One day, about a decade ago, while shelving books at my library, I came across a book which intrigued me.
It was Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, and because at the time I was reading through a lot of classic fairy tales, I checked it out and brought it home. But I didn’t manage to read it. Who knows what got in the way: work, school, other reading material. I probably only read a chapter or two, and then returned it to the library before heading out of the country again. And that was the last I thought about the Alhambra for some time.
I wasn’t even particularly thinking about it when I booked my ticket to Spain. But somewhere along the line, the dots connected, and suddenly the Alhambra became one of my top travel goals during my visit. For someone all too used to winging her travel plans, it felt a bit odd to have such a specific destination. So, true to form, I procrastinated, delayed making specific plans or buying any tickets until one Wednesday I finally sat down and purchased a bus ticket and booked a hostel for the coming weekend. I was going to Granada.
I didn’t purchase my ticket to the Alhambra, however, for another two days. Every guidebook I read said that I should book tickets ahead of time, but I figured: it’s winter, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And then on Friday my anxiety overcame my procrastination, and I spent the last few hours before I had to catch my bus to Granada tracking down and purchasing a guided tour for the very next day. I was lucky: had it been summer, it’s likely the tickets would have been sold out weeks in advance.
My trip got off to a rough start. I’m quite used to using Google Maps to navigate cities, but it is not always the most convenient for using public transportation. The routes it gives are fine, but they often rely on your flawless ability to make a connection from one transport service to another, and if you happen to miss that connection, suddenly your “fastest route” changes to something completely different. It didn’t help that the bus station I needed was waaaaaaay out on the other side of town, and that the only transport system I really knew was the metro, and that for some reason this wasn’t on any of Google’s fastest routes. In any case, I gave myself 45 minutes to make a 28-minute trip, but partway through I caught a train in the wrong direction and so missed my bus. Happily, I was able to purchase a new ticket for a bus which departed only a half-hour after my original trip, and bus fare is cheap so I only lost about €18 in the whole fiasco.
That said, these sorts of near misses proved to be a rule for the trip. My tour of the Alhambra was set for 9am the next morning. As before, I left with what I thought would be plenty of time. And, as before, I made a wrong turn and nearly missed my tour. The way up to the Alhambra is easy to find, but once at the top it’s easy to head toward the entrance rather than to the visitor parking lot where the ticket booths are and where my tour was meant to begin. By the time I realized I was in the wrong place, it was 8:53 and I had a 10-minute trek to get to catch my 9:00 tour. I hustled, made it to the parking lot, frantically showed my tour reservation to 3 or 4 people who finally pointed me in the right direction. I managed to join my tour group just as our guide started to lead us up to the palace. Had I missed it, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have been able to buy another ticket for the day, and I may not have been able to book a new tour for the next day. And either way, the tour cost far more than the bus fare, so I lucked out.
PRO TIP: if you want to see the Alhambra, especially if you’re traveling during the summer, book well in advance and give yourself plenty of time to find your tour group. During peak tourist season, the Alhambra gets 6,000 visitors a day. You don’t want to be navigating that mayhem while you’re late and frantically searching for your group.
That said, once we started the tour everything became instantly amazing. I’m not used to booking tours, and usually opt for an audioguide, which I then find more annoying than worthwhile often as not. On this tour, our guide passed out radio receivers that you wore around your neck and which came with an earpiece that covered one ear. The tour guide was then able to talk into a microphone so that we could all hear her, and none of us had to push to get close to understand what she was saying. I think this made all the difference, as it allowed me to explore and look around whatever area we were in without feeling like I had to stand directly next to the guide to catch every word.
Once the tour started, we had to pass through multiple checkpoints depending on which area of the complex we went to visit. The Alhambra wasn’t just a fortress: it was a walled city, meaning it extends over an impressive amount of territory. And because of it’s location on top of a hill, it commands an impressive view of the surrounding city. To one direction you can see the old Muslim quarter, and a view of Sacromonte where the gypsy caves are. In another direction rise the Sierra Nevada, the tallest mountains on the Iberian peninsula. I couldn’t see them well during my visit, because although the sky shone blue, the atmosphere was thick. You would not have called the day “cloudy” at first, but yet the horizon seemed closer than it ought to be. Nonetheless, the views were stunning.
Inside the royal complex, the wall decorations are almost overwhelmingly complex. Between molded plaster, tile work, and carved wood, the intricacy of pattern and detail are almost too much to take in. This is where our tour guide proved particularly helpful. She drew our attention to a number of elements I would have overlooked or else not understood on my own, including different religious symbols hidden in the math of the geometric forms. In particular, the significance of the numbers 8, and 7: 8 is the number for God, because the Arabic numeral 8 represents infinity, while 7 is the number of heavens, with the seventh heaven being closest to 8, or in other words to God. The subtlety here struck me, because of how pervasive this symbolism was throughout the entire structure, each archway, courtyard, and carved panel meant to draw the mind abstractly to God in one form or another. Through mathematics, of all things.
The whole tour, from the fortress, through the palace, and then to the gardens, took about 3 hours. The gardens were our last stop, and as relaxing and beautiful as the rest. The fountains you see in the photo below, however, are a new addition: our tour guide grumbled about how noisy they were, and seemed to feel they ruined the tranquility of the space. The original gardens had a much smaller fountain, whereas these struck up quite the cacophony. I found myself agreeing with our guide, and wishing for a more peaceful sound.
We had one small break during the tour during which I tracked down a coffee vending machine. Then I wandered around looking at the cats. There were several, each glorious and beautiful it a different way, serenely meandering through the visitors, almost demanding attention as their due. They did not shy away when I went to pet them, although I wouldn’t have called them affectionate. One was kind enough to pose for me, as you can see in the photo below.
It feels cheesy to say, but the Alhambra felt like stepping into a fairy tale. The entire time through, my mind kept wandering to all kinds of tales and legends. I wouldn’t say I’m a romantic person, generally speaking, but it’s hard to stand in a place of such splendid beauty and not give in to it a little. As a place, the Alhambra was meant to be a small piece of heaven on earth—somewhere which could draw one into a peaceful and meditative mindset. Not a place of revelry, pageant, hedonism, or war, but of quiet self-reflection.
In reality, it was certainly a fortress, commanded by a mixed bag of rulers. From my brief exposure to their stories, some seemed genuinely noble, living their lives to some degree according to the piety displayed in every detail of their architecture, and extending religious toleration within their city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Another ruthlessly beheaded an entire family (according to legend) because one scion managed to seduce one of the sultan’s wives.
Nonetheless, while walking through the Alhambra I felt strangely at peace and at home. In terms of architectural beauty, I have certainly never seen anything which could compare, and it may not have its equal in the world. Probably for that reason, I feel at a loss to describe it, drawn irrevocably toward clichés which undermine the true beauty of the place. In the week before my trip, I found Washington Irving’s account on Audible and tried listening to his stories. But I couldn’t quite connect to them as I’d hoped to. They felt too romantic, too starry-eyed, not quite real. Having now seen the Alhambra for myself, it’s true they don’t do it justice. Now I doubt anything ever could.