Spain is the land of bullfights, flamenco and sherry. But like Agra and the Taj Mahal, the Andalucian city of Granada is most well-known for a single monument – the Alhambra. We felt a Taj Mahal moment upon us! We were ready to embrace the spontaneity, and the midsummer heat.
Mr B and I booked a direct flight from London City airport to Malaga, a 2 to 3 hour journey by bus or train to Granada. Malaga, on the tourist-heavy Costa del Sol, is a wallet-friendly holiday destination full of beachside resorts. We had no expectations from our overnight transit stay. But what an unexpected surprise it was.
Through its 2,800-year history, it had been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs, all of whom left behind their own distinctive architecture and design. And while those empires may have fallen, a modern cultural hub is taking form in the ancient city.
Malaga’s recent rise began in 2003 with the opening of the Picasso museum, one of eight Picasso museums in the world. Born in Malaga, Picasso lived here for about a decade and many of the museum’s 200 works were donated by his daughter-in-law and grandson. Since then, more than 20 museums (yes, 20!) have opened in the last decade, including the Centre Pompidou Malaga, the first overseas branch of the Paris museum.
On arrival, we made our way to the old city, armed with Apple watches to start counting our steps (holidays are equally a serious fitness challenge for us, as we aim for at least 15,000 steps a day). Fifteen minutes later, we come across the entrance of the Alcazaba of Malaga, a palatial fortification built by the Hammudid dynasty in the early 11th century. After the Alcazaba, and dying to avoid the worst of the heat, we head quickly to the Museo Picasso Malaga nearby in the heart of the old city, in the Palacio de Buenavista. The building is a magnificent example of 16th century Andalucian architecture coexisting with 21st century architecture, with its characteristic mixture of Renaissance and Mudéjar elements and slick, modern galleries.
On the bus to Granada the next day, we see miles and miles of flat agricultural land against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains and snowy peaks; the grace and charm of the Andalucian countryside embrace us.
After our siesta (a necessity in the searing heat) we are eager to catch sight of the ever-mysterious Alhambra, as a teaser for the next day. We make our way to the Mirador de San Nicolas, a hilltop plaza that guarantees breathtaking panoramic views of the Alhambra. We treat ourselves to a taxi ride uphill, a decision we regretted. By cab, you will miss walking through the charming Albaicín, Granada’s old Moorish quarter.
At Mirador de San Nicolas, we step into a carnival-like atmosphere. We hear the sounds of flamenco guitars, dynamic acoustics of percussion and crowds cheering the street performers. Visitors perch on the wall facing the view with their picnic spread and bottles of wine, waiting for sunset.
We head to one of the few open-air bars and terraces opposite the plaza which to our delight, has an even better view. And there it was. When the sun dipped below the mountains, the Alhambra was illuminated, bathed in golden light with flocks of birds flying above us. “Alhambra” comes from the Arabic “red or crimson castle”, and this was exactly the hue of the towers and walls that surround the entire hill of La Sabica. This was our Taj Mahal moment.
Upon waking up the next day, I felt like it was the morning of a big exam or critical presentation. Determined not to use the transit bus, we climb up the steep Realejo Hill, and although feeling confident and capable, Indiana Jones and Mr B quickly became the lost travellers! We stumbled into a 19th century house, Carmen de los Martires with gardens so vast, we were fooled into thinking we had arrived at Alhambra’s Generalife gardens. However, we manage to find our way, and like contestants in The Amazing Race, Mr B shouts in relief “This must be it!” when we see the entrance of the Alhambra.
We pick up an audio guide and begin our discovery. What is most striking is how the Alhambra cleverly brings the forces of nature into play at every turn: water in motion, sudden sightings of gardens flawlessly framed through a window opening, or balconies cleverly placed to exploit views over the surrounding landscape, with the River Darro below and remote vistas of the Sierra Nevada beyond.
After nearly six hours covering the grounds relying on our poor sense of direction and the basic audio guides, we wished we had relied on a human guide instead. Despite the blazing heat and a record of 20,000 steps and counting (a proud moment for Mr B) we wait until 6.30pm, our specific time slot to access the Nasrid Palaces.
