Patio of the Lions

Martes, Day 9 - Granada

We decided we didn't even want to attempt to navigate the Alhambra on our own, so we hitched onto an organized tour of what is probably the most-visited site in all of Spain. The credit for giving the Alhambra that distinction goes to a 19th Century New Yorker - Washington Irving of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame. Irving served as a diplomat to Spain in the 1830s, and had the marvelous opportunity to travel from Seville (along with a Russian diplomat) via horseback to Granada to spend several months living in the Alhambra. He developed a total infatuation with the magnificent, but very dilapidated, Alhambra and its environs, and ended up writing a book about the building and the many Moorish legends surrounding it. Tales of the Alhambra is a marvelous mix of first-person narrative and pure fantasy, and Irving obviously loved his subject. The book was an instant best seller back home, and was quickly translated into several languages (including Spanish). The book sparked the imaginations of travelers everywhere, and brought the Alhambra's run-down state to the attention of the Spanish government. With so many people coming from so many places to make pilgrimages to the Alhambra, the Spanish government got its act together and made the Alhambra a national monument in the 1890s. Renovations were sporadically made throughout the 20th century, and tourism reached a new high after the Alhambra was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1984. Today, many consider the Alhambra the best preserved medieval Arab palace in the world.

But we should back up and explain what the Alhambra is. The Alhambra is, quite simply, a 13th Century Moor's idea of paradise on Earth. Although Moorish rule in Spain was already in decline by this time, the caliphs (rulers) of the Nasrid dynasty built the Alhambra in an effort to show off their continued power over the Kingdom of Granada. The Alhambra is a complex of palace buildings on the top of a mesa-type flat hill looking down on the City of Granada. The buildings use simple building materials such as plaster, timber, and tiles - never really meant to last as long as they have - in amazingly artistic ways. The whole complex reflects the main goals of Moorish architecture, which are to keep the inhabitants cool while surrounding themselves with beauty, and all the while not revealing to the outside world the riches within so as not to invite invasion. So while the exterior walls are quite plain and servicable, the interior is indeed a lush paradise.

The oldest building in the Alhambra complex is the Alcazaba, the original 13th Century fortress. Soon after, the elaborate Casas Reales or Palacios Nazaries (Royal Palace) was built - this is the area most people think of when they think of the Alhambra. Probably the most famous courtyard in the Casas Reales is the Patio de los Leones, the Patio of the Lions. Everyone scrambles to photograph the dozen marble lions resolutely holding a basin on their backs. A more recent - and out of character - building in the Alhambra is the Palace of Charles V. Built in the 16th Century, Charles never quite got around to completing his open-air palace, but its great acoustics make it a modern home to many a concert.

If the Alhambra itself is amazingly intricate, the Generalife is just plain lush. Not content with the beautiful palace, the Moors also built a summer palace slightly North of the main palace, where things were just a little bit cooler. This is the Generalife, which to American eyes probably looks more like the name of a life insurance company than a lush palace. The name - pronounced "Heneral leaf-a" - is actually a Spanish bastardization of the Arabic Gennet al-Arif, which means "architect's garden." The Patio de la Acequia is typical of the elaborate gardens of the Generalife.

After the tour, we made our way back to the Parador de San Francisco for what was probably the best meal we had in all of Spain. The Paradors are state-run luxury hotels in fantastic locations, such as converted castles, monasteries, and other amazing buildings. This one is the cream of the crop - a converted 15th Century Franciscan monastery on the very grounds of the Alhambra. We tried to make reservations there about four months in advance, and we were way too late - it books up as much as a year in advance. Still, we were able to enjoy an amazing meal there (Dineen had roasted goat meat, Mike had veal) with its gorgeous view.

- Day Ten -