This autumn saw the opportunity to make a trip that's been a dream for many years; a visit to the Alhambra, a fabulous complex of palaces and gardens in Granada, in Spain’s Andalusia region.
There is no way to prepare for the unimaginable beauty of the Alhambra. I’d been told how spectacular it is, and of course it looks extremely handsome in photos, but being there, as dawn breaks over the city below, is simply breathtaking. Inspirational. Divine, one might be tempted to say.
Which is, of course, exactly the impact the Alhambra was intended to have, from the days when the palace and gardens were first created in the middle part of the 1200s. And in the 800 years since, this magical place has entranced all who pass through its doors. Part fortress, part palace, part World Heritage site, the Alhambra has much to offer visitors, whatever their interest. And it was my delight, of course, to visit the incredible gardens.
Unlike Monty Don, in his BBC series Paradise Gardens earlier this year, unfortunately I was not able to enjoy special access to the site, but I got as close to this as possible by booking the first time slot of the day – and in early October, that came just 20 minutes after sunrise. Of course, the hugely popular Alhambra complex fills up as the day progresses, but walking quietly through the courtyards in the early morning light, hearing the fountains trickling in the stillness and birdcalls echoing from the ancient trees, I felt truly privileged to be in this unique and incredibly special place.
The main attraction of the Alhambra, the Nasrid palaces, are breathtaking for their architecture and decoration. Built while this region of Spain was under Moorish control, the palaces are designed to impress, with spaces both large and imposing, and small and intimate. It’s an astonishing spectacle, unfolding before the visitor with stupefying splendour. But it was the gardens of the palaces where I found the humanity behind the lives of the people who lived here, so long ago.
Shady courtyards where tall cypresses reach to the heavens while orange trees drip with fruit within easy reach. Water adds soft sounds, flowers gift their scents and immaculately clipped parterres create pathways leading to satisfyingly precise and symmetrical views. No doubt these outdoor rooms have also seen their share of courtly intrigue, with plenty of galleries perfect for eavesdropping, but a garden cannot help but also provide peace for the soul, and these cool spaces must also have provided a fast escape to comforting greenery when the pressures of palace life got too much.
Gardens within the walls
Moving on into the gardens beyond the palaces, it is difficult to know how much remains of the Moorish designs, as the terraced gardens have been substantially redesigned over the years - and of course we can only conjecture at the original planting schemes. But the classic elements of Islamic garden design have been retained: moving water, in rills, canals and fountains; shady pavilions; geometric layouts; fruit trees and scented flowers.
There is abundant topiary and hedging throughout these gardens, giving immaculate structure. The formality of the topiary contrasts beautifully with the riot of colour and texture of the planting within, creating a feeling of abundance and lusciousness – even at the end of a long, hot summer.
It must be said, a lot of the topiary was looking slightly shaggy we when visited, and was ready for its autumn tidy-up. A job of awe-inspiring proportions! Still, it was a task the grounds staff plainly had in hand, and I was intrigued to see the work in progress. And what a difference it made, once the strong geometric lines had been re-established.
Outside the Alhambra’s walls and across a ravine lies a further extensive area of incredible gardens; the Generalife, often translated as the Architect’s Garden. Like the gardens inside the Alhambra’s walls, they were extensively redesigned in the first half of the 20th Century – there’s even a sizeable performance space. Originally used to grow food for the Alhambra’s residents, as well as for strolling and relaxation, the Generalife is still very productive. We sat under lemon and lime trees, and passed by figs, pomegranates, walnuts, chestnuts, as well as fields of brassicas and aubergines.
The buildings in the Generalife were designed in a simpler style than the palaces on the other side of the ravine, in part to give an impression of relaxation for the Alhambra’s nobles when needing an escape. It calls to mind Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine at Versailles; even royalty cherishes a few moments of relaxation on occasion.
The gardens, however, were just as fabulous – if not more so. Cooling fountains, plentiful shade and immaculate structure were the hallmarks as we progressed from one garden ‘room’ to the next, and despite the stifling warmth of the day and the now-thronging crowds, the gardens still imparted a feeling of wonder, peace and calm.
A trip to the Alhambra has to be on every gardener’s bucket list. Some tips from my visit this autumn: go early, before the site fills up and the day gets hot; you’ll also benefit from the amazing early-morning light. And book in advance. When we booked over two months ahead, the early timeslots on some days of our stay in Granada were already sold out.
But do go, if you can. The Alhambra offers an experience which will stay with you forever.