The Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra

The D&O Diary’s European assignment continued this past week with a visit to Andalusia, the Southernmost region of Spain. After the cool cloudiness of Northern Germany, the hot, brilliant Andalusian sunlight came as something of a shock. This was a first-time ever visit for us to the venerable and culturally rich cities of Sevilla, Cordoba, and Granada. Our expectations were high; our experience far exceeded our expectations.

Andalusia was under Moorish rule from the 8th to the 15th centuries. The region is famous for its Moorish architecture, which is unique in Western Europe. My interest in visiting Andalusia arose from reading Yale Literature Professor Maria Rosa Menocal’s book, The Ornament of the World, a fascinating account of the cosmopolitan and tolerant world of Moorish Spain. The book’s subtitle is “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.” The book left me with a desire to see the vestigial remnants of that time and place, as well as to see what these places have become today.

The Giralda bell tower and the Sevilla Cathedral

We began our Spanish sojourn in Sevilla, now a large, sprawling city with a rich and varied history. The most well-known symbol of the city is the Giralda Bell Tower (pictured above), which stands adjacent to the city’s massive Cathedral. The Giralda represents a visible testament to the city’s historic past, as the base and central portion of the tower preserve the remnants of the minaret that adjoined the Great Mosque that previously stood where the Cathedral now sits. The tower is topped by an early Renaissance-era Christian belfry. Among the unexpected treasures in the Cathedral — the third largest Gothic Cathedral in the world – is the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

Inside the vast Sevilla Cathedral, one of the world’s largest; it had to be built huge, in order to fully occupy the footprint of the mosque it replaced.
The tomb of Christopher Columbus. His tomb is held aloft by four allegorical figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during Columbus’s life, Castille, Aragon, Navara, and Leon. He was only entombed in the Sevilla Cathedral after his corporal remains had moved between Spain, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.

Adjacent to the Cathedral in the city’s old town is the beautiful Real Alcázar (pronounced Ahl-CAH-thar, from the Arabic al-qasr, or palace). The upper levels of the palace are still used by the current Spanish royal family as their residence in Sevilla. Largely built in the 14th century by the Christian monarch, Pedro (known as “the Cruel” or “the Just,” depending on who you ask), using craftsman imported from Granada, the Alcázar embodies and reflects a comprehensively Moorish style. The  use of Moorish design and decorative elements reflects a style known as Mudéjar. The style is characterized by a profusion of colorful and geometrically patterned tiles and a wealth of filigreed plaster work reflecting decorative patterns and Arabic script. On the exceedingly hot day of our visit – the temperatures were among the highest ever recorded in Sevilla in April – it was cool and comfortable inside the Alcázar. Even in the heat, the gardens surrounding the palace were pleasant.

The Patio de la Monteria, the main courtyard of the Alcazar palace.
A side view of the Patio de la Doncellas, with an orange tree
Side passages to the Patio de la Doncellas, showing the characteristic horseshoe arches, as well as the filigree and ornament of the walls and tiles
Geometrically patterned tile work on the walks at the Alcázar in Sevilla
The subterranean Alcazar baths, very cool on a very hot April afternoon (the daily highs while we were in Seville were the highest ever recorded there in the month of April)
The Gallery of the Grotoesque in the the fabulous gardens of the Alcazar palace.

Our visit to Seville coincided with the Feria de Abril, an annual event that combines elements of Octoberfest and Mardi Gras but with its own distinctive local flavor. The festival takes place in a fairground on the south side of the Guadalquivir River. Inside the fairground are scores of “casetas,” small structures owned by different families or social groups, where guests eat, drink, dance, and listen to music. Many of the fairgoers wear characteristic local costumes, with the women in brightly colored flamenco dresses and with flowers in their hair, and with the men dressed up in suits. During the day, horse carriages parade through the fairgrounds (and into the surrounding city), and numerous other horsemen ride individual mounts. The horse-riding phase of the festivities ends at 8 in the evening, after which everyone goes to one of the casetas for merry-making. We were told that the festivities often go into the early hours of the morning.

Women attired in flamenco dresses for the Feria.
Costumed horseback riders at the Feria fairgrounds
A horseback rider in the central historic city, near the Cathedral

We were up early on our second day in Sevilla to travel by train for a day trip to Cordoba, the venerable city known to the Romans as Corduba,  and called Qurṭubah by the Moors. Abd-al-Rahman, the first of the Umayyad rulers in Spain, made Cordoba his capital in the 8th century. It was Cordoba that a German author in the 10th Century described as the “Ornament of the World.” Unfortunately, the city was sacked by the Almoravids and later by the Almohods (fundamentalist Muslims from Northern Africa), and many of its splendors were destroyed. However, Cordoba’s old city still preserves many remnants from the city’s long history, including an extensive section of the old city wall. The city’s absolute jewel, and the reason why anyone visiting Spain should make time to make a detour to Cordoba, is its Mesquita-Cathedral, one of the most astonishing places I have ever visited.

