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Wednesday, April 30, 2008


One of the things I loved about Granada was its marvelous 'art' graffiti. On my last day there I went around and took some pictures. Here are a few:

For Chrissie, a note about food:
A total failure for me! I didn't do much homework and I went to tourist places sometimes, sometimes not, so maybe I deserved some bad luck.
I had high hopes for tapas (especially since I think of them as having the right scale, ie small so you can try several) but found that in Granada, and Malaga too, tapas are served in large portions - way too much food and way too expensive. I also found that the boquerones that I love from tapas places in the States, light, white, slightly vinegary anchovies, in Spain are the big red ones deep fried. Not very interesting.

Once I got brave and had "Riso Nero" - rice with squid ink and seafood. A tourist place, a mistake. Too much, too salty, the rice undercooked and the seafood overcooked, all combined with truly bad service. For shame! My only really good meals were breakfasts at the hotel which included a lovely very fresh cheese, served in little half moon bits with a tiny piece of jellied orange on top, fresh bread, fresh orange juice, and of course wonderful coffee. I never did find one of the famous 'tearooms' in the Albaycin open. Darn!

I did have one good sushi meal though - the first in months!


The Courtyard of the Lions, or as I think it was meant, "the Court of the Lions," is the center of that part of the palaces most people think was the most private. Of course this led to lots of romantic speculations about the harem and its princesses, about the kings and even about dreadful conflicts and revenges. On entering, the first impression I got was of a forest of fine columns that almost seem to be hanging from the stalactites of the ceilings rather than supporting them.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, the lion fountain at the center of the courtyard is undergoing major renovation. It is literally true that the 12 lions that support the bowl of the fountain are undergoing nose and toes jobs. This restoration effort is described in the museum that is in the Charles V palace with one renewed lion there as a demonstration. Clearly this calls for a return trip when the effort is complete! I wonder if they will also restore the gardens that surrounded the fountain. These are thought to have been sunken into the ground with four raised paths to the fountain. And so, the fountain has been boxed off. No water is flowing, no flowers cool and color the ground, and we tourists are restricted from seeing some of this magnificent place. Nevertheless, there is so much to see that even without something as important as the lions there is enough for many, many visits. Even more important than the specifics of what I saw is the feel of the place which has a clarity, an openness combined with privacy, that is very special and not easy to find in, say, the many churches of Rome.

Just off the courtyard is the Hall of the Two Sisters and the Mirador of Lindaraja. This shot is rather purple (the actual walls are more of a golden sand color) but gives a idea of the sight lines that the symmetries of the architecture provide.

The Mirador of Lindaraja with a view out to the garden. This strange looking shot was taken by holding my camera out over a barrier so that I could see what the remains of the ceiling looks like. Across the way is the Hall of the Abencerrages who feature in a bloody story of family feud. Apparently the family of the Banu al-Sarrya (changed to Abencerrages with retelling) were important people in the court. A rival family convinced the Sultan that the Sultana was having an affair with one of the Abencerrages. The Sultan became very jealous and invited all the men of the family to a "celebration" in this hall. They came and all were promptly killed. The red veins in the marble of the fountain are thought to be unwashable stains from the blood of the murdered men. My version of this story comes from my guide book, THE ALHAMBRA and Granada IN FOCUS. It goes on to explain that the red in the marble is "of course, oxidization in the marble itself."

This hall has a very high ceiling
with a beautiful star shape. The height of the ceiling, the high windows just below it, and the fountain in the center of the floor below all help to keep this room cool in the heat of summer.

If you click on this shot you might be able to see the tiny stalactites that cover its surface. These are called mocarabes.

To quote once more from my favorite guide book:
"According to Muslim tradition the prophet Mahoma received his inspiration for the Koran directly from the archangel Gabriel in the famous cave at Hira, where he had sought refuge while fleeing from his enemies. A spider's web miraculously sealed the entrance to the cave to confuse his pursuers and since then it has been an important place of pilgrimage for all Muslims on their journey to Mecca some 30km away. In celebration of this event stalactites became an essential decorative element, imbued with religious connotations, throughout the world of Islam, a tradition persisting even to this day."
There is, of course, lots more, but I will leave this palace at this point looking up into the heavens. No wonder the Romantics fell in love with the Alhambra!

Next along the route is the Bathhouse which reminded me a lot of ancient Roman baths with its hot, warm, and cool rooms. This shot is of the warm room. Heat was circulated under the floor warming the marble while water ran along a shallow central channel. When the water came into contact with the hot marble, steam rose providing a steam bath of the people on daises at the sides of the room. Mmmm....

