We left Córdoba in the morning and started our two hour drive to Granada. What we didn’t anticipate was the absolutely gorgeous scenery along the way with (again) lots of olive trees and gorgeous rock formations around every turn.
We had planned to arrive in Granada close to lunchtime, but some GPS issues (our hotel did not show up in GPS) led to a detour up near the Alhambra and a delayed check-in at our hotel. By the time we parked our car and checked in it was close to 2pm and we were starving (though our hotel was awesome and right next to the Grana Vision bus that takes you up to the Alhambra). Upon the recommendation of the hotel, we hopped across the street to Restaurante Carmela for lunch. We’d been told the croquettes were amazing and the size of tennis balls (both were true). About 5 minutes after we sat down a torrential downpour started outside. We’re talking horizontal rain and wild winds. As such, we decided we’d order the croquettes, some Alhambra beers, a salad, a cheese plate (so much cheese), and a couple other treats…we were in no hurry to explore outside in that weather. By the time we finished our lunch the rain had turned to a drizzle and then the clouds started to part. As such, we decided we’d explore along the river and head up to the Mirador de San Nicolas (which promised great views of the Alhambra).
Our first stop was Plaza Isabel La Católica (right in front of our hotel) followed by a walk up Reyes Católicos and then Carrerra del Darro. You can see the Alhambra just behind the photos on the bottom row below on our way to the Paseo de los Tristes.
We continued onward when we stumbled upon the Archivo Historic Municipal de Granada (below), which boasted some gorgeous fountains, views, and loads of Cypress trees. Again, in these photos you can see bits of the Alhambra behind (especially in the photo with me).
Up some more hills and winding roads where cars were driving a little too fast for comfort, we finally arrived at Mirador San Nicolas. This is probably the best view of the Alhambra when not in the Alhambra. This is also probably one of my favorite views because it was accompanied by a gentleman playing Spanish guitar while singing the song, “Bamboleo” by the Gipsy Kings. Now, if that song doesn’t put you in the mood, I don’t know what will. We spent the remainder of the afternoon (and most of our trip, if I’m honest) singing various portions of this song’s chorus, always accompanied by a shoulder and hip shimmy.
After enjoying the view we decided to head back into town to check out the street art of Raúl Ruiz or better known in Granada as El Niño de la Pinturas. To get there, though, we had to walk through a few street markets, which smelled of amazing teas, incense, and wood. What I liked the most were the interesting vista points, statues (like the flamenco gypsy), and colorful buildings.
Once back on Gran Vía, we found ourselves walking past Capilla Real along with the Cathedral. This is one incredibly impressive Cathedral (which also had a long line to get in) so we only explored the outside as we wanted to be sure we could enjoy the street art before the sun went down and it started raining. I wished I could get a good photo to show how amazing it was. It wasn’t until our tour of the Alhambra that I found an aerial view (I’ll point that out later).
After a quick detour we were on our way to the Realejo neighborhood to find some street art. The script writing (which I really enjoy) is a key to his work (along with his signature) throughout the neighborhood. If you take the bus or walk up to the Alhambra, you’ll also see MANY very pretty murals on the drive/walk up. Almost all the walls in our lunch spot (Hicuri Vegan Restaurant) following the Alhambra also featured work from this artist!
That night we had a light dinner of frozen yogurt and turned in early, resting up for our early morning tour of the Alhambra. Before our tour, we opted for a real Spanish breakfast at a hoppin’ Spanish cafe: Cafe Bib Rambla in Bib Rambla. Jim had a coffee and churros with chocolate while I drank some fresh OJ with churros and chocolate. Honestly, this is a breakfast I could get used to…just not so sure about my waistline.
Granada and the Alhambra were the first aspects of our Andalusian vacation that I planned. I didn’t realize before I started looking into tickets, but a finite number of visitors are allowed inside the Alhambra each day, so tickets sell out fast. I started looking at tickets in January, and the month of March was already completely sold out. But, I found a tour through Grana Vision Tours. It’s quite a bit more expensive than the standard ticket prices, but our guide (Guillermo) was a wealth of knowledge to the point that I cannot imagine having visited without a guide. He added so much history, depth, and compassion to the visit. It was perfect.
One of his first nuggets was explaining that the word “granada” is Spanish for “pomegranate,” a fruit that is referenced in sacred texts of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. It is also a city where a Christian king lived in an old Muslim fort, decorated with Arabic writing, next to the Jewish neighborhood.
After breakfast we made our way back to our hotel and caught the bus up to the Alhambra where we met with our guide and began touring the Generalife, or “Architect’s Garden”. Below you can see an amphitheater (which is actually pretty modern) along with a plot of land for farming and fountains. A common tree you see everywhere is the cypress, which they used as an architectural element as much as greenery. This area is where the Nasrid rulers/Granadan Muslim Kings (sultans) lived to escape the Alhambra and where they retired in the summer as it was closer to the mountain and thus a little cooler.
Guillermo advised that the gardens were relatively empty this time of the year and that during the summer you can hardly see anything, even though there are more flowers in bloom. Jim and I couldn’t imagine being there when it’s high season! From the gardens we were led to the palace (below). Here you can see a couple fountains as well as our first glimpses of the detailed plasterwork (there’s WAY more in other areas!). Guillermo mentioned there were something like 250 sultans who stayed in this palace, conveying that many had been killed and many had been killed by family members. As such, there was strict protocol for visitors where they could be seen, but the sultan could not. Where they’d leave their horses and weapons, entering the palace with neither.
