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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Granada’s Arabian Night


“It’s impossible” We are told repeatedly.


“No one can get tickets to the Alhambra unless they book many months in advance.” The hotel concierge shakes his head at us. 

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“I have friends who booked their tickets four months before they came here.  If you cannot book online then it’s impossible.  Enjoy the rest of Granada.” He adds before shrugging his way out of the small cubicle in which we sit, along with the hotels only working computer.  We had coaxed him into helping us muddle our way through Spanish websites when we couldn’t buy tickets on the Alhambra Palace’s website but he had other guests to attend to.  None of the guidebooks that we had both meticulously read before getting to Andalucia mention anything about booking ahead.  It seems hopeless and we only have one night in Granada to see the Alhambra after having spent the larger part of our trip in Seville and Cordoba


“What a shame.  It is the most beautiful of all the palaces.” The receptionist calls out to us when we finally walk away from the computer screen.   News of our desperation had spread out among the amused staff at the front desk and even a hotel cleaner or two. 


I am on my yearly trip away with a best friend, an escape ritual newly begun when we decided that we needed time for us, away from family responsibilities and schedules and commitments.  Andalucia in Spain’s southern region, had always held special sway, and I longed to experience its special blend of Moorish and Spanish history.  We are visiting in May when the weather seamlessly flows from hot days with the sun beating down on our faces, to cold breezy nights that surprise our progressively tanning bodies into grabbing pashminas and light sweaters before an outdoor dinner.  It is the region of citrus groves and olive trees.  Lemons grow as large as oranges before dropping from trees in swollen relief so that the ground below is pitted with them.  But they also grow on trees along pavements, on the edges of roads and in small random patches of garden on side streets.  On one of our walks in Seville a few days earlier, I pick up a lemon from below the tree it had fallen from and its smell lingers on my fingers for hours before I cut it open to release its intense sweet and sour scent.  We taste citrus everywhere: in the blood red orange juice we drink at breakfast or to cool us off in the heat of the afternoon, and in the lemons squeezed onto the exquisite tapas and sweet tomato gazpacho we had been devouring for lunch and dinner throughout Seville and Cordoba. 


We regroup over a small dish of herb infused olives in the hotel lobby.  We would go to Alhambra anyway, we decide.  We would resort to tears if required, we agree.  Spain is the land of chivalry; surely no one could resist crying women. 


Granada makes up one of the eight provinces of Andalucia (from the Arabic word Al Andalus given to it during the period of Muslim rule from around 711 to 1492 when language, art, culture and science flourished) and although the region is vast and varied, its cities feel slightly distinct in their history and culture.  Granada’s beauty is certainly in its landscape, its old town squares and in its cobbled neighborhoods that rise high into mountain cliffs, but the ancient Alhambra palace that sits high above the city with its stone outline set against the sky somehow feels like the ultimate sight.


We make our way to the Alhambra slowly, starting on flat ground and working our way up.  We walk around the area surrounding the Plaza Nueva, Granada’s oldest town square, where large outdoor cafes line a wide avenue.  It feels like a young city and their numbers are added to by the out of town school age groups learning Spanish while touring museums and cathedrals.   We spend time walking among the crowds of people making their way in and out of restaurants and shops that branch out of the Plaza Nueva, before moving upwards to the Albaicin area where streets are sloped and labyrinthed, curling around each other and creating a maze along and inside of which everything sits.  It is here that Granada goes from being a bustling Spanish city to a mystical, prehistoric place where trinkets, like patterned jewelry boxes in Arabic designs and flamenco dresses, fill shops built into the side of the cliffs.  The streets are narrow and the slopes high.  We happen to be there on a Saturday, a busy day for weddings, and watch brides go into and come out of the small churches in the neighborhoods.  A good omen we say while the Alhambra taunts us from its perch. 


“We still have tickets available for 10.30pm.” The woman behind the glass ticket counter says when we finally make it to the top.


“We’ll take them.” We are giddy with relief.  But it is still late afternoon and we have a few hours to fill up until then.


“You can see the gardens now.  There is no limit on the number of visitors to the gardens.” We are given our answer. 


The lushness and color of the gardens set against the darker fortress-like structures of the Alhambra create a breathtaking contrast.  The roses, in deep red and pink and all shades in between, stand high around the trees or along the hedges, without seeming to need any support.  They generously waft their rose water scent towards anyone who comes close for a whiff and they are everywhere, within and out of walled off gardens hiding fountains and pools in their folds.  Fountains, a common architectural construct in old Arab homes, sweep through the Alhambra gardens.  We hear them before we see them and the sound of water hitting against tiles creates a soothing background melody to the scenery.  Horseshoe shaped structures that surround some of the gardens include intricate Arabic carvings with the name of God inscribed in repeated detail.  It isn’t difficult to imagine lovers’ footsteps running through the courtyards centuries ago and getting lost in their meditative allure.  The Sierra Nevada mountain range seems close, their snowy peaks, even in May, look like cream has been melted on them from above.   We stay for hours, discovering as we go along that our tickets also give us access to the old Hammam with its cool interior built next to the Mezquita, or the Mosque, the fortress towers and the old city gates. 


But it is when night falls that we are gripped by the magnificence of the Alhambra.   To see it against the darkness is to experience it in all its fantastic and magical glory.  It is sensual and stunning all at once, it’s ethereal and shadowy beauty almost too much to take in.  The smell of jasmine and other night time flowers rise when daylight drops so that they hover in the air behind us.  Their scents play a game of hide and seek with us and we are not quite certain which direction they’re coming from.   We walk down large cobbled roads with the city lights of Granada flickering below us but it is the ancient palace that glows golden ahead.  The Nasrid dynasty, the Caliphs that ruled Granada at the time the palace was built, are said to have wanted to create paradise on earth and although relatively modest materials were used for building, like tiles, marble, plaster and timber, it is dazzling in its beauty.  The Salon de Embajadores, or the throne room, is a marvel of the seven heavens of the Muslim cosmos, the Sala de las Dos Hermanas’ giant honeycomb dome is constructed to give the feeling of honey about to drip down.  The pattern of the ceiling in the Sala de los Abencerrajes, named after a noble family, is said to have been inspired by Pythagoras’ theorem and the Patio de los Leones, or the Patio of the Lions has slender marble columns that surround a fountain resting on 12 marble lions.  As night time settles deeper around us, the crowds lessen and we find that we have some of the palace rooms to ourselves for a few minutes at a time. Inside their hushed walls, the spirits of the people that lived in the Alhambra, feel close.  We leave close to midnight, and only when we are ushered out, charged and invigorated by the intricacies that we have just seen etched into the walls and the ceilings of the palace.  Granada’s Alhambra is painfully beautiful in its imposing delicateness and its thousand and one nights’ atmosphere.  It is an example of the merging of the best of East and West, of the Arab and Spanish world. 



© Ruba Abughaida







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