The Alhambra was the final location of Islamic rule in Spain and is the only surviving large medieval Islamic palace complex in the world. The Alhambra, meaning “Red Castle”, is a World Heritage Site and is absolutely unique in the world so it is definitely worth a visit.
We have been patiently waiting for the day listed on our tickets when we can tour the Alhambra. We were told that tickets regularly sell out so we had purchased our tickets two months ago to be certain we would have a time-slot in the month we were planning to be in Granada.
Our day arrived to visit the Alhambra and along with it the many unknowns of doing something for the first time. Getting to the Alhambra at our appointed time was our first challenge. We had learned that for 3€ two people can take the bus up the steep and windy climb to Alhambra or for ~5€ to 6€ you can take a taxi or you can walk. We decided on the bus so off we went to find the C3 City Bus that leaves from a plaza not far from our Airbnb.
After a short walk we rounded the corner at Plaza Isabel La Catolica and there, just waiting for us to jump on-board, was the bright red C3 bus. We paid the driver our fare and, along with a few more people, we were off to the Alhambra. That was easy.
At the top we offloaded right next to the ticket area. Our visitation time was 8:30 AM, right when Alhambra opened for the day but, even though we were 30 minutes early, there was already a queue of people waiting for the doors to open. We collected a very useful map, took our place in line and patiently waited. At exactly 8:30 AM the staff manned the turnstiles and started checking people in. Our visit to this very exciting place had begun.
The purpose of the tickets and check-in times is to limit the number of visitors that are in the Nasrid Palaces at any one time. We had to check-in, and sometimes check-out, at various checkpoints throughout the day. We had purchased the ‘Alhambra General’ ticket which allowed us access to all of the sites, the Alhambra, the Generalife, the Nasrid Palaces and the Alcazaba fortress, so we had no issues moving around. It would be our advice to anyone visiting the Alhambra for the first time to do the same.
The Nasrid Palaces
Our first stop was one of the Nasrid Palaces. The very first historical reference to the Alhambra is as early as 900 AD. However, it wasn’t until 1237 AD that the founder of the Nasrid dynasty moved his court to Granada. Throughout the 1300’s they built multiple palaces inside the walls of the Alhambra that are now collectively referred to as the Nasrid Palaces.
Hostilities in the late 1400s took its toll and after 10 long years of war, in early 1492, the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand received the keys to the city of Granada from Boabdil, the last Moorish king. In 1527 the Christians built another palace inside the walls of the Alhambra, called the Palacio de Carlos V. This final palace was built in the Renaissance style so architecturally it stands apart from all the other beautiful Muslim structures.
We particularly enjoyed the abundant use of water used for both decoration and function throughout the palaces. The sounds of fountains and running water create a tranquil and peaceful environment. It is easy to understand why living high above the city of Granada was so coveted.
The american writer, Washington Irving, in 1829, was invited to temporarily live in the Alhambra. In 1832 he wrote and published his experiences in his famous book “Tales of the Alhambra”, igniting worldwide interest in the half-forgotten castle. To this day, the Alhambra has a dedicated room and fountain to the memory of Washington Irving.
The Alcazaba Fortress
To the west of the Nasrid Palaces stands the Alcazaba Fortress which housed the military, the barracks of the royal guard and the medina or court city. It is thought that the Alcazaba existed before the founder of the Nasrid dynasty, Muhammad I, arrived in 1237. Here we saw the remains of the houses of those who lived there as well as the dungeon where Christian captives were kept, waiting for their ransom to be paid by their families. We overheard a tour guide say that the captives were relatively well treated and each day they would be taken outside to maintain the gardens. Still, a captive is a captive.
From the three defensive towers: The Broken Tower (Torre Quebrada), the Keep (Torre del Homenaje) and the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela), we had amazing views of the surrounding area.
To the east of the three Nasrid Palaces are the Patios of Lindaraja and La Reja, the Church of Santa María, the Convent of San Francisco and the Palacio de Carlos V. This area of the Alhambra has amazing views over the whole city and hidden behind it’s ramparts are the beautiful Jardines del Paraiso (Gardens of Paradise). From the Bell Tower on the easternmost point we were able to spot our temporary home below in the Albaicín.
As we were touring the Alhambra we came across not one but two hotels within the Alhambra complex; Hotel Parador de Granada and Hotel América. What a surprise to find two absolutely amazing places to stay within the Alhambra complex!
Parador de Granada
Of special note is the Parador de Granada which was formerly the Monastery of San Francisco and prior to that, the site of a Nasrid palace. The Monastery of San Francisco was where, in 1504 and 1505 respectively, the bodies of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I and Ferdinand II were laid to rest. The Monarch’s had planned and designed a Royal Chapel where they had requested to be buried but it was not yet built at the time of their deaths. In 1521 their mortal remains were moved to the newly completed Royal Chapel Pantheon in Granada, where they remain today.
Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Alhambra
Near the Palace of Charles V we found the Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Alhambra. In 1492, upon the orders of the Catholic Monarchs, the mosque was converted into the Church of Santa María de la Alhambra. Later a decision was made to build a new church and sadly the old mosque was demolished. The new Iglesia de Santa María de la Alhambra was constructed in 1576. The exterior was built following the Mudejar tradition of using brick. Unfortunately the façade remains undecorated, featuring only a royal and episcopal crest on the front of the church and the tower’s steeple.
The Palacio de Generalife
The Generalife is a whitewashed summer palace built in 1302 just beyond the Alhambra walls. Although nearby, this location was chosen because the summer breezes are stronger here. There were no doors or windows added so when you retired to the summer palace, like our vacations today, life was all about enjoyment and relaxation. The palace is surrounded by more wonderful fountains and gardens, pathways, patios and pools.
Some critics say that the numerous layers of white wash (used to reflect heat) applied over the centuries to the Generalife have obliterated the magnificent details of the palace. The Generalife was lived in until the 1930’s whereas the Alhambra was mostly abandoned for decades if not centuries.
We spent nearly six hours exploring and soaking up the atmosphere of all that the Alhambra had to offer. The Muslim detailed patterns and colors, the arching architectural shapes, the tinkling of fountains, lush green trees, large irrigated flower and vegetable gardens. With the fresh breezes we experienced throughout the day, one can envision the joys of living in this place.
At the end of our visit in the Alhambra we stopped for a light salad at a rooftop restaurant surrounded and shaded by trees just outside the walls. Then, catching the ever faithful City Bus C3, we made our way back down into the city.
A couple of evenings later we returned back to the top and slowly sauntered down the hill following a heavily shaded footpath. We found more fountains and portions of old walls and gates. It was a perfect evening and we were able to capture many more memorable photos. It was so pleasant, we may do this one more time before we leave Granada.
Salud from these Granadians,
Ted & Julia