Deep Breath: The Alhambra At Night Is Worth The Hassle
By Robin Graham
I bet Washington Irving didn’t have to put up with any of this.
Getting a ticket to visit that great treasure of Islamic art and culture, the Alhambra — made famous by Irving himself, among others — is no easy task. It isn’t that it’s hard to find; there’s a website for that — as easily navigated as was, I imagine, the 19th-century Spain that Irving, the great American essayist and historian, had to contend with.
No, it’s the decisions. It turns out that visiting the great Moorish citadel in Granada, one of Spain’s southernmost cities, is not as straightforward as you might think (or like). The choices are a little dizzying to the uninitiated. There are morning tickets and there are afternoon tickets, and within each, specific time slots for access to the complex of Nasrid palaces. There are three zones that make up the massive site — the palaces, the Alcazaba (the ramparts), and the Generalife (the summer palace). Seeing all three will easily take up the six hours your ticket is valid for. But where to start? And if you make the wrong decision here and miss your time slot at the palaces, will you be indulged as silly tourists are the world over and have your slot rearranged? No, you will not. You are a silly tourist and you will not be going to the palaces.
There’s more. Night visits are ticketed separately and limited to 90 minutes. Which will you choose: day or night? Both? Which first? How far in advance should you purchase your pre-booked (don’t tell me you didn’t pre-book) tickets? Will you collect them from the kiosk or from the machines? Which machines? There are day and night machines. Tickets must be redeemed with the card that was used to make the booking. Did we use your card or mine? Which card? What does that say? Is this thing working?
No, I’ll bet Irving didn’t. As I understand it, upon his arrival in the city and introductions with the local bigwig, he was simply shown to his room. In the Alhambra. I mean, come on! There’s a plaque now to mark the rooms where he stayed (for free) and wrote his book, “Tales of the Alhambra,” still on sale all over Granada.
We on the other hand find ourselves in a line at the ticket machines, the ones that were put here to eliminate the lines. We’re here for a night visit and only one of the night machines is working. To add to the mayhem, most of the people here who are attempting to use the machine have not bought in advance, and the machine is used exclusively to dispense pre-booked tickets. Everybody has to discover this on an individual basis, apparently, rather than just turn around and update everyone else.
The only thing that can make situations like this worse is when someone finally loses their temper and starts shouting, but this is Spain, so everyone is shouting. The staff member that turns up to weed out those who shouldn’t be here and to help the rest of us work the incomprehensible machine is shouting.
The only people not shouting are K and myself, and that is probably why we are repeatedly overlooked even when we get to the front of the line, in favor of those who shout and push from behind. Actually they aren’t really behind us anymore. As soon as we get to the front of it, the line inexplicably dissolves. It’s a mob now.
A snippet I’d read in my guidebook had said something about beauty, elegance and tranquility. I begin leafing through it to find the quote; I’ll use it as a calming mantra if this doesn’t end soon. When we finally get the staff member’s attention, almost alone with her now in the room, she says something in a thoroughly Andalucian accent that we barely understand.
“Yes,” I reply, “we have pre-booked”.
She is obviously from good stock because this revelation, leading as it does to the inescapable conclusion that she has been ignoring us for a full ten minutes, doesn’t even make her flinch. She takes the card we’ve been offering her for so long and hands it back with our tickets. We take them and wander off, seething, in the general direction of the palaces.
The big tease comes to an abrupt end the moment we step inside the hall of the Mexuar Palace, the oldest of three palaces that together comprise the royal residence. The Christian conquerors in the 15th century did their best to wreck this chamber, sealing up a ceiling lantern and installing a choir, but they didn’t remove the intricate tilework or the stunning oratory that faces Mecca at the rear.
Our seething reduced to a simmer; we can hear the Court of the Myrtles before we see it — fountains babble at either end of this massive, mirror-smooth pool. The arched galleries on both sides are reflected in the water with architectural precision, the sense of proportion artfully doubled. A spotlight set on top of the Comares tower appears moonlike on the water.
An account here of the intricacies that adorn the chambers that surround the courtyard — the Hall of Ambassadors for example, or the Boat Room — wouldn’t do them justice. We take our sweet time, separating and meeting up again in the courtyard between wonders.
The third and newest of the palaces in the complex is the Palace of the Lions. Construction on it began in 1377, and its purpose was to house the royal harem. The palace is centered around the famous Courtyard of the Lions and is considered the crowning glory of the Nasrid style, an exuberant blend of Moorish and Christian influences.
Even in the absence of the aforementioned lions (they’ve been whisked away for restoration), the moonlit courtyard casts a spell. It’s easily the most lavish in the complex, with its 124 marble columns and its elaborate cloisters and pavilions. The scale is still human though, and one can easily imagine the space inhabited by a family at rest or play.
Four fantastically decorated halls surround the courtyard, with ceilings of muqarna (an ingenious Lego-like system of ceiling decoration which gives the impression of stalactites), central pools and the customary tiling. They tell their own stories, from the delightful Lindaraja Mirador where the sultan’s favorite concubine would have daydreamed, overlooking the city, to the Hall of the Abencerrajes, where 36 of the noble Abencerraje family were murdered because one of them had slept with her.
Ninety minutes later, and some of the most beautiful spaces — indoor and out — ever created by human hand have had their effect on us. We emerge from the citadel soothed and serene, onto the height that holds it aloft over the city which sprawls and twinkles below us.
It is 10 p.m., and around here that makes it tapeo time. Tapeo means tapas, and if you’re a fan of the bite-sized cuisine that is served in bars all over Spain, then Granada is the jackpot.
Tapas are free here — bartenders in this town wouldn’t think of serving you an alcoholic drink without feeding you as well. There are the usual tourist hotspots that will throw in some olives with your drinks, of course, but this is a Tapas town and you don’t have to look too hard for the real thing: noisy bars filled with Granadinos, chomping away on pescaito (battered fish fried in olive oil), berenjenas (deep-fried eggplant), gambas (shrimp) and a million other ridiculously tasty choices.
It’s where we want to be and we have choices about how to get there. We can wander down into the Realejo, the old Jewish quarter, and find the Campo del Principe — a popular and picturesque square lined with bars. We can stroll down the Cuesta de Gomérez to the Plaza Nueva and beyond, to the bars and tavernas of the Lower Albayzin, the old Moorish Quarter, or we can descend via the Cuesta de los Chinos to perhaps the city’s prettiest square, the Paseo de los Tristes, with its open-air terraces.
Somehow these decisions don’t seem as taxing or troublesome as the ones we had to make earlier. Wherever we end up we can sit with a glass of local wine in hand, cram our faces full of some of the world’s best bar food and, sparing a thought for that poor sap Washington Irving stuck up there on the hill, gaze back at the true wonder that we have just left behind.
IF YOU GO
Tickets for a night visit to the Nasrid Palaces cost €12 per person, or €13 if you book in advance from alhambra.org, which you are strongly advised to do. Even in the off-season, demand is high. Tickets booked in advance can be picked up at the ticket machines with the card used to make the booking (this way you will avoid lines (yeah right), or the possibility of not getting in at all).
If you are from the E.U. and are a senior citizen, you pay only €9, whether you book in advance or not, and children under the age of 12 are admitted for free, although you may prefer to take the little ones along on a day visit, when for the same ticket prices you will also be able to visit the Alcazaba (the ramparts) and the Generalife with its gardens, in addition to a time slot in the Nasrid palaces.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robin Graham has written for In Madrid, The Expeditioner and the Matador Network. He regularly contributes to The Spain Scoop and blogs at the award-winning Alotofwind. Follow him on Twitter: @robinjgraham.