Historic palace is one of Spain’s top tour destinations



A view of the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles). Inset, Details of the stucco ornamentation on the columns around the Court Of The Lions in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain.


When Boabdil, the last Moorish king, turned for a last look at the Alhambra in 1492, he probably saw a much starker prospect than you see nowadays. The city of Granada is a sprawling one today, spreading up the slopes of the valley below the Alhambra, where Boabdil and his predecessors had ruled for almost seven centuries. When Boabdil left to the sound of the celebrations of the Christian reconquest behind him, the city was smaller, and the Alhambra, built in the 13th century, looked down upon it, inscrutable behind its walls.


Today, your bus will probably drop you off below the walls, where you’ll walk up a gently ascending hill to the visitor’s centre. There’s no dramatic entrance to the palace, and you only gradually make your way into the complex after passing by Charles V’s imposing Renaissance palace, with its looming walls outside and dramatic circular courtyard inside, famed for its acoustics. The real splendour of the Alhambra only impresses itself on you when you finally enter the Patio de los Arrayanes, or the Court Of The Myrtles, with its long pool bordered by myrtle hedges, and the Hall of the Abencerrajes, with the spectacular stalactite ceiling underneath, which, according to a legend, Boabdil’s father massacred a rival clan.

The best way to enjoy the Alhambra is to pull your eyes away from the courtyards, which will be jostling with tourists, in any case, visiting what’s supposed to be Spain’s top tourist destination, and to let your gaze settle on the ornamental tiles and decorative stucco work that cover nearly every surface. One hundred and 50 years ago, most of this was in ruin, as documented by Washington Irving, the American author of Sleepy Hollow, when he took up residence in the Alhambra alongside generations of squatters.

Irving’s Tales Of The Alhambra, not Sleepy Hollow, is the book that guarantees his reputation in Europe, a discursive first-person memoir that dips back and forth in time as it imagines the splendours of the Moorish court, interspersed with his own adventures in the ruins. Walking from the Alhambra to the Generalife — the Moorish summer palace is just a 100 or so feet above the main complex — you pass the excavated foundations of the medina that once housed up to 40,000 garrisoned soldiers and their families. The population of this city above a city dwindled over the years until it was destroyed during the Napoleonic wars, and, like Irving, you can’t help but wonder what it was like when it thrived.

A view of a courtyard in the Generalife, the summer palace above the Alhambra.

The temperature cools down noticeably as you walk up the slopes of the valley to the Alhambra to the Generalife. The wisdom of building this lovely little complex is immediately apparent; its airy courtyards offer generous views of the sky that are missing in the grander Alhambra below, full of landscaped hedges and paths for strolling. “Here is everything to delight a southern voluptuary,” wrote Irving. “Fruits, flowers, fragrance, green arbors and myrtle hedges, delicate air and gushing waters.”

The Alhambra is only open from 9 a.m. till siesta starts at 2:30 p.m., and if you want to experience the same luxurious sense of exploring the whole complex, two visits — though pricey — might be in order. The Los Alixares Hotel, located just outside the Alhambra, is perfectly suited to a longer visit, but make sure you reserve your tickets for your visit to the Alhambra in advance.

Copies of Irving’s book, in Spanish, English, French, German and Chinese, are for sale by the reception counter, and the wireless Internet is free.