Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Alhambra

Washington Irving, during his travels in Spain, once journeyed from Seville to Granada, and described Granada as beautiful in very poetic sentences that I cannot find now. He stayed in the Alhambra, the old Moorish castle overlooking the city. It was then partly forgotten and in a state of disrepair. I think I remember reading something about it being inhabited by beggars and thieves, though maybe this was before Irving's travels. He was so enchanted by the place that he wrote a book called The Tales of the Alhambra that wove his researches with the legends and stories of its builders and occupants.

His book was instrumental in re-introducing the Alhambra to the rest of the world, and its restoration commenced. Today, it is perhaps the most famous monument in Spain, and a grateful Granada has numerous plaques and statues in Irving's honour in the Alhambra. The ones I remember are a statue with the inscription "the son of the Alhambra," a plaque that indicates the rooms he stayed in, plus another one that goes "from Granada to Washington Irving."

The reason I mention all this is that I have the book with me now, and I'd intended to read it fully before writing this post. I'd meant to quote extensively from the tales and connect them with what I saw during my 10 hours in the Alhambra. But you know how it is. You then go to Barcelona, sleep an average of 4 hours a night, and you're still stuck at Page 3. And time does not stand still all the while. There are other places and experiences you'd like to write about, too. And unlike Irving, you don't get any money for your writing. I'd also like you to keep in mind the disclaimer that I wrote in my first post in this series.

The Alhambra began life in the 9th century as a fortress - the Alcazaba. The walls of the fortress have been rebuilt many times, and none of the original walls still survive. It was on one of towers here that, after the conquest of Granada in 1492, the Castilian flag was first raised, and the views of the city it affords are magnificent. Save this for the last.

Then there are the Nasrid palaces, built, I think, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, with a view to creating a "paradise on earth." These are supposed to be the highpoints of the Alhambra visit, but they were probably too subtle for me. I mean, yes, they're nice and everything, but... Maybe if I'd read Irving's book before going up there... There's some fantastic tales of intrigue around them, though. The most memorable is the one about the Hall of the Abencerrajes. Apparently, the Sultan found the head of the Abencerrajes in "lustful collusion" with his mistress in one of the gardens and massacred the whole clan in the hall during a feast. The audio guide I rented was a little dubious as to whether this really happened. It was tactful and cited several objections regarding the customs followed and stuff to question the story. For me, the question is more basic: if you wanted to be in lustful collusion with the Sultan's favourite, would you pick a garden open from all sides to do the collusioning in, when there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of more private rooms all around?
And finally, on an even higher hill are the Generalife gardens and its attached palace. The gardens are fantastic, and the fountains, particularly the one that runs along the handrails of the highest staircase there, are a delight - especially after a hard day trekking up and down hillsides.

Oh, and there's also the Christian additions to the complex. After their conquest, the Christian monarchs fell in love with the place and lived there for a while. And they couldn't resist their own additions - which are very controversial and you're supposed to take sides on whether they're a travesty or not. For me, I know zilch about architecture. You go there and make up your own mind.

For that, the first thing you need to do is get the tickets weeks, months if possible, in advance. The number of visitors allowed in per day is limited and only a third of those can be bought at the ticket counter. And that involves queuing up for hours in front of the counters very early in the day. So, book the tickets online and remember to collect the tickets from the La Caixa terminals in the city well before you go to the Alhambra. I did not do this last and opted to get the printouts from the machine at the entrance. The problem here is that the Alhambra is practically a city and has multiple entrances. Finding the exact entrance, if you don't speak Spanish, involves a lot of misdirections. It took me about half an hour of intensive trekking and muttered curses before I could get my tickets.

Also, I'd recommend the audio guides they rent by the side of the ticket booth. It covers the geography and the history and the tales surrounding the complex. Indispensable. Again, the complex is gigantic. Only a small portion is open to the public, but even then you could spend days wandering it. Something approaching physical fitness is a definite plus if you want to really enjoy the Alhambra. You do walk up and down a fair bit to see the various sites, and this is discounting the trip up. There are buses up, but the climb up from the town is only 15 minutes or so. But it is steep, and I mean steep. I took a break for lunch, and walked down to the Moroccan quarter to a restaurant that's highly recommended. On the way back, my second climb up, I felt pangs and pains that I'd never felt before, and even once checked my pulse because I thought I was having a heart attack...

Let me leave you with the most touching story I've heard yet of the Alhambra. The year is 1492 and the armies of Isabel and Ferdinand surround the Alhambra. Boabdil the Moor sees no hope of victory and surrenders Granada to the monarchs. The monarchs are rather gracious in victory (this generosity did not last - they would institute the Spanish Inquisition and expel Jews and Muslims from Spain, not too long later) and give him some land high up in the Sierra Nevada. So, as he departed for his new home, he could look down upon his beloved castle. Just as he was about to turn the last bend, he looked down upon the Alhambra, sighed that famous last sigh, and wept uncontrollably. It is difficult to imagine anyone not being touched by this scene. Not his mother, though. She was not the favoured wife and had been imprisoned along with young Boabdil. She fashioned an escape for him and presumably went through a lot to see him ascend to the throne. So, with some asperity, she now commented: “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.

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