Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Alhambra - the last stronghold

It's probably fair to say that the number one reason for visiting Granada is to see the Alhambra -- the vast complex of forts and palaces that once formed the stronghold of the Nasrid (Moorish) empire.

The oldest structure is believed to be the Alcazaba, which is the miltary fort. Historians believe the founder of the Nasrid dynasty (13th C) rebuilt an abandoned fort from the 9th century. Perched high on a rocky promentory overlooking the modern town of Granada, the Alacazaba consists of thick stone defensive walls and towers, including the famous watchtower with bell, and is highly utilitarian in architecture and aspect.

Behind the Alcazaba, further along the ridge of a broad hill, lie the Nasrid Palaces -- an interconnecting series of patios (courtyards) and rooms ornately decorated in intricately carved marble (very distinctive style). The courtyards all contain some form of water feature -- whether a still pool to reflect the beauty of the architecture, or trickling fountains. Water, a key spiritual component, is everywhere. It's pumped around via small channels to and from the pools and fountains, burbling away in promotion of harmony and serenity.

We weren't able to see the Lion Courtyard (only the most famous part of the entire complex) due to restoration works on the key feature -- the beautiful lion fountain. We were, however, able to see the 12 restored lions of the fountain, displayed in the crypt along with lots of info on the restoration works. When the fountain is reassembled it will be quite something to behold. It was fabulous to see the before and after photos, which illustrate the vast improvement in detail in each of the individually carved lions.

The Nasrid Palaces were built sequentially by various Nasrid sultans, mainly during the 14th C. The 'fall of Granada', the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, took place in 1492 when the Catholic monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella again) defeated the last Nasrid Sultan, Muhammad XII/Boabdil. Thus followed alterations and renovations and expansions -- particularly by Charles V in the first half of the 16th C.

The Alhambra complex also includes several other palaces, public buildings (such as Hammam-style baths) and towers (along the wall), some of which we could enter, others not. I managed to get inside the 'Tower of the Princesess', not actually open to the public, by being in the right place at the right time. The door was ajar and I was peering inside (amused by the rock music within) when the tradie came out and, finger to lips (ssh), beckoned me inside . . . so lucky me saw a beautifully tiled interior, more carved marble ceilings, walls, columns and distinctive Nasrid-style horseshoe arches.

The gardens surrounding the palaces are also beautiful - again most noticeably for the use of water, gurgling through channels and fountains and pools. Perhaps we noticed this more because of the emphasis on saving water in Australia. During the Nasrid empire, water was used lavishly, perhaps itself a sign of power and wealth.

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I've wanted to visit the Alhambra for quite some time now, and many have asked me whether it lived up to expectation . . . the answer is yes. It is far larger than I realised, covering a massive area across two hills, and it took us 5 hours to explore in detail. (Others in our group were through within 3 hours, which is evidently the average visit time.) The Nasrid Palaces themselves are beautiful, the carved marble stunning, but otherwise not as ornate as expected. There is far less tile-work than the Alcazar in Seville, and a lot less colour.

The Alhambra as a whole, though -- spanning fort, palaces, gardens, other structures -- is amazing. I lashed out and rented the audio tour, which provided additional detail (perhaps too much at times!), with our audio 'tour guide' taking on the persona of US writer Washington Irving, who stayed in the Nasrid Palaces in 1829 and was responsible for putting the Alhambra on the map. There are a few monuments to him around the place as well. We had a beautiful sunny day -- although so cold that we kept scarves on all day and hats for most of it! I bought the great brick of an official guide book too.

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