While the region surrounding Granada is known to have has been populated from at least the eighth century B.C., the present-day city wasn’t founded until the early eleventh century, recently by the standards of the Mediterranean basin. Three centuries into the Moors rule of the area, a civil war ended the Umayyad Caliphate. Victorious Berber general Ziri ibn Manad established an independent kingdom for himself. However, the local capital (Elvira) was located on a low plain, which as he had himself demonstrated made it difficult to protect from attacks. So the newly minted Zirid ruler decided to transport his quarters to higher grounds.
Taking to the hills
The hilltop hamlet of Gárnata (altitude 738 meters) seemed a better bet. Especially since it came with an ancient military fortress (or Alcazaba) already in the neighborhood. In short order the site was transformed into one of the most important cities of Al-Andalus, as the Iberian Peninsula was then called. By the end of the eleventh century, the Alhambra had become a walled military citadel. The city itself had spread across the Darro River to include the Albaicín, a steep labyrinth of narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and secluded inner gardens (or cármenes). It is this ancient Moorish medina that I choose to call home for my visit to Granada.
The taxi from the train station in the lower, contemporary part of the city drops me off at the bottom of the hill on Plaza Nova. It’s on foot after that, an ankle-twisting noisy walk rolling my luggage uphill over cobblestones that randomly morph into stairs. Ten sweaty minutes later, I arrive at La Casa del Aljarife and feel instantly rewarded for the climb. This tiny Bed and Breakfast is perched high on the hill, a typical narrow multi-level seventeenth century house in the far corner of the handkerchief-size Placeta de Cruz Verde. My host, Christian Most, takes over the luggage-hauling up the steep, centuries-worn stairs all the way to the fourth floor. La Casa del Aljarife has only four guest rooms. Mine is a light-filled retreat at the very top of the house, with an eye-level view of the Alhambra.
In the morning, Christian dishes out hearty Anglo-Saxon breakfasts in the inner courtyard filled with fruit trees in blooms and bird songs. It wouldn’t take much convincing to get me to linger in the serene cármen, but the vibrant andalusian world is calling. It’s uphill again to the highest point of the Albaicín, the Plaza de San Nicolas famous for its panoramic view of the Alhambra against the snowy backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.
The Albaicín is a neighborhood perfect for getting lost. I follow narrow lanes lined with hole-in-the-wall bazaar shops and eateries sending out cooking smells that speak of North African souks. My wanderings invariably lead to some tiny placeta, where I can rest my cobblestone-weary feet over sweet mint tea. This is how I come across the Jardines de Zoraya. I step in for tea in the shaded garden one afternoon, and return the next evening for great local food and even better Flamenco.
Granada has a long Flamenco tradition, in the Albaicín and even more so in Sacromonte, the historic home of the city’s thriving Roma community (often called Gypsies, or Ginatos). They settled in the Sacromonte neighborhood of Valaparaiso Hill to the north of the Alhambra in the fifteenth century, after the combined forces of Aragon and Castile finally tossed out the Moors. Sacromonte is famous for its many whitewashed caves cut into the rock, some still used as residences today. It is the home of Zambra, a Flamenco variation with a distinct oriental feel.
A pearl set in emeralds
This is how Moorish poets saw the Alhambra. After days of admiring it from afar, I finally get to set foot into this sublime masterpiece of European Islamic art. The Alhambra is first of all a fortress with heavily fortified peach colored brick walls that snake around the crest of al Shabika hill. Over the centuries, succeeding dynasties expended it until it became a city onto itself, and the seat of power of the Nasrid Emirs.
The palaces that once housed the rulers and their court are deep within the walls, surrounded by a small town that was home to lesser nobility and common people, and a military area with the barracks of the royal guard. The sheer size and complexity of the site are overwhelming. After a day spent exploring every corner, awed at every turn by architectural grandeur and stunning artistic details, it is a relief to escape to the Generalife Palace.
A five-minute walk over a bridge outside the fortifications, I enter the legendary Generalife gardens. Built on the south slope of the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the Sun), the gardens and orchards were originally created to supply food for the Alhambra. The palace was added the fourteenth century as a summer retreat and country estate for the then Nasrid monarch, Muhammad III. Generalife is one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens anywhere.
Today, the exactingly restored Alhambra and Generalife are considered a pinnacle of Moorish art and Andalusian history. They are, along with the Albaicín classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Good to know
When planning to visit the Alhambra:
- It is prudent to purchase well tickets ahead as visitors are strictly limited to 6,600 per day. Only one-third of these tickets are set aside for day-of-visit purchase, This may seem like a lot until confronted with the endless lines at the box office.
- Tickets are only valid for the pre-assigned day and time of visit and are not refundable
- Only 300 visitors are allowed every half-hour by pre-determined schedule into the Nasrid Palaces.
- Tickets may be purchased ahead at:
- In Granada – The Alhambra shop (Tienda de la Alhambra)at 40 Calle Reyes Catolicos
- Any ATM of La Caixa Bank
- By phone in Spain: 902 88 80 01
- By phone aborad: +34 958 926 031
- They may also be purchased by internet ticketmaster.es . However Ticketmaster only has access to a limited number of tickets that are often sold out one week or more ahead of time.