Lessons from Spain

Lessons from Spain

1. Take it nice and slow

Since starting my travels, I’ve mostly followed the rule of staying in one place for at least 3 nights before moving to the next one. This gives me time to get to know the location a little better and means that I don’t have to squeeze all the sights and scenes into two full days, but I’ve come to discover that even 3 nights isn’t enough.

In Spain, I slowed it down even further to 5-6 nights in each location. While this seemed long before, it feels perfect now. With 4-5 full days, I was able to see just about everything that I wanted to and comfortably take day trips. However, it still wasn’t enough time to see Barcelona (I was so busy running around that I never made it to the beach) – guess I’ll have to go back and spend 2 weeks there next time!

2. Enjoy life a little bit

Spain is a place of leisure and pleasure, two things I’ve never quite been able to embrace. To me, any second that isn’t productive is wasted, and “fun” is an item that is usually scheduled (in between events of adequate productivity). Ironically, even though I no longer have a full time job, I still have a perpetually full todo list.

In Spain, however little, I learned to relax a bit. It feels good to have a sangria or a refreshing tinto de verano with a meal. It’s not a bad idea to go back to the hostel to escape the heat of the day (though I haven’t quite begun cultivating the nap yet). For the first time, I miss the makeup and non-conservative quick drying clothes – just a little bit. And all of it is okay.

3. Take fewer pictures

Even though I don’t believe my photography habits changed, for whatever reason, sorting through and editing pictures took a lot longer in Spain. Did I take more pictures? Were the pictures just crappier (meaning more photoshop)?

I’m not entirely sure, but I had enough and vowed to take fewer pictures. Even though taking another digital photo just means a few extra pixels, sorting and editing still means that each photo comes at a price: time, the most priceless thing of all. So, take fewer photos! It also means that I can be in the present and enjoy the sights in front of me a little more.

4. Don’t force yourself into a lifestyle

When I first got to Barcelona, I was lured by the party lifestyle that permeated the entire city (it probably didn’t help that I stayed in a party hostel). In the previous four months in Asia, I could count the number of drinks that I had on one hand, and I just about never went out. I only had conservative India-appropriate clothing with me, but I figured it would be a shame to go to Spain and not experience the infamous night out that starts at midnight and ends at 6am.

So on my last night in Barcelona, I joined the hostel pub crawl. We went to three bars and ended up in a club. It felt pretty much the same as nights out in college, except it went a lot later and involved more Spanish music (an improvement, if you ask me). The dancing was fun, but nowadays I’m less fond of meeting strangers in clubs and would prefer to wake up early and hydrated. The party lifestyle is no longer for me. I’m glad I went out at least once, and I no longer had fear of missing out after.

5. Just speak Spanish

Even though I haven’t practiced Spanish at all in the past 10 years, I did take about 6 years of it in school. I was surprised at how much of it I actually retained, but I was too shy to try to speak it. Most of the time when I tried, the shopkeepers patiently sat through my stuttered broken sentences and then just replied in English to put me out of my misery.

I wish I could tie it up in a rosy way by saying that I conquered my fears and unleashed a fountain of ever more fluent Spanish, but unfortunately it’s still something I’m working on. This is one of those lessons that I understand in theory but am still trying to put into practice!

6. It’s good to have work

In Spain, for the first time since I left, I started to feel an urge to go back to work. It’s not for financial reasons (though my pockets are definitely emptier than when I started), but rather a need to do something productive – not just for me, but for others. After 5 months, my travel itch has been mostly satisfied, and I’m in a place where I’m once again excited about work!

The Mezquita in Cordoba

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Córdoba is a very religiously significant city. It was the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba, a Muslim state that spanned the entire bottom half of the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century. In 1030, the state fractured into multiple independent Muslim kingdoms, which were conquered by the Christian monarchy one by one until the last Muslim city, Granada, fell in 1492.

The Mezquita was the religious center (whether Muslim or Christian) of Córdoba.

The Mezquita of Cordoba from across the Roman Bridge, Spain

Its history starts in the 6th century, when the Visigoths the church of Saint Vincent the Martyr in this location.This is all that remains of the original Visigoth church:

Remains of the original church that became the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

After the Muslims conquered Córdoba, the leader Abd al-Rahman I purchased the ruins of the church, leveled the remains, and built a mosque for his new caliphate.

