Day trip to Sierra Nevada

Hiking trail in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

The Sierra Nevada is the highest mountain range on the Iberian peninsula. It is the backdrop of the Alhambra in Granada, and for a reason: the Nasrids purposely chose Granada for their city precisely because of its proximity to the Sierra Nevada, a source of fresh water.

View of the Alhambra at twilight in Granada, Spain

The guides for the Alhambra and Granada walking tours all mentioned that the Sierra Nevada is less than an hour away by car…so I couldn’t resist going for a day trip. Beach at Malaga? Nah…but hiking in the Sierra Nevada? Sign me up!

There is a fairly sizable ski area at the Sierra Nevada, so transportation to and from Granada is pretty easy. Even though it’s the off season now, there is still exactly one bus to Sierra Nevada in the morning and one back to Granada in the evening. This site sums up all of the transportation information very well.

I got my ticket from the bus station, boarded the bus at 9am, and…found that I was one of only three passengers total. Okay, so, off-season means REALLY off-season.

The bus had two stops. The first was the base of the ski area, which was a virtual boarded up ghost town (not sure if it was because it was 9:45 in the morning, or if it was because it was May 23rd). The second was a stop about 10 minutes and at least 10 switchbacks higher, in front of the restaurant El Albergue.

Start of the hike in the Sierra Nevada, Spain

We all got off at El Albergue. Up to that point, I had been nursing a small, but present, feeling that I just might have made a mistake… a feeling compounded by the fact that El Albergue seemed to be the only thing that was open, and we who came off the bus were just about the only people in the area. Ohhhhh boy. You just had to climb the mountain, didn’t you?

I looked for some sort of trail map, but couldn’t find any. So I just picked a direction that looked like it led to higher elevation and set off on my way. If I followed the ski lifts, they would lead me to…well, something. At the very least, I wouldn’t get lost!

Start of the hike in the Sierra Nevada, Spain

Along the way, there were a few things of interest.

The Virgin of the Snow monument:

Virgin of the Snow monument on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

An old military outpost:

Military outpost on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

An observatory of some sort:

Observatory on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

Goats:

Mountain goat on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

Okay, I was picking at straws, there really wasn’t that much to see.

But as I got a little higher up, the view got better and better:

View on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

Hiking trail in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

Hiking trail in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

Ski lifts on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

Once I figured out that I could go just about anywhere I wanted to because the terrain was basically all rock anyway, the hike got considerably more fun.

Hiking trail in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

Eventually, I reached the top:

View from the peak of a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

View from the peak of a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain

A few minutes after I got there, a chilly breeze blew in and big fat raindrops came pelting down. I took that as a good sign to start back.

All together, it took 3 hours to climb up and 2 hours to carefully work my way back down. I reached the bottom at 3pm, with 2 hours to spare before the return bus left. Thankfully at that time, there were a lot more shops open and people milling about, so I sat at a bar, ordered a burger, and admired how far I had gone, all the way to that peak in the distance. Glad I wasn’t there then, there was a definite storm rolling in.

Bus down after the hike in the Sierra Nevada, Spain

This was the first hike I’ve ever started without any particular aim, so I’m surprised that I made it all the way to the peak. One thing’s for sure, I appreciate ski lifts quite a bit more now. I can’t imagine making a hike like that in the snow, with ski boots on!

Flamenco Show at Zambra Maria la Conastera

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

The walking tour guide that I had in Granada was a local and a flamenco lover, so we all asked for her recommendations for the best shows in Granada. Her favorite was a gypsy-style show in Sacromonte, Zambra Maria la Conastera.

Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

The guide mentioned that there were generally shows every day but they might get canceled, so I made a reservation online and then paid when I got there. It’s 22 euros for an hour long show and a drink (sangria or beer).

The venue itself is an actual cave, decorated with pots and pans and tributes to great flamenco artists of the past. I got there 30 minutes early, so i got one of the best seats in the house!

Stage of Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Stage of Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

The show started with a guitarist:

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Then came the dancers, one after another. Flamenco is a very expressive and passionate art, and because this was the gypsy style of flamenco, the raw emotions were even clearer to see.

