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!

Granada Part II

When I tell people I absolutely love traveling on my own they look at me like I’m crazy.  With a skeptical eye they usually pause, think for a second, then ask where I stay. When I respond with, “Hostels – they’re amazing” I usually get a sideways look, another pause and then “Did you see the movie Hostel?’.   It’s a shame really that in many ways that movie has become our generation’s Jaws – only this time frightening the average Joe/Jane away from hostel travel instead of the ocean.

That said, during each of my extended backpack/hosteling trips I have had 1 night that left me bleary eyed, pissed off and ready for a nap. Not because I was in danger or frightened but rather because of unfortunate bunk mates. Even the rare unpleasant experience though is well worth it. It’s not an adventure without them and let’s face it – they often make for some of the best stories.

My first evening in Granada was this trip’s one evening.  It involved a tired German switching into the wrong bunk, a horrible smelling drunken Irishman with his heart set on the German’s newly claimed bed, and a number of other late arrivals who were apparently unaware of basic hostel etiquette (making your bed before you go out, leaving the lights off at 3am, etc.). The combined effect made for an interesting – and trying – evening. Needless to say the guy’s smelly feet were probably the worst of it…somehow managing to waft all the way up to my poor embattled nostrils on the top level of a 3 level bunk bed.

The next morning I was up early and out the door. As I walked through the crisp mountain air I retraced my steps through the narrow twisting hillside streets back to the main staircase which would quickly lead me down to the entrance to the Oasis Granada hostel.  The photo at the beginning of this post is of that stairway.  Note the creative parking jobs.   There were very few vehicles in Granada without some sort of scratch or dent and the city as a whole was a constant reminder illustrating the power, advantage and necessity of bumpers. I can’t imagine what happens when the city gets ice or snow.

The walk back down to Oasis was the first real view I’d had of the city by day. Needless to say it was drastically different than the city I’d first experienced the night before. As I paused and stood looking out over the city it dawned on me just how high up I’d traveled.  The air was significantly cooler than it had been in Cadiz – not cold – but cooler. Before, I’d just thought it brisk, but as I looked out across the city I was greeted by an impressive backdrop – the snow covered Sierra Nevadas. Laughing softly at myself I continued down the stairs and soon found myself relaxing in the hostel lobby.  The feisty gal at the reception window told me that rooms would be ready by one, backpacks in the corner until then, bar opened at 6, gave me a drink coupon and sent me off on my way with a smile. I unloaded my bag, grabbed a huge glass of water from the kitchen and set to exploring the hostel. As luck had it my room was on the top floor and accessed off of the rooftop terrace.  The view from the terrace was spectacular:

The terrace rooms were excellent, with wall mounted mini-safes for each bed, sturdy wooden double bunk beds, an en suite bathroom and a small table area  all of which made for a fantastic stay.

Eventually, I made my way downstairs and introduced myself to a few of the others in the common area.  It turned out that they were gathering for a 10:30 free walking tour of the city. Always a fan of spur of the moment I decided to join the group and before long we were off and walking. From the hostel it was a quick walk down through one of the more flavorful flea market streets:

The street was fairly steep with a slight V designed to funnel water away from the shops and down to the main street below. The shops were overflowing with vibrantly colored scarves, rugs, hats, caps, hookahs, beautifully inlaid boxes and a multitude of other flavorful keepsakes. Eager to explore it in greater depth later I made a mental note to return and followed the group the rest of the way down the street…around several corners…and into a large square.  There we paused and waited for others from throughout the city to join us while he had us introduce ourselves. At 11 o’clock sharp the fountain spluttered to life and the tour began.  The square was absolutely charming:

The day was partially cloudy and crisp – if not overly cool. As we made our way across the square laughter bounced back at us off the old stone streets and storefronts. Our guide was a slightly odd, high energy Oregonian who had a box of jokes – some funny…some not.  Although, even the more spectacular comedic failures got a small chuckle or two.   Our path led us up a small street bounded by building walls on the right and a waist-height stone railing on the other.  Beyond the railing there was a 15 foot drop to a small stream which wound its way down between the two hills that sat on either side of us before eventually diving under the central square where we started.  After dodging cars and mopeds on the narrow sidewalk-less street, we paused and our guide shared with us the small river’s history.  From stories of wooden bowls full of fruit set adrift and used to serve reclining Moorish party goers in the 1400s to the noteworthy construction project that had covered most of the stream and facilitated the building of the large square we’d just left.

