ALHAMBRA, GRANADA, SPAIN
Overlooking Granada, the Alhambra presents a hard and unyielding face to the world, its square towers displaying martial symmetry. This severity is softened when you approach from the back, as terraces of ornate gardens, interspersed with pools of running water, seek to emulate the shady, cool gardens of the Koranic heaven.
After the heat and dryness of North Africa the Moors must have thought they had reached heaven when they conquered Granada. The Sierra Nevada. snow-capped for much of the year, provided the conquerors with water for the fountains and pools that helped to make this corner of Spain paradise on Earth.
The Alhambra is a product of the wars between Christianity and Islam. The Moors of North Africa conquered Spain in 711, but by the beginning of the 13th century their influence had weakened and their 'kingdom' - just a few independent Muslim states in what is now Andalusia - was under pressure from Christian reconquistas. Prince Ibn al-Ahmar, who was driven south from Saragossa, decided to create a new capital at Granada, and began building the fortifications that would keep it safe. For over 200 years the kingdom prospered, and subsequent rulers added to and refined the Alhambra. It was a period of peace that came at a price, however. During this time the Christian kings of Spain were in the ascendancy, and Granada was left in peace only because the Moors paid tributes and sometimes sent troops to fight on the side of the Christians against other, more troublesome, Muslim city states.
At the end of the 15th century the battlements of the Alhambra were called into use when the army of Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella laid siege to Granada. Seven months later this last Muslim stronghold in Spain gave way, and it has remained in Spanish hands ever since.
Typical of Moorish architecture, the palace has a façade that is both commanding and utilitarian, yet hidden within its defensive walls is decoration of enduring beauty. The Alhambra consists of three main parts: the Alcazaba, or fortress; the Generalife, which was the summer palace and actually lies outside the main defensive walls; and the Casa Real, or Royal Palace. The last of these is without doubt the most beautiful part of the Alhambra, many of its rooms decorated with colourful tiles or richly carved stonework, the patterns based on stylized quotes from the Koran.
Within some of these rooms you can still see the fountains or pools of water so prized by the Moors. Numerous small windows overlook shady gardens or the small white houses of the Albaicin district, the old Moorish quarter, parts of which are as old as the Alhambra itself. Spring is a beautiful time to visit, with clear warm days and cool nights. The trees are newly green, the gardens are in flower and the Sierra Nevada, still snow-capped, stands watch over the city. Even better, the Casa Real is not crowded and you can generally get in without queueing or waiting for a slot, as you must in the height of summer, when all the timed entrance tickets are often allocated within an hour of the ticket office opening.
You might also be able to get a room at the Parador de San Francisco, a luxury, state-run hotel in a converted monastery within the gardens of the Alhambra - a tranquil retreat in the evenings when the crowds have gone.
There are many vantage points around the city from which you can get a different perspective on the Alhambra. From the Mirador San Cristobel you will see the Alcazaba against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. Walk through the rambling, cobbled streets of Albaicin to the Mirador de San Nicolas and you will see wonderful sunsets that bathe the Alhambra in gLowing red light. From the top of the Sacromonte (the old gypsy quarter, where some gypsies still live in caves carved into the hillside) you will see how the Alhambra towers over the town from its perfect defensive position. And from the hill above the Generalife you can appreciate how much the gardens and water terraces contribute to the Alhambra. Also visible is the massive Palacio de Carlos V, built in the 16th century, after the Christian conquest, on the site of many lesser Moorish buildings. The grounds of this palace are so large that bullfights were once held in the courtyard.
Granada is easily reached by road from Seville or Malaga, two international airports that are well served by some airlines from most parts of Europe. While the Alhambra is seen to advantage from many viewpoints around the city, you can enjoy it at close quarters by staying in its gardens at the luxurious Parador de San Francisco. However, you should book well in advance for the privilege, even in the low season.