My first experience of Granada, Spain felt very surreal. Our little apartment in the old quarter of this Moorish city – the Albaicín – had a rooftop balcony that looked straight onto the Alhambra – a striking, world famous palace and fortress. Each morning, afternoon and night we would sit and stare at this imposing structure and two months passed before we decided to pay it a visit. By this point, our expectations were high.
To add to our intrigue, a nice British couple (who were briefly our neighbours) bought a children’s storybook on the Alhambra for Olin, our five-year-old boy. Night after night we would read him the stories of this magnificent place. Perhaps, then, it was no surprise that when we finally stepped inside, it was Olin who remembered its secrets he’d come to know so well…
Once upon a time
At the beginning of the 8th century, the Moors arrived in Spain and began to construct a small fortress on top of a hill in Granada. Eventually the fortress joined to a palace and a succession of kings added to the construction their own flourishes and ingenuity.
However, it was during the 13th (via Nasrid ruler Mohammed al-Ahmar and his son) and 14th centuries (thanks to Yusuf I and his son Mohammed V) that most of the embellishments were made. The Alhambra grew to have gardens then unequalled, vivid red walls that towered above the city and palace rooms of the finest construction and design.
The Alhambra also came to incorporate a clever hydraulic system and aqueduct that drew water from the nearby River Darro, to ensure it had an endless water supply. It became a lush palace, looking something like a fairytale castle from One Thousand and One nights – the finest place in all the world.
The day had finally come, when one bright summer’s morning, not so long ago, my little family marched up a steep hill through the wonderful Generalife towards the gates of the Alhambra. Having a better memory than myself, Olin was quick to point out we were entering via the Gate of Justice. At the top of the first arch, Olin told us, was the carving of a large hand. Above the second arch was the carving of a key.
Legend has it, that an Arab astrologer who once lived inside the palace cast a spell over a captive Christian princess. It is said when the spell is broken, the hand will grab the key and the Alhambra will vanish. Poof! With our excitement rising, we proceeded inside, to find (perhaps unsurprisingly) the Alhambra is a very popular place.
After purchasing audio guides to aid our tour, we headed to the oldest part of the Alhambra first, the Alcazaba (fortress). The purpose of the Alcazaba was to protect the palace and the city of Granada. Its notable features include watchtowers, lofty platforms with grand views and deep-set windows that looked onto the military courtyard.
Olin was quick to point out the watchtower Torre de la Vela and its huge bell. This was where the Catholic king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella raised a flag to display Spanish rule over Granada in 1492. During certain times of the year, it is said, girls and unmarried women touch the bell to avoid remaining single.
Leaving the Alcazaba, we strolled through a narrow, foxy garden toward a growing horde of tourists lining up for the main palace. Main palace entries were timed and ours wasn’t until 11ish, so we decided to explore the Alhambra’s gardens (much of it added in the 20th century). Here we visited the famous Patio de la Acequia – a long pool with numerous arched fountains curling amidst pretty greenery.
Passing numerous other quaint courtyards and buildings riddled with stories (the Alhambra is very large), we came to Court of the Cypresses, so named as the queen once hid herself in one of the trees. We then visited the Escalera del Agua (Stairway of the Cascades), where water gushes ingeniously down a long, winding banister, before we returned to the main palace entrance.
Palacios Nazaríes – highlights
I was excited to enter the main palace complex, however there were plenty of others with the same idea. Even though there’s a limit on tickets sold each day at the Alhambra, the amount of daily visitors is still astronomical. This place is certainly well-loved.
Much of the next couple of hours were spent dodging selfie sticks, ducking photo ops and waiting fruitlessly to have small pockets of this fairytale wonderland to myself. Of course it’s understandably popular, it’s a magnificent place, although the sheer numbers here detracted from my experience considerably.
Of course I couldn’t fail to notice how striking the Alhambra palace complex is. After taking in the 14th-century Mexuar with its carved wood ceilings and adjoining oratory, we came to the Patio de los Arrayanes. The patio, which contains a long olive pool flanked by hedges and elaborate architectural designs, was the private residence of Emir Yusuf I during the 14th century. Evidently he had a pretty nice pad.
Moving on, one of the most exquisite sections of the Alhambra is the Patio de los Leones (Courtyard of the Lions), where the Emir lived his domestic life outside the court. The courtyard has 12 marble lions at its centre (dating to the 11th century) and a fountain behind them. The water flows from the fountain, through the lions’ mouths and out into the chambers in all directions.
The surrounding columns and stucco work are rich in detail and worth a long gawk. However, I found the tourist traffic here particularly high and I shuffled on sooner than I would have liked. Another highlight here is the Sala de los Abencerrajes, where the knights of the Abencerraje family were executed. Its star domed ceiling is cause for wonder, being superbly crafted and the play of light and shadow here is bewitching.
Of course these are just a few highlights. There’s so much more to talk about – the lush, carefully arranged gardens, the many detailed rooms and their stories – too much for me to discuss here. Ideally you’d need a few days to explore the Alhambra. And while it’s great to get children involved, the sheer size and detail of the place will test their (and thus your) patience.
When we finally exited the palace complex, we explored another garden and I took in some restoration work and views over town. I reflected the Alhambra didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I wished I could have experienced it on my own. Still, it’s an aesthetic and architectural marvel and to see it in action during its heyday would, I’m sure, have been gobsmackingly glorious.
A few tips and facts
- If you’re rushed for time, skip the Alhambra and visit the Alcazar in Seville, which I thought was even better.
- Visit outside of summer, be prepared for crowds and don’t set your expectations too high.
- Grab an audio guide, it will give some weight to your wanders.
- The Alhambra is best visited over two days.
- There is food available inside the Alhambra, although the options are few and poor. Best bring your own.
- Children under 12 are free. For ticket prices, take a look here.