The buildings to our left were all in excellent condition.  Aged but well maintained, some still had ancient fresco work decorating their plaster facades.  The area to our right sloped up towards the Alhambra gardens, fortress and palatial compound.  One thing that stands out in my memory is the subtle signs of terracing which decorated the steep hillside.  It never ceases to amaze me how prolific mans touch is in Europe.  Even the things that initially strike us as untouched or more wild inevitably end up being little more than neglected areas once shaped by human hands.

The streets to our left were beautiful.  Narrow, paved with cobblestones. Typically too small/steep for cars they were ripe with personality. Before long our guide led us up one – seemly at random.  Our tour of the Albayzin had begun.

Huffing slightly we worked to keep up with each other as we wound up the hill towards its summit…all the while winding through the old Moorish streets.  It’s an amazing feeling – something about the physical exertion – perhaps the slight blur it brings to your eyes – makes it easier to squint and slip back in time. Though I’m sure my imaginings of what the streets looked like 400 years ago are grossly off base, I can’t help but still be captured by the thought.  As the group paused I returned from my musings in time to hear our guide launch into a story about the “Carmen” or small garden we were standing in front of:

The guide’s story suggested that it was a beautiful Carmen.  One so beautiful that when Disney sent their researchers to Granada in preparation for the movie that made the phrase famous – they found this garden and were inspired.  Skeptical or not – it was still more than enough to make me smile. After all, as a wandering backpacker I couldn’t help but feel a certain affinity with the phrase and all of the imagery and message that goes with it.

The hill that the Albayzin is built upon is steep enough that a delightful view of the Alhambra is periodically visible … beautifully framed by the trees towering up and out of the local careens and the multi-colored, tiled rooftops:

Towards the summit of the Albayzin we paused in front of an outdoor water fountain to rest our burning legs and refill our water bottles.  From there we found our way to several small cathedrals as our guide explained that every cathedral in Granada had initially been a mosque which had since been converted.  We then paused near the only mosque in the city – a building which had just recently been reclaimed. Allegedly, it was the first mosque in Granada in hundreds of years. An interesting fact reinforced by the existence of the stacked 3 round balls representing Islam that decorated the tops of all of the cathedral towers.  In every place that they appear they have had a large Christian cross welded on top of them, intended to forever illustrate Christian dominion over Islam.

As we neared the end of the tour we passed this small heavily decorated home.  Each year there is an annual competition among the women in the Albayzin for the most impressive and best-decorated house.  This one showcases local plate/tile work combined with a wonderful mixture of fresh flowers. As we paused and took in the sight, the construction workers renovating the house across the street paused – watched – waved and smiled our way eager to see people enjoying and appreciating a local cultural icon.

I wrote earlier about the strange juxtapositions of old and new that seem to be every day occurrences in ancient medieval cities.  I snapped the following shot spur of the moment and can’t help but feel it illustrates those strange contrasts:

The gateway is actually the old city gate through which all of the Albayzin’s original traffic was funneled.  It dumps out into one of the longest running market places in Granada…A small square that has by all accounts been a market in some shape or form far longer than all of the cities in the Western U.S. have existed.

To add to its mystique, the gate still has rusted old weights nailed above the entrance as a warning to those wayward merchants who would cheat their customers. I’d rather not dwell on what else was no doubt nailed beside the weights a few hundred years ago. Now the gate serves as a normal street – trafficked by pedestrians and the odd moped. It even has a rather flavorful piece of graffiti which you’ll no doubt  recognize. What a clash of different worlds.

Once through the gate we found ourselves in a large open area next to one of the largest cathedrals in the Albayzin.  The square led up to a wonderful viewing area full of local gypsies, artisans and musicians all set to the backdrop of the Alhambra across the way – beautifully framed by the snow capped Sierra Nevadas.

There we bid our guide goodbye, tipped him and set off to find lunch. Before long I’d scarfed down a chicken kebab and was sitting in a tiny internet cafe fingers furiously pounding away as I tried to get caught up on my blog posts.  From there it was back to the hostel to find my bed, wash up and take a quick nap.  Then the evening’s explorations began!

Stay tuned for stories of cave bars, odd live Flamenco, late nights in beautiful old cities and more!