Construction on the mosque started in 786. Many old columns from the church, which you can identify by their bases, were reused for the mosque. When completed, the new mosque had a prayer hall that could hold 5,000 people, and was the largest in the Western world.

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Doorway inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Over the next few centuries, the mosque underwent a series of expansions. As you walk deeper into the Mezquita, you can clearly see the difference between the areas:

  • First expansion by Abd al-Rahman II in 822. Enlarged the mosque to fit 9,486 people. The new columns did not have bases.
  • Second expansion by Al-Hakam II in 965. Enlarged the mosque to fit 15,773 people. The new columns also did not have bases:

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

  • Third expansion by Almanzor (the tutor of the third caliph, who was at this point reduced to a figurehead) in 991. Almanzor purchased the houses on the street side for the expansion, and enlarged the mosque to fit a whopping 40,000 people. This enlarged area is marked by its austerity – not only do the columns not have bases, the red bricks in the archway are painted on instead of using actual bricks:

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

After the Christians conquered Córdoba in 1236, they converted the mosque into a church and built a royal chapel and a transept within.

Mihrab

The mihrab is most important part of the mosque, and it indicates the direction of Mecca. However, while Mecca lies to the the southeast of the Mezquita, its mihrab points due south.

Mihrab of the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Transept

The transept, similar to one you might find in any other cathedral, is located at the center of the Mezquita. As soon as you come across it, it feels like you’ve entered a completely separate building. The rest of the Mezquita is dimly lit and in shadow, whereas the transept is awash in light and has high ceilings.

Chapel inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Chapel inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Minaret/Bell tower

There is a separate ticket to enter the minaret/bell tower, which you can get from a desk at its base for 2 euros. Get there as early as you can, because they have limited time slots and availability!

The original minaret was built around 951 and had two staircases that met at the top. It was transformed into a bell tower by the Christians in 1593. The view of the Mezquita from the bell tower:

La mezquita from the bell tower in Cordoba, Spain

A church that used to be a mosque (which was expanded three times) that used to be a church. If there was ever a building that exemplified the constant shift in culture and power on the Iberian peninsula, this is it!

The Patios of Cordoba

Postrera 28 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Córdoba is known for its beautiful flowers. Every May, houses throughout the city open up their doors to show off their patios (courtyards). Unfortunately, that’s in the beginning of May, and I didn’t get there until the end of the month. Fortunately, there were still some flowers left!

Seen on the streets of Córdoba:

Flowers in Cordoba, Spain

Flower in Cordoba, Spain

Flower statue on the streets of Cordoba, Spain

Los Patios del Alcazar Viejo

There were also still open patios, but you have to pay to visit them. I went to los Patios del Alcazar Viejo, a coalition of 7 patios that allow you to enter with one combined ticket. There is a separate office (a small, nondescript shop) nearby that sells the tickets, which you have to purchase before going to any of the patios.

Along with the ticket, you get a map to all of the participating locations. It’s a very easy, very colorful treasure hunt!

At each address, you knock on the door and present your ticket to someone who marks the address to indicate that you have already been there. The patios could be owned by a single family or could belong to multiple families who care for the plants together.

I’m not sure how they water some of these plants!

#1 San Basilio 14

San Basilio 14 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

San Basilio 14 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#2 Martin de Roa 2

Martin de Roa 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Martin de Roa 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#3 Martin de Roa 7

Martin de Roa 7 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Martin de Roa 7 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Martin de Roa 7 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#4 San Basilio 40

San Basilio 40 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

San Basilio 40 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#5 Duartas 2

Duartas 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Duartas 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#6 La Barrera 1

La Barrera 1 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

La Barrera 1 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#7 Postrera 28

Postrera 28 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Postrera 28 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Free Patios

Some patios were “free” to visit, but ask for a coin donation. This was one such patio that I stumbled on, right next door to Matin de Roa 7. It wasn’t part of the patio tour, but based on all of the awards that it prominently displays, it’s a pretty stunning one as well.

Award winning patio in Cordoba, Spain

Award winning patio in Cordoba, Spain

Award winning patio in Cordoba, Spain

If you’re going to Cordoba, definitely go when the flowers are in bloom!

 

The Alcazar in Seville

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Alcazar in Seville is very similar to the Alhambra in Granada, but smaller in scale. It is just as impressive, however, and it has something that the Alhambra doesn’t: the distinction of serving as a set for Game of Thrones. That’s right, this is Dorne!

