Thursday, April 03, 2014

A rainy birthday in the Alhambra



My Lovely Wife woke up on her Birthday Abroad to the sound of pouring rain. Actually, we had a pretty clear idea of what was going on much earlier due to the incessant dripping coming off the edge of the roof tiles. It’s been interesting on this trip, far more inclement weather than we’ve had in previous years.

After a round of wash in the Laundry Cave we went down the now very slippery slopes to the square in search of coffee. I stopped and had a nice chat in Spanglish about mountain bikes with the young man who was working in the newsstand. There are a lot of riders here, on fancy bikes and in full kit racing up and down the near vertical streets. A moment doesn’t go by without someone racing past, and this level of dedication makes you understand why there are so many more professional cyclists from Europe. He asked about my bike and told me he was saving for a Trek. Just one more little cross-cultural moment.

We found a table at Café Lisboa, the Marta Recommended coffee shop just off the square. Sitting behind us were 3 French teenagers, I assumed college students until we them later with a school group. Very fancy, just a fashionable amount of snotty and off course ordering separate checks for their 3 coffees. In English. When they left the server said “gracias” and they walked out without even a sideways glance.

Our coffee was excellent, a big cup and a Napolitano that was almost certainly the best I’ve had in Spain. Loaded with chocolate and very fresh. We went on towards the cathedral figuring that we would kill a half hour there before catching the city bus up the hill to the Alhambra, our goal for the day. I had finally managed to secure my reserved tickets at the Alhambra Bookstore just off the plaza. It turned out to be very simple, plug your credit card in the machine and they spit right out. Of course I started with the wrong credit card but that was an easy fix. Both my attempts in Sevilla had been entertaining, but useless in the end.

It was really pouring now and the water spitting out of the gargoyles on the top of the big church – second largest in Spain – looked like a fire hose. Everyone walking below give the waterfalls a wide berth, but walking on the now amply flooded marble sidewalks was treacherous in spite of careful route planning. Rounding the corner we made our way inside and paid. The crazy panhandler from the night before was thankfully nowhere to be seen.

I’m coming to the opinion of if you’ve seen one of these enormous churches, you’ve seen them all. They seem to be only distinguished in the amount of glitz. Notre-Dame was a bit different, being built of gray rock and considerably more austere. This place followed the model of Segovia and Toledo – a clear message of the conquering of Islam in Al-Andaluz. It’s said that King Ferdinand so wanted to make a point about the conclusion of the Reconquista here in Granada that he elected to build this pile on top of the ruined Grand Mosque instead of using a more favorable building spot a few hundred yards away. I guess if you’re a kind with a point to make, you’re going to make it as loudly as you can.

Overall the place was worth a visit, lots of gold and wood and hand carved plaster and in general quite impressive. The hours are weird though - it’s open twice a day for about 3 hours each time and precisely at 1:15 a guard came by and told us to beat it. So out we went, back into the rain where luckily the bus showed up almost instantly.

As we climbed up and up out of the heart of the city I was impressed by two things. First just how many people the driver was willing to cram on this microbus and secondly how glad I was that we didn’t walk. In the first case, it was not unlike the Beijing subway at rush hour on a rainy dam. Damp sardines crammed into too small a can. Relative to the second case, I like to walk and eschew public transportation unless weather or distance make it the wiser choice. As this trip amply demonstrated, both weather and distance would have been against us. I’d estimate it would have been at least an hour bent at 45 degrees forward with the rain running down the back of my neck. The 20 minutes amid the damp throng was worth it by far.

We were now in a very lush, dense forest dotted with nice homes and fancy cars. The Alhambra sits on two hills overlooking the river valley and from this perspective seemed quite impregnable. We had our tickets so we were able to enter via a different gate and without hanging around with a mess of tourists. Like everything else Alhambra, there were more rules including an entry time. And 2:30 meant 2:30 so we had some time to kill, visiting the amazing building that King Charles V had built here in the heart of the formerly Muslim stronghold. A perfect, two story circle in the center of a perfect square, the acoustics in the center are incredible – you whisper and you hear yourself as though you were another person talking in your ear. I sang a few bars of my favorite song from grade 12 Spanish and did the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk call. It was amazing. His son Felipe was supposed to finish it with a dome but decided instead to build the Escorial outside of Madrid.

The Alhambra was the final stronghold of the Muslims in Spain and the culmination of their 700 year presence on the peninsula. While the rest of Europe was happy to live in mud, the Nazarids were supporting the arts and sciences in this most cosmopolitan fortress on a hill. I could probably write 5000 words about just how beautiful, peaceful and subtle the place was but I’ll let the photos do the talking (as always, click to enlarge.) Every nook and niche was either tiled, carved or painted in some fantastic way. Room after room, each surpassing the previous getting to the point of beauty overload, assuming that’s even possible. The Plaza of the Lions was my favorite, but some of the smaller spaces were more pleasant. We sat a couple of times in shady courtyards, listening to the birds and the bubbling water and breeze in the trees, all conspiring to wash away the loud Englishman making travel arrangements on his cell phone while his wife took photos with her iPad. The place was crowded, but on the whole the people seemed very respectful of the space. More so than in other sites we’ve visited. Perhaps this much beauty and tranquility can have a calming influence on the worst of tourists.

The Palace tour drops out in the Generalife Gardens, the former farms that supported the population of the castle. You wander around the outer edges of a ravine, surrounded by flowers and trees and even some big beds of garlic and artichoke before winding up at the Generalife Palace, the summer home of the Caliph. Much less flamboyant and considerably simpler than its giant cousin across the way, the location takes advantage of winds coming up the Darro valley to cool the open upper floors. The Caliph lived in only two rooms during the hot season and spent his days lounging among the shade in the inner courtyards.

From there, it was a walk back down the hill to the main entrance and back to the bus. We’ve now been to the 3 major Islamic sites in southern Spain - this place, the Alcazar in Sevilla and the Mezquita in Cordoba. I think my favorite remains the Mezquita for its absolutely stunning beauty. The Alhambra and Alcazar are close, with the Alhambra being the slight winner based on sheer volume and a few extraordinary spots (The Lions for example.) Interestingly Casa Pilatos in Sevilla is in many ways better than both as it was built and designed to mimic the Islamic/Mudejar style and so in the details it is often perfect. Less history, but sincere in its flattery and so quite beautiful. Overall though, the Alhambra is a place everyone should try to visit.

There were many less people on the bus ride into town. A grandma got on at one of the lower levels and I offered her my seat. She smiled and refused and touched my hand to say “it’s okay.” We made it to the cathedral stop and everyone unloaded. We headed up a side street to a taparia that Marta had recommended only to be told that they were closing, after we sat down. So back to our now favorite hangout – Los Diamantes – for the Surtido de Pescado (tour of fish) and a plate of the best garlic mushrooms that I’ve ever eaten. The tour wasn’t bad either - shrimp, cod and the sweetest sardines I’ve even eaten, all lightly breaded and freshly deep fried. A caña of beer and a cup of tinto to start and a free plate of olive oil coated tomatoes to top it all off. We sat and ate and watched people wander by in the rain.

(click on the photo for an enlarged view)












 










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