14 April 2009

Favourite places we've visited: The Alhambra, Granada, Spain.

There would be few places on earth which rival the overwhelming magnificence of the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra. Located on a hillside overlooking the Spanish city of Granada, it is a must-see destination for any travellers to Andalusia. The gardens of the palace, and the summer palace of the Generalife (next door) are magnificent - so it isn't just the interiors that are worth seeing.

We were there on a mostly sunny day - though it was raining as we left. We had driven from Seville for 3.5 hours to be there, and found the route - especially in and around Granada - to be really well signposted. This can often be a problem in unfamiliar territory, but not here. The directions were superb, and there was loads of carparking (pay parking).

We had pre-booked the entry to the Nasrid Palaces on the internet about 3 months in advance. This is because they only permit a certain number of people into the Palaces each day - so if you turn up on the day there is no guarantee you'd get in. And I wanted that guarantee. I don't think that pre-booking made any difference to the price - just to the certainty. You are allocated a half-hour timeslot within which you MUST enter the Palaces, or you miss out. I seem to recall, however, being able to nominate either morning, afternoon or evening tickets - but you can't specify the timeslot.

We turned up as early as we could and were helpfully assisted at the Servi-Caixa machines by an attendant to actually retrieve our tickets. These are scanned every time you enter the grounds - you can do this as much as you like - and on entry to the Palaces.

We got some takeaway lunch from a little store across the street - ham and cheese rolls or something as simple. There is not much to choose from, so bring your own if you need to. The adjoining restaurant was pricey and uninspiring. We entered the grounds and found ourselves a little seat in the shade of the trees at the approaches to the Generalife. Quite a few people were in the area, enjoying the sunshine, the gardens and their lunch.

Ahh yes. The lunch. Apparently you can't eat lunch in the grounds. At all. We were roundly told off for doing so (as were the other visitors) and were made to exit the grounds and eat outside. We could only conclude that it was some sort of effort to keep pigeons away - otherwise who would bother with such a rule? Obviously we wouldn't be able to eat inside the Palaces, but outside? It hardly made sense. Well, we sat outside the complex entry and ate, then re-entered without hassle.

After a very brief look at part of the Generalife gardens we headed for a longer-than-expected walk to the Nasrid Palaces. We made it with 10 minutes to spare. The queue for our timeslot was long, but once it got going it was quite a quick entry given the number of people.

Nothing can prepare you for the interiors. Of course, I'd seen lots of photos etc., and read Moorish Architecture of Andalusia by Marianne Barrucand as part of the lead-up to the holiday. I was still unprepared. As we have said a few times in previous posts, there is nothing like the reality of being there to bring something to life. One of the things that amazed me was that each room I entered was more magnificent than the previous one - if that were at all possible. I cannot begin to adequately describe the intricate details of the tiles, the plasterwork, stonework, timber ceilings and beams. Everything is covered in the most exquisite decoration. And the amazing thing is this: it should look overdone and tizzy, but it isn't. It is remarkably restrained and elegant.

The kids loved it too. They looked for patterns on the walls, they looked at ceilings - and they constantly reminded us that you must remember to look up - they looked at a thousand small things that adults might otherwise miss: everything from door handles to window shutters, ponds to floor tiles.

We went in search of Moorish Spain, and stayed in Seville as our base in order to minimise the travel, packing and unpacking and all the settling in that a new hotel requires. In addition to the Alhambra, we visited the Real Alcazar (Seville), Cordoba Cathedral (the Mezquita, Cordoba), and the very tourist-free ruined city of Medina Azahara (outside Cordoba). If Moorish Spain is ever on your itinerary, then the Alhambra must not be missed. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and it was worth the seven hour round trip to get there.

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