One of Spain’s most important Unesco World Heritage sites sits on a commanding hillside overlooking Granada, in the heart of Andalusia. A palace complex built by the Nasrid Kings, left to crumble and later masterfully restored, the Alhambra bears over 1000 years of Spanish history like the rings on a tree.
Stunning Arabic and Andalusian architecture are wrapped together in a sprawling complex of halls and elegant courtyards. Every surface is a maze of incredible plasterwork. The richly detailed tessellating patterns would one day inspire artist M.C. Escher to produce his famous “impossible” diagrams. Each successive Nasrid ruler added their own touches to the palace, stamping a place in history. Such grandeur does not go unnoticed. Nowadays the crowds arrive in the early morning on their tour buses. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the noise and elbows and pointing. A frenzy of piranhas with wide brimmed hats and foot-long zoom lenses all vying for the spot to take the photograph.
The beauty of the craftsmanship and the attention to detail are overlooked by so many. They might glimpse such wonder occasionally, in between the sea of faces; a fleeting moment spotted across a grand vaulted room. But there’s no time to double take before it’s lost in the maze of fine details.
As we exit the main palace, our smiles are as wide as the beautiful gardens that greet us in every direction. Sculpted hedges and budding roses nestle between brick towers and temples. Fish dart under lily-pads in the endless stretch of reflective pools. Ruins of servants quarters and workshops hug the high defensive walls. The crowds grow again as we approach the Generalife, the summer palace of the Nasrid rulers, but nothing can take away from the luxury of their elegant hideaway. A maze of plazas and hanging gardens surround us. Shady paths lined by flower beds are beaten only by the soothing sound of running water.
Making a second journey to the main palace after dark was required. Fortunately, the difference was night and day – figuratively and literally. Under the sun the Alhambra was a sleeping giant that lay dormant, biding its time. Now, under the stars, it’s Night at the Museum. Like a good film on second viewing, secrets are revealed. All it takes is to shine a light in the right direction. As the sun sets, the crowds disappear, and the vast silence takes over, the Alhambra comes alive.
Only a handful of lucky souls are allowed behind the curtain each evening. Suddenly those fleeting moments I missed on first viewing are rediscovered in earnest. The intricate details in the plasterwork are revealed in three dimensions. The ornate vaulted ceilings glimmer with gold. The luxurious Court of the Lions is filled only with silence and the slow trickle of the beautiful fountain.
As closing time approaches most make their way to the exits, and for a time we’re alone. An entire palace to explore in peace. We’re like young royals scampering the courts for a secret rendezvous in the moonlight. We jump from one shadow to the next, careful not to wake the ghosts or catch the eye of the overzealous guards. In my mind they wear helmets and scimitars, not name-tags and radios.
But the fairy tale must end, and as we’re ushered to the exits the lights are dimmed. The palace returns to hibernation, happy to sleep through another day of chaos. Ready to come alive tomorrow night for the lucky few who get to experience the Alhambra after dark.