It was worth the wait. The construction of this complex of palaces and the residence of the King was started by the founder of the Nasrid dynasty, Alhamar, in the 13th century. It is home to perhaps the most famous and most photographed place in the Alhambra – the Court of Lions. Throughout, the walls of the Nasrid Palaces are adorned with calligraphy decorations, in cursive and Kufic writings, and poems by poets of the Court of Granada. The Hall of the Ambassadors or the Throne Room has the most exquisite example of this epigraphy together with rich plasterwork which combines geometrical patterns, stucco-decorated leaf and flower motifs.
On our way back down, we come across one of our more important discoveries in Granada. A hotel right on the grounds! Less than five minutes from the Alhambra entrance, there stood the newly refurbished, five-star hotel Eurostars Washington Irving. Staying here would be a smart choice to afford you more time to enjoy the Alhambra grounds. Unless you’re one to enjoy the extra steps!
The next day, we depart for a two and a half hour journey by train to Seville, our final destination in Andalucia. For hundreds of years, Seville was the capital of Moorish dynasties with Arab names like the Abbasids, Almoravids and the Almohad, a period that saw the largely peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Today, Seville is the capital of Andalucia and a dynamic tapestry of eastern and western architecture and culture, where sites of all three major religions still coexist side by side.
Refreshed the next day and unwilling to get lost or disappointed by poor quality audio guides, we opted for a guided walking tour of Seville. Led by a most knowledgeable tour guide born and raised in Seville, we were joined coincidentally by… a group of Malaysians!
The tour started with a view of all the historical sites in the centre of Seville – the Barrio Santa Cruz (the former Jewish quarter of Seville), San Nicholás Church, the former synagogues of Santa María la Blanca and San Bartolomé. We then visited Seville Cathedral, built on the site of the great 12th century Almohad Mosque which after its completion, superseded Turkey’s Hagia Sophia as the largest cathedral in the world. The cathedral’s Giralda Bell Tower was originally built as a minaret and is the most famous symbol of Seville.
We conclude our tour with the Real Alcázar or ‘royal palace or fortress’. Our tour guide explains that while Seville was reconquered by the Christians, for several hundred years it remained under the influence of Islamic artistic models due to the continuing presence of the Nasrid dynasty in Granada. This Nasrid style continued to evolve into the distinct “Mudéjar” style, and the Real Alcázar is the epitome and “most beautiful example of Mudéjar style in the world”. The gardens of the Alcázar palace consist of a vegetable garden, the wonderful Grutesco gallery and many gardens, water channels, fountains and water sprouts, which form the stunning backdrop to the fictitious city of Dorne in Game of Thrones.
Although the Alcázar exhibits Gothic and Renaissance architectural features, it is in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro that you see the rectangular reception halls ornamented with carved wooden doors, ceilings, and polychrome glazed dado tiles, all of which visually connect most to the Alhambra, with a fusion of Gothic style.
At the end of our tour, our guide reminds us that a visit to Seville is incomplete without seeing the sensuous and rhythmic flamenco. She explains, “Flamenco is a way of life. I was taught flamenco, and I will teach my daughter flamenco”. Although the Triana neighbourhood is considered to be Seville’s spiritual heart of flamenco, we watched a show at the Tablao Flamenco El Arenal near Seville’s centre. Our only disappointment and mistake is that we attempted to watch a bullfight at Seville’s bullring, but walked out (in dismay and disgust) after the first fight.
It is certainly no accident that Andalucia is more richly endowed in medieval Islamic castles and fortified settlements than any territory of comparable size in the Muslim world. You cannot visit the region without paying a visit to the Alhambra (one night and day in Granada is sufficient), and Seville is a spectacular city worthy of a three night stay. If we had more time, we’d be sure to visit the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the mountaintop city of Ronda (and when it’s cooler in the Spring). The trip proved to us that there is nothing like being led by a human guide, but it also taught us to look beyond what a Monocle guide could tell you. And perhaps, just like Indiana Jones, embrace the beauty of discovering more yourself.