Moorish Magnificence

Glorious Nasrid architecture offers a glimpse into Europe's last Muslim kingdom

By: David O. Bailey

Granada occupies a high mountain bowl scenic, yes, but dusty, dry and grimly hot in the summer.

The Nasrid monarchs were no fools. When they established the Alhambra, the palace complex from which they ruled their Medieval Moorish kingdom in southern Spain, they built on the high edge of the bowl, where water flows, trees flourish and cool breezes blow unhindered through the high passes.

The Hotel Alhambra Palace benefits doubly from the same placement. It too rises above most of the noise, smog and bustle of the city. And it is just a few minutes’ shady walk from the Alhambra.

The hotel is a tall, domed building rising atop a steep slope. The windows of the front rooms overlook roofs and domes in a residential quarter directly below and the view sweeps across the entire valley, complete with the peaks of the high Sierra Nevada catching the setting sun to the left.

Also complete, in some weather, with a fearsome layer of smog. The same mountains that keep the breezes out of the valley trap the dust and fumes of the city, and the resulting smudge will be familiar to anyone who has looked down on Los Angeles from the San Gabriel Mountains. All the better to be above the worst of it.

The hotel’s public areas are enriched with decorative details in plaster, wood and tile in the style of the ornate Moorish monument just up the hill. Dark wood predominates in the rooms, but they are large and comfortable.

The view is there again when guests linger over at dinner in an enclosed porch along the front of the building. The food is palatable, if unremarkable, but the view at sunset is worth one ordinary meal. For other nights there are fine restaurants in the city that specialize in Moorish-style food, rich with olives, figs and honey. Breakfast, a buffet in the dining room, is memorable chiefly for the constant groan of one of those overworked rack toasters that cling to existence in some Spanish hotels.

To get to the Alhambra from the hotel, the best way is to walk. It’s a few hundred yards and uphill, though on a gentle slope, but a traveler who can get around inside the historical site can probably get to it. The graveled walkways through the trees and under the walls of the fortress are more pleasant than the sidewalk.

Clients who do not read Spanish should be warned that signs inside the site don’t have English translations. To confuse things further, some guidebooks don’t call the buildings by the same names as those on the signs. It is a big site and there is a lot to see, but ruins of big fortresses with great views like the Alcazaba, for instance, can be seen elsewhere. What brings people to this place is the Nasrid Palaces Palacios Nazaries on the sign which need time for full appreciation.

It is astonishing, considering the quality of the air in the city below, that the delicate ornamentation has lasted through the centuries. In fact, the lion statues around the outdoor fountain in the Lion Court show the telltale blurring of detail that is associated with acid rain. But the tiling and plaster traceries inside and the play of light through the day are worth plenty of time and repeated visits. Do note that the palaces close after sunset.

A tougher walk from the hotel is the Albaicin, the old Moorish quarter along a stream below the fortress. It’s not far, but the path is quite steep.

Taxis are always available in the busy little square in back of the hotel that also serves as a bus stop and a valet parking lot. Clients who reach Granada by rental car should be advised to leave it here when they explore the city: Not only is the route circuitous, but driving along a street that narrows for a fortress gate only inches wider than the car is not for the inexperienced.

Riding, not walking, is definitely recommended for sights farther down, such as the Alcaiceria, once a teeming bazaar, now a warren of narrow streets and souvenir shops.

Waiting to be explored farther afield are the Sierra Nevada, the beaches of the Costa de Almeria and, for film buffs, the locations for spaghetti westerns near Tabernas.

Cordoba, with the wonderfully eclectic architecture of the Mezquita, is a longish but picturesque day trip through miles of olive groves.

When Napoleon’s troops invaded Granada and seized the Alhambra, the General intended to blow up the palace. So the story goes, his plans were hampered by a wounded soldier who had been left behind in the palace. The courageous man succeeded in diffusing the bomb single-handedly, and thus saved this beautiful building for future generations.