Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tales of the Alhambra

The Alhambra

In 1829 the American writer Washington Irving, who at the time had a job as a foreign diplomat, took a journey in Southern Spain from Seville to Granada. Last week I, too, made this momentous journey. In Washington Irving’s case, he was on horseback and the journey took a few weeks; and when he arrived at the famous Alhambra of Granada he found it a picturesquely crumbling ruin, inhabited by families of gypsies who had lived there for generations in its neglected decay. In my case, I was on a tour bus that set out before dawn, took three hours driving through more olive trees that you would ever have thought could exist in one place, and fetched up at the still-famous Alhambra to be wedged in a traffic jam. Instead of gypsies, I found a large group of tourists, a guide with a microphone and earpieces for us his charges (quite a good system).

Washington Irving moved into some rooms inside the Alhambra and stayed there for a few months, smoking a water pipe in the evenings and writing down the stories of the Alhambra that the gypsies told him (later to become his book ‘Tales of the Alhambra’). In my case, I trudged up the hill with the group, spent three hours on the site gawking through the teeming hordes of tourists, and listening through my earpiece to the history of the Alhambra told by the (excellent) guide Antonio.

Irving found the Alhambra ruined and neglected, but still full of charming hidden patios, ethereally elegant arches and stucco work, trickling fountains (the water in the Alhambra comes from the snow-capped Sierra Mountains behind Granada and water reaches the site under the power of gravity alone). This is how he described the Hall of the Ambassadors:

A Moorish archway admitted us into a vast and lofty hall which occupies the interior of the tower and was the grand audience-chamber of the Moslem monarchs, thence called the Hall of Ambassadors. It still bears the traces of past magnificence. The walls are richly stuccoed and decorated with arabesques; the vaulted ceiling of cedar wood, almost lost in obscurity from its height, still gleams with the rich gilding and the brilliant tints of the Arabian pencil.

Pavilion: one of the oldest buildings on the site
Today, if you visit the Alhambra (as so many do), you will find this same Ambassadors Hall fairly much as Irving describes it. In fact it is probably an improvement on his day, since a large restoration effort has gone into this magnificent palace-fortress. The depredations of the centuries means that much of the decorative work in the Alhambra has been lost, but the restoration has been painstaking, and the alluring charm of the hidden Moorish patios will survive while they stand, and while the water continues to trickle through them.
Unlike the Alcazar Real in Seville, the Alhambra is not in the heart of the town. It occupies a hilltop position, chosen for its military and defensive strengths. The complex is a walled mini-city – a ‘medina’ -  enclosing barracks, watch towers, a church, the palace itself, various subsidiary buildings (now mostly lost), and a horrible great thing called Carlos V’s Palace, to which I will come in  minute. The wall is mostly intact, enclosing about 3.5 million square meters, including extensive gardens and orchards. It was built by Muslim rulers of the Nazrid Dynasty in the 13th to 15th centuries, and was the very last Moorish stronghold to fall to Isabella and Ferdinand at the end of the successful reconquista (Christian reconquest of Spain). The last of the Nazrid sultan to rule from the Alhambra was named Boabdil, and you hear his name a lot at the site.

Secret oratory with a view
In 1492, that auspicious date, Ferdinand and Isabella (the Power Couple – remember them?) became the new owners of the Alhambra. It retained military importance – it is possible to visit the interiors of some of the great towers and gatehouses in the walls of the Alhambra, but not on a time-limited three-hour tour. Isabella and Ferdinand even brought Mudejar builders from Seville and Cordoba to make repairs to the architecture – they rather liked the style. They did turn the mosque into a rather unprepossessing Franciscan Church. The Catholic Monarchs, as the Power Couple were called, liked the Alhambra and it was an important palace to them. They were in fact buried on the Alhambra site; their remains were later moved into downtown Granada where they presently reside in the Chapel built specially for the purpose.

The Palace of Carlos I/V - told you so.
The real impact on the Alhambra came from their grandson who succeeded them, Carlos I of Spain, Carlos V of Germany. If you are reading this blog closely, you may recall that Carlos married Isabella of Portugal (an excellent diplomatic move) in Seville’s Alcazar. Well, they came to the Alhambra for their honeymoon (it is supposedly the site of the conception of the future Phillip II). He also decided to build a great big whopping imperial palace in the renaissance style smack in the middle of the site – it actually butts up against the old Nazrid Palace. I guess if it was sited anywhere else, this palace would be interesting – it is a classical circle within a square design. But here it is basically an eyesore, it blocks the original grand entrance gates, and looks ridiculously out of place, totally dwarfing the unassuming Moorish buildings. It actual adjoins part of the Nazrid palace. Did I already say that? I was rather shocked to see it. Carlos wasn’t even committed to the project, which he never finished. Later, the place was roofed without the planned third story being added, and it is now used for exhibitions and museum displays.

In the Hall of the Ambassadors
Recovering from the shock of seeing this massive palace in the middle of things, I moved with Antonio and the group, and about  a million other people, into a kind of side entrance to the Moorish palace itself – a room (the Mexuar) which had at some point been turned into a Christian chapel, to its detriment. The oratory off to the side looked exquisitely beautiful, with white stucco decorated arches looking out over the white houses on the hillsides of Granada down below us. However, this bit wasn’t open for inspection, other than sticking your head around the corner for a peek. The Cuarto Dorado next door was virtually all restoration work, with little original fabric left. Without the hordes of which I was one, it would have been a quiet and serene court, with a low fountain gurgling in the centre, and views over the town.

