Over three million people. That’s how many visit the Alhambra in Spain every year. It’s the most-visited monument in the entire country. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. It sits on top of a mountain, looking historically wonderful. It’s a big deal.
Variations on that are what you’ll hear if you visit southern Spain. “Of course you’re going to Granada.” “Of course, you’ve already been to the Alhambra.”
Yet, here we are, never having visited Granada or the Alhambra. We lived here two years ago and never made it over there, and neither of us visited it prior during all of our collective trips to Spain.
Basically, it was about time.
So, off we went with our pal, Pepe, on a few-day road trip to the historic city of Granada. While you can read a separate post about the entire visit right here, this post is about one of the jewels of Spain, Andalusia, and most certainly, the crown jewel of Granada.
I have to be honest here: I never really thought it was a big deal until I came to Andalusia. When people tell you to go visit all the famous monuments/palaces/castles, they never tell you to go to the Alhambra.
They tell you to go to Versailles in Paris, or Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. (Or Disneyworld in the U.S.? Ha!)
Nobody ever told me to go to the Alhambra before we came to Andalusia. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I even knew what it was before we came here in 2013.
I suppose that makes me ignorant – despite my love of travel and geography – because it’s a big enough deal that it sells out weeks and months in advance. Book early or pay up (unless you’re a local that knows the tricks of getting tickets last-minute).
We were in for the former. A week before we left for Granada, Pepe texted us to let us know that tickets were sold out for the entire time we were there.
I thought, It’s not that big of a deal, I’ve seen a lot of castles. We can still have a good time in Granada.
While that’s true, we thought we should get tickets anyway. So, we headed over to a tourist agency in the neighborhood and overpaid for a guided tour. Was it worth it? I think so. Our guide was very knowledgeable, funny, and no-nonsense.
I’m not one for guided tours, really, as I prefer to explore on my own. But, there’s something to be said for having a person with you that can point out the intricacies, tell you history, and give you an insight you’d never get if you were on your own.
Backing up, let’s get to how we got there in the first place.
We headed down from our apartment on the side of the mountain in the Albaicín neighborhood, to the bus stop where we’d hitch a ride up the mountain that holds the Alhambra in its palm.
We stopped for breakfast first, because breakfast. And because we had a bit of time. This was probably a good call since we’d be on our feet all day.
The bus stop was packed with people. I mean, packed. I really can’t understand why they don’t run their minibuses up to the Alhambra every few minutes. At least half the people in line couldn’t get on the bus, but we did. Barely. And squished.
Fifteen or so minutes later, and suffering from a bit of claustrophobia, we popped out of the bus at the top of the mountain, late to meet our guide.
We wandered around before Pepe finally called the agency and asked where the heck we were supposed to be.
We eventually located it and came to find that we were about a half-hour early. It’s a good thing they tell you to come in advance. Or maybe they just stuck us on a later tour. I’m not really sure, and we didn’t really ask.
We took the Spanish tour, because we’re in Spain. While we got a lot of it and missed some – Pepe got it all, and Ang, being the ears of us, got more than I did – it was worth it to us to do it in Spanish considering we live in Spain and we’re on the hunt for better fluency.
So yeah, we were off with our group, entering entrances that only allowed guided tours, and ducking in and out of various rooms and patios and buildings and the million little rincones that make up this massive palace-slash-fortress.
Granada and the Alhambra were actually the last stand for Moorish Spain. It was the last city to fall, in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
The Moors started it as a smaller fortress in the 9th century, and it went in and out of favor before being rebuilt and expanded in the 11th century.
Those guys, lastly the famed Boabdil (aka Muhammad XII of Granada), held it down until the monarchs of Spain finally got around to it, last but not least, and gave the Moors an ultimatum: Get out, or get dead.
Boabdil, favoring life over martyrdom – the smart gent that he was – headed out of town and eventually back down to Africa.
The Spanish blue bloods – headed by Ferdinand II and Isabela I – took over, resided in it for a while, eventually built a fairly out-of-place palace in the middle of it, and made it their own.
This is typical of what we see in Spain today, churches and palaces that were originally Moorish and then converted into Catholic strongholds after the fact.
It went into ruin again for a while, before Washington Irving came and lived here, wrote about it, and helped reintroduce it to Spanish culture and the rest of the world.
Of course, I’m giving you the gist here with all of my paraphrasing antics, parts of which are most certainly not 100% accurate. But that’s okay, as I’m not a history teacher and just an observer.
So yeah, it’s a big deal now. It’s the big deal. It’s the quintessential example of Moorish architecture in Spain, with its hundreds of rooms completely covered by intricate, mathematically perfect tiles, engravings, carvings, and design.
If you’ve never visited a palace in Spain, this is the one you’re supposed to hit. It will wow your imagination and teach you history that no one ever taught you in high school.
The aforementioned palace built in the middle of it by the Spanish isn’t such a big deal – not to me, anyway – as it’s not very pretty and is devoid of impressive design. Hard to come close to what the Moors did. I guess I’ve seen enough palaces.
Just up from the palace are the gardens, which to me, pale in comparison to the ones at the Alcázar in Seville.
The gardens aren’t very old though, and were more an installation for entertainment earlier in the 20th century.
Next to that is the Generalife, a very old mansion/house that overlooks the valley.
There’s also a museum featuring countless artifacts found both in the Alhambra and in other places in Spain.
And, of course, there’s the parador.
That’s a fancy name for a fancy hotel in the center of a town or on the grounds of a palace. There are two here, actually, something that I didn’t previously think happened.
After walking around for hours and hours, we thought it’d be a good idea to sit down for a couple and have some drinks. And some fried eggplant with honey. No reason needed, really.
Being me, I can’t really help but think about what life was like back then. This huge fortress, built on top of a mountain. The work! Oh, the work.
Centuries and centuries of work, when I don’t even have the patience to let a task go on for more than a few days before it’s completed.
Imagine that. And imagine the sadness and embarrassment of Boabdil as he gave up all of this – the very last stronghold in all of Spain – to avoid having his people slaughtered or his head taken.
His mom, as prideful as she was, was simply ashamed of him for doing so. But I congratulate the dude. Good for you, Boabdil, you got to live out the rest of your days in Spain and then Morocco.
As such is the Alhambra. If I’m being completely forthright here, I wasn’t all that blown away by the whole thing outside of its impressive location and the insane design laid down by the Moors.
I can’t tell if it was all the hype people gave it before we went, or just the fact that I’ve seen a zillion castles and palaces, and I’m immune to most of their wooings now, the same way I feel like I’ve seen enough churches and museums.
Who knows. Either way, I’m glad we spent over six hours checking it out, stomping over 20 kilometers (12 miles) that day in order to do so.
It’s an impressive site, and understandable why over three million people make a pilgrimage here every year.
And, while I wouldn’t travel across the country just to see the Alhambra – there’s always something to see no matter where you are – it’s a required visit if you’re in Granada.
Just do it, and be wowed the way those other untold millions have been over the years.
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Have you ever been to Granada or the Alhambra? If so, what’d you think and what was your experience? If not, what say ye? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!