We are staying on a campsite in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, north west of Almeria. A short way from here, in a wide open plateau between the mountains, lies the city of Granada. Driving down from our campsite on our first day here, we could see Granada laid out before us and I looked for the Alhambra, since it is one of our reasons for being here and I was very keen to catch my first glimpse of what I had heard was such a magnificent monument. It is a big palace, I thought, you must be able to see it rising up between the houses and other buildings of the city. But I couldn’t pick it out at all. We crossed the city on the urban motorway and still there was no sign of the palace. Even as we parked in the car park and walked towards the entrance, we still couldn’t see it. But the Alhambra is not an ostentatious palace that shouts out its wealth in its size and its gilding. Nor is it a giant castle-like palace that looms over the surrounding countryside from a hilltop. Instead, it sits quietly and majestically on a hillside overlooking the city and its treasures and its nobility can be found in its detailing, its serenity and its Moorish beauty.
The Red Castle
The Alhambra takes its name from the Arabic qa’lat al Hamra which means ‘red castle’, on account of its reddish walls. Muhammad I al-Ahmar (founder of the Nasrid dynasty) installed his court here in 1238 and began the construction of the Alhambra. At this time the area was under Muslim rule and subsequent sultans added palaces of their own, expanding the site in the 14th and 15th centuries. Then, in January 1492, the Alhambra was surrendered to the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, whose youngest daughter was Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII.
In 1527, King Carlos V built his own renaissance palace here, knocking down part of the Nasrid Palaces to do so. After this the Alhambra fell into disrepair and was largely ignored. Then, in the 1830s, American writer Washington Irving spent some time living at the Palace. It was during this time that he wrote his famous ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ and interest in the palace increased. In 1870, Spain declared it to be a national monument and shortly after this work started on its restoration.
The Alhambra is considered to be one of the finest examples of Moorish architecture in Europe and the Islamic influence is seen everywhere. The Palaces are famed for their ornate stucco decoration and Arabic inscriptions and my overriding memory of our visit is of detailed geometric patterns everywhere you looked. Patterns in the cobblestone walkways and in the trees and planting in the gardens. Patterns in the bright ceramic tiles around the inner walls of the Nasrid Palaces. Patterns in the intricately carved wooden ceilings and marquetry doors. Patterns in the complex honeycomb vaulting in the ceilings and the stucco work around the arches. And patterns in the wooden screens covering many of the windows.
The intricacy and detailing in the carving and plaster work really took my breath away. Sometimes it was offset by a smooth plastered wall, sometimes it was juxtaposed with bright, patterned tiles and sometimes reflected in a still pool. But always it was endlessly inspiring and interesting.
My other memory of the Alhambra is the feeling of calm and serenity that I felt walking around the grounds and through the palaces. This is a place to be felt and experienced with every one of your senses. There are so many relaxing courtyards and gardens to explore and everywhere throughout the site there is water. This is not only in the form of fountains and ponds, but also in springs and delightful channels of water that flow all around – down stairways, across aqueducts, at the sides of paths and right into the palaces themselves. Everywhere you go you can hear it gently trickling and feel the cool it generates. It really is an idyllic place and I couldn’t help thinking about the young Catherine of Aragon and what a shock it must have been to leave here and travel to Tudor England.
The Nasrid Palaces
This is actually a complex of three Palaces, built by different sultans during the 13th and 14th centuries. There are courtyards, a magnificent throne room, private quarters and restful gardens. There is no furniture in any of the Palaces, but the walls and ceilings are the real stars of the show. Unfortunately the famous Court of the Lions was undergoing major restoration work and half of it was closed off and covered over, but it didn’t affect our enjoyment of the Palaces as there was so much else to see around every turn.
Next to the Nasrid Palaces, you will find the rather incongruous renaissance palace of King Carlos V, built in 1527. This huge building completely dwarfs the Nasrid palace, but is no match for it in detail and sophistication. The exterior is square, finished off with huge stone blocks, whilst the interior is round with pillars supporting an upper level.
This part of the Alhambra was built as a rural retreat for the sultan and his family. Here they could get away from life in the palace and the official routine, but still be quickly back within the safety of its walls should any danger arise. It is also where their food was grown, the steep hillside being terraced to make it easier to farm.
The first part of the gardens that you enter are a relatively modern addition. Here there is an outdoor theatre where a music festival is held every year. Beyond this is a lovey area with ponds, fountains and neatly clipped hedges, forming cool niches in which to sit and relax.
At the far end is the emir’s whitewashed summer palace. Many of the doorways here have beautiful, carved niches in the side that were used for storing water vessels. Above one of them on the entry into the palace is a beautiful quotation, written in Arabic. It says “Enter with wisdom, offer knowledge, speak few words and go in peace” and it instructed any visitors how they should behave in their encounters with the sultan.
Further along, towards the side of the palace, is the lovely water stairway, leading up into the highest part of the Generalife. Water was important for purification and the sound of its gentle flowing also created an atmosphere conducive to peace and meditation.
This is the fortress and military part of the complex and it is also one of the oldest areas. Here you can climb several high towers, giving wonderful views out across Granada on one side and towards the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains on the other.
Here you find extensive gardens, with more cooling ponds and water features, courtyards, terraces and avenues of trees. What struck me again and again here was how cool it must be in the hot summer months. And once again, the flowing water also gave it such a feeling of calm and tranquility – just sitting a while in quiet contemplation would be enough to restore your mind and body.
In the centre of the Partal is a convent and there is a street of houses, shops and a hotel, although this seemed to be closed at the time of our visit. Here you can also visit the 16th century church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra built over the site of the former mosque, together with the bath house that was set alongside it. In the time of the Nasrid sultanate, those wishing to pray at the mosque would first cleanse themselves at the baths before entering the holy building.
