Granada, city of energy and attractions never runs out of things to do and see. Immerse yourself in the spirit and art of muslim Granada. Visit its labyrinthine Arab quarter and its beautiful fortified city of the ancient Al-Ándalus tribe with its wealth of tales and legends. Swim at Granada’s tropical coastline or ski on the Sierra’s magnificent slopes. Find out what not to miss when visiting this most versatile of cities.
GRANADA is a city of a thousand faces. Its unique location makes it one of the most versatile of Spain’s cities – at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, one of the most famous mountain ranges in the country with the largest ski station on the mainland. And that’s not all – at just a short distance from Granada is the most tropical coastline in Spain with 20km of paradise beaches that enjoy 320 days of sun a year.
With its stunning natural surroundings it comes as no surprise that the city conquered the hearts of the Arab sultans who, in the eighth century, invaded the Iberian peninsula. They established a particularly educated civilisation and society with a great love of all things beautiful.
The traces of 254 years of Arab domination are seen nowhere better than in Granada. Quaint, picturesque winding streets of the Albaicin district; the flamboyant gardens of the Generalife and, towering above it all, the particularly enigmatic and suggestive silhouette of the forbidden city, Alhambra.
One can visit Granada, a city that never runs out of energy or attractions, to do and see many things. But it is worth dedicating at least a day or two to fully immerse yourself in the spirit and art of muslim Granada. In most parts the Islamic city of Granada remains well-preserved and intact. It was once formed by three main centres. The city of the sultans, or the ‘forbidden city’, known as Alhambra; El Albaicin, a walled-in hillside of narrow streets and a labyrinthine historic quarter, or medina in Arabic; and a new, flatter area where traders put down roots, in a neighbourhood known as the Alcaicería, near what was once the cities main mosque.
At the foot of the fields and farmland that surrounded the city, the Arab sultans built another of the town’s great wonders – the Palacio de Verano, known as El Generalife. To the sound of its fountains and in the shade of its trees, the sultans of the Nazarí dynasty would relax in the Summer Palace, as did the Christian emperor Carlos V and, nowadays, thousands of tourists from all over the world.
The Red City
Alhambra took its name from the reddish colour (red in Arabic is al-hamra) of the clay used to build it. As one of this city’s most famous journalists, Félix Bayon, says: “They can’t accuse those who built the Alhambra palaces of vanity.”
The use of humble materials like masonry, clay bricks and pebbles in these magnificent constructions tells us the sultans were not in the least obsessed with the future but more with enjoying the beauty of the moment. The Alhambra symbolises a civilisation that was not concerned whether things lived forever, neither in terms of its interior or exterior appearance.
In the same way as those in the city that spreads at its feet, the house’s façades appear unremarkable with the homes of rich and poor alike being relatively similar. It is only what lies behind closed doors – the interiors of the palaces, their halls and patios – that reveal the fruits of poets’, artists’ and scientists’ labour, that of those who were at the forefront of society during the last few years of the Arab occupation.
The Kingdom of Mistrust
If you visit the Alhambra expecting it to be a huge, unique space with different palaces joined together you could be disappointed. What appears, today, to be joined together was separated in its day comprising four very different parts – the Alcazaba, the Mexuar Palace, the Comares Palace and the Lion’s Palace, or Palacio de los Leones.
The Alcazaba, a small military city where soldiers lived, is located in the southernmost part of the Alhambra complex and is the oldest of its buildings. The homage tower, or Torre del Homenaje, is the Alcazaba’s greatest attraction. What always surprises visitors is finding that there is no access from the military area to the Nazarí palaces. Guards patrolled the sultan’s residences from the Camino de Ronda, the road running alongside the Alhambra’s boundary wall.
Lack of connection between the military and civil areas show that the sultans defended themselves using their own guards and with the same strict control that their enemies did. Those who know Granada’s muslim history speak of severe in-fighting that the sultans often had to confront. The city was, at the time, at political boiling point; 23 sultans ascended to the throne in the two-and-a-half centuries that Granada was under Arab rule.
The Nazarí Palaces
Three palaces were built by the Nazarí dynasty in the Alhambra complex. That of Mexuar was used for administration and is the most sombre in its design. Even so, it has a spectacular golden hall and its multicoloured tiled skirting boards are of great beauty.
Granada’s kingdom must have had very few inhabitants who were allowed to cross the boundary walls of the Alhambra. Within these walls, the doorway to the Mexuar palace marked the final border. From here, everything was strictly private and entry was forbidden to anyone from outside the court.
The Comares palace, the sultans’ private residence, has an outstandingly beautiful patio, known as Los Arrayanes. Patios of this type are the epicentre of Muslim domestic architecture, located in the middle of a residential home, and this one is a particularly good example with its central pond, and an arched doorway that could be considered a canon of excellence of Nazarí architecture due to the balance of its majestic proportions. The Comares Palace was used, generally, for receiving important guests and entertaining.
Yet more spectacular is the Leones Palace, with its much-admired patio of ultraadorned columns and its central fountain held up by twelve wild cats giving it its name. The palace’s design represents a turning point in Nazarí architecture, the birth of a new style that has been referred to as the Nazarí Baroque.
Manipulations of light is as much an integral part of Nazarí architecture as clay and plaster are. Doors and arches were designed with contrasting light and dark shades in order to give them different hues throughout the day and night.
Alhambra, city of illusions
There is something incredibly enigmatic about the Nazarí palaces in the Alhambra city; something that has excited the imagination for centuries of those with a love of history. Between its boundary walls it is impossible to tell the real from the imaginary and every room tells a story, a legend of love or of death, of betrayal or of seduction.
Throughout the forbidden city, the area that bears witness to the greatest number of legends is perhaps the Patio de los Leones – for example, the story that gives the name to the Sala de las Dos Hermanas. Legend has it that there were two sisters – dos hermanas – who were kept in captivity and died from desire and broken hearts on seeing the affectionate play of a couple who they regularly saw in a nearby garden.
Nearby, the Abencerrajes Hall tells a more bloodthirsty tale. Next to the fountain, various members of the Abencerrajes family were beheaded, according to differing versions of the story, because a member of said family was courting one of the sultan’s sweethearts. In this area, another small courtyard needs no legend to tell us how it got its name – it is known as the Patio del Harén (‘harem’, after translation). Here, to get reality and illusion totally mixed up, all you have to do is look upwards at the domed roof and stare at the network of closely-interwoven ornaments that cover the ceiling, a true vertigo inducing sight.
All that is unreal appears locked within the palace walls of the Alhambra. We know they were inhabited because they still exist, but it seems impossible to imagine mortal beings rubbing shoulders with such incredible beauty. Perhaps the main mystery is that historians have been unable to work out where the palace kitchens were located. As we know, according to classical mythology, it is food that allows us to tell humans from gods.
In Granada, the visitor will definitely feel like a god if, after witnessing such great architectural beauty they lose themselves in the winding lanes of Albaicin at the foot of the palace walls, go shopping in the colourful nearby markets and then sit down to a sumptuous evening meal in one of the city’s magnificent restaurants.
To round off the day, a great evening out can be enjoyed at any one of the concerts performed by the splendid Granada Orchestra, one of the most renowned symphonic formations in Spain. Tel: 95 822 0022 for further details.
The city’s cultural programme is diverse and intense, and the information available to the tourist is excellent. So you will have no problem getting about if you first contact the Granada Tourist Board (Tel. 95 824 7146) or visit www.turismodegranada.org.