There is a courtyard in Granada. It has a fountain in it. There are 12 lions surrounding the fountain, each one spouting water in the direction of a beautifully decorated Moorish wall. Yes, you know where I’m talking about. It’s the Alhambra; the lion courtyard in the Nasrid Palaces, to be exact.
Why is said courtyard so important? I’m not sure. I only remember it so vividly because the last time I visited the Alhambra, the teacher that led my school trip nearly bludgeoned us to death with the fact that it was significant. She succeeded in scarring us for life, if not imbuing us with the sense of importance of the lion fountain.
But I was 12 years old back then, and 14th century Moorish palaces in Andalucia took a solid back seat to memorizing every song on Live’s Throwing Copper album.
For better or for worse, my tastes have changed in the ensuing years, and last week I was not only excited to visit the Alhambra, but also interested in learning more about it than the knowledge my teacher foisted upon my hostile adolescent brain.
My family drove from the Costa del Sol to Granada on Wednesday and met some family friends there for our tour of the Alhambra. Camera in one hand and audioguide in the other, I looked a complete tourist, sure embarrass any trace of my junior-high self that still lingered among the palace gardens.
And what gardens they were! For some reason I had no recollection of the stunning collection of manicured myrtle trees, box hedges, flowers, and fountains that dominated the landscape around the three main sections of the Alhambra. They were absolutely beautiful.
Flanked on either side by perfectly trimmed trees, we soon reached the first of the three parts of the complex: the Nasrid Palaces. Built by the Moors, who ruled Spain for centuries before the Reconquista in 1492, it was a dazzling feat of both art and design.
Repeated geometric shapes, beautiful Arabic scripts, and rich textured decoration adorned every wall, ceiling, and archway. Large courtyards with long reflecting pools gave way to throne rooms and prayer spaces, and everywhere the sound of water echoed from a myriad of fountains.
The most important of them all was the lion fountain. It wasn’t big or showy, and its recent restoration made it look newer than not, but surrounded by the stunning Moorish courtyard, it was stately and powerful in its own right. It had better be, anyway, because it was built as a symbol of royal strength.
See, I learned something. Take that, 12-year-old self.
From the Nasrid Palaces, we continued our tour of the Alhambra with a visit to the second of the three main areas: the Alcazaba. The fortress, which was built by the Hammudid dynasty in the 11th century, had fewer artistic merits than its Nasrid counterpart, but made up for it by offering stunning views of Granada from its ramparts.
From whitewashed buildings to a massive cathedral and the zigzags of so many manicured gardens, the views were as varied as they were visually pleasing.
The third and final stop on our tour was the Generalife, a 12th century leisure palace with some of the best gardens in the Alhambra.
Combining the most aesthetically pleasing elements of the other sites’ green spaces, its compartmentalized hedges featured reflecting pools, fountains, flora, and stunning views of the palaces in the distance.
At the end of our afternoon at the Alhambra, we headed into Granada to find some food (there was nothing but a sad vending machine at the site itself), and ended up eating some impressively bad tapas at a random bar/restaurant in the city center.
Patatas bravas were tepid fries with watery cayenne pepper sauce, pan con tomate featured neon red tomato paste, and the ham had a dull purple sheen that worried my stomach.
The bad food brought back memories of my last trip to Granada, when my school trip featured some of the worst cuisine I have ever tasted. But despite the similarity of the gastronomic highlights (er, lowlights) of my two trips to Andalucia, the overall experience couldn’t have been more different.
I appreciated my second tour of the Alhambra much more than I had the first, not only because I had actually developed an interest in history and architecture in the interim, but also because I took the time to look around and appreciate the beauty of the palaces and gardens. Oh, and the lion fountain, too.