The Alhambra, Two Ways

I came to Granada for the Alhambra.  I didn’t know much about it, except that my parents visited several years ago and my mother raved about its beauty.  Mom is usually more interested in food and handicrafts than she is in buildings, so I thought it must be spectacular.

On our first day in Granada, we decided to stay slow and walk the original neighbourhoods of the city: Albaicín and Sacromonte.

The Moors settled Albaicín in the 11th century.  It’s a warren of twisty narrow streets and tall whitewashed houses that cast deep shadows on even the hottest days.  This primitive form of air conditioning is useful because Granada’s temperatures routinely hit 40 degrees in the summer.  Even in March, which is spring in Spain, the temperatures are in the low- to mid-20s by noon.

The Alhambra is a hilltop compound of palaces, fortications and gardens, which was first built by the Moors in the 9th century.  In the 15th century, Christians captured the compound, which later fell into disrepair and was occupied by squatters.  Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Alhambra is visible from everywhere in the Albaicín, even at the end of the narrowest, grimiest streets.

From Plaza San Nicolas we saw the snow-topped Sierra Mountains and — yes, the Alhambra.

What you can’t see in this photo is the writhing mass of Spanish school children with their single, harried teacher.

Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, we headed for the quieter Sacromonte area to the east.  Dianne had read in her Rick Steves Bible that Sacromonte was occupied by gypsies who lived in caves.  Now the caves are restaurants and cheesy flamenco joints for tourists.  One bad-tempered man waved us away with a curt “no photo, no photo,” despite neither of us having a camera — or even our cellphones in hand.

But his behaviour was immediately offset by a well-dressed older Spanish woman.  She stopped us to direct us to a “secluded” and “spectacular” viewpoint.  It wasn’t entirely secluded — a French couple occupied the lone bench, but they smiled and made way for us.  The foreign tourists in Spain stick together in the face of what feels, at times, like overwhelming Spanish antipathy.  As promised, the view was spectacular.  In the foreground were the whitewashed caves of Sacromonte and — you guessed it, the Alhambra in the distance.

The following day, we gird our loins.  We’ve read that the only way to see the Alhambra is on a guided tour, which provides detailed information and a customized experience.  Regular readers of this blog will know how I feel about tours, but this one seems unavoidable, so we slap down $100 CDN each for the 3-hour half-day tour.

We are given tags numbered with our group and audio sets “so we can hear our guide.”  Hmm.  We sit down to wait beside a couple also wearing group 5 tags, and learn that their names are Jeff and Joanne.  We ask where they’re from and are surprised when they say “Toronto.”  Normally, you don’t meet many Canadians while travelling.  Dianne tells them we’re from Vancouver, and I qualify “Whistler.”

One of those travel moments that’s grist for comedy follows.

“Oh, we know people who live in Whistler,” Joanne says, “maybe you know them.”

Whistler is a relatively small place — 12,000 people — and it is home to a ton of retirees, so I bite.  “What are their names?”

“I can’t remember,” says Joanne, “but we did a bike tour along the Danube with them.”

“Jerry and Charalyn?” I suggest.

“That’s right! Jerry and Charalyn!”

What are the chances?

Our tour guide, Altar, interrupts to advise us that there are 30 people in the English-language tour this morning and we need to stick together.  Proudly, he tells us that, for preservation reasons, admission to the Alhambra is limited.  To 7500 people per day…

I think everyone has decided to come at once.  The place is stuffed.  A few brave souls are flying solo, but most of us scurry like rats to keep up with our guides.  The pace is brisk.  If you fall behind to take a photograph, you not only miss what the guide is saying, you find yourself merging with another pack, everyone speaking the wrong language.  I feel toddler-panic when I stop too long to capture the image of a bird taking a bath in the reflecting pond.  I hear the voice of the guide in my earphones telling me to go up the stairs and turn right, but I can’t pick him out from among the dozen other guides shepherding their flocks through the same area.

Cool photo though.

The palace is a series of linked rooms built around courtyards with gardens and fountains.  Sometimes we find ourselves alone for a moment, which is bliss.

Other times the history takes my breath away.  Altar takes us to the room in which Christopher Columbus lobbied Ferdinand and Isabella for the funds to seek a new route to India.  There is a simple canopied spot for a throne and a 50-foot high cedar ceiling alive with hand-carved stars and geometric shapes that glimmer in the dim light.  (I’d have taken a photograph, but there were at least four other groups in the room at the same time).

At the Alcazar (or fort), the view flips and we see the Albaicín from the Alhambra.

Finally, we reach the relative seclusion of the gardens, which were meant for relaxation and contemplation.

But before we can do either, we are whisked across a bridge to view the summer house and the gardens which fed the household.  From here we get our final look at the Alhambra before being shovelled out a side gate.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, we say goodbye to Jeff and Joanne, and head back down the hill to our local plaza.  We collapse into chairs at an outdoor cafe and order tapas and wine.  It’s Friday afternoon.  As we recover, the terrace fills up with people leaving work and school, meeting family and friends, sharing wine and food to welcome the weekend.

I’m glad I did it in the same way I’m glad I did a PhD.  Yep, I learned a lot, but I’m also glad I’ll never have to do that again.

Tomorrow, we vow, it’s back to slow travel.

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