Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Alhambra

The lovely Alhambra in the setting sunlight.

Early on Wednesday morning, I intended to dash up the hill to the Alhambra and buy a ticket for the afternoon, but the man at hotel desk talked me out of it. He convinced me put all my stuff in the hotel storage and then go to the Alhambra. That way, I would not have to rush back or worry about missing the checkout deadline.

Standing in the 50-person line at the ticket office, a woman approached me and we chatted in Spanish that I could understand! She was from Bolivia, about 70 years old, a widow, and on her very first solo trip. I think she was a bit desperate for some company, she wanted to go with me all around in the Alhambra, and I would have been fine to do that, but she already had a ticket and I didn’t. As it turned out, my ticket was for later in the day so we never managed to find each other again. Too bad, it would have been nice to practice talking with someone I could more or less follow.

Inside the gardens 
There are two bus lines that go up the hill to the Alhambra ticket office; both also stop in front of the Cathedral. What a ride! Almost straight up the hill. Fortunately for the people in Granada, it doesn’t often snow or ice over. I wandered around the older parts of the city, several times taken by the arm and shown where to go if I stopped to ask directions. The map wasn’t easy to read for the packed older sections of town where the names are long, but the streets are short. 

Along the broader boulevards, there are a number of large department stores and smaller stores of every type imaginable. Banks have large impressive buildings and every few blocks there is a plaza with a monument of some sort, a fountain, and half a dozen small restaurants with outdoor seating. All the cuisines of Spain (and other places as well) are to be found along the boulevards: churros y chocolate, paella, tapas and vinos, cheese and sausages, bread and pastries of every sort.

The clouds decided to sputter and then rain. Wearing trusty river sandals and a gortex jacket I was comfortable and the camera stayed dry.

View of the Alhambra from the Generalife
The Alhambra, in addition to being the Sultan’s palace was also a major military installation, with tall watchtowers and multiple lines of walled defense.  Cannons rest in the same positions they’ve occupied for centuries and the towers had slots for firing arrows and later guns down into invading hoards.

Granada flourished for almost three more centuries after other Muslim strongholds had fallen to the Catholics, mostly because the Catholics were too busy fighting each other. But when Isabel and Ferdinand joined forces in marriage, and forged a united Spain (with a few provinces still at odds with them) they were able to conquer and evict the Moors. That same year, 1492, Columbus began the conquest of two other continents that added to their wealth considerably. For the next two hundred years, Spain was a country to be feared and respected throughout Europe.

Granada benefitted enormously as Isabel chose to live there and build a Cathedral. The royal family moved into the Alhambra, so it has been owned and maintained for 500 years in much the same splendor and elegance it had originally.
Walls are covered with intricate stone carvings

And what splendor! I’ve been to the Taj Majal, another Muslim building with the most incredible stone inlay work, but the Alhambra is much more impressive. Inside the rather plain looking exterior, the royal palace has floor, wall, and ceiling covered with the most amazing stone carvings, some rooms requiring over a hundred years to complete.  Every arch is carved and some painted. There are two large patios, one with a reflecting pool, the other with the famous stone lions fountain.

Standing in the line waiting for our turn as a group to go inside, I was behind a Saudi Arabian family on vacation, a couple with a teenaged daughter and younger son. I chatted with them. The parents spoke English reasonably well and the daughter was happy to practice with me. She had been studying English in school for the last 6 years. We had quite a conversation. They have visited the US twice and Haifa, the daughter would like very much to study abroad. Her mother asked me all kinds of questions such as who did I plan to vote for, Obama or Romney? What did I think of the current administration, etc? I was a bit vague, as I didn’t want to turn them off with the wrong answer; I wanted to keep her talking! 

Haifa with her parents admiring
the walls.
She asked why Americans don’t value family? That was a question that took me by surprise. She explained that so many people get divorced, only have one child, or none, put their parents into institutions instead of doing everything in the world for them at the end of their lives. She was quite opinionated and I really didn’t know what to say. Clearly our cultures have very different values. She said she’s in contact with her family and pointed to her cell phone, “Messaging all the time!” The family misses them so much when they are away. I asked if she liked that and she said “Oh Yes! It wouldn’t be good to live any other way”. So I explained that there are people who might feel smothered by so much attention and family, it would be like being in prison for them. She hadn’t thought about that at all. As we drifted with the crowds through the interior, she explained many of the inscriptions; all were phrases and sentences from the Koran. “God is all powerful and you cannot have any power without God”.

She expressed great sorrow that the Alhambra was the epitome of Muslim creativity. “What happened to us? Why can we not be creating such beautiful art today?” Another question I couldn’t answer with anything other than, “Every civilization has its high point and then falls.”

Another part of the Alhambra is the Generalife (hen er al eef eh). I was told that the Spanish queen Isabel had it built as her summer palace, but that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Her winter palace was right next door! Wouldn’t you want to go up in altitude for a summer place? It was definitely summery though, with portals and open arches for constant breezes, beautiful gardens and fountains, and Islamic carvings and inscriptions from the Koran. Somehow I doubt that Isabel la Catolica would have built that!!
The Generalife

Arabic inscriptions


The original floor of the palace, now replaced by
bricks for the millions of tourists
 who walk through the building every year.

Famous stone lions fountain

A single beautiful tree

Everywhere, carved stone

Reflecting pool and fountain

Inside the Palace, a garden

View of Granada in the evening, from the Generalife