I have always wanted to visit the Alhambra, but somehow have never got around to it. In preparation I trawled the internet and dipped into one or two books and travel guides. Needless to say somewhere with over 600 years of history involving different cultures has no shortage of facts and myths written about it. Some are undoubtedly true, some based on fact and some just romantic legends. I suppose that is the magic of this amazing fortress built high on a red rock against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. Any visitor to Granada that has climbed to the Mirador St Nicholas in the old Moorish Quarter, the Albaycin, on the hill facing the Alhambra at sunset will have fallen under the spell of centuries of myth, magic and intrigue.
Moorish poets described the Alhambra as “a pearl set in emeralds, referring to the trees that clothe the slopes blow the palace. The Ahambra woods are lush and green, tall trees tower above sparkling rills of water and the deep green leaves and architectural spikes of acanthus which seems to grow everywhere. Nearer to the palace limes fill the air with their sweet fragrance in early summer.
There was just one fact that put me off a little: the amount of visitors. According to one account 450 an hour pass through the Nasrid Palaces; the very heart of the Alhambra, which you have to book in advance to gain admission. My main interest was of course the gardens; I’m not that devoted to looking around the interior of buildings normally.
I had visions of shaded courtyards, reflective water, burbling rills and cooling greenery. I am no expert on Islamic gardens but I know these are a sensory experience; simple in design but symbolic in the use of space, water, and structure. A Nasrid garden was a vision of paradise: a fertile place with food for all the senses. Colour, light and shadow for sight, perfumed flowers for smell, sweet fruits and aromatic herbs for taste, water for hearing and the texture of materials, smooth and rough, wet and dry for touch.
One thing is certain; when sharing your experience of the Alhambra with the normal number of visitors this is not an experience of solitude and contemplation. However the presence of this amazing building prevails. Ornate designs, the marvel of its construction and the sheer wonder at how it was ever achieved overcome the visitors bristling with cameras, iPads, smartphones and video equipment. There is a lot to see in a half- day visit so few hang around; most move from chamber to courtyard, cloister to corridor ever gazing in amazement.
The fact that much of the Alhambra today is the result of restoration and recreation with some poetic licence is pretty irrelevant. There are none of the carpets, drapes and cushions that would have graced it in its Nasrid heyday, or the furnishings that would have filled its halls in later years. Here the outdoor and indoor spaces are seen in all their ornate and wonderful simplicity.
Take the Patio de los Arraynes (Court of the Myrtles) for example. Formal water flanked by water rills and trimmed myrtle hedges that run the length of the court. The design could not be simpler, but it is ever changing with the light, the reflections of the surrounding arches, columns and rooflines in the water. Accounts report that the mytle hedges would have originally been grown in channels about a metre below the surface of the courtyard to prevent them from interfering with the vision of the water surface. Beds of roses were added at one point in history which thankfully were removed. The last thing this place needs is the confusion of clutter and variety of plant form to clash with the ornate decoration of the stonework.
The Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) is not my most people’s sense of the word a garden, after all there are no plants apart from four dome shaped citrus, one in each corner, However the space centres around the famous marble bowl supported on spouting marble lions. Four rills converge at this point, symbolising the four rivers of paradise, a feature of Islamic gardens.
For me the garden which lived up to my expectations was the Patio de Lindaraja. This was how I imagined this place. A cool, green, shaded formal garden arranged around a gentle fountain spilling from a shallow bowl. Box hedges surrounded beds of agapanthus surrounded by mature citrus bearing glowing oranges amongst their dark foliage. Cypress towered way overhead, having long outgrown their original proportions. A few more recent replacements are a reminder of how this place would have looked in the age when it was planted somewhere in history.
From the palaces we made our way through a series of terraces of formal gardens of beds edged with box and myrtle. Modern trimmers released the ancient fragrance of the myrtle. Olives and pomegranates echo the planting of the site's ancient times. Formal pools studded with lilies, rills and fountains maintain the presence of water, of which there seems to be no shortage. Brightly coloured annuals have undoubtedly been introduced to please the visitors; these are just as out of place as those that have in stuffed in by their thousands at Giverney every year to maintain the Monet effect.
And so on to the Generalife (Garden of the Architect); the country residence and retreat dating from the 14th Century. English speaking visitors find it difficult to come to terms with something the sounds as if it is an insurance policy rather than a palace. It is renowned for its formal gardens and visitor numbers are horrific. Personally I found it overcrowded and maybe overrated at first. Certainly the formal gardens are lovely and do bear some resemblance to the iconic pictures ones sees of them. As a visitor it is impossible to get the same shots unless you want them cluttered with electronic equipment wielding masses. However the dancing waters do drown out the sounds of the clattering humans and I found I became more impressed and maybe entranced during my visit. I even returned to grab a shot along the formal water, which forms the axis of the garden and would have loved to have seen the gardens lit by night.
[caption id="attachment_8795" align="alignleft" width="403"] Generalife main canal[/caption]
Don’t let the number of visitors put you off. The Gardens of the Alhambra definitely deserve their place on the list of gardens you must see before you die. However during my visit to Granada I found a couple of “hidden” gems. Look out for my blog about those other Islamic influenced gardens next week.