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

I’m not sure if this style of Flamenco is typical, but it was great to see Flamenco with gypsy flair!

Walking Tour of Granada

View of the Alhambra at twilight in Granada, Spain

Granada was the last Muslim city on the Iberian peninsula, so it is a city rich in cultural history and heritage.

History of Granada

In 711, the Muslims Moors conquered much of the Iberian peninsula, with a strong hold in the southern region of Andalusia. Over the centuries, the Christian Spanish monarchy slowly took over more and more of the peninsula. By the 13th century, it had reoccupied almost the entire area except for Andalusia.

In 1230, an Andalusian lord named Mohammed I ibn Nasr founded the Nasrid Empire in Granada. Following an attack by the Spanish monarchy, he officially recognized Ferdinand III as an overlord and became a vassal of Castile, but was able to keep Granada and his kingdom.

But on Jan. 2nd 1492, the 22nd and last sultan of Nasrid finally surrendered Granada to the Catholic kings. He surrendered with the conditions that the new Catholic empire would respect the Muslims and their way of life, without forcing them to convert to Christianity. In the beginning, at least, the Catholic kings held up their end of the deal for the most part.

But years later, Queen Isabella I visited Granada and realized that Islam was still very much alive there. That, combined with the ever present problems with the Jewish community, prompted the catholic kings to start the Spanish Inquisition. All practicing Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, followed by the eventual expulsion of the Muslim Moors in 1609.

CENTRO

Madrasah of Granada

Right across from the Capilla Real is an old madrasah (mosque school) that was founded by the Nasrids. It has retained its educational purpose, as it is currently a part of the University of Granada.

The Muslims made many scientific advancements in astronomy, algebra, plants, medicine. As a good measure of comparisons, according to our guide, the Muslim library had 400,000 books whereas the Catholic library only had a total of 300. But during the inquisition, the Catholic kings took all of the books and burned them in Plaza de Bib-Rambla.

Capilla Real

The Capilla Real, or royal chapel, is where the Catholic Kings, Isabella I and Ferdinand II, are buried, along with their daughter Joanna “the Mad,” and her husband Felipe I “the Handsome.” The building was specifically built for this purpose when the Catholic Kings chose Granada as their burial site. It seems to me like a final snub to the Nasrids… “Yeah, we conquered you. And now you have to live with us FOREVER.”

On the outside, there are many symbolic decorations. The letters Y (for Isabella, which used to be written as “Ysabella”) and F (for Ferdinand) are repeated both inside and outside the building.

Capilla Real in Granada, Spain

Capilla Real in Granada, Spain

There is also a fifth tomb in the Capilla Real, which belongs to Miguel da Paz, Prince of Portugal. He was the grandson of the Catholic kings, son of their daughter Isabella of Aragon and King Manuel of Portugal. He was destined to inherit the three kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal, which would have united the entire Iberian Peninsula. However, he did at the age of 2, and his aunt, Joanna the Mad, became Queen instead. If he had survived, Spain and Portugal might be a single country today!

The Capilla Real is home to one of the finest Spanish grilles (not my picture, since photographs were not allowed inside):

Capilla Real Granada nave central

The tombs of all of the monarchs are in the center, with statues of the monarchs laying down on padded and elevated beds. I couldn’t get over the fact that Joanna and Felipe’s tomb (on the right below) is about a foot and a half higher than Isabella and Ferdinand’s (on the left below). Talk about some unresolved frustrations about perhaps not living up to your parents. But hey, the parents weren’t around to reprimand Joanna, so she could do whatever she wanted!

(Also not my picture):

Tombs in the Capilla Real, Granada, Spain

On the side of both the Capilla Real and the Cathedral, there are faded red letters that look like graffiti. They are hundreds of years old, and were made by esteemed university graduates that wanted to announce their availability for work. The names are written in cows blood, which is why they are still visible today.

Student graffiti on the Capilla Real in Granada, Spain

Cathedral de Granada

There used to be a mosque at this site, but it was destroyed in order to build the cathedral instead. The cathedral is connected to the Capilla Real, and is one of the biggest cathedrals in Europe.

