La Alhambra: Spain's exquisite jewel
Last updated 8/15/2018 at 11:21am
It is older than the Tower of London, and is as rich with history. In the town of Granada in southern Spain lies an ancient edifice called La Alhambra. The word Alhambra means “the red” (Al Hamra) in Arabic. Scholars speculate that it could have been named for its terra cotta-hued exterior. Built in Moorish style it has served as a palace, fortress and museum. Visitors can get lost in the maze of gardens, fountains, delicately carved stone lacework, and graceful white marble columns.
A staff member related that Muslims mourn the loss of Alhambra and, in their daily prayers, ask that it be returned to them. He also spoke of conflicts over La Alhambra, not noting any specific dates, but stating that the Moors and the Christians fought over the land for years. Gypsies and vagrants claimed the grounds at a time when La Alhambra was in disrepair and unwanted. As with many other ancient buildings, fact and tales have probably become meshed leading to a rather murky historical record.
I was told that the main portion of the palace began to be constructed in about 1248, however, some portions of the edifice, particularly some tiled walls, date back to as early as 800 AD. The fortress has suffered through earthquakes and bombings and has been altered considerably since its Moorish origin.
The Christian period was said to have begun in 1492 and is evidenced by the addition of some Roman-style architecture. Charles V (1516-1556) added touches of Renaissance-style construction and Philip V (1700-1746) added a flair of Italian architecture.
La Alhambra is a fascinating three-day side trip from Madrid. Iberia Airlines offers non-stop flights from Madrid-Barajas to Granada, which take about an hour. At the Granada Airport I boarded a bus, was transported to the center of town, and then I taxied to the Guadalupe Hotel, which was directly across the street from La Alhambra. The Andalusian-style hotel with red terra cotta tile floors was charming. My room was lovely, paneled in wood with glass double doors leading to a balcony expansion overlooking an olive grove and further on, the town of Granada. (Please check Tripadvisor.com for reviews, as there are some who have had negative experiences at the hotel.)
It was raining the day I first visited La Alhambra, but the rain enhanced the scented gardens and touched the marble floors and columns with an incredible sheen. I sat under cover looking out to a courtyard and watched small teardrops of rain cling to lacy wisteria and coax out the fragrant perfume of jasmine. I listened to a nightingale’s chorus as the rain tapped the marble steps and created ripples in a fountain. Stone lace arches and delicate marble columns stood like whispers in the courtyard.
I was drenched from head to toe by the time I reached my hotel at the end of the day, but this incredible experience was worth the soaking. Once back in my hotel room the rain ceased and a chorus of birds began to sing. I opened the glass double-doors to the balcony and saw drops of rain still glistening on the olive trees. Birds sat on the branches and just sang and sang and sang. The dark rain clouds had moved on and a few white clouds remained in an otherwise blue sky. One bird sang an exotic song: It was the song of a nightingale with its enchanting repertoire of whistles, trills, and chirps.
The next day I visited La Alhambra from opening until closing. The sky was cloudless and clear. It took hours to explore the vast complex. Several of the walls were carved with poems, and traces of blue paint from the thirteenth century were visible in the curve of the letters. The Moorish tile work was extraordinary; each wall was deftly formed in unique patterns -- swirls and squares and even floral patterns. The green, blue, red, white and yellow tiles were vibrant and vigorously hued.
In the gardens, the Water Staircase was a curiosity with a stairway flanked on either side by cool cascading water. Yew hedges towered over the patterned walkways and lavender wisteria draped over elaborately carved stucco walls. Some of the walls were designed with the intricate stone lacework or arabesque, which sometimes reaches as high as two stories.
Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), in my opinion, is the most exquisite of the compound areas. It is a Moorish work of architectural art with over one hundred white marble columns. These lovely and delicate creations seemed to be saying, “Whisper in the courtyards, please.” I lingered in the patio for quite a while surrounded by an enclosure of marble columns and smooth stone lacework. The white marble walkways exhibited considerable wear. Deep impressions remembered the steps of long ago — twelve hundred years of footfall — Moorish, Christian, Gypsy and vagrant...forever imprinting their indecipherable legacies.