The Alcazar was a palace for the Almohades, the previous Muslim kingdom in Seville. When the Spanish monarchy conquered Seville, it took over residence of the palace and built a gothic addition. To this day, the Alcazar is the official Seville residence of the royal family. But they often prefer to stay in fancy hotels instead, which is good for tourists because the Alcazar shuts down when the royal family stays there!

Salon de Almirante

Seville was the center of trade with the Americas, and this very hall was where all of that trade was controlled politically. The hall is filled with paintings from the time period. This one features the Virgin of the Navigators, Colombus, and the ships that were used to sail to America.

Painting of the Virgin of the Navigators in the Salon del Almirante of the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de la Monteria (Hunting courtyard)

This main courtyard is where the king’s hunting party would congregate before leaving for a hunt, thus giving rise to its name.

Alcazar palace exterior in Seville, Spain

Directly from the audio guide: Looking up at the front facade of the palace, there are many styles present. The top part is the style of carpenters from Toledo. The middle is in the Granada style, as seen at the Alhambra, and the bottom features blind arches of Sevilla.

Facade of the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Palace

The inside of the palace is every bit as grand as you would expect it to be, even starting from the vestibule.

Doorway in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Roof in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de las Doncellas

Walking straight inside the palace, you soon find yourself at the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Damsels), which is one of the most iconic courtyards of the Alcazar. It features 4 pools, representing the 4 rivers of heaven, which split the courtyard into 4 pieces, representing the 4 known continents of the time.

Patio de las Doncellas at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Hall of the Ambassadors

At the end of the Patio de las Doncellas is the Hall of the Ambassadors, the most famous room in the Alcazar. Because this:

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

And this!

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

That’s right, I’m more excited that actors were here than because this place has hosted actual royalty and historic events.

But the hall itself is truly marvelous, you can see why they picked this location. No set could ever compare. Some background on the Hall of Ambassadors: this splendid main hall is also called hall of the half orange for the shape of the ceiling.

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

It’s just about impossible to get the entire hall in one picture, and for the picture to convey all of the intricacies of the place. There are so many details that many are easy to miss, like the fact that all of the monarchs are painted in a row between the golden ceiling and the blue tile walls. Not to mention all of the meticulous carvings.

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de las muñecas

Another well-known courtyard in the Alcazar is the Patio de las Muñecas, or the Courtyard of the Dolls. The audio guide said that the name is derived from carvings of dolls in some of the arches, but I have a feeling that we were lied to.

Patio de las Munecas at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Nothing looked remotely like a doll to me…

Patio de las Munecas at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Cuarto del Principe (Prince Suite)

Even though the palace is Moorish, it hosted the Spanish royal family for centuries. As a result, many rooms were given new names, like this one: the Cuarto del Principe, or the Prince Suite. This room is so named because it is where Prince Juan, the only son of the Catholic Kings Isabella I and Ferdinand II, was born.

(To be honest, I’m not sure if this photo is of that particular room, but it’s representational of the rooms in the palace and is one of the only ones I managed to get without any people in it)

Room in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gothic palace

The Spanish monarchy also added on to the original Moorish palace of the Alcazar by building a Gothic Palace right next to it. This palace is more similar to the other ones in Spain, with high arches and massive tapestries.

Gothic Palace at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gothic Palace at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Fuente del Mercurio

Going outside from the Gothic Palace to the gardens, you first pass the Fuente del Mercurio, or the Fountain of Mercury. This beautiful fountain was a reservoir in Moorish times.

Fountain of Mercury at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

See the Fountain of Mercury in the background, to the left?

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Banos de Maria de Padilla

A dark passageway underneath the Gothic Palace leads to the Banos de Maria de Padilla. There used to be beautiful gardens in this location, but after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the gardens were converted into this (whatever this is…I just know it’s beautiful) to offer more support to the palace.

Banos de Maria de Padilla at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens

And finally, the expansive gardens themselves! I can’t really communicate how big they are, except that it takes about 30 minutes just to walk through them, without stopping to enjoy the plants or the view.

The gardens are the location of another very famous scene:

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Water Gardens of Dorne! It just wasn’t quite as romantic or nearly as empty when I was there.

