Granada, Spain and the Moorish Marvels of Andalusia

The pim-pam sounds of a man playing a hand-pan instrument warp me back to when I was 11. I was sitting at my family’s old Window’s XP desktop computer playing a game: Age of Empires. It was a real-time strategy game where the player takes on the conquests of history as the commander of a civilization. I thank that game for my love of history by making it interactive. The same instrument could be heard in that game, though punctuated by the shrill trumpet of impending attack or war.

I don’t want to bore you with my nerdiness. The history of southern Spain is fascinating. The Iberian peninsula held a Muslim stronghold in Granada for several centuries.  Eventually, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I, now presiding over a unified “Spain”, undertook the “Reconquesta” and pushed Muslims in Spain further and further south. Granada was one of the last historic refuges of Islam in Spain before its fall in 1492. The history bears a dark blemish, though. After the fall of Granada, a multi-step royal decree ordered forced conversion of Muslims to Christianity. Persecution followed, and finally expulsion of the Moors from Spain altogether. Despite all of this, some of the culture and architecture survived. This was what I was excited to see.

Our first full day centered around the Alhambra. A word to the wise, book tickets ahead of time if you are visiting. They were all sold out when we checked. One blog mentioned lining up at 6:30AM for tickets, while another noted that any cancelled tickets are re-released at midnight for that day. So, I set an alarm for midnight, and sure enough a few of the ticket categories had a handful of tickets. We were only able to grab tickets for the Alcazaba (military complex), the Jardines (gardens), and Generalife (separate palace and gardens).

The Alhambra area is a fair bit above Granada and required some steps and time to walk there. The views from the top of the Alcabaza ramparts were excellent. The nearby snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains swept in cold winds. We bundled up closer as we stared across the sea of white-washed Andalusian style houses that seemed to stretch all the way to another far-off mountain range. Other, less famous, palace complexes with crumbling walls could be seen across the expanse.

Hedgerows in the patterns of stars, spirals, and square mazes framed colorful orange and rose gardens. Arched palace pavilions reflected across calm tranquil pools stretched before them. The symmetry was impeccable and the design work was so non-western and exotic to my eyes. If we had ample food and water, I am sure I would have spent the entirety of a day gazing at the art around me. It was a dream fulfilled to see such representation of history.

These sights were amazing in themselves and we spent hours wandering the gardens and complex, but this limited ticket meant we would miss the ACTUAL Alhambra palace, which was disappointing. However, the following night, I tried the same midnight login tactic and scored tickets for a night viewing of the famed Nasrid palaces at 8PM. After hiking back up the hill for the second day in a row, Hannah and I made friends with 2 older English women in line. They were both widows who had lost their husbands, live in France, and travel together frequently. They told us interesting history about the French demarcation line in WW2 and how some families are still ostracized in those communities to this very day and refuse to look at one another in public as they pass on the street.

Intricate, honeycombed designs and Arabic words and symbols were carved deep into the door frames, mantles, and ceilings of several buildings. It went on and on and one could get lost in following the patterns. The “keyhole” doors and gates were everywhere and it felt like we had been transported back in time as we walked the remnants of the palace complex. Our night visit was particularly memorable. Moonlight reflected from the tranquil rectangle ponds illuminated intricately decorated courtyards and passageways.

Much of the success of our trip hinged on sheer luck at times. Sunday afternoon, we explored the northern section of Granada to find out that 5 of the major museums were free on Sundays. With a shrug, we took up the challenge. El Banuelo’s ancient skylights of stars, squares, and octagons shed light on its ancient past as a bathhouse. Casa Arabe de Horno del Oro’s inner courtyard reflected the typical Moorish symmetrical arches back at me from across the complex. It held a feeling of calmness and tranquility. Casa del Chapiz now features the School of Arab Studies, but was once another similar courtyard. Its beautiful gardens provided beautiful vantage of the Alhambra on the hill across the city.

One day, our ears were met with the rythmic patterns of chanting and a drum beat. We exchanged worried glances. Protests and marches can often bring trouble or adverse reaction in countries where rights and customs work differently. To our surprise, a small group of about 40 marchers slowly ambled down the main thoroughfare with a police escort. They were all aged approximately 60’s-80’s. Hannah and I ducked into a store selling Iberian ham for a quick bite and, in our best broken Spanglish, asked the young man working the register what it was about. He explained the protest march was about state pensions and the group marches quite regularly, about every 2 weeks.

Hannah and I often handled ordinary life tasks, but in strange new places. At times, it could be both exceedingly difficult and time consuming. Finding ibuprofen, feminine hygiene products, or contact solution are all examples of things that need to be replenished from to time, and at well planned times too in case we were headed to a region that did not carry such things. One task we undertook in Granada was a haircut for me. It was hands down the most professional haircut of my life. The barbershop was owned by a father and son team who spoke no English. They zipped scissors, razors, and straight edge blades around necks and heads. During the trip, I was admittedly always nervous getting my hair cut, as language barriers and pictures made it difficult. But they did a great job and I was very happy with it, all for $11.

Another evening we meandered the shopping area of Granada, looking at exotic mosaic lamps, leather goods, and flamenco dresses. We knew much of this would continue in Morocco, but it was fun to look. We stopped into a small Mediterranean restaurant for dinner. At the entrance, I moved out of the way of a well dressed Spanish man. He said something in English and his accent sounded American, so I struck up conversation. He explained he lives between Chicago and Seattle but was originally from the south of Spain. He held very strong opinions supporting “America first” political ideologies. He had served in the military and casually explained the United States defense and foreign policy budgets are still inflated from the Cold War and its aftermath. According to him, the south of Spain was largely subsidized by its government and the USA. Regionally, it served as an excellent way to curtail any Soviet threats in or around the precious shipping lane that is the Strait of Gibraltar. We parted ways with a smile and Hannah and I were left musing through dinner about how much was true, the man seemed very knowledgeable and authoritative about the material discussed. It was added to the list of “things to look up later”.


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