A visit to the Alhambra encompasses history and beauty, art, architecture and nature. There is much to admire and enjoy and, with a minimum of preparation, it is satisfyingly easy to visit.
We travelled to Granada from Nerja, an hour’s easy drive on quiet motorways. The Alhambra is well signposted and reached via a ring road and approach road avoiding any heavy traffic. There is plentiful parking only a few hundred meters from the site entrance.
There are a limited number of tickets available to buy on the day but I would recommend buying online in advance; there is a time slot limitation for the Nasrite palaces and it’s easier to plan your visit around this. The rest of the site is open to you all day long on your ticket. The website recommended printing your tickets but we simply used the email on my phone and they scanned the tickets easily from there. You will be asked for your tickets several times so if relying on your phone make sure you don’t run out of charge. You’ll also be asked for your passport so carry it with you.
There are three main sections to the complex – the palaces, The Alcazaba and the gardens (Generalife). You must enter the palace complex at the time shown on your ticket but otherwise can visit in any sequence and take as long as you like. Three hours will allow you to take in everything at a leisurely pace; bear in mind that here inland the temperatures in the middle of the day can rise uncomfortably, although there are plenty of shaded garden spaces to be enjoyed.
We began by visiting the gardens of the Generalife while the morning was still cool. This complex of gardens and palace is a mixture of old and new plantings but retains many of the typical features of Islamic gardens, such as symmetry and the gentle flow of water.
From here we headed towards the Alcazaba, along Casa Real. Here you can enter the bath complex, where the gloom is enlightened by the sun streaming through the star shaped ventilation spaces in the roof.
Next one passes St Mary’s church and the Renaissance facade of the palace of Charles V. It seems rather incongruous to encounter a palazzo which would seem right at home in Florence as the dynastic home of one of the banking families. The interior is a circular amphitheatre set up as a concert venue. The upper floor houses a gallery of Spanish religious art. It’s a noticeable contrast from the Islamic art to come in the palaces where the representation of the human form is expressly forbidden.
Next one passes through the Gate of Wine to reach the Alcazaba. This is the oldest part of the complex, set up as a fortress with towers and walls surrounding a central courtyard. The highest tower, affording wonderful views over the Alhambra, Granada and the countryside is the Torre de la Vela. Again, there are beautiful gardens, the Garden of the Poets, as one departs the Alcazaba.
The Royal House complex consists of several groups of palaces with surrounding courtyards. The main division is between the Moslem part of the structure, encountered first and the 16th century Christian structures, which are of less interest.
First one enters the mexuar, an administrative centre much altered over the years and as such somewhat discordant on the eye; it does however retain some fine tiling and stucco work.
From here one exits into the Court of the Mexuar and can appreciate the beauty of the facade of the Chamber of Comares.
Next one passes the Court of the Myrtles, built in the purest tradition of Arabic architecture with its central pool flanked by myrtle hedges. The south portico abuts the Palace of Charles V.
I recommend taking time to look around for the smaller details of the architecture, in particular the fine carvings and always look up; the ceilings are breathtaking.
The interior of the Tower of Comares is taken up by the Sala de la Barca which leads into the Salon de Embajadores, which is where the then Muslim leaders surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella, transferring rule to the Christian monarchy.
The next part of the palace complex, the Chamber of the Lions, is to me the most interesting part, not least because it seems to fuse East and West with its echoes of the cloister of a medieval monastery. Like much Moslem architecture it is a harmony of symmetry; from the entrance portico and each of the three halls which adjoin the courtyard, channels of running water converge on the central fountain with twelve lions.
The three rooms adjoining the courtyard, the Sala de Abencerrajes, Sala de los Reyes and Sala de las Dos Hermanas are characterised by vaulted stalactite ceilings and windows overlooking adjacent palaces and gardens.
One then passes through the Christian part of the palace; the rooms here held little interest apart from affording views of the garden of Daraxa.
And so one enters the grounds again, free to explore once again the other parts of the complex or to wander back to the exit as we did, pausing to enjoy one final view composed of the harmony between buildings and nature which makes the Alhambra a very special place to visit.