Huyen Chi

To the traveler imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, the Alhambra of Granada is as much an object of veneration as is the Kaaba, or sacred house of Mecca, to all true Moslem pilgrims…” – Washington Irving’s “The Tales of the Alhambra

Elegant Arab architecture within the Alhambra

Granada does not shine with glamor, but holds as much romance as a love letter. Since the start of the 8th century, Granada belonged to the Moors who originally came from North Africa. While most of Europe was deep in slumber during the Middle Ages, cities in the Al-Andalus region reached pinnacles of luxury and civilization. By the end of the 15th century, Spanish kings had reclaimed the city and renamed it Granada.

After being in the hands of wealthy Arab kings for nearly 800 years, and following its Spanish re-conquest at a time when Renaissance arts were gaining prominence in Europe, Granada became the point where two cultures merged. Granada bears the influence of Muslim arts, and was given new life by the Renaissance wave and Baroque-style arts. As a result, when exploring Granada, you can feel a somber and mysterious, yet romantic and open atmosphere, distinctive of North Africa or Western Europe.

The Alhambra’s carved motifs resemble those in Morocco, but are better preserved

The most ancient part of Granada lies on two opposite hills, parted by the Darro River. On one side lies the Alhambra Palace. On the other lie the old Muslim district of Albayzin and the neighborhood of Sacromonte, traditionally inhabited by Gypsies.

As a palace and a fortress, the Alhambra takes its name from Arabic “al-Qal’a Al-Hamrā” meaning the Red Fortress. The Alhambra fortress was once the royal palace of the Nasrid dynasty. Sultans and princes brought the most magnificent features of 13-15th century Arab architecture here, cementing Granada’s fame as one of Europe’s wealthiest cities at the time. As such, the Alhambra was an incarnation of heaven on earth.

Elegant Arab architecture within the Alhambra

Today, the Alhambra has become a UNESCO heritage, welcoming thousands of tourists every day. Each of the four complexes of Generalife palace, El Partal gardens, Alcazaba towers, and Nazaries palace has its own charms, which add to the beauty of the Alhambra.

The Generalife lies outside the walls of the Alhambra. It was once the summer palace of the Nasrid royal families. While not quite as grand as the rest of the palace, the Generalife feels calm and gentle. The palace lies in the heart of intersecting waterways, purple irises, colorful roses, and cool green woods.

Leaving the Generalife, one should wander to the El Partal gardens. El Partal is layered into many levels, connected by staircases, to create many spectacular and unique views. El Partan contains a lovely mix of Saracen and Gothic arts. The pathways resemble those in French gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries mixed with an ancient touch from the tales of the Arabian Nights. At dusk and dawn, I loved to wander here. Strolling around the El Partal gardens when day turns to night feels like living in a dream.

The Alcazaba towers mark the highest point of the Alhambra. If you climb up the Alcazaba on a windy afternoon, you will have the chance to see the other side of Granada. In the front, the Albayzin spreads out on a hill, dotted here and there with green patches of cypress trees. On the right looms the silhouette of the Sacromonte neighborhood. 

The famed Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) in the Nazaries Palaces

The highlight of the Alhambra is the Nazaries Palaces, a treasure trove of Arab art and architecture in Europe. The palaces’ grand beauty extends to their perfect surroundings. The white castle lies among dreamy gardens and lush woodlands, true to ancient Arab poets’ praise in comparing it to “a pearl set in emeralds”. The Nazaries Palaces are in fact a complex comprised of various connecting chambers, galleries, and courtyards. Each wall, column, and roof is covered with mosaics and carved with delicate Arab calligraphy patterns. If you have been amazed by Morocco’s ancient palaces and schools, you will be astonished by the Nazaries Palaces.