Deep in southern Spain’s exotic Andalucia region, used by Ridley Scott for various scenes in his crusader movie The Kingdom of Heaven is what most would agree is a wonder of the world and one of Europe’s top attractions, a dramatical hilltop fortress and palaces of the Alhambra of Granada, listed as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations organization UNESCO. Before we get into details about the Alhambra and her labyrinth of stucco, aromatic gardens, fountains and jasmin, however, it is worth remembering the lessons of the past.
Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus, for over 700 years was a land of enlightenment during the Dark Ages of Europe, and Granada was its last jewel. While the rest of Europe lived under a medieval pall of ignorance and tribal warfare, Islamic Granada, Cordoba, Toledo and Seville were home to vast libraries of sophisticated scholarship, to philosophers and astronomers, and to an advanced society that prided itself on religious tolerance.
The Muslim Spanish or Moors had brought the theories of advanced mathematics like Algebra with them. They had explored the movements of the stars and planets in the heavens. They taught the Crusaders Chess. They traded in rare spices and silks, some the likes of which Europe had not seen before.They introduced new arts, dance, metalworkings, story telling, all which became incorporated into the culture of the Crusaders, as apparent in clothing, jewelry and literature.
The Christian armies of conquest that would finally claim Granada in 1492 for Catholic Spain had waitied eight centuries to take the city. Even after such a long wait, they paused at the gates of the Alhambra, for they understood that the keys to the secrets of the Alhambra lay in the city that surrounds it. In modern Granada, it can seem as if Boabdil, the last Muslim king in any part of Spain, and his people have never left, as if the peoples of the world – students, pilgrims, travellers – have again brought alive the exotic past.
A Spanish legend has it that when Boabdil was forced to flee Granada in 1492, he turned from his retreat into exile for one last look and wept. His mother, upon seeing her son’s tears, admonished him with the words, “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.” His mother’s harsh words notwithstanding, it is not difficult to understand why Boabdil wept. His former home was the extraordinary Alhambra, which remains to this day the most enduring symbol of Al-Andalus with its pleasure palaces, exquisite gardens and turreted walls.
The name is of Arabic derivation like many Spanish words, means red maybe derived from the colour of the sun-dried tapia, or bricks made of fine gravel and clay, of which the outer walls are built. Some authorities, however, hold that it commemorates the red flare of the torches by whose light the work of construction was carried on nightly for many years; others associate it with the name of the founder, Mahomet Ibn Al Ahmar (Mohammed II); and others derive it from the Arabic Dar al Amra, House of the Master.
Granada is the richness of the Orient grafted onto Spanish soil and the narrow lanes are alive with lanterns and smoke and street markets. Along Calderia Vieja and Calderia Nueva, twisting laneways of antiquity that climb the hill into the heart of the old Muslim town, the Albaicin, Arab shops proffer handicrafts from Morocco, sweets from Jerusalem and the spices of Arabia.
Along each thoroughfare, high white walls conceal expansive villas surrounded by gardens. Church spires, once the minarets of the city’s mosques and from which the faithful were called to prayer, rise from amid the labyrinth that is Old Granada. Remnants of the 11th-century city walls prop up old Muslim bathhouses, some of which have reopened to offer the sensory pleasures of steam baths and massages under pleasing domes.
Softly lit tea houses promise mint tea and water pipes, evoking the hospitality of ancient Persia.The aromas wafting through the laneways could be Damascus. The sounds and street cries could be the medieval bazaars of Egypt.Across from th Alhambra on the next hill is the old Moorish area where lanes lead up the hill to the Mirador San Nicolas. This popular spot in Granada often host street musicians, gypsy fortune-tellers and street markets, Across the valley, the Alhambra still guards the city under the backdrop of the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
The majority of the Alhambra palace buildings are quadrangular, with all the rooms opening on to a central court; and the whole reached its present size simply by the gradual addition of new quadrangles, designed on the same principle, though varying in dimensions, and connected with each other by smaller rooms and passages. In spite of the neglect, vandalism and sometimes ill-judged restoration which the Alhambra has endured, it remains the most perfect example of Moorish art in its final European development, freed from the direct Byzantine influences which can be traced in the Mesquita cathedral of Cordoba, and more elaborate and fantastic than the 300 foot Minaret tower of Seville.