One more reason a tour guide is helpful – he pointed out that this tree (the one Jim is standing in front of) was good for making bows but also produced poisonous berries thus great for hunting and for poisoning. I believe he said it is the only tree of its kind in Spain though I cannot remember for sure. We also walked from the gardens to the Alhambra under a “hallway” of Cypress trees and white oleander (another poisonous plant). Again, these aspects were important due to what I mentioned earlier about all those sultans being murdered.
From here we made our way to the Alhambra, which means “The Red One” in Arabic. It got the name from the red clay soil (which appeared more red in person than in the photos) that is used in the bricks/building of the Alhambra. The Alhambra is a fortress and palace complex, constructed in AD 889 on the remains of Roman ruins and then rebuilt in the mid-13th century by the Nasrid family and was converted into a royal palace for the sultan of Granada. It wasn’t until 1492 after the Christian reconquest that it became a Christian site and palace for Ferdinand & Isabella (interesting factoid – Christopher Columbus received the funds for his expedition to the Americas here!). Sadly, at that time much of the Nasrid architecture was whitewashed or covered up & replaced with Christian and Renaissance style architecture.
Our next site on our tour was the Royal palace commissioned by Charles V (Carlos V). What’s interesting about this construction is that it’s a rectangle on the outside (right photo, below), but it’s a circle on the inside (left photo, below). Unfortunately, it was never completed as Granada was abandoned as the spot for a Royal Palace in favor of Madrid.
After we toured this palace we had a quick break in what Jim and I dubbed the “cat sanctuary.” That’s because the place was crawling with cats. Remarkably, I didn’t get a photo of any of them. We asked if they serve a purpose and they do – they eat mice and keep the pigeons away. Not too bad. There’s also an archway called the Puerta del Vino or “Wine Door” that takes you to the “cat sanctuary.” What’s interesting here is Claude Debussy (composer/pianist) received a postcard from a friend featuring this archway/doorway, which led to him compose this piece. This was the first of music and literary notes in the Alhambra.
From there we entered into the Alcazaba or Citadel. Here we were rewarded with some amazing views of the city below and probably one of the only places to get a good arial view of the Cathedral I mentioned earlier (below, largest photo). In the photos below you can also see the red aspect of the fortress along with the city below and even some of the city that was literally built into the hillside. You could also see the tourists at Mirador San Nicolas, which was fun.
At this point it started to rain, so we were lucky to be headed into the three palaces. Guillermo had mentioned each palace we viewed would be more interesting than the last, and he wasn’t kidding. They got more and more impressive and unbelievable. I think this is also where having the guide came in handy as he explained the purposes of the architecture (guests would be received where the Sultan could see the guest but the guest could not see the Sultan…and women/children could look out the windows, but others could not see in, etc.).
The above photos are from the first palace. You can see the plaster work, tile work, and elements where it’s clear the Muslim words were painted over (above, left) and elements moved as it became a Christian spot. In the above photo (right), you see a frame – this is believed to be a mosaic that was moved, but not too far from where the Sultan sat.
We quickly moved along to the what I think might be the Court of Myrtiles, shown in the photos below. This is the first time I was really, truly taken aback. I am obsessed with the plaster work and even more impressed when I found out all of the raised elements were (at one time) covered in gold leaf while the recesses were either lapis or cinnabar. Think about that for a minute, close your eyes, and then imagine how amazing these photos would be…and they’re already amazing!
In the photos below, you can see even more detail and loads of photos from the ceiling and walls of the Hall of the Ambassadors (the largest room in the Alhambra). In some of these photos you can see the recessed lapis and cinnabar as well as the windows where you can see out but not in. Repeated around the room is an Arabic inscription, “Wa-la Ghalib illa Allah,” or “There is no victor but God.” The ceiling is jaw-dropping – wood carvings of crowns, stars, and medallions. Stunning.
We then were led to one of the most famous rooms/palaces, The Court of the Lions as well as the fountain. There are 12 lions in the fountain, though none really looks like a lion and all are slightly different (meant to showcase that no one is perfect). From the fountain you can also see 4 little “canals,” which highlights the amazing hydraulic system.
We then made our way to the most impressive room – the Hall of Abencerrajes. This room gets its name from a legend that the last sultan of Granada invited the chiefs to a banquet and then massacred them all there. The ceiling in this room is also the most interesting with the stalactite domed ceiling. Again you can see elements of the former lapis and also one of the only spots where you can see the stained glass windows.
After this room our tour was winding down, but not before visiting a room where Washington Irving slept. Apparently the Alhambra had fallen into disrepair until Washington Irving visited and wrote Tales of the Alhambra, which sparked interest in and tourism to the site. Neither Jim nor I have read the book, but now plan to.
From there we bid Guillermo goodbye and set our sights on lunch. On the way back to our hotel, we decided to check out Hicuri Vegan Restaurant, which also featured interior art by El Niño de la Pinturas, though I didn’t get any photos. The food was tasty and incredibly filling. After lunch we made our way back to the hotel, packed up our bags and started our drive to Ronda.