The Magnificent Alhambra

Yesterday, Mary and I made our third pilgrimage to The Alhambra, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, looming over the ancient city of Granada. It is a stunning example of Islamic architecture and a symbol of Moorish power and the shifting tides of Christian rule in Spain. If anything, we were even more impressed this time as we learned new information about this sprawling complex and the people who lived there.

Both the Berbers and Romans had fortifications on the hilltop site, but it wasn’t until the 13th century that Moorish leader Mohammed I laid the groundwork for the Alhambra, constructing defensive fortifications and a royal residence. His was the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula as Christian rulers fought to reclaim Spain after centuries of Moorish rule.

Until the 15th century, the Alhambra flourished. Its three royal palaces housed the Sultans, their families, court officials, guards, servants, and artisans. They built extensive water, sewer, and irrigation systems that can still be seen today. A large part of the complex grounds were planted with mulberry trees that supported the silk industry and thrived under Moorish rule. Much of the Sultan’s wealth came from silk exports from Granada.

In 1492, the Christian Reconquista led by the Christian Queen and King Isabella and Ferdinand captured Granada and the Alhambra became a Christian court. Some interior decorations were damaged or removed, but the overall structure remained.

Alhambra’s architectural sore thumb is a blocky Renaissance-style palace added by Spain’s King Charles I who didn’t live to see it completed. A church also was built there in the 16th century. Despite these changes, the Alhambra has endured restorations and survived threats over the centuries to draw millions of visitors every year to marvel at this world treasure.

Highlights of our tour:

The Nasrid Palaces: These architectural marvels are the most famous parts of the Alhambra, lavishly decorated with tile, plasterwork, and wood to resemble paradise on Earth. Each is breathtaking, no matter how many times you see them. The most photographed palace is the Court of Lions, which has a central fountain surrounded by 12 lions.

The Alcazaba: This is the oldest part of the Alhambra, dating back to the 11th century. It’s a massive fortress with thick walls and towers that offer sweeping views of Granada.

The Generalife: This was the Sultans’ summer palace. It’s located on a hill outside the Alhambra and has beautiful gardens, fountains, and pavilions.

The Charles V Palace: This is a massive Renaissance palace that was built in the 16th century on top of part of the Alhambra. It’s in stark contrast to the simple but stunning Islamic architecture of the rest of the complex.

The gardens: The Alhambra has several beautiful gardens, both pleasure gardens for strolling and vegetable gardens and orchards that feed the complex residents. Water features, practical and ornamental, abound, adding music to flower-filled displays.

The views: The Alhambra’s hilltop perch offers stunning views of Granada and the surrounding mountains, often snow-capped.

Warning: Do not plan to eat at the restaurant adjacent to the Parador Granada on the Alhambra grounds. The menu is limited and very expensive and the service or lack of it was appalling. There are many better tapas bars and restaurants just a short walk down the hill to the city center.

Tickets to the Alhambra are required and can sell out in advance, so be sure to book well before your trip. A tour guide is strongly encouraged. You can walk to the Alhambra from Granada, but it’s a chore going up the hill. Public buses, taxis, and Uber are better choices. Good walking shoes are a must. No food is allowed into the complex. Bottled water is OK. There are several shops where you can get snacks, drinks and souvenirs. Be sure and bring a physical photo ID (digital versions on a phone or paper copies won’t work) along with your paper ticket. It will be checked at least twice as you enter various areas of the Alhambra.

We ended up walking close to seven miles yesterday. Here are a few of my photos of our visit.