The Interior of the Alhambra
The Moorish part of the Alhambra resembles many medieval Christian strongholds in its threefold arrangement as a castle, a palace and a residential area.
The Alcazaba or citadel, its oldest part, is built on the isolated and precipitous foreland which terminates the plateau on the north-west. Only its massive outer walls, towers and ramparts are left.
On its watch-tower, the Torre de la Vela, 85 ft. high, the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella was first raised, in token of the Spanish conquest of Granada, on January 2, 1492. Access from the city to the Alhambra Park is afforded by the Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of Pomegranates), a massive triumphal arch dating from the 15th century. A steep ascent leads past the Pillar of Charles V, a fountain erected in 1554, to the main entrance of the Alhambra. This is the Puerta Judiciaria (Gate of Judgment), a massive horseshoe archway, surmounted by a square tower, and used by the Moors as an informal court of justice.
A passage leads inward to the Plaza de los Aljibes (Place of the Cisterns), a broad open space which divides the Alcazaba from the Moorish palace. To the left of the passage rises the Torre del Vino (Wine Tower), built in 1345, and used in the 16th century as a cellar. On the right is the palace of Charles V, a cold-looking but majestic Renaissance building, out of harmony with its surroundings, which it tends somewhat to dwarf by its superior size. The intricate designs of the Moors’ Alhambra stand in stark contrast to Charles’ palace, which consists primarily of white walls with no particularly striking features. Many architectural scholars are thus disgusted by Charles V’s preference for simplistic Renaissance styling, which they believe detracts from the Alhambra’s architectural magnificance. Construction of Charles’ palace, begun in 1526, was abandoned about 1650.
The celebrated Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) is an oblong court, with a pavilion that projects into the court at each extremity. The square is paved with coloured tiles, and the colonnade with white marble; while the walls are covered 5 ft (1.5 m) with a border above and below enamelled blue and gold. The columns supporting the roof and gallery are irregularly placed, with a view to artistic effect; and the general form of the piers, arches and pillars is most graceful. Some believe the sculpted lions in the patio were most likely sculpted by members of the Caliphate’s Christian or Jewish community, as making such representational sculpture was not considered allowed by the followers of Islam.
The Sala de los Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors) is the largest in the Alhambra, and occupies all the Torre de Comares. It is a square room, the sides being 37 ft. in length, while the centre of the dome is 75 ft (23 m) high. This was the grand reception room, and the throne of the sultan was placed opposite the entrance. There are nine windows, three on each facade, and the ceiling is admirably diversified with inlaid-work of white, blue and gold, in the shape of circles, crowns and stars.
The Sala de los Abencerrajes (Hall of the Abencerrages) derives its name from a legend according to which Boabdil, the last king of Granada, having invited the chiefs of that illustrious line to a banquet, massacred them here. This room is a perfect square, with a lofty dome and trellised windows at its base. The roof is exquisitely decorated in blue, brown, red and gold, and the columns supporting it spring out into the arch form in a remarkably beautiful manner.
The Villa de los Martires (Martyrs’ Villa), on the summit of Monte Mauror, commemorates by its name the Christian slaves who were employed to build the Alhambra, and confined here in subterranean cells. The Torres Bermejas (Vermilion Towers), also on Monte Mauror, are a well-preserved Moorish fortification, with underground cisterns, stables, and accommodation for a garrison of 200 men.
