The gardens were not in bloom when we visited Alhambra in late March last year

Moorish magnificent Alhambra

It is late afternoon and I am standing in the Courtyard of Lions in the heart of the Alhambra, a stunningly beautiful Moorish citadel located in Granada, Spain.

“Give him alms, woman, for there is nothing sadder in life than being blind in Granada.”

— Francisco Asis de Icaza (1863-1925)

It is late afternoon and I am standing in the Courtyard of Lions in the heart of the Alhambra, a stunningly beautiful Moorish citadel located in Granada, Spain.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most popular tourist attraction in all of Spain, and I know I am lucky to be here. Many a traveller has made it to Granada and been unable to get a ticket to enter the Alhambra, because the city strictly limits the number of entrance tickets available on any given day.

There is a loophole to the ticket crunch, though — when you book a group tour with a local guide, your ticket is included. Having a guide is almost always a plus when you are touring a massive historical site and our guide Alfonso is particularly passionate about his job. As he walks us through the Casa Real, or Royal Palace, he just can’t help but gush excitedly in an effort to help us understand what this magnificent palace might have looked like centuries earlier.

“Imagine what this room was like in the days of the Sultans,” he says with a hush in his voice. “There were stained glass windows over here, silk carpets here, and fine furnishings throughout. Now imagine colour in the plaster and the smell of jasmine in the air.”

Spain is one of the most Catholic countries in all of Europe, but for more than 700 years the country was under Muslim rule. Alhambra stands as a reminder of the region’s history of conquest and reconquest — the best preserved Moorish castle in Europe and the last stronghold of the Moorish kingdom.

Construction of Alhambra began in 1238 by Ibn el-Ahmar, the first king of the Nasrids, and the great citadel was built up by subsequent generations so that it was not one single building, but a great conglomerate of houses, schools, baths, barracks and gardens.

The palace is the ultimate example of Moorish magnificence. To the Moors, water was the symbol of life and Alhambra is decorated with many fountains, waterfalls and ponds — inside and out. Moorish aqueducts form part of a complex irrigation system that brought cool water down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the palace and gardens.

The irrigation system turns the entire hill a lush, beautiful oasis.

Each room inside the Palacios Nazaries is adorned from top to bottom. Intricately carved wooden ceilings, stuccoed columns, marble fountains, coloured ceramic tiles, filigree windows and remnants of red, blue and yellow paint provide a peak at the visual culture and artful design of the Moors.

Arabic calligraphy is all over the walls — mostly snatches of poetry and verses from the Qur’an, but one phrase, “only God is victorious,” is repeated 9,000 times throughout the Alhambra.

The most stunning sections of Alhambra are the Moorish areas, but you can also see signs of Christianity. In 1492, Christian forces captured Alhambra and took back control of the country. Shortly after, Charles V began construction of his own palace on top of the ruins of Alhambra. Building your castle on top of the last guy’s castle is perhaps the ultimate gesture of conquest and it symbolized the beginning of Spain’s Golden Age.

Due to fears of seismic instability, Charles V never completed the new castle at Alhambra. Within a few short decades, he became the most powerful man in the world.

Over the centuries, poets and writers have immortalized Alhambra. Songs, ballads and legends of love and war abound about this historic site. It is said that when Alhambra’s last Moorish king, King Boabdil, was forced from the palace by the Catholic Reconquista in 1492, he stopped on a mountain path, looked back one final time and shed a tear for losing his great fortress and palace.

As our tour comes to an end, our guide leaves us to wander through the extensive gardens on our own. From a viewpoint in the garden, we can see the entire fortress with the city below it and the Sierra Nevada Mountains towering above it. It’s easy to see why Boabdil couldn’t help looking back.

If you go

• Alhambra is Spain’s most popular tourist attraction and tickets can sell out days in advance — especially during peak travel times. It is wise to purchase tickets well in advance at www.alhambra-tickets.es. It will cost €15.40 to purchase a ticket for a visit at a specific time. Be sure to be on time or admission may be denied. For more information about Alhambra, visit the official website at www.alhambra-patronato.es.

• If you don’t buy your tickets in advance, there are some tickets available on the day, but you have to line up at the ticket office at Alhambra. If you get there right at opening time, you will have a better chance of getting a last-minute ticket. The other alternative is to book a guided tour where the admission ticket is included. Even the guided tours should be booked in advance though.

Exploring the life of a Gypsy

Granada is home to about 50,000 Gypsies, or Roma people. The hilly Sacromonte District (Gypsy District) is a fascinating area of Granada with a special cultural vibe that is fun to drive through.

In the late 19th century, many Gypsies built unique homes carved out of hard-packed lime soil in the hills. Today there are still about 200 inhabited cave dwellings in this area. It is fascinating to step inside these dwellings, which though simple on the outside have painted walls and modern furnishings on the inside. Visitors can stay overnight in a cave dwelling for about €70 per night at the Las Cuevas El Abanico hotels (www.el-albanico.com), one of the most unusual accommodations in Spain.

Another way to experience a Gypsy cave is to enjoy a performance of Zambra Flamenco at Venta El Gallo (www.ventagallo.com). This form of Flamenco was developed by the Gypsies of Granada and performances are held inside a large cave dug deep into a hillside. The show costs about €22.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. Follow Debbie’s travels at www.wanderwoman.ca. If you have an interesting travel story you would like to share, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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