Granada, Spanish for “pomegranate,” is a charming city, with the old town nestled against the hillside of the spectacular Alhambra palace. Pomegranates grace the heraldry of the city, from the signage to the sewer caps, and dangle from trees on boulevard medians. Cobblestone alleyways wind around shops and taverns and eateries. Moorish architecture mingles with more traditional Spanish structures.
EZ and I took an overnight bus from Madrid to arrive at dawn in Granada, the second stop on our honeymoon tour. We waited first at the bus station, then at Duran Barista (a cute coffee shop near our AirBnB), until our accommodations were ready for check-in.
It was raining, a mild drizzle trickling from gloomy skies. Even so, the neighborhood was perfect, situated in the lower Albaycin along the Darro River, with a stunning view of the Alhambra looming above us on the tree-fringed hilltop. The rain held no one back from being out and about (unlike in Los Angeles, where people hole up during a light shower, startled by the strange weather). The way the narrow road was sandwiched by buildings and hillsides reminded me a little bit of Aguas Calientes in Peru.
After a cat nap at our lodgings, EZ and I grabbed some umbrellas and ventured out into the now pouring rain, ready for our tour of Granada’s most prized attraction and historical treasure: The Alhambra.
The cold and wet weather was a blessing in disguise. The steady rain and silvery mists lent an aura of mystery and enchantment to the Alhambra, already steeped in rich history. And the jostling crowds that would appear in the summer were presently nowhere to be found, granting us easy access and views of the palace’s many remarkable features. Out tour guide informed us that, in accordance with the Islamic beliefs of the time, the exterior of the building appeared simple and humble, belying its lavish interiors.
To be honest, I hadn’t done my homework before visiting the Alhambra. I had no clear idea of its background or attractions. I only knew that visits to the site must be scheduled many months in advance, given its great popularity. But now I learned that this was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason.
Known for its breathtaking detail in Islamic art and design, the red-tinted Alhambra (“The Red One” in Arabic) is a magnificent stone complex of palaces, fortresses, and gardens. Its storied past is shared by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – craftsmen, artists, and builders from all three faiths leaving their mark.
The Alhambra was first home to the royalty and court of the Moorish Nasrid kingdom in the mid-13th century, which encouraged artistic, intellectual, and scientific pursuits. According to our tour guide, despite the Muslim rulers, the spirit of religious tolerance pervaded the kingdom. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike were invited to take part in a pre-modern renaissance focused on humanism and artistry. Still, tolerance did not signify equality.
The Moorish rulers were ousted by the Christian Reconquest, marking the end of nearly eight centuries of Islamic rule in Spain, and the Alhambra became the Royal Court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Much of the beautiful Islamic architectural and design flourishes were destroyed, replaced by Christian and Italian styles, until restoration work brought some of the original Moorish aesthetic back to life.
In particular, I was stunned by the exquisite, intricate plasterwork painstakingly carved with Islamic calligraphy. Some of the lettering praised Allah, while others proffered lyrical poetry. Such patience…such artistry…such reverence!
I was also dazzled by the wooden ceilings painted with the heavens.
Here and there, colorful Islamic tile work chimed in with its own bold motifs.
The famed Moorish arch, including the Horseshoe arch, shaped the doorways, hallways, and windows in a graceful curve.
But some of the arches and ceilings were fringed with scalloped plasterwork resembling a bed of icicles.
In some places, you could identify the Christian/Italian influences, such as the stained-glass ceilings.
Through certain windows and doorways, lush greenery beckons from the gardens and courtyards.
The Court of the Lions holds at its center an alabaster fountain supported by 12 marble lions. While the courtyard itself is divided into four quarters in the Islamic style, the magnificent Lion Fountain came from the house of a Jewish vizier, and is said to symbolize strength, power, and sovereignty. The basin of the fountain is inscribed with this poem:
“…Such a translucent basin, sculpted pearl!
Argentic ripples are added on it by the quiet dew
And its liquid silver goes over the daisies, melted, and even purer.
Hard and soft are so close, that it would be hard to distinguish
liquid and solid, marble and water. Which one is running?
Don’t you see how water overflows the borders
and the warned drains are here against it?
