The Red Castle

Court of the Myrtles, The Alhambra -- Granada, Spain

Court of the Myrtles, The Alhambra — Granada, Spain

Most people who live in the Americas associate the year 1492 with Christopher Columbus sailing into the Bahamas and proclaiming, “Just like I told ya, fellas — here we are in Japan.”

His voyage of discovery was made possible because of a significant event in European history that also happened in 1492.  In January of that year, Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the last Moorish stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, the Alhambra.

The Moors, whose roots were in North Africa (as in Morocco), were Muslims who had ruled what is now southern and central Spain for many centuries.  At the height of their power in the 13th and 14th centuries, the sultans built a complex of castles and gardens on a hill overlooking Granada.  They called it Alhambra, which is Arabic for “Red Castle”; the walls of many of the buildings have a reddish hue.

After the Catholic monarchs took over, the Alhambra fell into gradual disrepair; by the early 19th century it was pretty much forgotten.

An American author named Washington Irving (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “Rip Van Winkle”) wrote a book about Columbus that was published in 1828.  Irving knew that Columbus had audiences with Ferdinand and Isabella at the Alhambra when the explorer tried to persuade them to let him find new lands in which to establish Disney theme parks.  It was probably at the Alhambra when Isabella said to Columbus, “Yeah, fine, whatever.”

Anyway, Washington Irving was intrigued by the place.  He actually lived in the ruins of the Alhambra in 1829, and subsequently published a book called Tales of the Alhambra.  (I’ve got it on my shelf if you’d like to borrow it sometime.)  That book seems to have had a lot to do with reviving interest in the palace/fortress, and restoration began soon thereafter.

It is now a great place to see magnificent examples of Islamic art and architecture: intricate tile work, ceilings and walls that appear to be carved but are actually molded plaster, elaborate calligraphy.

Perhaps because water was relatively rare in many parts of the Muslim world and therefore precious, there is an abundance of it here.  Pools and fountains and streams are found throughout the complex, particularly in the Generalife (hen-ur-ah-LEAF-eh) Gardens.

What can also be found in abundance at the Alhambra are tourists.  According to some sources, it is the most-visited attraction in Spain.  The number of daily admissions is capped at something like 7,000, so if you’re planning a trip, reserve a ticket (currently €13) as soon as you know when you’ll be in Granada.

An alternative is to hire a guide in a package deal, but that will be considerably more expensive. It’s not really necessary, either, since audio guides are available for €4 at the entrance.  If you want to take a chance on getting in without a reservation, show up early and stand in line at the ticket window; a limited number of tickets are sold each day.

As best you can while you’re at the Alhambra, try to ignore all the other visitors around you so that you can marvel at the beauty of the place.  Oh, and while you’re wandering around, look for the room that has a plaque — in Spanish, of course — that basically says “Washington Irving slept here.”

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