Granada and the Alhambra 

Andalusia, Spain

April 17th - 20th, 2015

The city of Granada is located on foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Andalusia in the South-Eastern corner of Spain.

Granada is a fairly small city with a population of about 250 thousand. The city itself is quite beautiful and would be a worthwhile destination to visit by itself, but it probably would not be particularly famous if it wasn't also home to one of the greatest monuments ever created by man, the Alhambra.

I have been wanting to go to Granada and see the Alhambra for a long time and finally found some time to do it, adding a long weekend to a business trip to London, and catching up with my good friend Lara, who also happened to be in London for the London Book Fair. We left the UK on Friday morning on a BA flight from London City Airport nonstop to Granada. The small Granada airport is about 20 km outside of the city, so the taxi ride takes about 30 minutes. We stayed in an absolutely gorgeous hotel, the Palacio de Santa Paula, which is a converted convent.

Since we had evening tickets for the Alhambra that night, we first walked up to the Albaicin hill, which is the small hill opposite the Alhambra. We walked around here and visit a couple of beautiful churches and a convent. But the main reason we came up here, was for the amazing views of the Alhambra. The main plaza on the Albaicin is the spot from which all the famous Alhambra pictures are taken, and it is an unbelievable view taking in the whole of the fortifications and palaces with the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background.

We walked down through the narrow alleys of the Albaicin and then up the hill on the other side.

Our tickets allowed us to enter the gardens at any time, but it was dark by now, and so we just waited for our entrance time to the Nasrid Palace.

Some history about the Alhambra:
The Muslim conquest of Spain started in 710 AD, when Berber warriors first crossed the Gibraltar Straight. Within a decade all of the Iberian Peninsula, except for a small Christian enclave in the North-West, was under Muslim rule and remained largely so until the early 13th century. Moorish Spain reached its zenith and golden age in the 10th century, but otherwise this whole period of about 500 years was often marred by internal wars among several competing kingdoms. By the late 12th century the Christian Spaniards grew stronger and started to win battle after battle. Fernando III captured Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248, after which only a small corner in the South-East of Spain with Granada as its capital remained under Muslim control.

However, the Nasrid dynasty, which ruled Granada from 1238 to 1492, survived for another two centuries within Christian Spain partly because of its cooperation with the Christian kingdoms and partly because of its easily defendable mountainous terrain. However by the late 15th century following the marriage of King Fernando II of Aragon and Queen Isabel I of Castille in 1469, the last Muslim kingdom in Europe was slowly defeated over the course of a few decades.  And after a long siege, Boabdil, the final ruler of the Alhambra, surrendered and handed over the keys to the city to the Catholic monarchs in 1492 (which coincidentally was also the year in which Columbus first reached America).

Fortunately the Christian kings recognized and appreciated the extraordinary beauty of the Muslim palaces, and did not destroy them. Instead they used them as their own and lived in them, even adopting many Muslim customs. It was only later in the 16th century, that King Charles V decided to tear town down some parts of the Muslim buildings in order to build his own Renaissance palace inside the Alhambra.

Starting in the 18th century the Alhambra fell into neglect, and large parts of the fortifications and the Medina were destroyed by Napoleon's troops which invaded Spain in 1808 to 1812. It was not until the late 19th century that the Alhambra was rediscovered as the jewel of Muslim architecture in Europe. It was declared a National Monument in 1870 and became a Unesco World heritage site in 1984.

[Here is the most important travel advice for Granada: Buy your Alhambra tickets at least four weeks in advance! The entry tickets to go inside the Nasrid Palace sell out, and if you do not get your tickets in advance, you will not be able to see the inside of the Palace. Tickets for the Nasrid Palace are sold with an exact time when you have to enter. They let groups in every half an hour, and if you are not at your allotted time slot, you will not get in.]

Originally the whole Alhambra complex was a separate walled city. It was divided into three main sections, the Alcazaba (the main fortification), the Palaces and the Medina (where the civil and domestic servants, artisans and other population lived).

The Nasrid Palace:
Even though I expected this to be something very special, I was not prepared for what we saw. In fact I don't think anything can prepare you for the sheer stupendous splendor and elegant beauty of the inside of this palace. None of the pictures even get close to conveying the impact this place has when one first sees it. The Nasrid Palace is actually a series of three separate but connected palaces, that were built by subsequent Sultans. The walk through the halls and courtyards starts with the oldest of them, and they get progressively more elaborate and beautiful, until you reach the Court of the Lions, the most stunning of them all.

We visited the Nasrid Palace twice, first in a night session at 10pm on Friday and then again at noon on Saturday to see it in daylight. The following photos are a mixture of my night and daytime photos They are in the order you would see them walking through the palaces. The first palace, the Mexuar, is the oldest of the three and was largely built by Ismael I, who ruled from 1314 to 1325.

The court of the Mexuar is a small but beautiful courtyard, which you enter from the Golden Room.

After the Court of the Mexuar, you reach the Palace of the Comares, built by Yusuf I (1333 - 1354). The centre piece of this Palace is the Court of the Myrtles, which is dominated by a large pool in the middle around which the other rooms are organized.

The huge Chamber of the Ambassadors is located in the main tower. It is the largest room in all three palaces, the walls of which are completely covered in incredibly intricate plasterwork.

Normally, you would visit the Royal Baths next. Unfortunately we could not see them, since they are currently under renovation.