Construction started in 1523, but it took 180 years to finish. In the meantime, the architectural style transitioned from gothic to renaissance to baroque.

Also in the meantime, they ran out of money. Originally, there were supposed to be two 81m-tall towers. But in the end, as you can see, they only ended up with one tower that measures just 53m.

The Granada Cathedral, Spain

The cathedral is also known as the “Cathedral of light” because it is so good at funneling light. The inside of the cathedral:

Granada Cathedral, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Spain

Plaza de Bib-Rambla

This was the central plaza of Granada, where all communal activities – good and bad – took place.

Plaza de Bib-Rambla in Granada, Spain

During the Spanish Inquisition, this was the square where books were burned. In addition to the books in the Muslim library, private books were also seized and burned.

Many Muslim and moorish people were killed here as well, sometimes open to public to witness. Around 3,000 people died here in acts of faith, though the records were destroyed, so there were probably even more because. After killing them, the inquisitors (conveniently) seized and kept their property.

On the happier side, jousting tournaments and bull fights were held here as well.

Alcaizerca

The Alcaizerca is the old bazaar of the city. It currently sells a lot of Moroccan wares, but it is also the hub for fine silks because Granada is the main site for Spanish silk production.

Alcaizerca bazaar in Granada, Spain

“Alcaizerca” means “The Place of the Caesar,” as the Caesar was the one who originally gave Arabs the right to sell silk all over the world. The streets are intentionally narrow, to make it hard to steal items and run off with them.

The marketplace used to run all the way to Plaza Nueva, with 200 shops and gates all around to keep out the thieves. However a fire destroyed the original buildings in th 19th century. Only a portion of it was rebuilt here.

Statue of Isabella and Christopher Colombus

Near the Capilla Real is a prominent statue of Queen Isabella with a man. Everyone on the tour thought that the statue was of Isabella and Ferdinand, but it is actually Christopher Colombus. In retrospect, it makes sense because the man is kneeling on the floor and not wearing a crown.

Statue of Queen Isabella and Christopher Colombus in Granada, Spain

They are holding the treaty of Santa Fe, which was signed in Granada. This was the treaty that granted Columbus the appropriate titles and riches to set sail for what he thought was the Indies.

ALBACIN

The Albacin is the old Moorish district of Granada. It has the characteristic Moorish white walls to reflect sunlight, as well as narrow streets that make it easy to run from the enemy.

Calle de Beso

This small area of the Albacin is filled with references to a beso, or kiss. A kiss between who? A mother and daughter!

Calle de Beso in Granada, Spain

According to legend, one morning, a mother tried to wake her daughter up and found her rigid in her bed. The mother held a wake for her daughter in preparation to bury her the next morning. For a final goodbye, the mother leaned down and kissed her daughter on the cheek. Miraculously, the daughter woke up! It was likely an episode of catalepsy, but the locals said it was the mother’s love that brought the daughter back from the dead.

There have been a couple of similar cases of seemingly dead people waking up in this area. Some coffins that were later opened would be discovered with scratch marks. To prevent people being buried alive, cementaries installed a bell close to many graves and tied a rope from the corpse’s waist to the bell. That’s where we get the saying, “saved by the bell.”

Carmens

Carmens can be found everywhere in the Albacin. The word “Carmen” comes from the Arabic word “karm,” meaning vine. It refers to a typical Arabic house with a garden.

These structures have white external walls without many windows, to maintain privacy. But inside, there are beautiful gardens and often massive grounds that could be big enough to ride horses in.

Entrance to a Carmen in Granada, Spain

San Isabel Convent

This convent, in particular, is known for its sweets. It is a convent with nuns of the cloisters, so you cannot see them. In order to purchase sweets, you must ring the bell at the window and then pick up the sweets/give the money via a rotating disk.

The sweets purchasing process in action:

Revolving door to buy cookies at a convent in Granada, Spain

Saint Nicolas Viewpoint

The best viewpoint in Granada, as this is where you have a full on view of the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada in the background.