Patios of Lions sans lions
The Palacio de Comares retains one full wall of decoration – it is totally covered in Islamic artwork, mostly in decorative stucco, and some tiles and carved wood. Then you follow one of those Moorish dog-leg corridors and emerge in the Palacio de Comares courtyard – a gorgeously proportioned (the Golden Mean, I’d say) with a beautiful reflecting pool running down its length. This courtyard if one of the sights of the Alhambra, famous for many sights.  At one end, in the Torre de Comares, is the Salon de Trono, also known as the Hall of the Ambassadors – described by Washington Irving above. The restoration of the decoration here has been immaculately done. It reminded me vividly of palaces in India and central Asia – the richness of Islamic decoration.  The domed and decorated ceiling is wildly ornate.

The Southern Pavilion off the Palacio de Comares has a doorway which leads directly into the Carlos Palace, which these days means into a modern museum exhibition. I walked around this interesting exhibition about the twelve lion statues which used to reside in the Palacio de los Leones. It wasn’t until we walked into this Lion Courtyard that I realised that I had chosen a very bad time to tour the Alhambra. The Lion Courtyard is one of the highlights of the site - deservedly so, as I could tell from what little could be seen of the graceful filigree porticos. Those that weren’t obscured by scaffolding or builders’ plastic. The lions are meant to hold up a fountain in the centre of this courtyard, Not only were they in the museum next door (looking very spick and span after their clean-up) but the courtyard itself looked like a builders’ site –well, it was one – and two other importance rooms accessed off the courtyard were also out of bounds. *disappointment*

I must say, though, that I was so pleased that we could get in to see the Sala de los Abencerrajes, since the domes ceiling is the most extraordinary confection of stucco work you are ever likely to see outside of a stalactited cave. It is a square domed ceiling covered with an eight-pointed star. The decorations are called ‘pendatatives’ (which is a particularly fetching word) or ‘moc├írabe’.

Patio de Lindaraja
Our group did not tour the bath house, but we were led down a high corridor, past the rooms once occupied by Washington Irving, through ever-thickening crowds to a mirador overlooking Granada. But there was one more beautiful space left to surprise me: the Patio de Lindaraja – a hidden garden, riotous with plants, framed on four sides by quiet cloister-like walkways, with the tinkling fountain in the centre. Its design sounds straightforward, and it is, but the place was very moving. Perhaps it was the proportions, or the white-washed archway views of the garden. It is said to have been the private retreat of a princess named Lindaraja. Perhaps Washington Irving was sitting here when he wrote this:

It is impossible to contemplate this once favourite abode of Oriental manners without felling the early associations of Arabian romance, and almost expecting to see the white arm of some mysterious princess beckoning from the balcony or some dark eye sparkling through the lattice. The abode of beauty is here, as if it had been inhabited but yesterday; but where are the Zoraydas and Linaraxas?

I have covered the highlights of the Alhambra – except for those which were dismantled or out of bounds. Outside the Nazrid Palace there is a great deal more to see on the site, but on a three hours tour....There is a Pavilion fronting a pool and garden, once of the oldest buildings on the site; there are the ‘recent’ Renaissance additions; up the hill there is the former San Franciscan monastery where Isabella and Ferdinand where first buried, now a ‘parador’ where you can book accommodation.

Further still – and our little group did make this climb – is the garden and pavilion known as the Generalife. Now, this may sound like an insurance company to you – it did to me – but it is actually a meaningless word, a corruption of the original Arabic name ‘yannat al-Arif’. This originally meant “architect’s garden”, which is more attractive than ‘Generalife’, but there you go. The estate, above the Alhambra proper but still within its walls, functioned as a kind of country estate for the sultan. I was like a ‘home farm’ – the hillside around it was covered with orchards and vegetable gardens. Some of these remain; much is now formal plantings and there is some light forest. The water features are numerous, and the snowy Sierras were shining in the sun in the background on the day I was there. An open-air theatre space has been incorporated into the terraces in front of the Generalife pavilion (can be toured but we didn’t). There are wonderful views back across to the Alhambra, and down over Granada. Actually, the Spanish government has only relatively recently got it hands on this property, as it was in the private ownership of a family of Spanish grandees, and legal action was needed to wrest it from them.

There is much to say about the Alhambra. Its appearance in 19th century illustration and artworks is wonderfully interesting, showing it before the restorers went to work. Sometime the artists imagine what it looked like in the day of Boabdil. But I’ll end with my advice: don’t go to visit until they have put the Lion Patio back together and opened up the rooms adjoining it. And then stay in the parador on the site for a couple of nights, so that you can visit early or late to avoid the crowds, and go back to explore some of the interesting corners when tour guides fear to tread.

The Alhambra is one of the wonders of the world, but there are some surprising hurdles to get over in order to be transported back to the days of its Romantic glory.

View of the Alhambra from the Generalife

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