless impatient sightseers, I paced quietly. All the while a light misting, not yet rain, slowly fell.

Eventually the clock struck 4 and the line began to ooze forward.  Fifteen minutes later I was in.  The entrance was through a beautifully decorated, if otherwise unremarkable, side entrance chosen more for convenience than shock value.  Once inside, the doorway served as a portal into a beautiful multi-level room.  With walls covered in crawling Moorish carvings and wooden ceilings decorated with carved and inlaid wooden designs, the room had a powerful feeling to it – perhaps cozy describes it better?  I can only imagine how visually overwhelming the site would have been when the walls were covered in vibrant colored paints, tapestries and plants.

Careful not to hit my head on the ceiling, I wound down small steps and through the open space. There at the foot of the room the far wall met me in an explosion of stonework.  It was a giant, beautiful wall, carved window to ceiling with astounding intricate designs.  Each portal a glowing orb looking out over all of Granada and the Albayzin.   Even the windows were covered in beautiful stone screen work – a feat in and of itself given the age of the building and its constant battle against the elements.

With some difficulty I abandoned my inspection of the first room and walked across a stone floor worn smooth by the passing of tens of thousands of feet each year.  I soon found myself in another room, again covered in beautiful carvings but made even more impressive by an intricately carved wooden ceiling with beautiful metallic inlays that artistically helped highlight the true complexity of the wood and metal work I was seeing.

As I wound through room after room, covered floor to ceiling, in beautiful flowing patterns and Moorish script I quickly realized that I was growing numb to it.  The artisan’s work was so prolific, so impressive in scope that in an odd way it had begun to become mundane. My overloaded brain seemingly had decided enough was enough and left me rubbing my eyes, shaking my head and striving to pick small focal points within the designs that I could explore closely without overloading.

Moving at a leisurely pace, not unlike that which you would use in a museum, I wandered down hallways into small rooms, grand rooms and across beautifully decorated courtyards.  The courtyards often were decorated with beautiful tile work, small fountains and manicured greenery in addition to the carved wood and stone features that decorated the rest of the palace.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the stonework was the vast diversity of the intricate design elements.   I cannot fathom how difficult it was to repeat specific elements in the design motifs while making the stonework in each individual room unique and elegantly different.

One of the largest open spaces within the palatial complex was the central pool.  With a beautiful fountain on one end and a large carved door on the other, the entire space was designed with symmetry in mind.  Despite the tourist hustle and bustle it still maintained a beautiful aura of tranquility.

Beyond the large wooden doors, I woundthrough another series of stunning rooms before finding myself in the courtyard that houses the Alhambra’s famous Lion Fountain.  Sadly, the fountain itself was surrounded by scaffolding and under renovation.  The courtyard, however, transported me back in time to my youth…to days spent dreaming of Moorish palaces while watching the likes of Sinbad and Aladdin.

Throughout the palace I’d noticed beautiful domed stonework along doorways and in the ceilings of small rooms yet nothing prepared me for the scope and scale of the ceilings in several of the larger rooms.  The ceiling, made entirely of carved stone, consisted of thousands of small domed stair steps which you can see in the image above. These tiny domes combined to create the appearance of fabric… an illusion that must have been even more powerful when painted.  Though most has been worn off/cleaned off you can still see periodic signs of the original paint.  As I stood in the center of the room with the walls climbing on either side of me, I could not help but close my eyes and envision the way it might have been.  To this day that thought sends a chill down my spine in the most pleasant of ways.

Sadly, it would appear that the Moors were rather short.  In fact, there were numerous occasions where I found myself ducking at the last moment and just narrowly avoiding a very up close and personal inspection of some of the stonework.

After making my way through the remaining rooms and courtyards I worked my way through a beautiful garden.  The garden was full of fountains and flowers of various shapes and sizes.

Upon exiting the garden I soon realized that my palatial tour had finally come to an end.  Eager to finish the rest of my tour of the Alhambra I set off to explore the old fortress – one of the original parts of the Alhambra.   As I wound back through the areas I had already explored I soon found myself standing before an impressive Moorish gate.  Once through, I ascended another hundred feet or so before crossing through what would have once been a mighty portcullis.  From there it was up onto the castle wall and over a series of winding platforms and interior walls before eventually making my way to the ruins of the ancient keep.  There my legs pumped away furiously as I ascended tiny stairs in a dizzying spiral which eventually dumped me out onto the roof…a large, flat area with a stunning view of Granada and the surrounding countryside.

I stood with a gentle wind playfully tugging at my hair as I to imagined how the city must have looked under siege in 1492 as the Spanish desperately tried to oust the last of the Moors.  As I mused I gently drifted in and out of the present transported by the mist-like clouds that crowned the Sierra Nevada’s in the distance.

Eventually, I made the mistake of glancing at my watch and decided to make my way back to the hostel.  What an amazing place.  What an amazing adventure. If you have the opportunity to visit Granada and the Alhambra it is without a question, a must.

Granada Part IV – The Alhambra

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!