Alhambra: Light, Shadow, Water

The motivation for this international trip began with an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” when the former chef visited the Alhambra. With his longtime director of photography leading the way, Bourdain called the experience “one of the most enchanted, inscrutable, maddeningly beautiful structures ever created by man.”

My experience was not dissimilar, though I expect it was different in many ways than Bourdain’s.

For one, I feel sure that the Emmy-award winning chef did not oversleep his first day in Granada, thereby missing his English-guided tour by 30 minutes. I’m relatively certain that he didn’t desperately hoof it up the near-vertical hill on which Alhambra stands in a furtive attempt to join the tour anyway, get lost in the process, have to double back *down* the hill, and wind up at the entrance only to stand in line in the distinctly smoldering Spanish sun for 90 minutes, just to buy a solo ticket.

And yet, fortunately, the Alhambra is still worth it.

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As previously mentioned, the Alhambra stands atop a very steep hill on Granada. Originally constructed as a small fortress in the 9th century, it was renovated and rebuilt by moorish emirs and sultans in the 11th and 13th centuries. It was the art of this time period – the Nasrid dynasty, the last muslim dynasty in Spain (1238-1492) – that makes the Alhambra famous. Christian monarchs conquered the city in 1492 and appropriated the space for their own sacred spaces on the property, but wisely left the structure’s exquisite rooms and arabesques largely intact.

Despite the picture of the Alhambra above, the Nasrid Palace makes up a very small part of the grounds – probably just around 20% at best. And yet it’s the most stunning work of the entire structure.

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To begin with, the architects of the Nasrid dynasty had a dazzling understanding of light, a clear appreciation for the comfort of shade, and incredible respect for the life-giving properties of water. All three elements are omnipresent in the building, emerging and interplaying from one room to the next. The courtyard above, one of the first you encounter as you enter the Nasrid Palace, is where the sultan would welcome incoming guests, standing on the third step above – immediately putting him in a visual position of power over them.

Further into the Nasrid Palace, you encounter the famed Court of the Lions, so named for the animals that ring the central fountain.

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While the courtyard is impressive, it’s in the adjoining rooms that the Alhambra becomes truly breathtaking, as every square inch of space – walls rising 40′ high, arches soaring overhead, ceilings curling into a tight central spiral – is devoted to artistic carvings and arabesques.

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Small windows let an ever-changing display of natural light into each room, allowing shadow patterns to shift and play along each room. It’s at once overwhelming and mesmerizing. While other sections of the Alhambra remain, none can compare to this small but incredible space.

The Nasrid Palace aside, one of my favorite areas of the Alhambra is the forest surrounding the grounds, a park that is free and open to any visitor. While the initial ascent is not for the faint of heart, arriving in the forest is not unlike walking into a natural sanctuary. During my initial ascent/climb to Alhambra, I swore I would never return, but over the course of my stay I came back not once, but three times, just to walk through the forest. The moment you enter the thick, quiet forest, tall trees form a canopy of green, making the temperature drop at least 20 degrees fahrenheit. Noise from the city fades, replaced by cascades of water at every turn.

Water is ever-present in the Alhambra: it bubbles in fountains, it trickles in laid-in tunnels. The architects made sure the same was true for the forest outside the Alhambra, and for the city of Granada below. The near ice-cold water still flows, gurgling merrily – even exuberantly – through canals flanking the forest walkways. As you walk (or bike) past poplar, chestnuts, elderberry, and myrtle trees, you feel a sense of tranquility similar to that of Alhambra’s Nasrid Palace: light, shadow, and water, all working in harmony with one another.

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