Iam scarcely a third of the way up the hill towards the Alhambra when the point is made. Plaza Nueva – that wide, café-lined space at Granada’s heart, awash with Andalusian warmth – has fallen away behind me, and the steepness inherent in the narrow lane of Cuesta de Gomérez is starting to bite, when the Puerta de las Granadas stands in my way.
It is a grand proposition – hard stone blocks stacked so as to form a gate that separates the paved street from the ornamental path that continues towards the palace beyond. At a glance it could be Roman – but it is utterly Spanish, crafted in 1536 in tribute to the reigning monarch’s marriage 10 years earlier. But it does more than speak of wedding bells. It makes a noisy statement. It declares: “Everything from here on upwards is mine.”
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The man who commissioned it was not short on ambition. While history generally refers to him as Charles V through his stint as Holy Roman Emperor (the head of the sweep of territory that encompassed much of Germany, Austria and Italy in the Middle Ages), he was primarily Charles I of Spain – king of a country that, effectively, had only been born in 1469 via the union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. By the time he was crowned – an exact half-millennium ago this year, in 1516 – this new Spain had already changed the world.
In 1492, it had dispatched Christopher Columbus west to “discover” the Americas – a boon that had brought fresh wealth and the beginnings of an empire. And in the same year, it had finally succeeded in wiping Al-Andalus – the Moorish realm that had ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula since 711 – from what it saw as its lands, the process being finished by the surrender of the final refusenik, the Emirate of Granada.
Except that the emirate had not disappeared. While its last sultan, Muhammad XII, had gone into exile in Morocco, the palace that symbolised his evaporated power was still there – a glittering prize of Islamic architecture, gleaming on its crag, neatly framed by the snowy flanks of the Sierra Nevada. Charles, a ruthless figure who, during the course of his reign, would oversee Spanish assaults on both the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, was unlikely to let so obvious and visible a slight to his majesty go unchallenged.
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And so he set about reshaping the Alhambra – which had begun life as a small fortress in 889 – in his own image. Or he tried to. It does not take me long to find evidence of his hand. There, at the top of the slope, is the Puerta de la Justicia – a one-time main entrance to the complex, built by Sultan Yusuf I in 1348. It is imposing, its arch seeming to both offer and deny access. And it is not alone. Adjacent, the “Pillar of Charles V” interjects with a florid swipe of Renaissance artistry – sculptures and classical figures, Hercules and Apollo preening. “This,” it is desperate to announce, “is civilisation. That, barbarity.”
As a plan of action, it does not work. It seems shrill, needy. The Alhambra rises above it, unconcerned – and thinking of what is inside, the epic courtyards and flowing gardens, I again consider myself fortunate at being able to see it in 2016. For the palace might easily have been lost. It was not just that it survived regime change. It also came through a period of rank neglect. The 18th and 19th centuries were not kind to the Alhambra – left to rot on its plinth, its buildings dens of thieves and beggars. The broken window of 1808-12 saw it used as barracks by Napoleon’s troops, and for target practice – explosions tearing into the Torre de los Siete Suelos and the Torre del Agua. It was not until 1870, when it was declared a National Monument, that the resurrection began. Now it is (as of 1984) a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the most popular monument in Spain. Last year, 2.5 million people – more than visited Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Família – poured into it.
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But it was Charles who posed the biggest threat. His firmest fingerprint sits at the centre of the complex – the colossal Palacio de Carlos V. Another rude Renaissance interruption, it screams “look at me!” True, it is beautiful. Its facade is a pale sandstone joy. Its interior appeals to Ancient Rome, a circular space that wishes to be a miniature Colosseum. Yet its loveliness only partially hides its failure. Designed to be an imperial residence, it was started in 1527. But the bulk of the labour would not be finished until 1637, when Charles had been dead for 79 years. Even then, there was no roof (and would not be until 1923). Now it hosts two museums – the Museo de Bellas Artes, with its pieces by 16th and 17th-century artists Jacobo Florentino and Alonso Cano; and the Museo de la Alhambra, whose artefacts tell the palace’s tale. With some irony, the wooden chair featured here as a prime exhibit – a regal affair used for state occasions – did not belong to Charles, but to Yusuf I.
Yusuf is still here – in spirit. So is his father, Ismail I, and his son, Muhammed V. These three sultans were largely responsible for the Palacio Nazaríes – the 14th-century miracle that shines as the Alhambra’s jewel. To amble through these chambers and corridors is to step into Al-Andalus, to feel the energy of a civilisation that held such a significant portion of Europe in its clever grip for eight centuries. Its matters of state still whisper in the Mexuar – a meeting place for ministers, all floral tiles and tapering columns, whose later conversion into a chapel could not conceal its Moorish origins. Its afternoons at play still haunt the Patio de los Leones – an intricate courtyard, the core of royal life under Muhammed V, where fountains splash. And its sophistication still flickers around the Palacio de Comares. Here, an elaborate bathhouse offers soft alcoves, daylight seeping through star-shaped openings in the dome. And there, the Patio de los Arrayanes turns a dreamy eye to Charles’s belief that he was a bringer of civility, and sighs in exasperation – the Alhambra’s postcard moment spreading out as a courtyard of incomparable glory, a nest of pillars and arches, its long pool reflecting the scene back to the sky.
I wander farther through a complex that Washington Irving captured so well in his 1832 tome Tales of the Alhambra – his words often in awe of their context. “How unworthy is my scribbling of the place?” he famously asked himself – and it is not difficult to understand his sentiment, inching along the ramparts of the Alcazaba, the oldest part of the site, its military acorn. Below, the Rio Darro twinkles, Granada a sultry Spaniard on its banks, but it still seems odd to think of the flags of Castile and Aragon flying on these battlements, in conquest, in 1492. This idea seems odder still once I have walked to the north east, where the Palacio de Generalife is as much garden as palace, water arcing and dancing between flower beds, the covered passages that surround it providing quiet escape from the heat. It is a reconstruction, of course, reborn between 1931 and 1951. But as the day fades, a gentle fragrance on the air, I lose track of whether it is 2016 – or 1316.
This is not to say there is nothing more to Granada than the Alhambra. This small city takes the visitors who flock to its main attraction and holds them close – in its baroque cathedral, a feast of marble and gold which, built between 1518 and 1561, was another attempt to stamp a Christian identity onto captured Moorish soil; in the magnificence of the key drag Calle Gran Vía de Colón; in the shops dotted around the Plaza del Campillo.
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But equally, it is impossible to avoid that prettiest star. On another day, I find myself climbing up through El Albayzín – the cluttered, chaotic and haphazardly cobbled district of Granada that most clings to the Moorish epoch. Calle Calderia Nueva is an obstacle course of souvenir shops, hawkers and cafés, and Cuesta de San Gregorio is no friend to those with aching legs. But when I finally break out of the labyrinth – directionless and unsure of my location – on to Placeta del Comino, there, again, is the Alhambra, high on its throne opposite. Another few steps and I am in Restaurante El Agua on Placeta Aljibe de Trillo – where the vista lingers over a salad and a glass of Andalusian red, Spain and Al-Andalus suddenly in harness, though always aware of their differences.