The Alhambra: Torre de las Damas

More Than The Alhambra

17th July 2009

Sometimes a location’s reputation rests on a single star attraction. Granada is an excellent example: its Alhambra Palace is one of the travel icons of the world. If you take the time to explore beyond the Alhambra, though, you may be surprised by what you find: a hidden world of beauty, intrigue, art and history. Neil Matthews goes off the beaten track…

The churches and monasteries, with their clues to the city’s Islamic heritage, provide a good starting point. The fountain in the church of San Miguel del Bajo is a legacy of the mosque which stood there first. The bell tower of San Gil y Santa Ana was designed to resemble the minaret of the mosque which was there before the church.

A glimpse of San Jeronimo

The monastery of San Jeronimo in Calle Gran Capitan, on the other hand, is a tale of the unexpected. The courtyard smells of jasmine and citrus; the cloister’s paving stones include memorial tablets for some of the dearly departed monks. The décor is suitably stone and sombre… until you reach the main church, with its deep ceiling relief, gilded altarpiece and taped Baroque music. The monastery was founded by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and given to the Hieronymite order. Later, the Duchess of Sesa acquired the main chapel for use as a family vault, commissioning her own architects to redecorate. It’s not the most understated burial vault you’ll ever see.

Near the monastery is the hospital of San Juan de Dios, another Renaissance building, but without San Jeronimo’s outward austerity. It is decorated with colourful wall paintings and ceramic tiles – perhaps how the monastery would have looked if the Duchess’s decorators had been let loose on the whole place. Signs directing patients to various clinics are slotted in between the art.

Among the echoes of the past, the city bustles about its daily business. Near the Cathedral you’ll come across an open-air tea market with all manner of weird and wonderful flavours for sale. In Puerta Real, you may find a congregation of lacemakers at work on their latest creations – or go to Acera del Darro for coin and stamp markets. Children are in abundance, buying a balloon from Mickey Mouse, tasting the local ice cream or riding on a roundabout with a difference in Plaza Bib Rambla. The horses, reindeer and dragons on which they ride are made from old tyres and, in the centre, a bespectacled man pedals away on his bike to keep the whole thing going. This Ecological Carousel costs two Euros a ride and, judging by the shrieks of delight, it’s excellent value for money.

The Albaicin

For a more intimate view of the city, pick your way across the herringbone cobbled streets in the Albaicin quarter, the old heart of Granada. The whitewashed houses, with their numbers in blue tiles, allow the Spanish flair for drama to spill out. Bougainvillea is everywhere. Tomatoes and limes tumble down the walls, red geraniums sit neatly at the windows and vines spread across the terraces. Horseshoes, once used to tether donkeys, are set into the walls.

If you visit in the rising heat of late morning or early afternoon, there are no locals on the streets. Iron bars across wooden doors, and lavender-coloured curtains across windows hint at secrets inside. The door knockers are an art form in themselves, many taking the shape of horses or lions. Multicoloured blankets block your view into the closed shops, and so you have to content yourself with reading the advertisements for flamenco guitar lessons and the like. The sounds of barking dogs, crying babies and TV gameshows hang in the air.

Sitting in a café in the evening with your choice of tapas – maybe sizzling prawns in garlic, or stuffed peppers, or artichoke hearts – it’s easy to conclude that there is much more to Granada than its most famous legacy. But there’s no getting away from it; sooner or later, you have to visit the Alhambra.

It sits high up on a hill, red and romantic, the embodiment of the last days of Moorish rule in Spain. Muslims had controlled parts of the Iberian Peninsula, known then as Al Andalus, since 711. Christian incursions in the early 13th century led to the negotiation of an agreement which created a unified Moorish kingdom. Granada was the capital, with the Alhambra acting as both the sultan’s private residence and the political and administrative centre. Eventually, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella reclaimed Granada for Christianity; they are buried in the Royal Chapel next to the Cathedral down in the city. The conquerors still saw Granada as an important capital and Charles V commissioned the building of a new Royal Palace next to the Alhambra. The result was a Renaissance masterpiece with a twist: a round courtyard within a square building, an unlikely neighbour for what the Moors had left behind.

The Alhambra itself evolved over the centuries, and its main features today are the Alcazaba (the old Citadel), the Palaces and the Generalife gardens. Early morning is probably the best time to visit, as the crowds are smaller. Even at the height of the tourist throngs, though, it doesn’t matter how much noise there is, or how many flashguns are going off… The Alhambra absorbs this never-ending 21st century invasion. In the courtyards and palace rooms, the tiling uses small geometric shapes – diamonds, hexagons, stars – in blue, with elements of green, gold and red, repeating basic patterns and colours to build the overall effect. White marble floors are set off by gilded pillars with elaborate stuccoed arches. Long rectangular pools dapple the light against the walls and reflect it up to the heavens. The words ‘The only conqueror is God’, along with many other epigrams, are inscribed in Arabic on the walls in stucco, wood, stone and ceramic. Every inch radiates serenity (as does the occasional cat who pads past the human visitors, as if it owns the place).

In centuries gone by, there were a number of pleasure gardens for Granadan monarchs to enjoy as a distraction from palace politics. Now only the gardens of the Generalife, the summer palace of the Moors, are left. The name comes from the Arabic words djennat meaning garden, orchard or paradise, and al-arif meaning architect or master builder. Many aspects have been reconstructed or replanted since their creation, but the sensual pleasure of the place remains. Cypress, box and myrtle are used for the hedges, with orange, plum, medlar and magnolia trees elsewhere. Gentle jets of water enter the courtyard pools from either side, adding to the sense of symmetry and calm as you gaze through the arches at the rest of Granada and the blue ridges of the Sierra Nevada beyond.

The symbol of the city

Finally, there are the pomegranates, the emblem of the city. Granada is the Spanish word for pomegranate and you will find them everywhere, whether in the gardens of the Generalife or in the modern streets, where the tops of the traffic bollards are pomegranate-shaped. Exotic, colourful, intriguing, surprising… describe the pomegranate and you could be talking about the city to which it gives its name.

Find Your Local