View of the Alhambra from San Nicolas viewpoint in Granada, Spain

During the day there is a lively atmosphere to go with the view, with merchants selling jewelry on mats and entertainers playing the guitar. It’s popular to watch the sunset from this viewpoint, but get there a half hour early because it gets crowded!

I would have to say that this is probably my favorite spot.

View of the Alhambra at twilight in Granada, Spain

View of the Alhambra at twilight in Granada, Spain

View from Mirador San Nicolas at twilight in Granada, Spain

The Sacromonte Caves

View of Granada from Sacromonte, Spain

The hill community of Sacromonte is one of the few things that I knew about Granada before getting there, since a friend who studied in Granada told me that she used to go running amongst the gypsy caves up in the hills. I saw that there was a walking tour through Sacromonte, so I signed up right away!

This was definitely one of the more strenuous tours. We met in Plaza Nueva and then walked through the Albacin to reach Sacromonte, and before we had even reached the bottom of the hill, we lost a good handful of people.

The starting point:

Beginning of the path up to Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

From here, we climbed up a set of stairs up to the highest point, the church Ermita de San Miguel Alto.

History of the community

Sacremonte is literally translated as “holy hill.” According to our guide, this comes from the fact that bones of martyrs were found on the hill, and the saint of the city’s bones were here as well.

Here up on the hill, on the outskirts of the city, is where marginalized populations traditionally lived. In the past, it was the nomadic gypsies, along with expelled Muslims and Jews, who dug and occupied caves. But nowadays, there is a mix of gypsies, Africans, and even the occasional travelers who find an abandoned cave, clean it out, and stay in it for a while. The occupants have scattered backgrounds and came one by one, so it’s not a tight knit community.

All together, there are about 400-500 people living on the hill, in around 100-150 caves. Before, there were close to 5000 people and 1000 caves. However, there was a big earthquake in the 1950s, and many of the caves collapsed. Then in 1963, it rained for months, killing lots of people. After those events, only about 10 families came back to resettle these hills.

The government has, for better or worse, mostly left the cave community alone. There are clearly risks associated with living in the area, but the residents and the government have an understanding that, by refusing to move, the residents acknowledge the risks and are responsible for their own safety. According to our guide, the only real public investment in this area is the staircase leading up to the Ermita de San Miguel Alto.

Three years ago the council demolished a lot of caves, displacing a lot of people without telling them. They were supposed to come back to real houses, but nothing has been built yet. As of now, the initiative seems to have been abandoned.

Ermita de San Miguel Alto

It’s not a bad hike up the steps to the Ermita de San Miguel Alto. There are even some inspirational (a.k.a. hippy) sayings on the steps to encourage you along.

Stairs up to Ermita de San Miguel Alto Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

Beautiful views as you go along:

View of Granada from Sacromonte, Spain

View of the Alhambra from Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

At the top, you get the best viewpoint of the city.

La Ermita de San Miguel Alto at Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

View of Granada from Sacromonte, Spain

Behind the church is a water fountain with the word “aceituno” written on it. Legend goes that an olive tree started producing lots of water, and people drank it and got younger. Hence, fountain of youth!

Olive fountain of youth at Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

Caves

There are some caves on the way up to the Ermita de San Miguel Alto, but the majority of the caves are on the hill behind the church, if you take the trail out from the back of it.

Cave homes at Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

Cave home at Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

All of these caves are cut off from the city below. There is no water on top of the hill, so oftentimes people have to carry it up in containers or have 20-30L deposits of water. There are no electric lines. Only a few people have solar panels, and many people tap illegally into other people’s electricity. A lot of people have gardens to grow their own food, but whatever they need, they have to go down to the city to get.

But the main advantage is that you don’t need to pay rent. Some people do legally own their caves, because there was a law years ago that stated that any piece of land that you (or your descendents) live on for more than 200 years is legally your property. The law no longer exists, for obvious reasons.

The cave houses themselves are dug into the mountain, either with shovels or by hand. Caves are usually lovated either in a line or in a circle, with paths in between. They vary in size; they could have 3 rooms, or up to even 12. But they usually only have a single window, or no window at all. The caves are cool year round, at about 16-24 degrees C inside. But humidity is a problem, so they constantly have to be aired out.

