“You haven’t booked tickets?” the woman from the tourism office said. “No” we shook our heads, sheepishly. We knew we were supposed to, but just didn’t get around to it. “You will need to go early then,” she said. “The ticket office opens at 0800 so you should be there before.” “How early?” we asked, “to guarantee getting a ticket?” We had only scheduled two nights in Granada, and really didn’t want to miss out. The woman sighed and shrugged. She got asked this all the time, and knew that the answer was different every day. “Early,” she repeated.
The alarm went in the darkness. I groaned. My husband, a morning person and kind soul, even on his birthday, rose and headed off to join the queue for tickets. I followed much later, around 7 am, when it was getting light. It was Sunday morning. Even at that early hour, the municipal authorities had already been out, hosing down the streets after a raucous Saturday night. Everything was therefore spotless, if a little damp. Being Spain, there were still some stragglers from the night before returning home; the women walking barefoot, holding their shoes, chatting happily, the men relaxed but subdued after a long night, their jackets gallantly flung around the shoulders of their ladies in the chill morning air.
The day before had reached 36 degrees C, but it was still early in the summer, and the morning was definitely cool. By the time I reached the ticket office, the queue held about 100 people, and more were arriving by the minute. My husband was frozen as were so many in the queue, and the cafe was doing a roaring trade in hot chocolates and coffee.
When the ticket office finally opened at 8 am, we found we had our choice of time. Entry was strictly controlled to manage the numbers in parts of the complex at any one time. Every 30 minutes a new group was allowed in. We decided to be in the first group. It was a good decision. We walked through the gates, into the secluded grounds of the Alhambra, another of Spain’s impressive UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the main reason tourists descend upon Granada. Once the residence of the Muslim rulers of Granada, the Alhambra is set on a rocky hill overlooking the city of Granada, and set in under the still snow capped Sierra Nevadas. A large complex, it has high ramparts, a military fortress, and both Muslim and later Christian palaces.
As we were amongst the first visitors of the day, we got our payoff for my husband’s long and cold wait in line. The gardens were peaceful, and we were able to make our way straight to the Nasrid Palaces, the former residences of the Moorish Kings of Granada. We were at times the only ones in a particular room, the first of the day to walk through a courtyard, to appreciate (and photograph) the surroundings calmly, without battling throngs of noisy (fellow) tourists. We were able to take in the beauty and tranquillity of the structures, to imagine the intrigue of the court, the veiled maidens hidden behind the curtains, the succulent treats they would nibble on, the music and clapping and the belly dancers. These palaces just confirmed to me how much I love the symmetry and design of Islamic architecture, and how in comparison, the later, 16th century Christian-based architecture of the Palace of King Charles, built after the Moors were defeated, seemed coarse and unsophisticated.
This is a case where pictures really speak for themselves. Click on the links, to truly appreciate this wonderful place.
We spent hours exploring the palaces, the summer house or Generalife, and the Alcazaba. From the military Alcazaba at the peak of the promontory there was a magnificent view of the mountains, plains and the city. Closest to the Ahlambra, just across the river, is the old medieval quarter known as the Albayzin, with steep and narrow winding streets. Picturesque from afar, we cringed at the sight of it, recalling the trauma of the day before when our GPS mistakenly took us into this area, largely a pedestrian only area with the exception of residents’ cars. As the GPS directed us down the labyrinth of increasingly narrow streets (so narrow there were grooves along the sides of the houses providing spaces for the wing mirrors of vehicles, and irate pedestrians had to squeeze into doorways and breathe in to provide enough space for us to pass), we cursed the rental car company which had oh-so-kindly upgraded us to an Audi A4, inconveniently large for narrow European city streets.
The rest of the day we checked out Granada. We enjoyed the town, the open square where we enjoyed a very late lunch under trees escaping from the heat, the cathedral, an excellent restaurant where we celebrated my husband’s birthday. But Granada is the Alhambra. And it was well worth the trip.