“I am a garden adorned by beauty:
my being will know whether you look at my beauty.”
-Unknown Author, Poem written on the Hall of Two Sisters, Alhambra
This phrase perfectly encapsulates how I felt about finally visiting the Alhambra in Spain. A stunning fortress, that sits on a hilltop overlooking Grenada, protecting and watching over her since 889.
Originally a small palace, the Moors built a massive palace in its place in the 11th century, and it stood under Moorish rule until Ferdinand and Isabella pushed out the Moors (and Jews) and converted all of Spain to Catholicism in 1492. They didn’t rule here long, but their grandson Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor lived here and built a palace here, respecting the Moorish culture and design.
Surprisingly, this historical palace, which had been the center of the universe at one time, was allowed to sit abandoned for centuries! After Ferdinand and Isabella died, their great-grandchild, Philip II built a palace in Madrid and ruled from there, allowing this Moorish splendor to sit and delapidate for centuries. However, it now boasts over 8,000 tourists a day in the high season and is the main reason people visit Granada.
I read that the Alhambra was “rediscovered” in the 19th century by artists during a romantic period in Europe. It amazes me that something so massive and beautiful, looking down on this city could ever be lost! But it required a massive restoration after Spain went down a rabbit hole of trying to expand their empire too much and putting Spain in the poorhouse for centuries. I read that the Spanish people still blame Ferdinand and Isabella for turning prosperous Spain into a country of debt and welfare.
We visited the Alhambra as part of our 3 days in Grenada and it was definitely the highlight (for me it was the highlight of the entire trip!). The grounds are considerable and planning ahead is key, especially with a four year old. We booked timed tickets a few weeks in advance for the Palacio Nazaries and we honestly were not sure how the day would go dragging Nathan through the palace. He is a restless kid who just wants to run around and we do have a hard time controlling him in certain settings.
So, with a lot of doubt and uncertainty, we forged ahead and took a local bus from the town center up to the Alhambra (climbing uphill just was not happening). We took the stroller, but honestly did not use it all and stored it for the majority of the day at the free lockers.
You can book a time between 8-2 or 2-8, and if your time slot is after 2, you can’t enter the ticketed areas until 2PM. Our ticket for the palace was at 2:30 because we knew we couldn’t get Nathan up and going by 8AM and we wanted as much time as possible on the grounds. We had 30 minutes to kill before our 2:30 timed entrance to the palace, so we headed next door to the Alcazaba.
This fort is known as the “red castle” and is the most ruined part of the entire Alhambra complex. The views from this fort our outstanding and running through it with Nathan, 30 minutes was plenty of time to see it and get back in line for our timed entrance to the palace. According to Rick Steves, in 1492, it was here that the flags of Aragon were raised as Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Moors. As the fleeing Moorish King looked back and wept his mother supposedly said to him “You weep like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.”
Next, we headed into the Palacios Nazaries. Your timed ticket gives you a 30 minutes window to enter, but you can stay as long as you like once you are inside. Don’t miss your window and don’t try to get in early-the guards are very strict about this!
This is the Moorish Royal Palace and was stunning inside. There are numerous open-air courtyards with fountains, intricately carved walls-with Moorish poems written in Arabic, and stunning Islamic patterns and artwork.
Trying to read all the information and chase Nathan was actually quite a challenge, and when we entered the Courtyard of Lions we were strongly advised to hold Nathan’s hand. It’s hard to know what is ok to touch and ok to do here, as nothing is covered or behind any ropes but everything is centuries old. At one point, I squatted down next to Nathan to talk to him about calming down and I was yelled at for “sitting” (I think). I was told to get up, even though I was kneeling in an empty room for 30 seconds. So it was intimidating for a Mom with a spirited child who likes to explore and tempt the boundaries of his free will.
The Hall of Two Sisters, where the quote above comes from, is actually a royal bedroom and where I was yelled at for kneeling. Every room was more stunning than the last and I could go on for hours about it.
Once you leave the Royal Palace, you exit into the beautiful Partal gardens, built upon the ruins of the Partal Palace. The palace was as big and grand as the one I just left-seven palaces adorned the Alhambra over time, and most are now in ruins over the grounds.
We stopped for a quick sandwich and a rest while we literally took turns running into the empty palace of Charles V. Inside, its a large open air dome of marble columns in a Renaissance style (one big courtyard basically). There is nothing in there, so Nathan rested in the stroller and we each ran in-making it much easier logistically than chasing him through another place.
After leaving, we strolled uphill towards the Generalife Gardens (stopping first at the American Hotel where Ferdinand and Isabella were originally buried but moved). We used the stroller to get uphill to the gardens (where it’s suggested you begin and make your way downhill to the palace). But since our timed entry was so close to 2PM, we went backwards.
The gardens are an extensive maze of gorgeous flowers and vegetation with stunning views of the rest of the complex. When I read my first historical non-fiction book about Katherine of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife) it described her time at the Alhambra and strolling through the lush gardens. It was this book and those descriptions that planted to seeds of desire to visit the Alhambra. (The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory).
In reality, the topiaries were planted in the1930s, but after you enter the area where you have to show your ticket, you enter a garden from heaven. This garden was planted 600 years ago. 600 years! Katherine certainly strolled these grounds. It was amazing, complete with an aquaduct and pond. The garden follows an easy one-way path, making touring it a cinch. (Unless you have a four year old who is hot and tired and won’t use the toilet….but really, that just makes him run through the gardens faster!)
We finished our day with the gardens and then slowly made our way back into Grenada (don’t tell but we took a pedestrian road that was closed for massive construction), but it was the most direct route and other people were walking on it! The day overwhelmed my senses in the best way possible, and I couldn’t wait for the next night when we would head to the view point and watch the Alhambra in all its glory during the sunset.
April in Spain is warm but not hot like the dreaded summer, and sunset is actually surprisingly late for April (around 9), but I wanted to see the Alhambra in every late from sun to dusk to darkness. (Sorry sunrise, I am not that dedicated). We spent a few hours at St. Nicolas view point in the Albayzin neighborhood with other tourists and musicians and hippies and dogs all hanging out to watch.
Nathan was occupied with other little kids and his toys while we just sat and watched. (side note: President Clinton came here in 1997, to show his family this view point to remind him of his college days when he used to come there).
Dan discovered a beautiful mosque, immediately next to the St. Nicholas viewpoint, with the same stunning views and half the people. We headed in to this free courtyard and decided to finish the sunset in the Mosque. (Nathan was in fact very restless at this point and was on the verge of going crazy) but somehow we made it through with only one timeout.
The other two days we spent in Grenada are hard to remember because the Alhambra was such a massive presence in my mind. Other than enjoying the paseo at night and having a couple of fun encounters with locals (man they love kids there!), the only other main sight we saw was the cathedral.
A massive Renaissance church on the outside and Baroque on the inside. The inside is filled with massive white Corinthian columns and 15th century facade.
We also ate really delicious tapas, drank sangria and happened upon a very serious Easter procession (complete with Jesus on the cross on the backs of young serious religious Spaniards).
(Yeah that’s cake in a cone)
We also saw an old Turkish bath…
In all honesty, as the first stop on a ten day trip, I was worried we had seen the best and we had peaked too soon. The Alhambra was an experience-of history, beauty, sadness and a lost Spanish culture.