Churrojumo

At the bottom of the road leading up to Sacromonte is a statue of Churrojumo. He was a respected person amongst the gypsies, the first person to spread gypsy culture and act as a guide of sorts for foreigners.

Statue of Churrojumo at Sacromonte in Granada, Spain

In the statue, he is in typical gypsy dress from the late 1800s, and holding a stick to signal that he is a boss.


The tour was a nice, comfortable stroll with a beautiful view and insight into a very different way of life. Even though the area has a bit of a stigma, all of the residents that we passed were friendly, and I don’t think I would have any problem walking alone (further evidence: my friend ran amongst the caves herself and survived). The only danger I could foresee would be tripping on the trail once it got dark.

To conclude, I quote our guide, because she did it beautifully: This area is seen as the poorest in Granada, but it is rich in other things. In landscape (that view!), in atmosphere, and in other ways that are harder to value monetarily. It’s a very distinct community of Granada and a great one to explore!

The Alhambra

Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Alhambra is one of the most popular destinations in Spain. It’s one of those things that you have to book at least weeks – sometimes months – ahead of time. I was unaware of this fact until I arrived in Spain, but luckily I overheard some other tourists chatting the first day I got to Spain:

“Oh, you’re going to Granada? Did you book the Alhambra already?”

“Oh yeah, of course, I got them, like 3 weeks ago.”

Roger that. I made a mental note, and jumped online for Alhambra tickets as soon as I got back to the hostel.

The official ticketmaster site was already booked out for the following three weeks, and the only option I found within a two week time frame was a Spanish tour on a separate site with a 30 euro mark up.

Well…I could brush up on my middle school Spanish, and at least it was a ticket inside, right? But thankfully I found an English tour at the end.

What makes the Alhambra so popular? Well…

Alhambra history

Granada is the last Muslim city on the Iberian Peninsula, and home to the last and longest reigning Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula: the Nasrid Dynasty. The Nasrid Dynasty began in 1238, and the Nasrids lived in Granada for almost 260 years with a constant Christian threat in the North.

Finally, the last sultan surrendered the city to the Spanish monarchy in 1492, with the conditions that his people would be respected and not be killed, and the Alhambra would not be destroyed. The Spanish monarchy did not quite honor the first request (can anyone say “Inquisition”?). But thankfully they followed the second, leaving us the magnificent Alhambra to visit.

Fun fact: “Granada” in Spanish means “pomegranate.” After the sultan’s surrender, the Spanish monarchy added a pomegranate to the bottom of their crest.

Spanish crest

The Alhambra is the Nasrid legacy. “Alhambra” means the “red one,” because it was originally built with the red clay from the hill.

The Alhambra sign in Granada, Spain

The Alhambra is not a single building, but a self-contained city that once held a population of around 5000 people. It consists of three parts: (1) the Alcazaba, or army fortress, (2) the Medina, where commoners lived, and last but not least, (3) the Nasrid Palaces. They were built in that respective order. It’s hard to say how long the Alhambra took to build, because it has seen many transformations – the Christians modified it when they took it over, and there have been restorations all the way into the 20th century.

In addition to the walled Alhambra, there is also the Generalife (pronounced “he-ne-ral-lee-feh,” not “General life,” like an insurance company). This was the royal family’s private garden, connected to the Alhambra and also enclosed for safety. Much of the Generalife gardens are still original, but most of the other gardens around the Alhambra are new.

Over the years, the Alhambra belonged to the monarchy, private owners, and finally, in 1868, the state. A guide said that it was abandoned for centuries between private owners and the state. As recently as 50 years ago, anybody could go up to the Alhambra and walk around it freely. Gypsies squatted and partied there, and one neglected BBQ burned down a part of it. In 1980, UNESCO finally came and declared it a world heritage site. Since then, it’s been cleaned up and restored significantly. It’s also a lot harder to get into the Alhambra now!