Several Roman tombs were discovered in 1829 and 1857 at the base of Monte Mauror.Of the outlying buildings in connection with the Alhambra, the foremost in interest is the Palacio de Generalife (the Moorish Jennat al Arif, “Garden of Arif,” or “Garden of the Architect”). This villa probably dates from the end of the 13th century, but has been several times restored. Its gardens, however, with their clipped hedges, grottos, fountains, and cypress avenues, are said to retain their original Moorish character.
In the construction of the Alhambra, the Moors had no depictions of people at all excluding the human hand. Of course, there were plenty of depictions of people on the Renaissance building.
It is all too much, too exquisitely conceived for just one visit. It could easily require days of close examination. For some, a lifetime is not enough.
Amid all the wonder at large in this enchanted place, it is not at all difficult to understand why poor old Boabdil wept as he departed. For him and for so many other visitors who cannot bear to leave, he was leaving paradise itself
The Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzin of Granada are listed as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO.
Colmenar is known as the capital of the mountains of Malaga. This village stands like a throne in its rocky landscape. It is relatively unscathed by the commercial tourism of the coast. Mules are still used as a mode of transport and olive, almond and grapes are harvested here. Colmenar got its name from a farmer who housed bees for their honey. The coat of arms that Colmenar has adopted is a beehive with seven bees flying over it.
This historically dated town marks its coming presence with a stone steeple called the Puerta de La Cruz. The entrance from the direction of Malaga is adorned with pine woods and rolling countryside. The nearby Buitreras Canyon towering at 100m high winds down to an emerald green lagoon fed from an underwater natural spring. This area is well populated by pot-holers and hikers. Great birds of prey soar high above surveying the pleasant array of geographical significance.
Besides pot-holers and hiking, biking is popular too. There are some great routes to travel on such as the one from El Comenar to the cave of “Los Motillos” (a cave dating to the Paleolithic times). You could also visit the Roman sulphur baths and the remains of the Roman villa of Saeponia.
There are some very good restaurants in Colmenar and if you want a taste of Andalucia you are sure to get it here. Due to it being not as much traversed by multinational tourism Spanish food is mainly on the menu though other international food is available too. Venison, wild boar cooked to succulent perfection. There is also an excellent vegetarian restaurant that serves non-meat dishes and ecological fare.
The closest airports to Colmenar are Malaga (29km) and Granada (58km). Transfers from both of these airports are excellent. Shuttle services and taxis will get you there. However, due to Colmenar being in a rural location, car hire is strongly recommended. It will also enable you to get to the beaches and other locations, which provide sport such as golf.
There are an astonishing number of historical and archaeological sites to be found locally if you take the trouble to look. This means that anyone can have the chance to play Indiana Jones.
Take, for example, the pleasant town of Baza where I live. It boasts a whole lot more than a number of fine examples of 16thC monumental civil and religious architecture. The place is also redolent with the hundreds of years of history from the earlier Moorish occupation as well.
The original name of Baza was Basti. It was the capital of the Iberian Bastetano culture and was founded in the 4th-5thC BC. The citizens of Baza still rejoice in the name of Bastetanos today. (For the school boys amongst us, the neighbours of the original Bastetanos were the delightfully named Turdetani. The Turduli and the Turdulorum lived nearby.)
The first Bastetanos built their city on a hill, Cerro Cepero, three kilometers from the present day town center. There is, however, evidence to suggest that this place predates Iberian times and existed as an urban center as far back as the 8th-9thC BC. It also later became an important Roman stronghold and, later still, proved to be of vital importance to the Visigoths. It continued to survive until the Middle Ages.
There are no official signs to tell you where this important archaeological site is to be found. You take a small country road by the side of a petrol station, hang a left down a narrow dirt track before a warehouse, then take another one to the right, head on up the hill past an abandoned cave house and there you are. You have just discovered the remnants of the ancient metropolis of Basti, a once important Ibero-Roman city – and the chances are that you have it all to yourself.
The site is partly buried and covers an area of seven hectares. It has two necropolises nearby which have both yielded important archaeological finds, the most famous of which is the Dama de Baza. This is a hollow life-sized statue of a young Iberian noble-woman which was used as a funerary urn.
