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If you only have a day in Granada, Spain: then you must visit the Moorish citadel of Alhambra.

A Muslim poet described it as a great ruby set in a crowning hill overlooking Granada in southern Spain, and today the Alhambra still sits, like an acropolis, dominating the city below on the fringe of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Moorish palace complex--with its gardens, fortifications, and royal buildings--is one of Europe's most popular tourist attractions, drawing eight million visitors a year. Yet modern scholars believe it was probably built more for appearances than for longevity, the last bastion of Islamic conquerors who ruled and influenced Spain for 750 years.

The story of Islamic dominance in Spain began in 711, when Moors from Tangier invaded Gibraltar. Subsequent groups fanned out across the Iberian Peninsula, establishing stronghold after stronghold. It was a feat easily accomplished because the Spanish king at the time, Roderick, was widely considered incompetent and unpopular, and the Muslim invaders promised property and financial rewards to anyone converting to Islam. Thousands of Jews and Christians fell into line as a result, and Moorish control spread across Spain until the 13th century. Subsequent civil, religious, and political unrest, however, led to a steady decline in Islamic rule until it was consolidated, with a great deal of political finesse, at Granada by Al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty.

While ruins of buildings and a fortress--some dating back to Roman times--were already there on Sabika Hill overlooking the city, it was Al-Ahmar who moved the dynasty seat and court to this location around 1232, and began constructing what is today's Alhambra (Arabic for "The Red Castle"). It evolved, through a process of continuous remodeling, demolition, and reconstruction over two-and-half centuries, to become an urban complex of military fortresses and quarters, civilian housing and workshops, royal palaces and gardens. The strategic setting overlooking Granada, now Spain's fifth largest city, had both aesthetic and military value. And the Alhambra was built bit by bit with an eye for both climatic appeal and structural beauty. With its intricate interior designs, flowering gardens, imposing fortifications, and intimate living quarters, it was meant to impress anyone, at any time of the year, and in all types of weather.

Our introduction was on a rainy day in November. A substantial number of Alhambra visitors are from cruise ships sailing seasonally through the Mediterranean; ours was a repositioning cruise aboard Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf, which called at the cosmopolitan city of Malaga on Spain's Costa del Sol. Along the divided highway outside town, orange groves, asparagus, and rice covered much of the fertile plains, but it was the spindly trees of olive groves that seemed to stretch forever across the white, rocky fields along the hundred-mile route. Our bus left the main highway, skirted congested Granada, and rose to the top of the hill into the Alhambra.

From the entrance pavilion, there are three distinct and official itineraries for visiting the whole Alhambra monument, beginning at the original entrance, known as the Wine Gate, in the Plaza de los Aljibes. The three independent areas are the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces, and the Generalife, and they can be visited in any order. A Spanish guide makes this decision, and a good guide is essential in understanding anything about this palace complex, where more than 3,000 people once lived in compact conditions as workers, soldiers, servants, and royalty. It's virtually impossible to absorb very much in a three- or four-hour tour, making a book purchase at an Alhambra shop a must. Once back in the U.S., the most comprehensive and beautifully illustrated book we could find was Alhambra by Michael Jacobs (published in 2000 and available through most libraries).

We started our tour at the Generalife, more-or-less working backwards in time. Originally conceived in 1391 as a working garden with orchards, vegetables, and even livestock, the Generalife evolved into rose gardens, fountains, pools, hedges, flowering bushes, and villas that were rebuilt and remodeled over four centuries. A royal palace here was meant as a quiet retreat, and despite the throngs of visitors pushing through archways and along narrow garden walkways, it remains essentially tranquil.

Catholic monarchs greatly altered the Nasrid buildings after the 1492 conquest. The grounds were also extended in the 1950s, and pavilions were extensively rebuilt after a 1959 fire. Even so, according to Jacob's book, elements of ideal Islamic gardens--including south-facing positions, terraces of different heights, a central open pavilion for afternoon siestas, shaded paths, and other features--are still in place.

Most of the crowds reach this point in late afternoon, when the setting sun softens the worn reality of today's Alhambra. It's a good time to see both interior and exterior aspects of the place and use your imagination. Romantic travelers have long been giving the Alhambra a lofty image as a place of enchantment. It was legendary in Europe by the mid 18th century, and literary descriptions of it fixed images in people's minds long before travelers actually saw it for themselves. American author Washington Irving, who passed through in 1829, also put it on the must-see tourist list with a book called Tales Of A Traveller, The Alhambra. These and subsequent tales reinforced the romantic mystique of the place, building the Alhambra's reputation as a Moorish haven replete with harems, turbaned sultans, and mysterious intrigue.

The least intriguing section--albeit the most physically daunting--is the military compound of the Alhambra. The Alcazaba is a fortified triangular section separated from the rest of the royal complex by walls dating back to the 11th century, when the Zirids ruled Granada. The Nasrids linked the fortress walls with the Alhambra walls and built four defensive towers, the most imposing of which is the 100-foot-high Watch Tower that provides a great view of the city and surrounding countryside. Housing for an elite military hierachy is contained inside the Alcazaba triangle, which, when viewed from the air, looks like the bow of a giant ship.

After the Muslims were evicted from the Alhambra, Charles V of Spain began building a massive palace in an area behind the Alcazaba walls in a location roughly equivalent to the ship's bridge or superstructure. It was and still is a controversial project, which went on for 42 years until a rebellion of disgruntled taxpayers put a halt to it. Today the massive structure houses a fine arts museum and exhibition room, but its coliseum-like architecture seems quite out of sync with the delicate touches reserved for the adjacent palaces, the final stop on our tour.

It was late in the afternoon when we were led into the Nasrid Palaces, the Alhambra's most intimate, beautiful, and mysterious section. The complex of rooms, courtyards, and halls conjure up the broadest images of royal Arab life. Beyond the Mexuar, where visiting dignitaries awaited an audience with the sultan, lies the famous Court of the Myrtles, around which is built the Comares Palace, a jewel of Islamic art. The dramatic Court (and Fountain) of the Lions, also surrounded by palace buildings built between 1362 and 1391, is probably the zenith of Nasrid architecture and ornamentation. The mystery lies in the question of planning, and how all of it was utilized. Lacking furniture or other clues, you are only limited by your imagination--and a guide's conjecture--as to what people did in these ornate rooms.

What is clear to the visitor is that, given the intricacy and artistic effort put into the decor, life would have been conducted under some dazzling circumstances. The walls are a geometric complex of designs with inlaid carvings made out of stucco and plaster. Even with the original colors now long-faded out, the effect is mesmerizing. In most rooms, glazed tiles in a kaleidoscope of colors lead up to the higher ornamentations. Russets and creams change hue as sunlight and shadow pass through the arched doorways and through the wood-carved windows. According to Jacobs' book, it is a miracle that all this has lasted. Almost all of it was crafted in plaster, wood, and tiles rather than tougher materials.

What it was all about still remains largely a mystery. Centuries of Moorish influence in Spain are apparent all over the country, but nowhere is the ambiguous mystique of the Arab world stronger than at the Alhambra.

Most major cruise lines plying the Mediterranean call on Malaga in season, and usually offer day excursions to Granada and the Alhambra. Check the Cruise Calendar and with your travel agent for details. Your agent will also have more information about Granada and the Alahambra; or contact the Tourist Office of Spain (Cruise Travel Magazine), 666 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10103; or log on to
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Author:Kerr, Jim
Publication:Cruise Travel
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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