The Tour

Since I booked a tour, the tour company gave me specific instructions on where to meet and when. It’s best to take these instructions very seriously, because the Alhambra is the one thing that is strictly on time in Southern Spain. The Nasrid Palaces are the problem, as space is so limited. The other areas do not have a specific entry time, and many parts of the Alhambra (two museums, a public hammad, and a church) are free. Just to make extra sure, I got there almost an hour ahead of the tour time.

Some people had the same idea that I had: book the Spanish tour, and hope that you might be able to switch to the English group instead. However, the tour group was quite strict too, as they have a set number of tickets for each group. In the end, the non-Spanish-speaking members of the Spanish tour simply got an English audioguide – hey, they got an entrance ticket, which is what’s important!

Notes: April and May are some of the busiest months at the Alhambra, because they fall within the narrow window when weather in Granada is pleasant. Our guide mentioned that in Granada, “there are 9 months of winter and 3 months of hell” – the rest is April and May!

Be careful when booking tours – read the fine print. I met someone in my hostel who booked an Alhambra & Generalize tour for more than 70 Euros on Viator. When she actually got to the Alhambra, she discovered that the tour didn’t cover the Nasrid Palaces, the centerpiece of the Alhambra.

However, there was also someone else at my hostel who didn’t book a ticket to the Alhambra beforehand at all, but managed to get one from the hostel. She got it for almost the original price and for the following day, no problem. So if you didn’t book a ticket yet, there are always ways. (I’m happy for her. But goddammit!)

Make sure you save your ticket while you’re inside the Alhambra and Generalife, because you need to scan the ticket multiple times to get into different buildings. I think our tickets were used at least 5 times.

Puerta de Judicia

We entered the Alhambra through the Puerta de judicia, the Door of Justice. It’s an original Nasrid gate from the 13th century.

Justice gate at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The gate has both Islamic and Catholic symbols. For the Islamic symbols, in particular, the hand represents the 5 pillars of Islam, and the key symbolizes wealth (as in, the key of the city). There is a legend that “the day that the hand holds the key, the Alhambra will disappear” – a.k.a. when the Alhambra is destroyed, the gate will collapse.

Nasrid Palaces

The palaces were the private quarters of the sultan and his family. Over 260 years, there were 24 sultans – that’s an average of a little more than 10 years per sultan. Clearly life wasn’t easy, especially with the constant Christian threat in the North. But home life wasn’t easy, either – sultans could marry up to 4 wives, and they had many concubines that also lived in the palaces with them.

Entrance to the Nasrid Palaces at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

We were instructed to wear our backpacks in front inside the palace, since the materials of the palace are easily damaged. The patterns are all done on plaster, which is pliable enough for carving intricate epigraphs and geometric designs. In addition to plaster, the Nasrids also used ceramic for wall tiles and cedar wood for the ceilings (also good for carving and gives off a perfume that keeps termites away).

The Mexuar

This is the first chamber that you see when you enter the palaces. Very fitting, as it is the public reception hall.

Column and ceiling of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

The hall is decorated with ceramic near the bottom and detailed carvings at the top of the columns. In the patterns, the motto of “only Allah is the victor” is repeated multiple times.

Wall tiles of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Toward the back is a Mirhab, a private mosque. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to enter, but you can tell how beautiful and detailed it is even from afar.

Mirhab of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Mirhab of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Palace of Comares

The Palace of the Comares is the largest part of the Nasrid Palace, and includes both where the sultan received guests and where the royal family lived.

An iconic scene from the Alhambra, the Court of the Myrtles. It is a Roman-style courtyard, and so named due to the myrtle bushes that line the pond on either side.

Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Water is an important part of the palaces, for many reasons. In the desert, he who is rich has water, not gold – so to demonstrate wealth, the Nasrids brought water to all parts of their living quarters with sophisticated pumps and fountains. Water was also used in religious ceremonies, and was thought to purify the air and the soul.

The Hall of the Boat, where visitors waited for the king. It’s long been thought that the name came from the ceiling, which is shaped like a boat (“barca”). But the true origin of the name is from the Arab word “baraca,” of “blessings.”

Hall of the Boats in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Hall of Ambassadors, the most majestic hall in the palace. This is where the sultan received guests. The hall is lined with little alcoves on all sides, where guests would sit as they talked to the sultan, who would be in the center most alcove. In this way, nobody could see the sultan while talking to him, for safety purposes.

