Spain, parte IV: La Alhambra

Our first night in our Granada apartment was a little louder than we’d expected – a bar opened up around 10pm in the courtyard below, and so we were sung to sleep (and repeatedly awakened) by a blasting mix of classic rock (Janis, Jimi, Steppenwolf, yay) and crappy 90s rock (Bush, boo). Surprisingly, no Spanish music or rock, que lastima. At least the boys slept through it, and were ready for adventure – and the cold! – when we woke up at 6:30 to get ready for our appointment at La Alhambra, the main historical site and attraction in Granada.

After a quick breakfast (some cinnamon rolls and cheese-filled pastries we had bought from a bakery the night before), we headed around the corner to Cuesta de Gomerez, a steep street which ended in a huge stone gate. Beyond that, a shady park stretched up to the hilltop, passing through several more stone gates and corridors. We took a few wrong turns along the way, but eventually made it to the visitors’ center (don’t try to be Columbus – just follow the road all the way up).

A little history on the site: It was originally built as a small fortress in the late 9th century, but not expanded until the 11th century, when the Moors conquered the entire region and established an Emirate in Granada. By the 1300s, the fortress had been expanded into a massive and grand palace, including the magnificent interior living quarters for the Nasrid dynasty. In 1492, Los Reyes Catolicos (the Catholic Monarchs) reconquered the city and retook the palace. Parts of it were expanded and used by the new Christian rulers, but thankfully, they kept the wondrous Islamic architecture and carvings inside the palace for scholars and visitors to enjoy for centuries to come.

Today, it’s one of Spain’s most popular tourist attractions, which means you should plan ahead to beat the crowds. We were there during the off-season and it was still very busy by mid-morning, so I can’t imagine doing it with throngs of people in the summer heat. You’ll need to buy your tickets to see the Nasrid palace ahead of time via Ticketmaster, and then once at the palace, expect to take about an hour exploring the grounds that lead you towards the entry point for the palace tour. (We got up to the fortress at 7:45 and our tickets into the Nasrid palace tour was 9:30, so that was plenty of time – even with two small people.) The audioguides, at 6 euros a piece, are well worth it.

And now, rather than even attempt to describe the palace interior, I’ll just share some of the countless shots we took inside. Every square inch was an exquisite geometric wonder, and although a tiny voice in the back of my head kept saying “How many pictures of these carvings do you actually need?,” I couldn’t help myself – every room offered new mathematical marvels.

Something to consider as you gawk at the carvings: the depiction of human and animal forms is considered idolatrous, so Islamic artists favored other geometric forms inspired by nature and mathematics. The following pictures come from a book of engravings by 19th century artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel, which I picked up in the Alhambra gift store. Imagine if Islamic mathematicians had invented the microscope and could peer at the living embodiments of their artistry…

Although I’m not sure if M realized just how much work it took for just one sculptor to create even a fraction of one wall, he at least enjoyed the tour. E was just cold and tired of walking, and these lovely halls echoed with his whining. Luckily, we found a garden and a fish pond outside the palace chambers, and that entertained him for awhile. It was good to feel the sun as well – those palace rooms were chilly!

The entire fortress is a massive site – beyond the palace, there’s an entire garden, complete with a labyrinth, plus countless other towers and buildings – but by lunchtime, the boys were done. I’m impressed they made it through so much, and especially given how early we’d started the day. (Again, note to fellow travelers – you could easily spend an entire day here, so be wary of tours that try to whisk you in and out too quickly.)

After such a busy morning, we just spent the rest of the day aimlessly wandering through the plazas and streets of the city center. Grabbed a nice patio lunch near the Catedral de Granada (most memorable dish – deep-fried eggplant bites drizzled with honey and balsamic vinegar). E got to ride a carousel, and both boys were thrilled to pick out some huge, colorful licorice ropes. No idea what they were called – they were filled with a sugary paste and rolled in yet more sugar – but everything on display was beautiful. Must…eat… all the things.

Found a playground where the boys could burn off their new energy, and B and I just sat and watched life go by. It was a relaxing cap to a very active few days in Spain, and we were very happy we’d chosen Granada for part of our trip. Highly, highly recommend to anyone considering a visit to Andalusia!

Day 5: Back to Malaga and then onto the beach for a few days of Christmastime relaxation…

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