Project Description

The Alhambra is a magnificent palace complex, one of the major monuments of Islamic architecture and the most majestic medieval acropolis of the Mediterranean world. With the Great Mosque of Cordoba, it is the most prestigious indicator of Muslim presence in Spain from the 8th to the 15th century. Covering an area of approximately 140.000 square meters and situated on a hill overlooking Granada and its surroundings, the Alhambra is divided into three parts: the richly decorated Nasrid palaces, the Alcazaba (the walls) and the Generalife (the gardens).

The Alhambra is essential to see during a stay in Granada or around the city – it is a place which I would call a “Wonder of the World” and not to admire it is a mistake that you would certainly not make! The area is huge and it is essential to have a good half day to go around. If you come to Granada for a day or two, you better buy your tickets in advance, as there can be long queues and it may be impossible to get tickets if the time’s too short. These tickets are valid half a day if you choose the general tour option, and can be obtained directly at the Alhambra (either at the ticket office at the Alhambra or at the store on Reyes Católicos street) or Caixa bank (either by phone or online using their web page “Ticketmaster”). Expect to spend at least 3 hours minimum. To learn more about the Alhambra, I redirects you to its official website where you will find all relevant information. Keep an eye on your watch and remember the entrance time to the Nasride Palaces!

As it is impossible for me to write an article including a comprehensive summary of each element of the Alhambra (way too long to write), I’ll just write a short summary about the most famous and important places of the complex, all with a few pictures and comments. After having bought our tickets at the Alhambra store one day in advance, Eric (a friend from Granada language school) and I leave early in the afternoon for a walk several centuries back in the heart of the “Red Castle”.

After having crossed the Puerta de las Granadas from the city center, we follow a road leading us to the entrance of the complex. There are various pathways for pedestrians, but this one is the most direct and popular. On the way we pass the monument to Washington Irving, the Fountain of Charles V (Pilar de Carlos V) and close to the Tower of Justice (Torre de la Justicia), one of the entries to the Alhambra. We walk right next to the ramparts of the Alhambra and once outside the main entrance, we show our tickets, go in and begin our tour of the complex. We start with the Generalife, followed by the upper Alhambra, the Alcazaba and finally by the Nasrid Palaces. This is the traditional tour circuit, although it is possible to do it the other way. It all depends on your time of entry into the Nasride Palaces, careful not to be late, otherwise say bye to your entry ticket and your money!

Generalife

The Generalife was the summer palace of Nasrid princes, where the they were cooling off in the shade, near water pools. Located outside the city walls on the other side of the main plateau, this palace is famous in Spain and several poems were written about it. The name is derived from the Arabic “Jannat al-Arif” meaning “heaven” or “architect’s gardens.” The abundance of water in Andalusia dominated by the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada was a revelation for all these princes from the desert. The Alhambra and the Generalife gardens are the most powerful symbols of the domestication of water which refreshes almost every yard and garden of the complex. Today, the Generalife is composed of two groups of buildings, linked together by the Patio of the Canal (Patio de la Acequia).

It is difficult nevertheless to know what was the original appearance of the palace, as it was modified and rebuilt several times throughout the Christian period. These modifications and reconstructions were necessary, given the poor state of conservation and the abandonment of the premises during the last Muslim period, but they later changed the distribution of places and distorted many of its aspects. Our tour begins with the Generalife gardens. We walk among the cypress trees, hedges and fountains of the place, we admire the partial views of Granada and the large theater, still used today for some concerts and performances.

After the gardens we enter what is to be the most important and best known of the Generalife, the Patio of the Canal (Patio de la Acequia). This is a typical postcard scenery before which we remain in awe, especially the time to let a visibly urged group of Chinese tourists jostling behind us. The patio is crossed by a canal surrounded by several small water-shoots and each of its ends open on two stone pools. The rest of the place is occupied by plant species that have varied depending the eras. Nowadays, you can admire myrtle hedges, orange and cypresses trees, and rose bushes. A beautiful place!

Unlike the Alhambra, all the buildings of the Generalife, although strong and impressive, are very simply decorated in general, which gives an idea about the privacy and quietness that monarchs were looking for during their rest days in the heart of the gardens. We nonetheless observed some decorative plaster patterns, with little variety, but a fine and refined taste.

Then we climb the steps of two large sets of stairs. These are considered as “mini-aqueducts” because they are crossed by small canals bringing water from basins located in height to the heart of the Generalife gardens. A final moment spent on a path surrounded by vegetation and we are back to the entrance. Now is the time to get into the thick of it, meaning entering the upper Alhambra via a bridge that allows us to cross the ramparts. After that first part, I must say I am impressed. Certainly, we are in January and the gardens of the Generalife are lacking of flowers and therefore clearly not offer much to photograph, but the beauty of the fountains, the play of light and the exquisite simplicity enlight the place. And this is only the beginning of our walk!