Alcove at the Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The ceiling of the hall is made of 8000 pieces old wood, all fitted together like a puzzle.

Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Unfortunately, most of the floor has been worn down over the years and replaced, but there is still an original patch roped off in the center.

Original floor of the Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Palace of the Lions

The Palace of the Lions was a hidden paradise for the royal family, which they usually used solely for fun and gatherings. As with the rest of the Palace, it was enclosed and protected from all sides.

The palace’s namesake is a fountain in the center supported by lion statues. The lions are a symbol of power, as well as the Nasrids’ African origins. But there’s something a little odd-looking about them, as the statues were probably produced by an artist who either (1) never saw a lion in his life or (2) never carved a statue of a human or animal before because Islam prohibits the use of icons. I don’t know that I would call the statues lions if I wasn’t told that that’s what they were, but sure, I trust you!

Palace of the Lions at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Surrounding the statue in the center are rows of white marble columns, reminiscent of palm trees.

One of the rooms of the palace has a plaque commemorating Washington Irving, who stayed in the Alhambra in 1829 to write the “Tales of the Alhambra.” Lots of legends arose from his pen, but most are romanticizations and most likely not true.

Washington Irving plaque at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

In this palace, as well, there are rooms specifically built for Charles V when he had his honeymoon in Granada and stayed in the Alhambra. The main room has a fireplace, which is a Christian contraption – the Nasrids had a much more sophisticated heating system: underwater heating.

Alcazaba – The Army Fortress

The Alcazaba is the army fortress, necessarily located at the highest point of the Alhambra and with the best view. A lot of the Alcazaba is restored, because in 1810 Napoleon’s troops stayed here briefly and bombed it when they left.

The Alcazaba at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Nasrid army numbered more than 10,000 soldiers total, but only a portion of the army lived in the fortress. These were the special soldiers that protected the sultan and where therefore allowed to live within the walls.

The soldiers lived within barracks, usually a simple room with shared latrine and hammad (public bath). In addition to those, there were also holes dug in the floor for dungeons and grain storage.

The living conditions weren’t great, but the view is unparalleled. The beautiful white-walled Albacin is laid out on the opposite hill before you:

View of the Albacin from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Medina

The Medina was the area of the Alhambra reserved for commoners. About 4000 people lived in the Medina, commoners who served the king and court. They had a better standard of living than those outside the wall and also enjoyed some special privileges, like not having to pay taxes.

Not much is left of the Medina. Now, its mostly a passageway lined with impressive hedges:

Hedgerows in the Medina of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Generalife Gardens

The Generalife gardens were the sultan’s private quarters for enjoyment, located outside the Alhambra walls so that he could (physically) escape state and family drama. This was also the coolest place in Granada because of the summer breeze.

Much of the gardens have been newly restored, including a concert hall area in front that is used for concerts at night.

Concert hall at Generalife gardens at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Generalife gardens at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Generalife Royal Palace

Within the Generalife gardens is a protected royal palace. It used to be completely enclosed for safety except for the balcony (which has low windows because the Nasrids sat on the floor). Now, however, many more arches have been built into the wall to show the view of the Alhambra.

The royal palace has a Persian-style courtyard in front:

Patio at the Generalife gardens at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

And a smaller courtyard in the back, built for a sultan’s favorite wife. Legend goes that the wife had another lover, and they would meet under the cypress tree. The sultan found out, and killed all the male members of the lover’s family. However, this is an example of a false legend because cypress trees didn’t come to Andalusia until the 19th century.

Cyprus tree in the Court of Sultana at the Generalife gardens in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain


Having been through the Alhambra and Generalife gardens, I can see why it’s such a popular destination and sold out weeks in advance. I’m glad that I was able to enter, but I wish that I could have had more time – I could have picked just about any room in the Nasrid palaces and stared at the ceiling in awe for a full day.

It’s a testament to the technological and aesthetic advancement of the Nasrid Dyanasty that they could have built something so amazing, and that it still stands to this day.