Friday, January 06, 2012

The Alhambra

The moon comes to the forge,
in her creamy-white petticoat.
The child stares, stares.
The child is staring at her...
 ~ Federico García Lorca

The moon climbs over the summer Palace of the Generalife. It isn’t a full moon and it isn’t dark yet, but we had just walked through those very palatial arches and taken such delight in the delicate carvings and the sweeping views to the hills of Granada that it seems an added bonus to watch the moon now begin its sweeping arch just there, at the northern most tip of the Alhambra.

It is our day to visit this grand palatial fortress.

But not immediately. I’d reserved a late afternoon hour (3:30) to enter the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra. That means that we can pick up our tickets anytime after 2 p.m. and spend the time before and the time after the Nasrid walking through the Alhambra grounds, poking into old baths and climbing ancient towers, idling our way through the enormous complex however we please – until 6 p.m., when the Alhambra closes its gates to visitors for the day.

[My apologies for a terribly long post; it could not be otherwise.]

Part I

And so we have a morning to still give over to Granada. After, we can refresh ourselves, rest a little maybe and proceed to the Alhambra.

That is the plan. And initially, the pieces fall into place: we walk down the now familiar alleys of the Arab Quarter, down to the interesting Calle de Elvira, pretty now in the morning light...

DSC02853 - Version 2

...and I do go to the Cathedral, though not for long (Ed waits outside). And it is dazzling, in an empty sort of way. Without many visitors, the vast ornate space seems remote and, to me, rather cold. Or maybe it's that the January air is not very forgiving here, in this cavernous interior.

I want us to walk then to Granada’s park and perhaps poke into the summer residence of Grenada’s celebrated poet, Federico García Lorca, but here I take a wrong turn. A completely 180 degree wrong turn. We walk through the commercial heart of Granada...


...and the streets became more and more crowded, as it is the day before the great Feast of the Three Kings – another holiday gift giving situation for children, I hear, and it seems that everyone is doing last minute errands because in the course of the hour, the streets fill with crowds of shoppers.

We poke into several bakeries, for the fun of it, settling finally on a few tidbits for later...


...and we have an errand too – a comb for me since I managed to break one earlier. Only after an hour or so of rambling around town does it strike me that we are not where we should be.

Eventually we do find the park – not hard, it’s Granada’s dominant green space after all – but by then the summer house of Lorca is closing...

Lorca summer house

... and indeed, the guard there tells us it wont be open again for several days as we are in the middle of the great Fete.

No matter. Ed takes to a bench...

DSC02875 - Version 2
Ed on bench

...and I stroll. The park has a grand rose garden, but the blooms are mostly faded and in fact, the maintenance crew is just now clipping back the spent roses. But they haven’t gotten to this patch yet, where an occasional flower still proudly displays her petals.

winter rose

There are the usual strollers and wanderers and children playing and parents hovering over their little guys...


...and it’s all very pleasant, except that it’s now getting late and here we are in the park of Lorca rather than in our guest house preparing for the afternoon at the Alhambra.

We pause at a bakery for a quick pick-me-up espresso and pastry (and my oh my, is the bakery part crowded now with a holiday cake buying public!)...

quick espresso

...though I notice that others prefer wine over coffee...


And now it is time to hike up the hill to the Alhambra.

Part II

As if there wasn't enough of a build-up,  the walk up to the palatial compound is uphill, ceremonial almost. A slow approach, as if you should brace yourself for what's before you.

As we go through the first gates, I see that I got the images all wrong. From across the hills, the Alhambra looks stark and fortified. What you don't see is the vast natural setting -- the park outside the walls, the great gardens within.

We pass through a monstrous gate -- and it's the wrong gate for us. (Better prepared visitors know to head right up to the top where there is an efficient retrieval of prepaid tickets.) Up we climb even further... and now we are there.

You get a tremor when you enter the fortification, you really do. (Ed would dispute this.)  It's only 2:15 and we have time to visit the Palace of the Generalife first (no lines here and very few visitors -- it's a tad to the side and requires more of an uphill climb, so I suspect most pass on it, which is very pleasant for those who do take the detour).

I think you get the idea of how vast the Alhambra is as you look down toward the buildings at the lower end of the fortress, from the gardens of the Generalife.


For me, the delight here is the courtyard.


In these winter months, the Alhambra gardens look winter bare. Yes, there's stark beauty in them and many never shed their green leaves so that you can't really think of it as desolate. But at the summer palace, the garden explodes still with flowers that refuse to give in to the season. The entire effect is absolutely lovely.

We are where the sultans found their delights and recreation and here you get the first twinge of realization how much human toil and effort was expanded for the pleasure of just a few.