Alhambra

Shortly after the bridge, we follow the tourist trail and walk past the The Water Tower (Torre del Agua), located right next to the aqueduct that brings water from the Generalife to the Alhambra. Only a few ruins of the original tower remains, as it was destroyed by an explosion perpetrated by Napoleon’s troops in 1812 and to the Tower of Purpose Street (Torre del Cabo de la Carrera) as well. The other buildings of the Alhambra have escaped this doom thanks to José García, a brigadier who cut the strands that had been placed between different towers on the ramparts.

Our path continues through the non-Irrigated Land of the Alhambra (Secano de la Alhambra) where many ruins of Arab and Christian buildings are situated. The south-eastern part of the complex is called the upper Alhambra and consists of all the area located between the non-Irrigated Land to the Partal Gardens (Jardines del Partal) and the Wine Gate (Puerta del Vino), one part being now occupied by Charles V Palace (Palacio de Carlos V).

We pass the Baths (Baños), the Church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra and then come right next to the Palace of Charles V, which I will write about a little lower. Next door is the Justice Tower (Torre de la Justicia) that we have already seen from outside the walls before our visit to the Generalife, and the Wine Gate (Puerta del Vino), one of the oldest constructions of the Alhambra now isolated within the Square of the Cisterns (Plaza de los Aljibes). The name of this door is obscure, but a version of 1556 says that to avoid paying tax on wine, villagers living around were storing it here. However, another version says that the name comes from a simple confusion between the words “Bib al-Hamra” (Red Gate or Gate of the Alhambra), its original name, and “Bib al-Jamra “(Wine Gate).

Just after the Wine Gate is the Square of the Cisterns (Plaza de los Aljibes), called so because of tanks that the Count of Tendilla built in 1494 into the rift that separates the Alcazaba and the Nasrid Palaces. These cisterns, 34 meters long, 6 meters wide and 8 meters high, were later transformed to become the esplanade on which we are now walking. From the promontory on the north side of the square, we can admire a beautiful view of the city, especially on neighborhoods of Albaicín and Sacromonte.

We retrace our steps and enter the Palace of Charles V. Its construction, managed by Pedro Machuca, began in 1527 and was completed in 1957. The palace has a square shape with a facade of 63 meters wide and 17 meters high. The central circular patio, unique in this style, is the most important Renaissance work in Spain and this is where we are going. In fact, we do not have enough time to visit the museums there, as we must not be late to the Nasdires Palaces! However, nothing just seeing the impresive patio is good and it’s the perfect place for some panoramic pictures. And as you can see below, I had fun!

The last picture above is strange, no? This is what a panorama from the center of the patio looks like. Needless to say that the place loses all interest, right? Anyway, it’s time to continue our visit of the Alhambra.

Alcazaba

As we still have some time before the visit of the Nasrid Palaces and as allowed by our tickets, we start to explore the Alcazaba, the oldest part of the Alhambra with its Vermilion Towers (Torres Bermejas). It is said that even before its construction and before the arrival of the Muslims in Granada, there were already several buildings there. The first known reference to the Alcazaba of Granada dated from the 9th century, built by then Sawwar ben Hamdun during the struggle between Arabs and Muladies (Christian converts to Islam).

The current complex was completed by Muhammad I who fortified the castle that already existed and raised defenses and three new towers: the Split Tower (Torre Quebrada), the Keep Tower (Torre del Homenaje) and the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela). The monarch transformed the Alcazaba into a fortress in which he established his royal residence until his son Muhammad II completes the construction of the Nasrid Palaces. From that time, the fortress was used only for military purposes. From the Plaza de Armas, the original access to the Alcazaba, we can see the foundations of several Arab houses, once inhabited by civilians responsible for meeting the needs of officials and military forces. We then follow the walkway leading us around the fortress.

This tourist path leads us on the ramparts and at the top portions of different towers with magnificent views of the city. The first is the Arms Tower (Torre de Armas), located on the northern wall and that allowed communication with the Almanzora district and the city itself. A little further away is the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela). It has a massive base and its four floors were used as dwellings, in so modifying its original appearance. On the second floor of this tower were merlons until the 16th century and the visible bell on the western facade was installed in 1840, but later rebuilt due the damage from a lightning that strucked it in 1882. The landscape that can be observed from this tower is just wonderful, because not only you can see the city, but also the Sierra Nevada, the Vega (fertile full) and number of villages. What a treat for the eyes, beautiful! We continue our way and so back to the entrance by which we arrived.