Just as some of the greatest of Roman baths had libraries, auditoriums and other places of entertainment, so this bathhouse is said to have a musician's gallery.
This what we need for our bath at home! The story goes that the musicians were blind so that they could not see what was going on below. Clearly an important feature!

Some still bathe at the Alhambra.

Exiting the palaces, you find yourself in more gardens alongside the Tower of the Ladies, called the Partal.
This beautiful portico is completed by its reflection in the pond.

I think I won't blog about the citadel, called the Alcazaba, because I am really back, physically and mentally in Rome. Here is a shot I like to prove I was there: And from the Alcazaba I could easily see my hotel:

Adios for now!
Ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao!
(As a woman on a cell phone on a bus said repeatedly the other day to the great amusement of everyone around her.)


I will finish up with my side trip to Granada in a few minutes but I wanted to offer you, my dear Reader, a Roman good morning.

We got up not too early, showered, checked the email (of course!), opened shade and shutters, and looked for the tartarughes. Ah, there is one of them, face to face with the first step!
(And here's a pic from earlier of both together.
Ginevra's hoping for babies...)

Leaving home we dropped off the recycling and went for caffe' at the 'Brazile" place. There we also had cornetti and spremuta di arancia rossa (fresh squeezed blood orange juice) - a lovely breakfast and big by Roman standards.

Bill headed off to La Sapienza and I wandered on down Via Serpenti to do my shopping.

I stopped at the Barbie place,
so called by us because it features a window display of many Barbies with a very realistic looking handgun in their midst. It is actually called the Italian version of 'A Little Bit of Everything.' I braved the usual chaos there for cheap napkins and Dixan laundry soap.

A few meters further down the street I bought tulips from the flower stand, then crossed the piazza where I caught this shot of a pigeon drinking from the little spout of the fountain.

Then it was on to pick up Bill's shirts from the nice guy at the lavasecco. Tomorrow is yet another holiday, he says, and he's looking forward to a picnic at Villa Pamphilj.

Home again, the sun is shining and everything feels clean after yesterday's rain.

Now to work! Buona giornata!

Friday, April 25, 2008


The #32 bus, a tiny electrified box with only 9 seats including the driver's, but at least 20 passengers, bounces up the steep and narrow streets to, almost!, the visitor's center of the Alhambra. We all get out and mill around for a few seconds trying to orient ourselves. Further up the hill at the center, there always seems to be a long line with people in it telling you they've been there at least an hour. On the other hand, if you have a money card with a PIN you can bypass the line and go to the computers and buy your tickets immediately. Why do so many people wait in line? The voices over the intercoms that suggest the machines speak at least four languages, most visitors should understand at least one. It's the lack of the PIN that does it, I think... Or maybe we are all just sheep!

And so, the second and third times around and knowing the trick about the timing for entrance, I was able to visit the palaces...

Last post I left off in the Mexuar Palace, the first that visitors encounter. This shot is a look back at the "Golden Chamber" where it is thought that visitors in the days of the Moors waited in the hopes of an audience with the Sultan.

Being an ignorant fool, I spent a few minutes wishing that it was 1400 and that I was there trying to convince a courtier that my case and I deserved a hearing from the Sultan himself. Being someone who lives in the era of macmansions, I was also surprised at the smallish scale of the palaces.

The Golden Chamber has a beautiful view, of course, but also an incredible ceiling which is mostly original with some Catholic motifs and lots of gold added during later restorations. This type of work is called Mudejar and is a kind of carved wooden mosaic. After Baobdil was defeated, many Moorish craftsmen were allowed to stay and continued to work on Christian buildings. This is one of the reasons southern Spain looks the way it does even today.

Even the drains are beautiful!

On the other side of the courtyard
is the "facade" of the next palace, the Comares Palace. I use quotes because this architecture didn't really have facades; it was very plain on the outside and only became sumptuous on the inside. So, you can't really call it showy, I think, since its form and decoration was more for the comprehension and pleasure of the occupants than it was an outward show of wealth or power. Hard to see in these photographs are the many inscriptions in the wall carvings that include poetry and admonishments to good behavior.

This shot is looking up
at the beautifully carved eaves of the entrance to the Comares Palace.

Now it is through a few small rooms formerly used by servants but also organized so as to make defense of the inner sanctum easier. Suddenly the light becomes very bright and you come out into the Courtyard of the Myrtles.
The reference to myrtles is to the shrubs that run along the length of the huge pool in the center of the courtyard. Rub your fingers on the leaves and you get a lovely smell.

