Alongside Seville’s Alcazar and Cordoba’s Mezquita, the last (but certainly not least) of Spain’s triad of amazing Moorish sites is Granada’s Alhambra. This immense fortress dominates the skyline here in Granada, occupying the top of Sabika Hill to the East of the city. Within its walls lie vast gardens; fountains and pools fed by an intricate irrigation system; and no fewer than 5 palaces and forts to explore. We spent the better part of our day within the Alhambra, mesmerised by its decorative detailing and ornate architectural flourishes. To finish the day we took a stroll through Granada’s oldest neighbourhood, the Albayzin.

Granada is located just at the point where the Sierra Nevada mountains meet the fertile plains of Southern Andalusia. The steep terrain protecting it to the rear, flat agricultural land in the valley below, and a year-round supply of water thanks to snow melt off the Sierra Nevada mountains, have made Granada a prized city for millennia. The area has been continuously inhabited for at least 2,500 years, and developed into a major economic centre during the centuries of Roman occupation.

The Moorish conquest of 711 brought Islamic rule to the Iberian Peninsula and Granada was quickly established as one of the main cities in the region. Following the fall of Córdoba in 1236 to the Christian Reconquista, the city became the capital of the Emirate of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Europe. For the next 250 years Granada stood as the heart of a powerful and self-sufficient kingdom, ruled from the Alhambra by the Nasrid dynasty.

In 1492*, however, the city fell to the Christian army led by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, bringing an end to Moorish rule in the Iberian peninsula and marking the end of the Spanish Reconquista. The city’s Muslim inhabitants were forced to convert or Christianity or leave, and though the city flourished initially under Christian rule, it soon floundered economically. It wasn’t until the last half of the 19th century that tourism breathed new life into Granada, with people drawn here to see the legendary Alhambra. And they’ve been coming ever since…

*The fall of Granada came at a crucial moment for Christian Spain, as it was that same year that Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas; 1492 really marked the beginning of the Spanish golden age.

In 2014 3.1 million people visited the Alhambra, making it Spain’s most visited monument. What this meant for us is that the place was PACKED* and we had to share the beauty of the Alhambra with thousands of others. Despite the crowds it was still awesome to see the palaces, forts, and gardens of Granada’s epic hill-top fortress.

*For anyone looking at visiting the Alhambra make sure you pre-buy your tickets online at least 1 month in advance – they only sell 6,000 tickets per day and 4,000 of those are pre-allocated for tour groups, which only leaves 2,000 per day for independent visitors. And most of those 2,000 tickets are sold out by 8:00am! It’s nuts!

The first of the 5 stops we made at the Alhambra was Nazaries Palace, the central palace where the emir resided. Beautifully decorated with geometrical patterns etched into the walls, ceiling, and floors, Nazaries Palace was a wonder.

Every room in the palace was adorned with wooden carvings, coloured tiling, and Arabic inscriptions. The overall effect was magnificent.

In the centre of the palace was a courtyard built around a large pond. This 2m deep pool of water was designed to help to cool the palace and act as a symbol of power and wealth*.

*In a place where water is so scarce, water was difficult and expensive to come by and having so much of it was definitely a sign of affluence.

A number of rooms were arranged around the rectangular pool, including the Salón de los Embajadores, where ambassadors would be received by the emir. The marvellous domed ceiling used carved wooden cedar tiles to create an intricate star pattern representing the seven heavens.

Adjacent to the Nazaries Palace was the restored Palacio de los Leones, built in the 2nd half of the 14th century, at the political and artistic peak of Granada’s emirate. The stucco detailing here was incredibly fine.

The main courtyard in this palace had a fountain in its centre supported by 12 marble lions. The lions were designed to be symbols of strength and power, and using a complex system of irrigation channels, each hour one lion would produce water from its mouth.

Around the courtyard there was the typical series of rooms, the most luxurious of which was the Sala de Dos Hermanas. Its walls were adorned with intricate carvings representing local flora.

Continuing on we came to the third palace within the Alhambra: Palacio de Carlos V. This Renaissance building clashed spectacularly with its surroundings, looking like a big square monolith compared to the Moorish palaces around it.

Begun in 1527 under orders of King Charles V, this palace was incongruous and out of place. Charles V intended to construct a permanent residence befitting an emperor within the Alhambra, but funds dried up and the building was never finished.

Also incomplete was the Alcazaba, or fort. The oldest part of the Alhambra, the Alcazaba was built as a defensive structure in the 10th century and occupies a space with an almost triangular shape at the highest part of Sabika Hill. Surrounded by a complex system of walls and towers, it would have once been an impenetrable fortress.

The Alcazaba was abandoned and completely neglected for a long time, but unlike other palaces within the Alhambra, this great red fort was never completely restored. Still, the views from its parapets were pretty impressive.

Lastly we headed into the Generalife*, once the vast gardens that kept the inhabitants of the Alhambra fed. Today the Generalife is purely decorative and consists of acres of landscaped pathways, patios, pools, fountains, trees, and flowers of every imaginable hue.

*Not “general life” but “heneral-iffe” from the Arabic “jinan al-arif”, meaning “Garden of the Architect” (as in THAT architect – the big one: Allah/God).

At the Northern end of the gardens was the emirs’ summer palace , a whitewashed structure on the hillside facing the Alhambra.

We spent some time wandering through the Generalife gardens but then the heavens opened up (just the “Architect” watering the garden). It rained steadily, effectively bringing our visit to the Alhambra to an end. We had lunch and then retreated back to our hotel for a few hours until the rain abated. With the cobbled streets still wet from the rain, we then headed out to explore Granada’s Medieval quarter: the Albayzin.

The Albayzin is the old Arabic quarter, where Granada’s Muslims were relegated to after the Reconquista. Located on the hill opposite the Alhambra, the neighbourhood is a maze of cobble-stoned streets, lined with white washed houses.

Some of the streets were lined with tiny shops selling leather goods, lamps, and hand-made clothing reminiscent of a Moroccan souk.

We explored as much of the Albayzin as we could before it started to rain again, which sent us scurrying us back down the cobbled streets in search of shelter. Over dinner we reflected on all the things we’ve seen here in Andalusia, and how amazing the Moorish architecture is here. Tomorrow we’re leaving all of this behind though, bound for Madrid! Who knows what amazing things we’ll see there…

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