Practical information about your visit to the Alhambra:
The first thing I have to say about visiting the Alhambra is that buying a ticket and fathoming how it all works is not easy – nothing seems to be clear and straightforward. I hope that the following information will answer any questions you have that are not made clear from the official website.
We were visiting in the low season (January) and we booked tickets online, but in actual fact when we arrived at the site, there were no queues at all. At busier times of the year though, you would definitely need to book your tickets online and then allow time to pick them up before your visit. Unfortunately, unlike other monuments we have visited in Spain where a QR code on your smartphone is all you need, for the Alhambra you currently have to have a physical ticket with a barcode on it to be able to access the site.
1. Understanding your time slot:
The Alhambra is a huge site and there is lots to see, but tickets are all based around your visit to one part of it – the Nasrid Palaces. When you book online, you need to choose firstly whether you want to visit in the morning or the afternoon, and then you need to select a time for your entry to the Nasrid Palaces. Now, and this is important, the time of your visit to the Nasrid Palaces is NOT the time you can enter the complex. We selected 2pm as the time of our entry to the Nasrid Palaces, but we could enter the Alhambra complex itself any time from 8:30am (i.e. when it opened) that same day.
In fact, you absolutely MUST aim to arrive well before the time of your entry to the Nasrid Palaces. This is for three reasons: firstly, it is a good 20 minute walk from the main entrance to the Nasrid Palaces themselves; secondly, even when you have booked tickets online, you may find there is a queue to pick them up; and finally, when you get to the Nasrid Palaces themselves, there is often a queue to get your tickets checked before you can go in. Official advice is to arrive at least one hour in advance, but I suspect in peak season you would need to allow even more time than this.
Of course, you don’t have to see the Nasrid Palaces first: we arrived at the complex at about 11am, visited the Generalife first and ate our picnic lunch before seeing the Nasrid Palaces at 2pm.
2. Understanding the different areas of the site
The Alhambra is spread across a huge site, but it can be divided into four main areas – the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife, the Alcazara and the Partal. The two with real ‘wow’ factor, and the ones you should do first if you are pushed for time, are the Nasrid Palaces and the Generalife. The Nasrid Palaces have all of the beautiful plaster work, carved ceilings and colourful tiles. The Generalife is part beautiful gardens, part summer palace. The Alcazara is the military fort and is the oldest part of the complex, whilst the Partal features mostly gardens. Alongside the Nasrid Palace, and within the Partal is the rather incongruous palace of Charles V, which you can also visit, plus the church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra.
3. How long will I need to allow for my visit?
This is a hard one to answer as it is one of those ‘how long is a piece of string’ questions. Before our visit, we read some reviews on Trip Advisor and people were saying they had spent between two and seven hours looking around the Alhambra. We were shocked – seven hours? There was no way we would spend that long, not with two children in tow! BUT, if you follow the full tour suggested by the audio guide, you need to allow at least 3 hours. We totally surprised ourselves but we actually ended up spending almost 6 hours there. We toured all four of the main areas (the Nasrid Palace, the Alcazara, the Generalife and the Partal) and stopped for about 45 minutes to eat our picnic lunch and again for a rest and snacks after doing the Nasrid Palaces.
My advice, and it is also the official advice in the leaflet you are given on your arrival, is to pace yourself, take plenty of breaks and go to see the places you are most interested in first. I would also suggest that part of the enjoyment of this place is to sit a while and take in the views, listen to the trickling of the water and absorb the tranquility of it all.
4. Should I get an audio guide?
I am someone who loves to learn as much as I can about places that I visit. This means that if an audio guide is available, I am plugged in and listening faster than you can say ‘shall we get an audio guide?’ However, if I could give you one piece of advice about visiting the Alhambra for the first time it would be this – don’t get the audio guide! Before our visit I had read a blog post in which the writer suggested that the audio guide wasn’t worth bothering with, and I wish now that I had heeded her advice. The narration is fairly uninspiring and I kept realising that I hadn’t really heard what had been said and had to keep going back to listen again. I also found that it separated me from the surroundings in a way that was detrimental to my enjoyment of the place itself. Once I dispensed with the audio guide, I found that I was able to fully experience the Alhambra with all of my senses and this is when I really started to love it.
If you do decide to go with the audio guide, there is an additional €6 charge and you can pick these up from the main entrance or from the shop inside the Palace of Charles V.
5. What about children?
Children under 12 get free admission but they must still have a ticket. This is because at certain areas of the site you get your tickets scanned, and you must have one ticket per person in the party. There are only about 6600 tickets issued daily and so at peak times you MUST book in advance to avoid disappointment.
6. What about lunch or refreshments?
Picnics are allowed in certain areas of the complex, although not in the Nasrid Palaces or in any of the buildings and you are not allowed to sit out on any of the grassed areas. However, there are plenty of benches and bins around the site. There are also a few shops and kiosks where you can get refreshments and there are drinking water fountains all over the site.
7. Can I take my bag in with me?
We were carrying rucksacks and were allowed to take these in to all of the palaces with us, although we were requested to carry them on our fronts whilst we were in the Nasrid Palaces. If you would prefer not to carry heavy bags around with you, there are cloakrooms at the main entrance pavilion and near the Alcazara where you can leave them.
8. Can I park at the site?
There is parking at the Alhambra itself, although I imagine this would get extremely busy in the summer. You are charged for the amount of time you are parked, up to a maximum of €18.45. Our parking cost just under €12 for the 6 hours we were there.