The surviving fragments of the city walls are Iberian, but the remains of its buildings are of later Roman origin. You can stroll around the remnants of the forum, basilica, temple, shops, baths and a villa.
There are lovely panoramic views all around you. The 1,492 meter high lump of Cerro Jabalcon, which is thought by some to be an extinct volcano, dominates the view in one direction. The mountains of the 2,000 plus meter Sierras of La Sagra ( the peak of which looks like a volcano), Castril and Baza are in the background in other directions. It is easy to see that the ancient Bastetanos built their city in a good strategic position.
This is history as I like it. No tour guides, no tourists, no pay-booths and no nonsense. Just you, your imagination and the wind in your hair, stepping over ancient pot shards as you go.
Andalucia, Spain is one of the sunniest and warmest places in Europe. With a vibrant culture and a colorful array of carnivals, foods, and history, Andalucia is one of the greatest places to visit in all of Europe.
Known for flamenco dancing, bullfighting, and architecture, Andalucia has much to offer the visiting admirer. For the art lovers, any number of museums will satisfy their curiosity of Andalusian fine art talents. The Museum of Fine Arts in Seville has hundreds of works from the Golden Age of Sevillian painting, created by famous artists such as Murillo and Valdés Leal. It also houses the famous sculpture by Pedro Millán, Crying Over the Dead Christ.
Surround yourself with Islamic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Some buildings are from thousands of years ago, which still stand today. Visit the Great Mosque of Cordoba, built by the Umayyad Caliphate, the second of the four Arab caliphates. Or visit Ronda, where the oldest bullring, the Plaza de toros, is still in use, built in 1784.
Come to Andalucia during Holy Week and watch the Procession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Listen to saetas and take a pilgrimage to Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza in Andújar. Visit the cathedrals and enjoy the beautiful history of Andalucia.
Another famous festival in Andalucia is the Carnival of Cádiz. The origin of this festival begins with the legend that the wittiest people in Spain reside in Andalucia. Chirigotas, groups of performers, practice wit and sarcasm all year long to sing at the carnival. Anyone can join in the festivities and dress in costumes that usually parody recent politics. The festival lasts about two weeks and has plenty of other performers as well. Choirs, comparasas, romanceros and quartets all perform during the carnival to show off their wit and cleverness.
The Seville Fair is another notorious festival held along the Guadalquivir River where you can find people dancing sevillanas and singing, drinking sherry and eating tapas, dressed in flamenco dresses and traje cortos.
If green scenery is what you prefer, Andalucia has no short supply. With everything from mountain ranges to a beautiful sea coast, Andalucia is a great place to see Mother Nature at her finest. The lands are filled with olive and almonds trees, pines, poplars, and elms. The more forested areas smell like Grandmother’s kitchen with all the wild thyme and rosemary thriving. The beautiful warm weather and pristine coasts of the Tryrrenian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean are great places to relax and enjoy the open skies and cool waters.
Andalucian dining thrives on Mediterranean bounty. Dine on fried fish fresh from the sea and deepwater rose shrimp. If you stuff yourself on the seafood, try the famous plato alpujarreño, a combination of ham and sausage. For dessert, enjoy pastries with almonds and honey. Metcados and polvorones are made from Andalucian shortbread and are a sweet local treat. Andalucian wines are favored throughout the world and for good reason. The wines and sherries from this region are diverse and are sweetened with Pedro Ximénez, or white grapes.
A visit to Andalucia would not be complete without watching a flamenco performance Flamenco dancing is seductive, provocative, and mysterious. The women wear extravagant gypsy dresses of all different colors and the men wear bright vests with tight pants and usually pair them with a white undershirt. Flamenco music has changed over history, but usually sounds like jazz or classical guitar. You haven’t seen Andalucia until you’ve seen flamenco.
A bright, cultural place filled with mystery, passion, and history, Andalucia is the perfect destination for any one visiting Europe.