Part 4 in a series:
You don’t have to pay 400 euros to visit the Alhambra, the 14th century mountaintop fortress and palace complex in Granada billed as one of the top architectural wonders of Spain. Unless you dawdle booking tickets ahead of the visit. Then you might. We did.
We booked our flights well in advance of our three-week tour of Spain and got a great fare. Though we might quibble over their definition of a three-star hotel, Euroventure did a decent job of booking trains and accommodations, despite our tardy inquiry. We even scored last minute bookings to many popular tourist destinations. The Alhambra was the exception, where our slacking ways required us to either pay 400 € for a private tour or skip the site entirely. We paid up. It was worth it.
The fortress sits atop a steep hillside above the city of Granada. Smart. If we were invaders, we would think twice about battling our way up that hill. After making a scouting expedition to the top our first night in town, we even found ourselves reconsidering our plan to repeat the trek on foot the next morning for our tour. But despite the heat and The Geek’s emerging head cold, the prospect of Fitbit steps and flights won the day as morning dawned. We trudged. Upward.
Granada is not an early town, and our 9 a.m. reservation at the Alhambra left us few morning meal options. We settled for a buffet of cold breakfast fare in a basement conference room at the hotel. Blah. Fortified by chilled tortilla España, off we marched through the well graffitied yet freshly washed and decidedly empty streets of the University of Granada and Old Town. Where was everybody?
The crowd emerged as we trudged closer to the fortress and blossomed as we reached the entrance. The grounds were packed. No wonder we had so much difficulty securing tickets. We found a couple of cups of café Americano and jockeyed for a few square feet in front of the prescribed meeting spot, battling anxieties that our guide would not show and we would be out 400 € as well as our tour.
We should not have worried. Our amazing guide, Gosia, arrived right on time and deftly ushered us through the main gate of the complex, where for the next four hours she regaled us with stories of its history, culture, architecture, horticulture and lore. For us, she proved to be the 21st century equivalent of Washington Irving, the 19th-century author who introduced the West to this architectural wonder with his “Tales of the Alhambra.”
Initially a small and forgettable battlement built in the ninth century atop Roman ruins, the current fortress, palaces and gardens were laid out by Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar as a representation of paradise on earth. He was the founder of the Muslim Nasrid dynasty and first ruler of the Emirate of Granada. Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon took the Alhambra on behalf of Christendom in 1492, which is why you’ll find Christian coats of arms and other symbols interspersed among the original Muslim tile work. Several centuries later Napoleon’s army considered destroying the fortress. But even after 700 years of alternating neglect and restoration, The Alhambra remains perhaps the premier example of Islamic Spanish architecture.
Here are a few highlights from Gosia’s narrative from The Geek’s personal journal of our trip:
- In Nasrid times, today’s sedate palace walls would have been bathed in multiple hues from light reflecting through honeycombs of colored glass. We caught a glimpse of the experience in somewhat restored window, and Zosia shared an artist’s rendering of the full effect.
- The main palaces for the Muslim royalty were disguised as guard towers, both to fool enemies and to hide the beauty inside. Exterior light would leave the ruler in back-lit shadow when receiving guests.
- One Muslim ruler once killed all the men of a rival family when he was unable to discern which of them had dallied with one of the ruler’s wives. The wife lived to dally another day.
The tour was fascinating, fun and exhausting. After resting our feet and refueling over lunch in a pleasant restaurant on the grounds, we stumbled back down the hill to the hotel and tucked The Geek and her sniffles into bed for an afternoon Siesta.
While touring the Alhambra, we had spotted a bevvy of tourists on a neighboring hillside looking back from a row of restaurants lining the crest. Intrigued and anxious to score more Fitbit flights, we climbed to the top hill to have a peek at the view and maybe find some dinner.
Our slacker luck held as we secured a cliff side table at El Huerto de Juan Ranas without a reservation, enjoying one of the finer dining experiences of the trip and easily the best view. Our walk back to the hotel, accomplished by diligently walking down the steepest branch of each intersection with occasional peeks at Google maps, took us past many local homes and squares with an eclectic assortment of Spanish millennials. It was fun to catch a glimpse of locals at play.
Suffering from a bit of cathedral fatigue from our stops in Barcelona, Madrid and Seville, we looked for chapels to visit as we walked around Old Town on our last day in town, enjoying the street scene. We really loved the shops with the spices of many colors. Since we had visited the tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville, it seemed only appropriate that we stop by the Royal Chapel in Granada to gawk at the graves of his benefactors and Granada’s liberators, Isabella and Ferdinand.
Aside from the ornate chapel-level tombs of Isabella and Ferdinand, plus the tombs of Joanna of Castile “the Mad” and Philip I of Castile “the Handsome,” the focal point of the chapel is the high altar depicting the lives of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the Christian saints for whom the chapel is dedicated. The 16th century altar’s life-like, colorized miniatures depicting the faith and martyrdom of the two saints would not seem out of place in a wax exhibit at Madame Tussauds. They were kind of odd. The depictions of John the Baptist’s beheading, his headless neck bent toward worshipers, and the basting of a contented-looking St. John the Evangelist were a bit over the top by today’s chapel standards.
Don’t forget to line up for a peek into the crypt containing the lead coffins that hold the remains of the four royals in addition to Miguel da Paz, the infant grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand. A side note: Philip’s heart is buried in Belgium, so don’t expect to find it here.
MontaraManDan was pretty much done with chapels and cathedrals at this point in our journey, but The Geek talked him into one more – the Basilica San Juan de Dios. A baroque masterpiece? Perhaps, as baroque goes, but to us hardly a worshipful setting. Every inch of the interior is gilded or silvered or statued or painted, severely taxing MontaraManDan’s attention span and The Geek’s patience with religious splendor. The sanctuary was dimly lit as it was gaudy, until The Geek dropped a Euro into a coin machine and the place lit up like National Lampoon’s Griswold house at Christmas.
The visit became only more bizarre when a guard approached and invited The Geek and her bedazzled traveling companion to step behind the curtain to the right of the altar. A set of stairs led upward past a number of presumed priceless paintings to a small room with a window overlooking the sanctuary. From the pews, only a giant silver urn and pedestal with statues of the apostles are visible. According to the audio guide, the urn contains the remains of John of God, the saint to whom the basilica is dedicated. Unseen behind the urn, however, are coffin-shaped glass shadow boxes containing skulls and piles of bones – relics – of dozens of saints and martyrs. Presumed pieces of Christ’s cross and crown of thorns also reside in what the chapel considers a holy antechamber. The veneration of relics steps beyond our own Christian experience. To us it was simply sad and grisly. Still, we left respectfully.
For our last dinner in town, we decided to test MontaraManDan’s theory that the sidewalk cafes with table clothes serve better fare than those without. On this night one of his theories proved correct as we shared a lovely cold tomato soup with Iberian ham and an entree of grilled chicken. We snagged some gelato for dessert and in deference to The Geek’s cold retired early to rest up for a long train trip north the next morning.
Next stop? Toledo!
This is the fourth of a multi-part series of our travels to six major Spanish cities across three weeks in the fall of 2017. Special thanks to The Geek for the comprehensive journal she kept throughout our journey.