Nasrides Palaces

Once out from the enclosure of the Alcazaba, it’s time for us to visit the Nasrid Palaces. After joining the queue of tourists outside the main entrance, members of the staff check our tickets and we can then enter the place starting from the Mexuar, the first of three independent zones of the Palaces and semi-public part which was situated the administration of justice and state affairs. The other two areas are the Comares Palace (Palacio de Comares), the official residence of the king, and the Palace of the Lions (Palacio de los Leones), the private area of the palace. These places are different enough from each other because of their use and their artistic features. The Palace of Comares, for instance, is typically Muslim, but the Lions Palace presents Christian influences that must be the result of the friendship that existed for years between King Mohammed V and his Castilian counterpart Pedro I the Cruel.

During this visit, it is every room, every hallway, every window, every marble slab (no, I’m exaggerating… barely!) that we will admire, therefore it is simply impossible for me to summarize it all here. Indeed, the history of the place and the diversity and complexity of each architectural element would transform this summary into an encyclopedia! Now if I like to detail some aspects of my journey in this way, I do not wish to reveal everything here all the magic of the Nasrid Palaces – you’ll have to come to see it in person!

Located at the bottom of the Mexuar is a chapel restored in 1917. The main wall has four small balconies, with arches and small windows with partial but interesting views on the city. Following the tourist trail, we arrive on the Patio of the Gilded Room (Patio del Cuarto Dorado), located between the Mexuar and the said chamber, which is in the Comares Palace (Palacio de Comares), serving as a connection between the two places. The Gilded Room received its name by the Mudejar paintings of its ceiling.

And then, here come the wonder! Before even visiting any of the rooms of the palace, we are dazzled by the famous Patio of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes), named after the myrtle bushes that surround the central pond and the bright green color which contrasts with the white marble floor of the premises. This is a very known picture which appears on almost every postcard you find in Granada. The palace is formed by a set of rooms located around the patio, and each of which can be visited. These include the Hall of the Boat (Sala de la Barca) and the Ambassadors Room (Sala de los Embajadores) as well as the Tower of Comares (Comares Torres), from where you can admire a beautiful view of the Darro valley river.

A little further on, we come to what is termed today to be the extraordinary legacy left by Yusuf I in the Alhambra: the Palace of the Lions (Palacio de los Leones). The latter was one of the private rooms of the royal family and was built in the angle between the Baths (Baños) and the Patio of the Myrtles. In these places, Nasrid art achieved its greatest splendor, of an unrivaled beauty and harmony where light, water, colors and exquisite decoration make this a true pleasure for our senses. When I tell you that this is a true wonder, you have to believe me!

This palace is composed by a central patio surrounded by galleries with columns in the style of a Christian cloister, allowing access to different rooms: the Hall of Mocarabes (Sala de Mocarabes) to the west, the Kings Hall (Sala de los Reyes) to the east, the Hall of the Two Sisters (Sala de Dos Hermanas), the Hall of Meneaux Windows (Sala de Ajimeces) and the Mirador de Daraxa to the north, and finally the Hall of Abencerrajes and the Harem to the south. Let’s us not forget to mention the Courtyard of the Lions (Patio de los Leones), the most famous place of the Alhambra. Its name comes from the twelve lions “jets of water” that are in the middle of the patio, covered with a huge white marble fountain. Fantastic!

Always among the flood of tourists, we continue our way and arrive at the Grid Patio (Patio de la Reja), named after the existing grid acting as a balcony on the wall from 1655. Just next door is the Daraxa gardens, also called Garden of Orange Trees and Marbles (Jardín de los Naranjos de los y Mármoles). There are cypresses, acacias and orange trees and boxwood shrubs all around a large marble fountain whose edge is decorated with a poem, like the fountain of the Lions Court. South of this patio is the Hall of Secrets (Sala de los Secretos), where two people can talk quietly to each other while watching the wall from each end of the room. The acoustics here allow the sound to move easily and without facing obstacles, making possible this kind of communication as is the case in other places in Europe I have had the opportunity to visit.

Partal Gardens

The visit of the Nasrid Palaces is done in a single way, as visitors enter by the Mexuar and exit through the Garden of Partal, extending from the exit of Rauda (cemetery) to the esplanade where is located the Ladies Tower (Torre de las Damas). The latter is also one of the most important buildings in the Arab period and its decoration is the oldest of the Alhambra. The tower has received many names depending on the inhabitant of the moment, and got its present one at the end of the 18th century. Until 1924, when its restoration was completed, it underwent many reforms to make it fit to live. To the left of this tower are three small Arab houses in where were discovered paintings in the first half of the 14th century.

On our way towards the exit, we follow the walkway and thereby pass under a few guard towers, like the Tower of the Captive or the Tower of the Princesses. Finally, we are back to the entrance/exit of the complex after an afternoon rich in culture and discovery. Few places in the world can pretend having the magnificence of the Alhambra and I’m almost disappointed that our visit is already over, as the discovery of the place seemed magical and unique. Once again, it is a cultural site not to be missed, for it is clearly amazing! Again, inquire well about opening times and remember to book your tickets a day or two in advance, more if you travel during high season.