April 21, 2013. Day 5. Granada
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, and a who’s who of those travelling.
We were up early, breakfasting in a small eatery in one of the side streets behind our hotel, Monjas del Carmen.
We were happy with the hotel. The rooms were small by North American standards, but were clean, with comfortable beds, and pleasant bathrooms. Although Granada is a noisy city, the hotel’s location in a cul-de-sac ensured a quiet night’s rest.
The hotel’s central location was perfect. It’s situated at the foot of the hill on which the Alhambra stands, and steps from the Plaza Nueva (21) which, despite its name (New Square) is one of the oldest in Granada. (Bracketed numbers refer to locations on a map by http://www.lovegranada.com/granada/map/
Crossing the Plaza Nueva, you enter the old Moorish quarter of the Albaicín (15), while a little way up the Carrera del Darro street, past the pretty church of Sta Ana (13), you can visit the Hammam El Bañuelo (3), an authentic 11th-century Moorish bath house (to see the baths, you have to pass through the private house of the keeper).
Around the corner from the hotel is the Plaza Isabel la Católica (26). Cross the road –the Calle de los Reyes Católicos– to the Gran Vía de Colón and in five minutes you are at the 16th-century Renaissance Cathedral (2) and its adjoining Royal Chapel (Capilla Real, 32), where the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella are buried. Across from the entrance to the Royal Chapel is the 14th-century Madrassa (9), a former Muslim university; a few steps further down is the Alcaicería (24). This former Moorish silk market was destroyed by fire in 1850 then rebuilt in the late 19th century.
Its narrow alleys and numerous souvenir stalls now serve as an exotic and rather kitschy attraction for tourists.
Just off the Alcaicería is the Plaza de Bib-Rambla (25), a large, tree-lined, bustling square ringed by restaurants and shops. The centre is dominated by a 17th-century fountain topped by a statue of Neptune. The square is popularly known as the Plaza de las flores -Flower Square- because of its numerous flower stalls. At one time, it was a much smaller square and the centre of Moorish Granada. Following the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabel’s armies in 1492, the plaza was enlarged as Christian stronghold over the city imposed itself. Since then, religious processions, jousts, bullfights, fiestas and Inquisitorial burnings have all featured as part of its history.
Other interesting spots within walking distance of our hotel include the Corral del Carbón (5), a restored 14th-century hostelry (later granary, theatre, and coal house –from which it gets its name), and the Casa de los Tiros (33), a Mudejar mansion of the early 16th century (Mudejars were Muslims who remained under Christian rule) located on the edge of the former Jewish quarter known as the Realejo (19, mistakenly written as 17!).
Like surely all visitors to Granada, our first destination was Granada’s showpiece, the Alhambra.
We tried catching a bus (#30) around the corner from the hotel, but each bus was full, so we took a taxi from the stand at the Plaza Nueva. It was inexpensive and worth it, dropping us right at the entrance near the Generalife gardens. We had purchased our tickets beforehand, which we highly advise since we avoided long line-ups, and only a very limited number of tickets is available daily for those who simply turn up.
The tickets assign you a specific time to visit only the Nasrid Royal Palaces, the most famous part of the Alhambra. They constitute a relatively small complex of beautiful buildings within the powerful fortress walls. As for the rest of the Alhambra, you are free to wander, either before or after your assigned time for the royal residences. To buy tickets, either on line or by phone, go to http://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/buyalhambratickets.asp. (I phoned, paid by credit card, which I then presented as my confirmation when picking up the tickets.) Don’t be late for the Royal Residences or you’ll risk refusal; the Alhambra web site is quite categorical: You will have no access to the palaces at another time and the tickets will not be refunded.
Before you go to Granada, you should familiarise yourself with the layout of the Alhambra. A very useful map can be found on http://www.planetware.com/map/alhambra-and-generalife-map-e-agg.htm
Margaret and I have visited the Alhambra on numerous occasions, but this was the first time since 1988, when we spent an academic year in Granada. From our house in the Albaicín, we frequently meandered up the Cuesta de Gomérez, through the Gate of the Pomegranates (Puerta de las Granadas) and then up the shady, wooded path to the Gate of Justice (Puerta de la Justicia). In those days this was the only way to access the Alhambra, and is frankly more impressive than the present entrance. The Gate of Justice is imposing; it rises above you and once through the doorway you find yourself in a dim, double-elbowed passage.
As for impressions of this latest visit, I found I was comparing it unfavourably with earlier visits. (My first visit goes back to 1959, and I still have the entrance ticket after almost 55 years!) The buildings themselves still enchant, but it was difficult to stand back and simply enjoy the beauty of this remarkable complex with people constantly bustling and jostling for position to take photos or be photographed.
Fortunately, once inside the Royal Residences, we were under no pressure to hurry through, and I was really pleased that the authorities hadn’t (yet) erected barriers or ropes to prevent us getting as close as possible to just about everything (exceptions: the very centre of the Hall of the Ambassadors and the fountain in the Court of the Lions). Without barriers, it’s easier to examine and admire the sophisticated ornamentation adorning the stuccoed walls: the wainscoting of bright, patterned tiles (azulejos), topped by intricate arabesques, and framed by beautiful,cursive Arab calligraphy.
And don’t miss the ceilings: especially the star-spangled wooden ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors and the stuccoed “exploding stars” in the Hall of the Abecerrajes and the Hall of the Two Sisters (both in the Court of the Lions)
The art we see in the Royal Residences is very abstract, based on the Muslim precept that to attempt to portray the world realistically is both to challenge Allah (the only creator) and encourage idolatry. The only exception you can find in the Hall of the Kings (in the Court of the Lions), which was closed for renovations when we were there (although there were photos outside of the paintings).
Once through the Royal Residences, we wandered at leisure through the Alcazaba (fortress, above), and climbed the Torre de la Vela (watchtower, below) that gives you a terrific panoramic view over Granada.
After that, we went to the other end of the Alhambra, to the Generalife gardens, the summer retreat of the rulers of Granada. It’s a beautiful place to relax among the flowers and greenery, close your eyes and listen to the fountains. There’s water everywhere in the Alhambra, and not just the Generalife: fountains, rivulets that tumble over steps, whispering streams, and reflecting pools.
Although fairly tired after sightseeing and side-stepping other tourists, we decide to walk back to our hotel. So it was back to the Gate of Justice and downhill, under the shade of elms and cypresses, and accompanied by streams that gurgled down beside us. Once through the Gate of Pomegranates we were in Cuesta de Gomérez Street. The nature of the street has changed drastically since we were last in Granada, when it was the main access to the Alhambra. Then the street bustled with activity as tourists purchased souvenirs and typical goods from the shops that lined it.
It’s now a shadow of its former self, although there are still some great shops to buy souvenirs, including some where you can watch artisans craft their elaborately decorated marquetry (e.g. boxes, trays, chairs), wrought-iron work or boldly painted ceramics. Still, ask them how things are going and they’ll shake their heads sadly.
After a lot of comparison shopping, both Andrew and Alex bought lovely marquetry boxes, and Alex also purchased an attractive wrought-iron frame for four ceramic tiles each bearing the four letters of her name.
P.S. If you want to know more about the Alhambra, its history and significance, you can click The Alhambra: Historical Introduction or related web pages in wordpress-103742-391169.cloudwaysapps.com
Image of Charles V’s Palace: http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/spain/granada/alhambra/alhambraindex.html
Image of Hall of the Two Sisters: http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/Arts.CasselmanImage