At this stage I was already walking around with my mouth wide open and completely in awe by the splendor and subtle elegant beauty of the rooms and intricate plasterwork everywhere. But then you reach the third of the three palaces, the Palace of the Lions, which takes it to a whole other level. I think first entering the Court of the Lions during the evening session in the dark, and with slightly fewer tourists around enhanced the impact even more.

The Palace of the Lions was build by Muhammad V, who was Sultan from 1354 to 59, then lost the throne for three years and regained it to reign again for almost another 30 years from 1362 to 1391.

On each side of the main courtyard there are stunning rooms and halls each filled to the ceiling with the most unbelievably intricate plaster work:

And the selfie sticks are everywhere:

The Charles V Palace:
When King Charles V came to Granada in 1526 and stayed in the Alhambra, he liked the setting and the Nasrid Palace so much that he decided to build his own palace right next to it. He first had several rooms added to the back of the Palace of the Lions. This is the Garden of the Christian Quarters: 

Later on he cleared parts of the Alhambra, and added the huge Charles V Palace, which is a large Renaissance palace with a columned open two story rotunda inside. Anywhere else in the world this would be considered an impressive and elegant Renaissance building. Here, however, right next to the Nasrid Palace it looks more like an enormous and ugly monstrosity.
The Palace of Charles V is the large square building on the top right in this picture, with the Nasrid Palace in the foreground.
The rotunda inside of the Charles V Palace

The Alcazaba:
The Alcazaba was the military fortress and is the oldest part of the Alhambra. It is located on the site of an original 9th century citadel. The current complex was built by Mohammed I (1232-73) and served as the royal residence until the other palaces were completed, after which is was solely used for military purposes.

Inside the Alcazaba are the remains of the buildings that housed the garrisons.

There is a small bell tower on top of the highest part, and you have amazing views over the whole city from up here.

The Gardens and Generalife:
We enjoyed the breakfast buffett in the hotel on Saturday morning, before taking a taxi back up to the Alhambra, as we had tickets to see the Nasrid Palace for the second time, and we also wanted to spend most of the day exploring the gardens and surroundings, as well as the Generalife palace. The Generalife palace, even though only a kilometer or so away from the Alahambra was located outside of the city walls, so it was a tranquil retreat from the bustle of the city. It was used as a place for rest and recreation by the Sultans.

View of the Alhambra from the Generalife:

To get to the Generalife Palace one walks through the beautiful New Gardens. These were only designed and built in the 19th and 20th century in the style of a French Garden with extensive and elaborate topiary.

The Medina used to be the most densely populated area of the whole complex. It was where the servants, public officials, craftsmen and other residents lived inside the city walls. Today most of the Medina has been transformed into beautiful and extensive gardens, with a few historical buildings from both the Muslim and later Christian era remaining.

The tower of the Ladies inside the Partal Gardens.

The Whisteria is the most common flower around here.

An elegant chapeau to match the elegance of the surroundings.

Church of Saint Mary (built on the site of the former main mosque).

Parador San Francisco, a former Franciscan monastery, now a hotel.

The views from the gardens aren’t too bad either. On the one side you have amazing views of the Albaicin hill across the valley:

And on the other side are the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, the highest peaks of which are over 3000 meters.

On Sunday, after exploring the rest of the city and seeing some of the churches, we took the little tourist train on a tour through the city, which dropped us back off up at the Alhambra. We then walked up to the top of the hill behind the Generalife (about a 30 minutes walk to get to a fort call La Silla del Moro) for a different but again amazing view of the Alhambra from above.

We spent both of our evenings with a very nice dinner up on the Albaicin Hill with gorgeous views of the Alhambra lit up at night:

The City of Granada
On Sunday we started to explore the rest of the city of Granada, which has some very impressive sights, which probably would be more famous if they weren't so overshadowed by the Alhambra on the hill above the city.

Near our hotel in the northern part of the city is the 18th century basilica San Juan de Dios. It is one of the most overwhelmingly rich and ornate Baroque interiors I have ever seen. Almost the entire church including the huge central altar is covered in gold.

Nearby is the Monasterio de San Jeronimo, which has a large beautiful courtyard filled with orange and lemon trees. The monastery church is one of the oldest and largest churches in Granada. It was built in the early 16th century in a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles.

We had lunch at the large square near the cathedral, and watched some interesting Flamenco dance performance on the street:

Granada cathedral is an enormous and very impressive building. The first foundations for the cathedral were laid 1518, but to complete it took a total of 181 years, several architects and many iterations of designs from early gothic to baroque. The interior is dominated by huge white columns and a very high dome after the central altar. One of the large side altar pieces has a couple of El Greco paintings:

El Greco: St.Francis

On Monday morning I went back to see some other churches and try to take some better pictures of the cathedral, since it was much emptier in the morning. We left Granada in the early afternoon on a short flight to Madrid where we connected to our flights back to New York and Munich respectively. 

It was an unforgettable experience to finally be able to see one the great monuments of the world. To me the Alhambra is one of those rare and extraordinary sites, like the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu, which even though you have seen them on hundreds of photographs and you therefore think you know what to except, yet they still completely blow you away, when you actually stand in front of them and see them with your own eyes for the first time. The Alhambra therefore deserves to make the Top 5 in my 25 Man-made Wonders of the World list.  


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