“Perhaps there never was a monument more characteristic of an age and people than the Alhambra; a rugged fortress without, a voluptuous palace within; war frowning from its battlements; poetry breathing throughout the fairy architecture of its halls.”
― Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra
In advance of our travels to Portugal and Spain, we booked tickets for only one tourist attraction – The Alhambra in Granada. As the leading tourist attraction in Granada, tickets sell out far in advance. So what exactly is the Alhambra, and why is it so popular?
The Alhambra encompasses structures and gardens located within a 35-acre complex on a steep hill on the outskirts of Granada. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has a medieval fortress and multiple palaces, along with other structures and green space both natural and landscaped. Some buildings date as far back as the ninth century, but the most famous palaces, constructed in the 13th century, are recognized as outstanding examples of architecture from the Islamic Golden Age and the Nasrid Dynasty, the last Islamic kingdom in Western Europe. Additional development occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries following Spain’s success in conquering Granada and driving out the Arabs.
Alhambra was largely abandoned by the 18th century and fell into disrepair, but efforts to restore the site were undertaken in earnest during the second half of the 19th century and continue even today. According to one source, more than 2 million people visit the Alhambra each year.
We spend a full day visiting the Alhambra, and despite the crowds, it’s super enjoyable. The weather is warm and sunny, and with the exception of a designated time to visit the Nasrid Palaces, we can wander through the grounds at our leisure.
Our first stop is the Alcazaba, which is a fortified military compound that was built largely in the 13th century. Killer views of the town and surrounding countryside!
Our next stop is the Palacio de Carlos V, on which construction started in the early 1500s. It’s a massive, square Renaissance-style structure with a large interior circular courtyard.
Despite the impressive façade, the structure was never completed, for reasons not entirely clear, and it’s never been used as a residence for royalty. It didn’t even have a roof until 1957!
After perusing the Palacio de Carlos V, we grab lunch (jamón y queso sandwich, of course) and notice a group of people lined up in front of a doorway to a small, nondescript building. With a little investigating, we learn that a free concert is scheduled to begin in just a few minutes. We like concerts, and we like free!
After being cautioned by the docent that “it’s classical music” and “you have to stay for the entire time,” we apparently pass the entrance exam and are allowed into the intimate, 30-seat venue for a 60 minute performance of violin, piano and poetry. We can’t understand the words of the Spanish poetry, but the audience is highly appreciative. The violin and piano performance is terrific and includes works by J. Massenet, B. Bartok, A. Corelli, P. Sarasate, I. Xenakis, G. Zaytz, and E. Adamic. Such an unexpected bonus to our day!
After the concert, more walking around. Photos with captions below.
Finally, it’s 2:30 – our scheduled time to enter the Nasrid Palaces.
It’s surprisingly low profile from the outside, but once inside, we are amazed that it’s such a massive complex – room after room and courtyard after courtyard of beautiful spaces with tile, wood, and plaster décor that is simply jaw-dropping. And lots of water features. We linger and soak it in. I’m compelled to take photos, even though they’re quite pitiful compared to the live experience, just like in the cathedral yesterday (4 Days in Granada, Spain: Part 1). Anyway, here’s the best of the bunch.
It’s been a wonderful day – time to head back to the apartment and put our feet up with a nice glass of wine!
Around 8:15 p.m., we hear sirens outside our apartment window. Then intermittent clapping and cheering. We investigate, and the street is full of runners. Google informs us that it’s the Granada City Half Marathon with 5,000 participants, and the finish line is up the steep hill at the Alhambra. Brutal. It takes more than an hour for everyone to pass by, and then it’s Saturday night party time!
During our final day in Granada, we set out on foot to explore several neighborhoods, including Sacromonte, where about 70% of the houses, shops and restaurants are cave dwellings built directly into the hillside.
The origin of the cave dwellings is unclear but widely believed to have begun in the 16th century during the Spanish Inquisition, when Muslims and Jews were expelled from their homes. Later on, the Roma (gypsies) from India and other marginalized populations were the primary inhabitants.
Today, the area is quite gentrified and known as a happening place for nightlife (flamenco specifically), although long term residents still live in the neighborhood and retain their traditions. This brief article from National Geographic touches on the history and culture of the Sacromonte cave dwellers and their deep connection to their roots.
We decide to visit the Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte, which of course is located at the top of a steep hill. It’s a small museum that, in part, showcases the “typical” set-up of caves used as homes.
The most educational and interesting exhibit in the museum (just my opinion) is the timeline and description of notable cave-based populations across the globe during the past 1,000 years or so, including the cliff-dwelling Ancestral Puebloans of North America, along with many other groups.
Sad to say that it’s time to bid a fond farewell to Granada. Did I mention that we LOVE it here?
Next stop – Sevilla!