Tales from the Alhambra: Granada, Spain

The last days of our Spanish adventure ended in Granada, about 4 hours east of Seville by bus. [Fun Fact: at the estacion de autobuses: Plaza de Armas, there are left luggage lockers that you can store a backpack or two for 24 hours for €3.50 if needed.]

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The bus station in Seville that took us to Granada.

We caught the early bus to the ancient and picturesque city by way of wintery countryside and thousands of olive trees. It was amazing that we saw fields and fields of orange trees on the way to Seville, but we traded the orange globes for pale green branches just half a country away.

While it was a long trek, there was free wifi on the bus and plenty of opportunities to meditate and reflect on our previous week of traveling around the country. The things we had seen were astounding, but little did we know what was in store for us in the ancient kingdom of the Alhambra.

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Narrow driving lanes made for nervous driving. Make sure to book a cab that is compact if you’re staying high in the hills.

Getting a cab in Granada can be a bit tricky depending on where you stay. Our flat via AirBnB was high in the narrow roads and staircase alleyways, so we had to find someone with the cajones to take the hairpin turns and brave the steep hills. When booking where you’re staying, just make sure you have a game plan.

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Alhambra at night.

The main reason we were in Granada was for the famous and extraordinary Alhambra and Generalife. A word to the wise: You must book tickets ahead of time; however, when I tried to book tickets about a month in advance, I saw everything was sold out. I was devastated with the idea that we may not make it to the Alhambra, but we checked again a couple days before (Christmas Day, in fact), and the palace released some of their coveted tickets for €15. We were booked for the Alhambra y Generalife in the morning session.

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The Alhambra at dusk.

Another note: Make sure you look at your ticket when you pick it up. There are some strict rules to follow. To get into the Palace of Nasrid, you must line up by a specific time. If you’re not in the right time-group, they will send you away. Our time check-in was 1030a, and we saw two girls who had booked 9a turned away. But the other thing to make sure you check is your Hours of Visit. Even though we could get into the palace at 1030, we were allowed on the premises as early as 830, but that meant our tickets expired at 2p. We tried to get into one last place at five minutes after 2p, and we were turned away.

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Views of The Alhambra and the city below from the Watch Tower.

It wasn’t a huge disappointment since we had seen probably 90% of the grounds, but we were sad we couldn’t see the Water Stairway inside the Generalife since it was our last stop. Our mistake was not bringing a lunch with us and having to stop at one of the cafes for a bite (which served me two whole apples–no joke–for my fixed menu dessert since I’m gluten-free.)

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My dessert at the cafe inside The Alhambra.

* * * * *

The Alhambra is the stuff of legends and myths. But when you make the trek up the mountain to the famous vantage point, it is clear that the grounds are a compound rather than a single palace much like Edinburgh Castle or Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom.

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Plaza de Armas near the Watch-Tower.

“Alhambra” literally means “the red one” for the original colors of the first buildings that were built on the grounds as early as 889. They fell into disrepair, and Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar built it up in the mid-13th century. But it was Yusef I, Sultan of Granada who made it a palace in 1333.

We first lined up for the Palace of Nasrid, which was built for the Nasrid Dynasty who ruled until 1492 when the Catholics overruled the Muslims literally white-washing the buildings of the Alhambra giving “the red one” less meaning. When you walk in the narrow doorway, you’re immediately taken with the sheer detail of the wall carvings and beautiful lettering. The Islamic calligraphy for “there is no victor but Allah” is inscribed hundreds of times across the mosaic walls.

The rooms get crowded very quickly since they are not very spacious, and there are dozens of people lined up per allotted time. We were more or less pushed through room to room.

We followed the path through the palace and eventually found ourselves in the Court of the Lions. This open garden-like space has a fountain of stone lions. I noticed in the gift shops there were stuffed animals in this form, but I couldn’t figure out the significance until we walked in here. These lions are symbols of strength and power, and on each hour, one of the 12 lions sprays water from its mouth.

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The Court of Lions

Water was a very big deal when this palace was first built. To get water at such a high vantage point showed you had the money for hydraulics, or more basically, you had the money to get slaves to bring water to you. Every single step has to be watched in this palace because you’re surrounded by fountains or crevasses in the sidewalks with water flowing. So, this fountain of lions is not only a symbol for Spanish power but their wealth.

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Water equaled power and wealth in Granada.

The next area we ventured to was the Palacio de Carlos V. The Museum of Fine Arts that is nestled in this coliseum-like structure was closed on Mondays, so we did not get to see the inside of that, but we loved walking in the large, circular structure dedicated to this contemporary to Henry VIII of England.

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Palacio de Carlos V

After the palace or compound went into severe disrepair for several hundred years, the space became a squatter’s haven. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the palace was restored to its current tourist attraction status.

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The Sierra Mountains

From there, we walked toward the Watch-Tower so we could see some views of the city below us and the Sierra Mountains behind us. We have seen some gorgeous mountain ranges in our travels, and this one was no less massive and intriguing. If we had another few days in the area, we would have found the time to hike.

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The Mosque Baths

The baths of the Mosque were very small in comparison to the rest of the compound, but were a nice area to see, as were the extensive gardens. We followed the stone walls through the manicured lawns and box hedges toward the Generalife, the last stop on our tour. Like I said before, don’t stop for lunch! Not only was it not great food in the cafes in the area, but it was a waste of our precious time that we didn’t realize we didn’t have.

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The gardens in the Generalife.

The gardens of the Generalife (outside the checkpoint) were astounding. Dancing waterfalls and a labyrinth of tall trees and shrubs created a secluded haven away from prying eyes and public life.

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The oratory of the Partal Palace

This separate villa dates back to the 1300s and has been under constant repair and upgrades. This was where the kings could go and be away from the palace or main grounds of the Alhambra, much like the Gran Trianon in Versailles. I do wish we could have gone inside to see the Water Stairway, but wandering around the Garden of Arif was relaxing and beautiful.

On our way out of the complex, we did try to stand in line to get tickets for just the Generalife, which would have been €8, but standing in line at 3p hoping to get tickets for that moment, we saw the frustration that comes from not booking ahead. It was impossible with everything sold out for the rest of the day.

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The Alhambra view from our AirBnB.

* * * * *

There was more to see in this city that I will write about next week like the Granada Cathedral and Royal Chapel that houses the famous and infamous King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. We also hiked through some questionable areas to make it to a fully-functional monastery. To read about those places with more history and amazing pictures, check out the blog next week!

What are some of the more magical places you’ve traveled to? Leave a comment below!

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