They are like the lover who in vain
tries to hide his tears from his beloved…”
The complex of the Alhambra also houses several outlying buildings. The Palace of Charles V was built after the Christian conquest of Granada as a residence for Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Differing dramatically from the Islamic palaces, the style of Charles V’s palace is more reflective of Italian Renaissance aesthetic. The two-story structure is punctuated by a series of round portal windows atop more traditional rectangular windows. The plan of the palace includes an inner circular patio – unprecedented for its time – lined with Doric columns on the first floor and Ionic columns on the second. The “patio” looked to me like some sort of Greek arena.
Serving as a summer palace and country estate of the Nasrid rulers, Generalife is another outlying building of the Alhambra, a villa with its own courtyards and gardens. Generalife, which our tour guide joked sounds like a life insurance company, means “Architect’s Garden” in its original Arabic name, Jannat al-Arif.
I wondered how the gardens might be transformed by blue skies, sunshine, and late spring blossoms.
To say the least, our visit to the Alhambra exposed us to multitudes of marvels – but my photographs and snippets of historical summary don’t do it justice. The gorgeous design intricacies beg to be viewed up close, in person, by the naked eye. And you must secure a knowledgeable tour guide to help you foster a true appreciation for the Alhambra’s deep and layered past. The beautiful and the ugly.
Although a magical sunset vista of the Alhambra from Mirado de San Nicholas came highly recommended by multiple sources, the persistent blanket of gray clouds made such a scene an impossibility.
So an ashen twilight slipped into steely nightfall without much fanfare. EZ and I squeezed together beneath our umbrella and set out onto the cobblestone alleyways in search of a drink. We ducked into the warmth of Bodegas Castaneda, an authentic, no-nonsense joint where the bar is bordered by hams hanging above the front and sherry barrels stacked in the rear. The walls are decorated with plates and other traditional items. And swarms of locals and tourists crowd around, jostling for a spot at the bar as busy bartenders work quickly and efficiently.
I enjoyed some white wine while EZ pursued his new favorite libation, vermouth, as we received complimentary tapas. These were not proper tapas, per say; more like the Spanish equivalent of American bar food. Instead of peanuts or pretzels, we received olives and pieces of bread topped with cheese. I’m not usually a fan of olives – the black, overly-salted spheroids are too strong for my taste. But when I sampled a Spanish olive – big, juicy green gems perfectly oiled and subtly brackish – my idea of what an olive could be had been pleasantly shaken. EZ’s uncle JH had advised us to keep ordering drinks in Granada, as the types of free tapas offered would improve with each beverage purchased. As we stepped up to our second round, the bartender offered small plates of potato salad. EZ and I considered whether to remain at the bar and keep leveling up to tastier tapas, but ultimately decided to keep exploring.
We perused a record shop (such a large Flamenco selection!) and a book store for a bit before popping into a dim, divey pub full of young locals. The bar was stocked not only with bottles of booze, but also…CDs. Piles and piles of CDs, from which the bartender carefully plucked her pick to play for the masses on an old stereo system. Grabbing some beers, EZ and I attempted pinball for a while (I’m laughably awful).
Soon, it was our time for our dinner reservation at Restaurante Alacena de las Monjas, a fine dining establishment featured in the 2018 Michelin Guide. A couple weeks earlier, EZ and I had used Google Translate to help us make a reservation online. Now, we entered the classy interior and requested a seat in the basement. As we descended into one of several subterranean chambers, we knew we’d made the right choice. The basement had once been a water cistern, and the arching enclosure of soft, faded brick felt at once cozy and elegant. Tabletop lamps cast a luminous glow through the shades. Only a handful of tables were tucked into each cavern, ensuring a more intimate experience.
EZ and I struggled a bit to communicate with our waitress, but for the most part, our choppy Spanish came across. To start, we ordered a bottle of red wine; fillet of beef tartar, pickles, and waffles of mustard (my favorite); and octopus (a little tough and overtextured for my taste). For our main course, we shared loin of lamb, dry apricot, gnocchi of eggplant, and risotto of pine nuts and prunes (which imparted the surprising flavors of a gourmet Thanksgiving meal); as well as hake from the marina with beef tendon and clams (tender and tasty). For dessert, I delved into a deconstructed chocolate and cream concoction.
EZ and I lingered into the night, drawing out our romantic and unique dinner in the cistern. We had savored some very complex dishes with layers of flavor and texture. But this restaurant would not be the end of our foodie tour. The next day we would travel to Seville, where an assortment of celebrated tapas bars awaited, among other diversions…
Our adventure continues in the next post: Spanish Honeymoon: Sauntering in Sevilla