A look at the Moorish past and present in the city of the Alhambra. By Mark Little.
In the 1960s a young American college student found himself in Granada at just the right time. He walked up the narrow cobblestoned streets to the top of the citys Albaicin district as evening fell, and gazed across to the Alhambra palace, standing on the opposite hill, just as the sun was setting. The walls of the fabled Moorish palace shone like gold in the last rays of the sun, while the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada shimmered in the background. So smitten was the young man by the experience that he vowed to return one day to recapture that magic moment.
It wasnt until thirty years later that he made good his promise. Bill Clinton took a break from a summit meeting in Madrid to fly down to Granada, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea in tow, returning at last to the Albaicin from which he had first seen what he described as "the best sunset in the world".
Every year nearly two million people queue up at the ticket office of the Alhambra to admire the fabled Moorish palaces seductive patios and delicate stucco work (check below for information on how to jump the queue). The Alhambra represents one aspect of Granada: it recalls the citys rich history, and is the nostalgic testimony of the twilight years of the Moors reign in Spain. The Albaicin represents another aspect, one which is still very much alive today. It is a lively and colorful district packed with art galleries, antiques shops and trendy bars patronised by Granadas large community of university students.
The Albaicin is the site of the original Roman town, which next became a Jewish quarter, called Garnatha, and later was site of the Moorish court before it was moved to the Alhambra on the opposite hill. Today, it is a jasmine-scented warren of cobble stoned streets and secluded plazas. Plain, whitewashed facades often conceal a spacious carmen, a local style of town house incorporating a large garden. Some of these have been spruced up as the private homes of Granadas well-to-do; others have been converted into bars, restaurants and hotels.
On some streets of the Albaicin youd be forgiven for thinking that the Moors are still holding sway here. The Caldereria Baja is lined with Moroccan-style tea shops offering mint tea and honey pastries. These establishments, along with book stores selling Arab texts and shops stocked with Moorish-style crafts, are a sign of the Granadinos renewed interest in their Islamic past. There is even a hammam, an Arab public bath offering an atmosphere which recalls Moorish times, among trickling fountains and dazzling tile work.
The Christian Granada which arose after the Moors defeat in 1492 is embodied in the citys gloomy cathedral and, especially, in the Royal Chapel next to it: here, in simple led coffins, lie the remains of the citys conquerors, King Fernando and Queen Isabel, along with those of their daughter, the demented Joan the Mad, and her husband, Phillip the Handsome of Burgundy.
When the time comes to leave Granada, make a short detour to enjoy another historical view of the city, this one even more famous than Bill Clintons. Take the road towards Motril and, a few miles from Granada, you come to the Suspiro del Moro - the Pass of the Moors Sigh.
It was here that the luckless Boabdil, the last Moorish king of Granada, looked back for one final glimpse of the city hed lost to Fernando and Isabel. The sight of Granada moved him to tears. His mother, accompanying him into exile, reprimanded him: "Weep like a woman, son, for that which you could not defend as a man."
Visiting the Alhambra
Only 400 visitors are admitted to the Nasrid palaces in the Alhambra every half hour. Buying tickets can involve queuing up for a long time, and even then you may have to wait several hours before your allotted time. The best bet is to reserve your tickets in advance by phoning Línea BBV on 34 91 3745420 or (from within Spain) 902 224 460. You can specify the desired date and hour for your visit, pay by credit card, and pick up your ticket at any branch of the BBV bank in Spain.
Copyright © Mark Little.
Photography by J D Dallet
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