The city walls of Cordoba in the early morning light
The Mesquita-Cathedral viewed from the opposite side of the Guadalquivir River
The Cordoba cathedral bell tower

Unlike what happened in Seville and Granada, where, following the Reconquista, the Christian rulers tore down the conquered cities’ mosques and built enormous cathedrals on the mosques’ exact footprint, in Cordoba, the Christian rulers preserved the Mosque and incorporated Christian features into the existing structure (which, in turn, had incorporated Roman and Visigothic elements). The mosque, which itself was built by a process of accretion and extension, was, by the time the Christians took over, enormous; it reportedly could hold 40,000 worshipers.

The series of double-tiered arches supported by columns, and the alteration of the arches’ voussoirs between red brick and white stone, create a stunning visual effect.
The repeating rows of double arches has an almost “hall of mirrors” effect
Here is something you won’t find in very many Christian churches; this is a mirhab, a niche that indicates the qibla, the direction (toward Mecca) to which the faithful must face while praying.

Within the vast structure, the Christians inserted a traditional Christian altar and choir. The contrast between the Muslim edifice and the Christian additions is jarring. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled Spain in the 16th century when the Christian additions were completed, reportedly was appalled by the result. (Charles is one to talk; the renaissance palace he crammed into the Alhambra in Granada, while undeniably a beautiful building, is even more misplaced in its location, as noted below.) Nevertheless, the present Mesquita-Cathedral is a stunning thing, a rich and unique assembly of history, religion, and culture in one place.

Believe it or not, this Christian high altar is inside the same structure as contains the arches and other features depicted above. Charles V reportedly said of these Christian additions, “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in this world.”
How do you slip a Christian church inside an Islamic mosque? You cut a hole in the mosque’s flat roof and push a church up through the hole. From this side view picture of the structure, you can see how the Christian structure was dropped into the middle of the mosque.
The portion of the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba is marshy and full of water fowl. Here, an egret fishes along the shoreline.
Another view of the Cordoba city walls. It was very hot the day we visited Cordoba (highs in the mid-upper 90s), and the various water features around town provided a cooling effect.

After our quick visit to Cordoba, our next stop was Granada, an Andalusian city located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains that was the last Muslim-ruled principality on the Iberian Peninsula. Granada became a Christian city when it was conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, but the city’s Moorish heritage is preserved in architectural and design vestiges throughout the city. The Alhambra, the citadel and palace of the Islamic Nasrid dynasty, sits on a prominent hill overlooking the city, above the Darro River. On a steep hillside on the opposite side of the Darro is the old Arab neighborhood of Albaicín, a densely packed district with steep, winding, narrow streets.

The Alhambra (pronounced “Ahl-AHM-bra,” meaning red fort or castle) is one the truly great sites in Europe. While there previously had been fortifications on the site, the present configuration was begun in the 13th century, under the first of the Nasrid rulers of Granada. Charles V, Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson, added a Renaissance place to the center of the compound in the early 16th century. The sprawling site encompasses numerous structures and covers over 35 acres.

A view of the Alhambra from the opposite side of the Darro River

The Alcazaba (from the Arabic al-qaṣabah, meaning citadel), a fortress with battlements and towers on the western side of the Alhambra, is the oldest structure on the site. The view of Granada and of the nearby mountain from the fortress’s walls are really spectacular. 

Inside the Alcazaba, with a view of the Torre de la Vela. The tower’s terrace affords commanding views of the city below, as well as of the mountains to the North.
A view from the Torre de la Vela back into the interior of the Alcazaba, with the remains of the barracks and other structures below.
A view from the ramparts of the Alcazaba across the wooded slope of the hillside, with a view of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada in the background.
A view of Granada from the Alcazaba battlements.

The true gems among the buildings in the Alhambra are the interconnected Nasrid palaces, which were used as the the Nasrid sultans’ residences. Many believe the palaces are among the finest extant examples of Islamic architecture and art in the world. The palaces consist of a series of courtyards and rooms, each with its own design and purpose. Many rooms open onto courtyards or patios with water features. The most striking feature of the various rooms is the intricate plasterwork that adorns the walls and ceilings. The plasterwork is carved with geometric patterns and intricate calligraphy, and it is often painted with bright colors and gilded details.