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Other locations in the gardens didn’t appear on camera, but were similarly beautiful:

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain


Thus concluded a morning spent in Dorne (with about 5,000 of my closest friends). With such gorgeous and unique locations, it’s no wonder that they chose to shoot scenes for The Game of Thrones here.

Not to say that the Alcazar is not spectacular by its own merit, just like the Alhambra. But knowing that it was featured in a hit TV show just increases excitement a bit, and there’s no harm in that!

Walking tour of Seville

Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain

History of Seville

Seville’s history goes way back to Roman times, but only one village (Italica, about 10km away) is left that has remnants of that era. The city was later occupied by the Visigoths, then the Muslims from the 8th century and the Christians starting fom 1248.

The heyday of Seville was right after Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. Seville was known as the “Port of India,” where all the American goods had to pass through to get to the rest of Europe. It was specifically chosen because its location made it safe from pirates. With such a powerful trade monopoly, Seville flourished and became the economic center of the Spanish empire. But soon the river became too small for such a large volume of goods, so the monopoly port moved from Seville to Cadiz.

Seville is widely known as the birthplace of flamenco, which our guide attribute partially to the Napoleonic invasion I n the early 19th century. During this identity crisis, flamenco emerged as something that was uniquely Spanish.

The city has also been changed and defined by a series of expositions in the 20th century. With the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition, many buildings were built using old Muslim architecture as inspiration. And the Universal Exposition of 1992 brought many infrastructure updates to Seville, including highways, bridges, and the high speed train connection to Madrid.

Triumph Square

Triumph square is the triangle of power, with the city’s political, religious, and economic centers all in one place. To the East is the Alcazar, the old Muslim palace. To the North is the cathedral, and to the West is the Archive of the Indies, where an inventory of all of the goods that entered Seville from the Americas is stored.

The square is named the “Triumph” square because of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. The 8.5-9.0 magnitude earthquake almost destroyed Lisbon, killing between 10,000-100,000 people, but only 9 people died in Seville. The Sevillians saw this as a miracle, that Virgin Mary was protecting the city because Catholicism had triumphed here. These are two monuments that serve as memorials for the 9 people that died.

One of the monuments, in front of the Archive of the Indies:

Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain

Cathedral

Seville’s cathedral is the biggest gothic cathedral in the world and the 3rd biggest overall. It used to be the principle mosque in Seville back under Muslim rule, but all that is left of the original structure is the marinet (now the Giralda) and the patio. You can tell the difference between the old structure and the new structure because the Muslims used brick and the Christians used stone.

Seville Cathedral, Spain

Inside the cathedral is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Columbus was originally buried in Seville, but he was moved to the Dominican Republic and then Cuba. In 1899, his body came full circle and finally came to rest in the Cathedral in Seville.

Tomb of Christopher Columbus inside the Seville Cathedral, Spain

The Muslims used the marinet (now the Giralda) to call people to prayer. Because this was done 5 times a day, the task was made easier by installing all ramps and no stairs, so that one could ride a horse or donkey up and down.

Ramp up to Giralda tower at the Seville Cathedral, Spain

The Christians retained the purpose of the Giralda but built upon it and made it a bell tower. To prove how very Christian they were, they ordered the biggest bells in Spain so that even far off villages could hear the bells and know that Seville was Christian.

Bells in the Seville Cathedral, Spain

On top of the Giralda is a statue of a woman representing faith. She turns with the wind, and the Spanish word for “turn around” is “girar”, hence the Giralda.

The view from the Giralda:

View of the Seville Cathedral

The patio of the oranges, where the current exit is, was the old entrance to the mosque.

Cathedral de Sevilla, Spain

Because the Muslims came from the desert, they valued having fruit close at hand – and this is why there are so many orange trees in Seville (and Andalusia) to this day. They’re the bitter sort, though, unfortunately! The ones that are typically used for marmalade – and according our guide, a queen of England would only eat marmalade made from the oranges of this patio.

On the side of the cathedral, there are faded red inscriptions. These are markings from the 17-18th centuries, intentional “graffiti” made by young graduating students. Once a student finished his (they were all male back then) studies, he would make his literal mark on the wall to signal that he was ready to work. They used cow’s blood for the inscription, which is why it shows up clearly to this day.

