Spain: Very Moorish

By John Gardner

Granada's cultural legacy will make your head spin, writes John Gardner.

The Alhambra's old palaces, with their exquisite arabesques, are the jewel of Granada. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Nikater
The Alhambra's old palaces, with their exquisite arabesques, are the jewel of Granada. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Nikater

There is a lot of waiting around if you want to see the best of the Alhambra, the fabled heart of Moorish culture, in Granada. Tickets are strictly limited and booking ahead is essential.

But although you have booked, you still have to collect the tickets and join a series of queues to enter the Nasrid palaces. The wait is worth it, even if you are as pathologically averse to queuing as I am.

The palaces are the jewel of the Alhambra, with mosaics of an intricacy that defeat imagination, and motifs of a geometrical complexity only mirrored in advanced-science texts.

Yet even as the head spins with the detail, the whole architecture of the palaces - with their courtyards and fountains and the harmonious balance of light and shade - bring to life a lost world of tranquillity.

It's here the benefits of the booking system become clear. The numbers are low enough for visitors to take in the majesty and find relief from the camera-crazed.

The Nasrid palaces are the gems of the Alhambra, but the rest of the vast site offers even more - from the climb to the towering battlements to the spectacular formal gardens on the long approach to the Palacio de Generalife at the summit of the complex.

If the best advice is to book your tickets online and pick them up at a city kiosk, the next-best is to make sure you have plenty of time. This is not the place for a quick highlights tour, and that applies to the whole of the city of Granada.

Another useful tip is to double-check what the clerk at Malaga bus station, who was distracted by intense conversations with his mate, tells you or you may, like us, find yourself on a coach going in the wrong direction. To be fair, the route along the eye-watering coastal developments was more interesting than the direct journey. But having to change buses in a small town was less gripping. If anyone tells you the Spanish have given up the siesta, I'll bet you all the drinks you can manage in two hours in a bus-station bar that they are wrong.

But once in Granada, described by Robert Hughes as "one of the supreme cultures in world history", you need time. Time to wander the warren of narrow lanes of the Albaycin district with their wonderful houses with walled gardens - if only because the chances of getting disoriented are high. Nowhere other than Toledo, another great Moorish legacy, have I seen see so many bewildered gazers circling haplessly, looking at useless maps.

You also need to take your time wandering round the royal chapel and cathedral, with its unbelievable baroque organs and array of saints depicted as being variously barbecued, broken on wheels and suffering other torments so dear to the Spanish soul. Coming out into the daylight, it's a comfort to breathe the air, scented by the spice and flower oil stalls, or to drift into the souk.

Staying at one of the hotels in the Albaycin, which have been converted from old houses and palaces, is an experience. With its long corridors, courtyards and interesting plumbing, our choice of the Palacio de Mariana Pineda couldn't have been further from the standardised atmosphere of the modern hotel.

But Granada is not just a museum piece; the modern city, with its upmarket shops and miles of book stalls, has its own appeal. And it's nice to know that it's not only Auckland that can cock up its town planning, as you look in disbelief at the vile block of apartments that sits squarely behind the Plaza Isabel la Catolica.

Still, you can always stroll away and enjoy the hunt for the bar serving the best tapas. And here's a last tip: unless you are really hungry, don't make the mistake of ordering too many raciones.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: If you are already in Spain, there are direct flights to Granada from Madrid and Barcelona. If you're in Britain, as we were, the cheapest way is to fly to Malaga with one of the budget airline options which operate from various airports.

There are regular and cheap buses from Malaga to Granada, which you can book in advance at alsa.es.

The Alhambra: Book online at alhambra.org.

Further information: To find out about visiting Granada see andalucia.com or lovegranada.com.

John Gardner paid his own way in Granada.

- NZ Herald

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