And just as from the hills of the Arab Quarter you can gaze at the Alhambra, so, too, from the Alhambra, you can gaze at the Albaicín.


We leave the summer palace and walk down toward the Palace of the Nasrids (without question the most famous Spanish Islamic edifice in the world). It's a very well planned circuit: your map tells you where you are and where you should go next and there are agents who electronically check your ticket at entry points -- you may enter any of the listed sights only once. The crowd control here is exquisite. This just astonishes me: you never feel that there are many visitors here. Indeed, we pause more than once to sit on a bench and in the space of minutes, we see very few people. I read that in the summer months, some 6000 come up to the Alhambra each day. Now, there may be fewer, but still, most time slots for the Palace of the Nasrids were full. And yet, as you stroll through the Alhambra grounds, you never feel overwhelmed by the presence of others.

We come to the entrance of the great palace and this requires you to stay with your time slot. The line is forming already. Several hundred visitors, waiting for 3:30. We decide to take the tail end, to be the last ones in. The line is long enough that if you are last, you are just barely ahead of the next (4 pm) group. And still, it's a good plan. As we enter the palace, we feel unrushed. At times, we have a corner of it to ourselves.


Here's where I could overwhelm even the most patient Ocean reader with too much of everything. So let me hush down the words and let a few images give you a feeling of seeing it on your own. In the golden light of the late afternoon.




DSC02971 - Version 2

DSC02974 - Version 3


DSC02984 - Version 2

DSC02981 - Version 2
(can't resist)

It is so beautiful, all of it, that I find myself tearing up more than once. Ed's amused with me, but I can tell that it's all rubbing off a little. He's been here before, as a high school student. And he tells me it feels different now. The things that stand out change over time. And they change with the seasons, so that I have to believe that on a hot summer afternoon, our pleasure would be entirely of a different kind.

We have the one photo request, because it seems so important to document our presence (to me at least)...


And then we pass through the baths...

DSC02992 - Version 2

...and we leave the Palace of the Nasrids.

You need a moment to recover. But not just yet, take in one more brilliant reflection (this is of the Partal Palace)...


...give a nod to the pomegranate (Grananda can be translated to mean that)...

DSC03011 - Version 2

...then find a space to sit down. We do. An empty bench, facing the quickly descending sun. It's 5:30, but that means we still have a good half hour at the Alhambra. We go to the southern most tip -- the Watch Tower -- the oldest part of the Alhambra complex.

As the brick walls change from yellow to orange, we look out at the moon climbing higher still, and at the hills beyond, distantly, where the crumbling abbey stands...


...and of course, onto our beloved Arab Quarter...


We watch the sun set over Granada from the top of the Tower, as if we haven't been moved enough yet and so there is this additional emotional layer, because setting suns, in their beauty and grandness are always that for me...


To the back, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada take on the red glow of a dazzling light. Yes, that's the moon -- creeping up on the photo so as not to be forgotten.


And now it's time to go.

We leave with one last look at the mountains, there, peeking through, between the trees...


Time to pass through the gate. We all are made mellow by the visit. A child holds a father's hand, a lover puts his arm around his sweet one...

DSC03085 - Version 2

And of course, I get a bit weepy. Happy stuff. It's the way I am.

And hungry -- I'm that too. We've done a lot of rambling and walking and, on my part, emoting. So the appetite surges. It's after six and I know there is a celebratory gathering of children, Three Kings, all that, in downtown Granada, but our moods are elsewhere and so we climb up toward the Arab Quarter (it's more commercial at the base of the hill)...

 DSC03102 - Version 2

...and we find a tiny place where the owner serves us plates of cheese and olives...

DSC03099 - Version 2

...and because I'm hungry still, a bowl of Andalusian gazpacho.

DSC03101 - Version 2

The walk up to our guest house is now in darkness. We pass a small church (there are so many here!) and we peek inside to find nuns cloaked in white, almost ghostly from the back, chanting in prayer...

DSC03107 - Version 2

We retreat quietly and climb some more. Every now and then, there'll be an open doorway, maybe with a table outside...

DSC03108 - Version 2

...but mostly, the city is now in the deep shadow of the night.

We have time to rest before dinner. Our last big meal in Granada is one with a view and it has good food, great food even, but the setting is just a tad too formal and so we limit ourselves to just one dish -- calamari for me -- and it is pleasant enough, but we both admit that we should have just stayed with a local bar, perhaps for a tapas or two. Still, food here is inexpensive (at least as compared with Madison) and we leave happy, especially since the owner, noting my camera, takes me upstairs to the rooftop, from where I see the twinkling lights of our neighborhood...


...and on the hill before us, the magnificent Alhambra.