A magical day at the Alhambra
Moorish mystique on your mind? Then pick Granada…the last Muslim kingdom of Spain, which survived even after surrender of major cities like Cordoba, Seville, and Toledo to invasions during the Reconquista. Thanks to a treaty with the Christian kingdoms (gold in exchange for independence) and the exceptional strategic position of the Granada fort, Alhambra, the Nasr emirs had held on till 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella claimed the city. In 1502, Islam was officially outlawed in Granada and by early 1600s, not a single Muslim was left in all of Spain.
Start your day tour with a couple of relaxing hours in the Generalife (‘garden of paradise’), a beautiful terraced network of arched rose gardens and cypress hedges, delicate fountains and water stairways, carefully-clipped bushes and fragrant flowers, crunching gravel paths and crossing jets in water canals. A place of rest for the Muslim royalty indeed, this decorative garden overflows with fruit and vegetable patches. In these shady corridors, nobles would have plotted schemes, sultanas would have had illicit liaisons with knights and emirs would have contemplated the future of their kingdoms. Intrigue is still in the air! You can smell it.
Then trudge along the long route to the Alhambra complex. Alhambra comes from the Arabic words ‘qa’lat al-Hamra’, meaning ‘red castle’ (from the dusty red stone used to build its thick walls). Aren’t you dying of curiosity already? Hundreds of incredible Arabic myths are associated with this staggeringly beautiful creation proudly atop a high perch, framed against the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain-range. You see it, but it seems like an illusion!
One of the most beautiful buildings in the world and probably the most popular destination in Spain, the Alhambra is a wonderful opportunity to compare Muslim and Western architectural styles, side by side. Many of the buildings have been destroyed, but there are two beautiful towers to climb, including Torre de la Vela (watchtower) for lovely views across the city of Granada below and the Alcazaba, a fortress with several towers.
Stop first at the massive palace of Carlos V, the most important work of the Renaissance style in Spain…an epic grandeur in granite, befitting the imperial title of the Holy Roman Emperor. Outside, as you rest on the long stone bench hemming the square-shaped palace, reach out to touch the cushioned stone walls with prominent pilasters inserted with large bronze rings to tie up horses. Parking zone, huh?
Inside, stroll along the 30-metre diameter, circular two-story courtyard open to the sky surrounded by a wide portico with 32 stone-made pillars. Impressive, until you reach the other parts of the Alhambra. Carlos’ home is majestic, but bigger man-made wonders await ahead!
The Nasrid Palace, is comparatively intimate and labyrinthine, not as monumental, but definitely the most beautiful Muslim building you may have visited. Remarkable condition too, considering its 13th-century lineage and subsequent destruction. You can feel the undying spirit of the beautiful courtyards filled with sparkling water; tall chambers overflowing with intricate, geometric Arabic tiling, elaborate ante-rooms packed with stucco-work etched onto dark walls and mesmeric alcoves. The Sala de Dos Hermanas, with its huge central dome and star-like constellations; the Sala de los Reyes, with padded, leather-lined ceilings and the magnificent Salon de Embajadores (throne-room), with an ornate wooden ceiling representing the seven Islamic heavens…all leave you stupefied.
In the adjoining palace built by Mohammed V – the Palacio de los Leones (of the lions), set around the world-famous Patio de los Leones, water trickled from the mouths of 12 marble lions (in those days, water flows out of the mouth of each lion one by one, every hour!). The Palace is adorned by lyric verses inscribed in beautiful, cursive Arab calligraphy…like lace and crochet it ran along walls, framed doorways, outlined windows and embedded stuccoed, arabesque tapestries atop vibrant, multicoloured wainscotings of ceramic tiles (azulejos). The most common inscription is the Nasrid motto: “There is no victor but Allah.”
Study the abstract, sensuous arabesque mosaic that you cannot decipher…intricate, repetitive, symmetrical patterns of intertwined vine tendrils, grapes, clover, tulips, roses, almond blossoms, pine cones and palm leaves. Emptiness glares from where tiles have fallen, paint has peeled and stuccos have broken. What would have the original, brand new palace looked like centuries ago, when every inch was covered impeccably? Can any modern building gleaming with glass and metal even dare to compete in design excellence, even with this semi-maintained flashback in its ‘guess-what-it-once-looked-like’ state?
Peaceful inner courtyards are filled with sounds of fountains, feel of water mist, aroma of exotic flowers and reflections in mirror-like ponds. Water is an ornament everywhere, so precious for the Islamic world, the purest symbol of life…like the blood to veins. Ponder on the hot and cold water facilities in the Arabic baths…an element of daily life as well as a social activity!
Set within gardens of myrtle and lemon trees, is this idyllic pleasure palace with ceilings of gold, lapis lazuli and ivory and white marble floors, overlooking a city blessed with unending supplies of figs, pomegranates, palms, olives, saffron, almonds, raisins, meat and trout! Peer through the intricate lattice of a Moorish window. The trilling of a flute from a courtyard…a veiled harem girl with wide, kohl laden eyes padding along a cool corridor…a fierce warrior riding his spirited steed through the gate…the scent of a rare perfume in a room laden with precious carpets and silken cushions…ambassadors bringing terms from foreign rules and battle tales being recounted in great halls? No, nothing remains, the inhabitants of the palace are long gone. But you can feel their shadows still lurking around. That’s Granada for you!
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