After the beautiful but twisty-turny cobblestoned driving nightmare that was Toledo, where getting to a parking space 100m away required a 2km loop around a narrow, bumpy one-way system with folded in wing-mirrors, we were looking forward to getting to the larger and more modern Granada, only to find a slightly less harrowing twisty-turny cobblestone driving nightmare where getting to a parking space 500m away required a 2km loop around a slightly less narrow, slightly less bumpy one-way system. At least we could keep the wing-mirrors out I suppose. Spain does seem to love its narrow one way streets with high-sided stone buildings built right against roads without pavements. And no walls were more imposing in Granada than those of the Alhambra, the huge edifice occupying most of the North East of the city.
From the outside, though large, the Alhambra looks little more than just another European castle compound, the kind marvelled at by those who don’t have castles or chateaux in their own country. While impressive, it perhaps seems unspectacular to those who live 10 minutes from a city where Roman walls are now just a decorative enclosure for department stores, chemists and travel agents. It is more majestic when viewed from the adjacent hill, and it was here, at Plaza San Nicholas, that we ate dinner on our second night, watching the descending sun turn the citadel walls salmon and ochre beneath pink clouds, to the sounds of busking Spanish guitarists.
Inside, however, the Alhambra can rightly lay claim to being one of the world’s most impressive compounds and an inordinate amount of care and attention has been taken in the restoration and preservation of its palaces. It is divided roughly into three parts; the Nazrid Palaces, the Alcazaba and the Generalife, each of which has a distinctive character and the last of which is not, as I wondered, due to the sponsorship of an insurance company, but is in fact pronounced “Heneral-ee-fay”.
The Nazrid Palaces are outwardly unassuming, but contain wonders within. Large airy rooms, connected by beautiful, almost fractal archways, are covered almost in their entirety by endlessly repeating Moorish designs, perfectly tessellated and drawing inspiration from nature. A complex tapestry of knots and birds, moorish script, leaves, lines, stars and curves are rendered in tile, in clay or directly into the stone, most of which still retains its original colour. It is not hard to see how M. C. Escher found his inspiration for Metamorphoses I-IV on the walls here (and I was pleased to find an exhibition of his works in another building later on). Access to this most important part of the site is strictly regulated with each visitor given an arrival time, ensuring that while it is always busy, it never feels too crowded and you can really enjoy the surroundings. After some research, we chose the early morning slot and were very happy with the decision. As we entered one particularly beautiful courtyard, we were surprised to see hundreds of birds flying around in a circle above a long pool of water. As they darted around in the morning light, their dipping and swooping cast shadows that danced around the walls and made for a fantastic, hypnotic spectacle.
Elsewhere, the Alcazaba offered magnificent views of the city in all directions; unsurprising, given that this was originally a fortress designed to protect the local population and warn of potential invaders. The Generalife, in contrast, is more sedate. Set apart from the main complex and painted white, with beautiful gardens, diverse flowers, tall trees and refreshing water features, this was the place where kings rested, far from the madding crowd, though not so far that they couldn’t keep an eye on them. Nowadays, it serves as a testament to the skill of the engineers, demonstrating how water was captured and conducted around the complex to ensure a clean supply for all. Interestingly, it showed certain similarities with the water filtration techniques used by the Nabataeans at Petra, where gathering pools were used along pipes and viaducts to collect sediment.
Granada is perhaps my favourite of the Spanish cities so far, marrying the history and romance of Toledo with a modern buzz like Madrid, and merging Islamic and Western influences. Assuming you’re not driving, the old town’s roads are charming and the new towns’ hectic and full of life. The Sierra Nevada mountains in the background lend an air of magic to the atmosphere. Almost everything is within walking distance of the centre of town, and there is much more to see and do than I’ve outlined here, not least the beautiful cathedral and the Albaicin area. It doesn’t hurt that every establishment serves free tapas with every alcoholic drink too (thank you again, Alfonso X!).
Given that, it almost seems a little churlish to point out that there seems to be an inordinate amount of dogs and a correspondingly large amount of faeces on the streets. Nevertheless, following on from the international plaudits enjoyed by the astonishingly successful travel game King, we present another instant classic, Poo. To be played in and around the streets of Granada, Poo puts a novel twist on the simple rules of its royal predecessor. Every time you see dog excrement on the street, shout Poo for a point. You get five bonus points if your opponent still steps in the deposit despite your call, but don’t wait too long, or they might beat you to the shout! Timing is everything!
Next up, we travel outwards along the coast North to Valencia, where we are staying in a small villa about 20 minutes out of town. I don’t know too much about the city, but intend to eat oranges.