The Alhambra at Granada in Granada province Andalucia is the most popular tourist attraction in Spain
The Alhambra Palace Granada
In 1832, the American romantic traveller, Washington Irving wrote, “Perhaps there never was a monument more characteristic of an age and people than the Alhambra; a rugged fortress without, a voluptuous palace within; war frowning from its battlements; poetry breathing throughout the fairy architecture of its halls.” At the time, Irving lived in a habitable part of the Alhambra with the caretaker, Doña Antonia-Molina, and her family. Today it is only possible to experience living within the walls of the Alhambra if you stay at the Parador Hotel or the Hotel America.
The word Alhambra is Arabic and translates to ‘the Red or Vermillion Castle’ and refers to the colour of the towers and walls in reflected sunlight. The Alhambra is a fortified, walled, palatine city designed and built purely to serve the needs of its officials and workforce who in turn looked after the needs of the sultan and his family. Within the walls of the Alhambra are four distinct areas, the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces, the Charles V Palace (that also contains the Alhambra Museum) and the Medina.
The northern section of the Alhambra is taken up with the Nasrid palaces reserved for the use of the sultan, his closest family and his administrative officials. Finally, the southern and eastern sections of the Alhambra, easily the largest single area, was taken up by a complete town called the Medina to cater for the Court and the elite guard.
A visit to the Alhambra palace complex that excludes the Generalife gardens can easily take six hours.
Most visitors enter through the turnstiles at the eastern end of the complex.
Fountain of Lions Alhambra
The path immediately takes you into the Medina, a walled town. Following the War of Independence (1808 – 1813), the buildings were left in ruins, and part of the wall and its towers had to be rebuilt almost entirely. You can see the foundations of the buildings, as well as the wall from the inside, with the steps of the round, battlements and merlons and a great view of the Generalife from the east.
The Medina had several public toilets, ovens, workshops, silos and cisterns and the houses of high officials, employees and servants of the court.
Charles V Palace
The next stop on the tour is the Palace of Charles V. This Renaissance style building was started in 1527 and, due to lack of funds, never finished. Some people have the opinion that it is the finest Renaissance building outside of Italy. Inside the palace is the Alhambra Museum that is definitely worth a visit.
The Alcazaba, next on the tour, is the oldest part of the Alhambra. The Alcazabar was a self-contained, and walled, town. It housed the elite guard and their supporting infrastructure including food and grain stores and water cisterns. Its walls connected with the walls of Granada city proper. It is, in effect, a citadel within a citadel. The towers and walls of the Alcazaba are designed to house and protect the Sultan and his servants and guards. Their privileged position in the Alcazabar which, in the event of an attack would become the last refuge of the defenders, indicated the occupants were of higher rank that those individuals housed in the Medina. The Alcazaba occupies the most western and highest part of the Alhambra and the views over the city of Granada from the towers and battlements are spectacular.
Finally you arrive at the Nasrid Palaces. Entry is controlled by tickets either purchased separately or as part of a composite ticket that includes the rest of the Alhambra. The tickets are timed to limit the number of people in the palaces at any own time. It is essential that you join the queue before that time.
The Nasrid Palaces are a complex of palaces, the residence of the kings of Granada. Their construction was started by the founder of the dynasty, Alhamar, in the thirteenth century, although the buildings that have survived to our time date mainly from the fourteenth century.
The walls of these palaces enclose the refinement and the delicateness of the last Hispano-Arab governors of al-Andalus, the Nasrids.
Three palaces form these premises: The Mexuar, The Comares, or Yusuf I Palace and The Palace of Mohammed V or of the Lions.
The Mexuar Palace has seen many alterations and renovations by successive monarchs since it was first built and it is impossible to determine when construction started. The situation was not helped when, in 1590, a powder magazine exploded causing quite a bit of damage. The Mexual Hall is decorated on its lower part with tiles and plaster friezes above taking the eye to the coffered ceiling. At the back of the hall is the chamber used by the king to receive visitors and for meetings with the council.
The Comares Palace was the official residence of the king, Yusuf I (1318 – 1354). At its centre is the Patio de los Arrayanes with rooms around the sides. Notable amongst them are the Salsa de Barca and the Hall of the Ambassadors. The Hall of the Ambassadors is the most majestic hall of the palace complex. Yusuf I wanted to amaze and impress his visitors and the decorations are exquisite. Unfortunately for Yusef, he did not live long enough to see the finished result. The Comares Palace was finished by his son, Mohammed V (1339 – 1391). Do not miss the Comares Tower with its fantastic views over the Darro valley.
When Mohammed V succeeded his father Yusuf I, he did more than just finishing the alterations that his father had started. He built what would become his greatest work of art: the Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions). This palace comprised the private chambers of the royal family.
In the Palacio de los Leones, Nasrid art achieved its greatest degree of magnificence. The beauty of this palace shows incomparable sensibility and harmony. Light, water, colours and exquisite decoration turn this palace into a pleasure for the senses. The abstract and geometric decoration allow a more naturalistic style to dominate, a result of Christian influence, the friendship between Mohammed V and the Christian king Pedro I (The Cruel).
The Palace of the Lions comprises a central patio, the Court of Lions, surrounded by several galleries with columns forming a cloister. From the central patio you may access the different halls: the Sala de los Mocárabes (Hall of the Mozarabes) to the west, the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings) to the east, the Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), the Sala de los Ajimeces (Hall of the Ajimeces) and Mirador de Daraxa (Daraxa's Mirador) to the north and the Sala de los Abencerrajes (Hall of the Abencerrajes) and the Harén (Harem) to the south.
The Court of Lions contains the emblematic lion fountain, built in marble and depicting twelve lions supporting a water bowl. The marble came from the Macael quarries in Almeria. The original fountain had a second bowl above the first.
The palaces were a place for relaxation and monuments to the power and influence of the Nasrid rulers. As Muslims, the Nasrids appreciated the beauty of trees, shrubs and plants combined with that essential element in short supply in their homelands, water. The Nasrid Palace gardens are a series of formal gardens, a perfect symmetry of water and plants, designed for reflection, a perfect end to the tour of the Alhambra Palace.
Rather than take public transport from the city centre to the Alhambra, an alternative is to walk from Via Reyes Catolicos up Ctr. de Gomerez and through the Puerta de las Granadas, an historic arch carrying the Imperial Shield. Once through the gate, veer left up Cta Empedrada, through a shady, cool, green woodland until you reach the Puerta de la Justica. This gate, with a typical zig zag, cobbled entrance takes you into the Alhambra, avoiding the turnstyles.
Parts of the Alhambra complex are free admission. Once through the Puerta de la Justica you will be able to visit the Carlos V Palace and the Alhambra Museum. You can then walk through the Medina as far as the branch road that takes you to the Generalife.