The Court of the Myrtles in the Comares Palace. The view from this direction is somewhat marred by the looming façade of the large Renaissance-era palace that Charles V added in the 16th century.
The portico of the Court of the Lions. The visual effect of the intricate plasterwork and delicate columns is truly splendid.
The intricately detailed plasterwork on the walls of the Hall of the Two Sisters at the Alhambra.
A doorway in the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra.
A window arch within the Hall of the Two Sisters
A view of the Lindaraja Courtyard

A short distance away from the Alhambra is the historic palace and garden complex known as the Generalife Palace (pronounced “heh-neh-rah-LEE-fay,” and meaning “the garden of the architect”). The palace was built in the 14th century as a country estate for the Nasrid sultans. The palace is arranged around a series of courtyards and gardens and is built on a promontory above the Darro River, overlooking the Albaicin district on the river’s opposite side. The roses in the gardens were in full bloom when we visited  and the cool shade among the trees offered welcome relief from the hot afternoon sun.

The Generalife palace, viewed from the opposite side of the valley
The Alhambra viewed from the Generalife palace
The Patio de la Acequia within the Generlife palace.
In the Generalife gardens. The roses are a modern addition, added early in the 2oth century.
One of the Generalife palace’s permanent residents. (An Iberian lizard.)

The next day, we took a long walk on the far side of the Darro to reach the Sacromonte district, an area originally settled by gypsies in the 16th century. Many of the original residents of the area dug caves in the hillsides to be used as residences, mangers, workshops, and storage facilities. The Alhambra looks down on Sacromonte from the opposite side of the river. In the Alhambra, the sultans in their palaces lived in lush surroundings on the cooler, moister north-facing side of the valley, enjoying their fragrant gardens and writing love poetry. The gypsies, who lived on the drier, sun-scorched south-facing side of the valley, scratched their homes out of the valley’s rocky soil. Many of the residents fled the area after floods in the 1960s, but some of the caves are still occupied as residences. There is a museum in the district now with interesting displays showing how the caves were built and used.

Sacromonte, on the sun-blasted south-facing side of the Dorro valley. You can see some of the cave residences dug into the rocky hillside.
Inside one of the cave dwellings in the Sacromonte museum
A pool on the grounds of the Sacramonte museum. How many frogs do you see? (If you say four, keep looking…)

We were fortunate to be in Granada on May 3, which is the date of the city’s annual Dia de la Cruz festival (also known as the Cruces de Mayo festival). Throughout the city, local residents erected flower-covered crosses, with decorative displays surrounding the crosses. Many residents (particularly women and children) dressed up in Andalusian costumes, and horses paraded the streets. On stages located throughout the city (including one near our hotel), flamenco dancers performed. Crowds of people surged through the streets as residents walked across the city to visit the crosses. It was quite an experience to enjoy the Paseo  on a warm evening, watching the crowds strolling around, especially when the sun did not set until after 9 pm.

Inside a church along the Dorro River, a flower covered cross with a decorated alter
Young ladies dressed up in flamenco dresses for the festival. The object seems to be to parade around town in order to be seen in the colorful costumes.
A dog in a flamenco dress for the festival.
Flamenco dancers on a stage in the square in front of city hall
Horse carriages in a city park along the river
The paseo on the streets of Granada on the festival day. The sun set late in Granada while we were there, and a long stroll on a warm summerlike evening was extraordinarily pleasant.

Our last stop in Spain was Madrid, where we spent a day before flying home. Overall the trip was quite a success. Prior to this trip, I had not traveled extensively in Spain, by comparison to say, France, England, or even Germany. I have to say, I came away with a very warm feeling for Spain. The natural beauty, the cultural richness, the great food and wine, and the friendly and welcoming people make for a great combination. I should also mention that the AVE trains, part of Spain’s high speed rail system, are fabulous — as good as or better than the TGV trains in France and the ICE trains in Germany. Spain, my friends, is a terrific place to visit, a brilliant place of sunshine and culture.

More Pictures of Andalusia

The Plaza de España, which was located near our hotel in Sevilla. We walked there every evening while we were in Sevilla.
A scene on the narrow streets of Triana, a neighborhood on the South side of the Guadalquivir River in Sevilla.
For some reason, we saw many bachelorette party groups while we were in Spain. This group, which we saw on the streets of Sevilla, was dressed as flamenco dancers. After I took the picture, they shouted “Olé!” I suspect they were not entirely sober at the moment I took the picture.
A view of the defensive wall at the foot of the Alhambra, viewed from the Albaicin. The wall was first build by the Iberians, improved by the Romans, restored by the Visigoths, reconstructed by the Moors, and strengthened by the Christians. It seems that the wall was only so effective in holding back the hordes.
Another view of the Sierra Nevada from the Albaicin district. The snow cover on the top of the peaks was surprising, as the air temp down below in Granada was in the 90s. The highest peak in the range is nearly 11,500 feet in elevation, so even in the hot weather, the snow cover is preserved.

Here’s a video of the Alhambra viewed from the St. Nicolas overlook in the Albaicin district

A traditional Moorish saying over a door in the Albaicin in Granada