Inscriptions on the Seville Cathedral wall, Spain

However, they didn’t know that these inscriptions were here until about 10 years ago. Decades of pollution from the streets had turned the cathedral black, and it wasn’t until they cleaned off the soot that they saw what was underneath. The cleaners left a small square uncleaned, to show just how black the church got:

Uncleaned square on the wall of the Cathedral de Sevilla, Spain

City Hall

This building, currently being used as the city hall, was built for the wedding of Charles V and Isabel of Portugal. It was built during the last years of the renaissance, in the plateresque style (literally meaning “with silver,” or as delicate as silver work).

City hall building in Seville, Spain

In the corner is a cross that serves as a memorial for the inquisition, because people used to be hanged and burned in the neighboring square.

For whatever reason, there is a legend associated with this arch of the building: if you’re not married, you can’t walk under it. Or else…what? Guess I’ll find out soon, since I forgot and instinctively went through it!

Arch at the city hall building in Seville, Spain

The other side of the city hall building is completely different, build in the neoclassical style of the 19th century.

City hall building in Seville, Spain

On this side of city hall is Plaza Nueva, where locals gather every year on New Year’s Eve to partake in the Spanish tradition of eating exactly 12 grapes.

Puerta Isabel II

This bridge is an icon of Seville. It was built in the name of Isabella II and made of iron, characteristic of the 19th century.

Puerta Isabel II in Seville, Spain

The bridge connects Seville’s city center with the neighborhood of Triana. Historically, many marginalized populations like the Jews, Muslims, North Africans, and gypsies were kicked out of the city center and settled in a Triana. Here, their cultures blended together, giving rise to art forms like ceramics, pottery, and flamenco! Hence, Triana is known as the “crib of flamenco.”

A view of Triana, and a statue for flamenco:

View of Triana in Seville, Spain

Statue of a flamenco dancer in Triana, Seville, Spain

Right on the other side of the bridge is the Triana market. Before, a 10th century castle built by the Visigoths once stood there, but it was destroyed. After the Christian reconquest, it became known as Saint George castle and was the headquarters and prison of the inquisition in Seville.

Bullfighting Ring

Close to the bridge is the bullfighting ring. There used to be two in Seville, but this is the only one left because the other collapsed.

Bullfighting ring in Seville, Spain

This ring was built in the 18th century, but construction paused briefly because Charles III made bullfighting illegal. When construction stopped, people took the materials to build their own houses. And when bullfighting was legalized again and construction restarted, many of the houses were built right into the bull ring.

Bullfighting is controversial, even in Spain itself. It is not legal in Catalonia anymore, and there are much fewer shows now than there were 10 years ago (down by 40%). However, there is still a big week for bullfighting in early May.

Torre del Oro

The Torre del Oro, or “Tower of Gold,” is a 10th century Muslim watch tower. When the Vikings tried to conquer Seville and failed, this was used as a prison for the Vikings for many years.

Torre del Oro in Seville, Spain

Nobody knows why it is known as the tower of gold, but there are speculations. Some say that it was because the outside was gilded with gold, or because this was where gold from the Americas was stored (but that’s ridiculous, because they brought back waaaaay more gold than that). The explanation that our guide found to be most likely was that the sunlight in Seville is famously yellow in hue, which makes the tower look golden.

Royal Factory of tobacco

The Royal Factory of tobacco was built in the 18th century by the Spanish monarchy. It is one of the oldest and finest examples of 18th century industrial architecture.

Royal Factory of Tobacco in Seville, Spain

Tobacco production at first required muscular men to lift heavy bags. But later when the market transitioned to rolled tobacco, they needed smaller hands – hence, women. This became the biggest factory with women in Spain, a matter of pride. It’s also the factory that inspired the opera Carmen!

Since 1954, this has been transformed into Seville University. What an amazing place to study.

Plaza España

This entire Plaza España was built as the Spanish pavilion during the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. It was designed in the tradition style by Aníbal González, a brilliant architect who unfortunately died 10 days into the exposition.

Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain

Plaza Espana in Seville, Spain

Nowadays, the plaza is still a prominent attraction and being used as army offices.

Exposition buildings

There are many other buildings around Seville that were designed with the purpose of showing off Spanish culture and economic progress during the exposition.

For example, a hotel near the Alcazar, which goes for 500-600 euros a night:

Hotel in Seville, Spain

So many things to see in Seville – and this is all without having mentioned the Alcazar, coming up next!

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.