On first entering this courtyard you see the deceptively plain side wall.

Here is a closeup of some of the carving on the walls. (Could it really be stucco? I will have to look this up!)

This shot is of one of the many small alcoves (on the order of 20" high by 15"wide) that are in the doorways. Apparently they were used hold pitchers of water or vases of flowers for the refreshment of visitors on entering.

Some more wall details:

Ok, enough for now. Tomorrow we will go into the Courtyard of the Lions. Sadly, the lions themselves are in the hospital getting nose and toes jobs...

For now, I have to return to the present - which is in Rome!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


The Alhambra is a complex of citadel, palaces, gardens, homes and workshops built by the Moors of Spain in the Middle ages. It sits high on the Red Hill, after which it is thought to be named, and has glorious views of Granada and the surrounding countryside and neighboring hills. Shaped something like a ship, at its prow is the citadel, the Alcazaba. These were turbulent times: the Alcazaba was begun in the late 800's then rebuilt and enlarged in the 1200's as the Muslim hold on Spain was weakening. From then until the mid 1400's, while the Moors
led by Nasrid kings still had power in southern Spain, the palaces and other structures were built. In 1492 (yes, that famous year) Isabel and Ferdinand (yes, that famous couple) conquered the last of the Moors holed up in the Alhambra. They were led at the time by the unfortunate King Baobdil one of many great characters about whom Washington Irving writes in Tales of the Alhambra. This, then, was the end of Muslim rule in Spain.

Luckily, then and since then the Alhambra was not destroyed and in fact much of it has survived and is still being restored. The Catholics under Charles V built a monster palace right in the middle of the Alhambra. This is probably an ok Renaissance building, but something like the Victor Emmanuel Monument in the center of Rome, this palace was not sensitively placed here.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Spanish have done a terrific job making it possible for the million + tourists who visit every year to have an experience that is organizationally only minimally difficult but allows for a relatively uncrowded chance to see the Nasrid Palaces. These palaces are the most fragile and most spectacular part of the site.

The best guide book I found was not the "official" one but one called, THE ALHAMBRA and Granada IN FOCUS, published by Edilux in a format similar to the DK guidebooks.

Above the Alhambra is the complex called the Generalife which includes a summer palace..
These photos, I hope, show some of the waterways through the Generalife. The stairs with the white walls have water running down the hand rails as well as down the center:
This water then runs through many of the fountains and pools of the rest of the Alhambra. This is apparently one of the few remaining original Nasrid features in this part of the gardens. Most of the rest of the gardens have been altered quite a bit to the tastes of Renaissance and later times.

The Wine Gate on the way to the Alcazaba, the citadel:

Waiting to get in to the Nasrid Palaces:

The Nasrid Palaces are all attached to each other and are the most popular of the three major areas of the Alhambra. As a matter of fact, they are the only part for which a tourist's entry is timed, and boy, you had better be there within the time you are alloted! My first trip up, I didn't realize that the time referred only to the palaces. I was, literally, one minute late and they denied me entrance! So I spent the rest of the day exploring the rest of the place. One good thing to come out of it was that I was able to warn a couple of women I met my next trip up. They almost missed it and didn't have the luxury of five days to return that I did.

These pics are of one of several miradors, rooms or halls with beautiful views over the River Darro and Granada. I am showing the same view twice because with my eyes it seemed I could see both the room and the view at the same time, but the camera clearly can't. Later, I'll play with Photoshop and see if I can combine them...

This mirador is also an oratory and is out of line with the rest of the palace. In fact, it is oriented toward Mecca. It is in the first of the Nasrid palaces you encounter, the Mexuar Palace.

All the palaces center on courtyards with beautiful pools or fountains in them. Water was, still is, the life blood of this place. Add a lot of sunlight and air, a consideration for the people occupying the place and a strong sense of privacy coupled with openness, and you have the building blocks of the aesthetic of the Moors.

This is from the Mexuar courtyard:

Oops! Gotta go - more to come!

Many thanks are due to Washington Irving. While images of the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane come to mind, for me his best effort was the Tales of the Alhambra which he wrote about a time when he actually stayed in this beautiful ruin in the spring of 1829. He was Ambassador to Spain and decided to walk from Seville to Granada with a friend. On arrival, he met some local folks who led him up to the Alhambra where he then lived for several months with others who had their home there. He heard many stories about the Moors who had built and lived in the Alhambra humdreds of years earlier.
Tales of the Alhambra is part travelogue, part description of the place and people, part history, all with a large helping of fairy tale! Please read it if you get a chance.