We had been unable to reserve tickets online for our visit, so cautioned by stories of them not always being available on the day, we booked to go on a morning tour. An open topped bus collected us from the hotel. We had to wait for the inevitable latecomers before being driven up the hill to the palace. In the car park we joined a chaos of other punters, being separated into groups according to language. We found ourselves with an Australian couple from Adelaide and one from California and were all given radio receivers and earpieces. Pooling our efforts we managed to turn them on, but each had a different channel, which could not be changed. None of them seemed to work. The Australian lady led us all to join a larger group of English speakers. We could see individuals buying tickets at the office and began to think we had made a big mistake. Then our guide, a slight dark haired man called Antonio, explained how to change the channels and we were up and running on channel 16. He spoke quietly in my ear in a strangely familiar accented English, not always easy to follow, but pleasant to listen to. Some way round the tour I realised his speech had the exact rhythm, emphasis and phrasing as that of Francesco da Mosto. In the end the tour was probably a good idea, our guide manoeuvred us gently around the various palaces and towers keeping to the entrance timings and making sure we missed nothing. The nature of the radio system allowed me to wander off taking photographs, while still listening to him, I just had to keep an eye out for John, who hung back for me if I drifted too far behind. The sweep of people moving through grew greater as the day progressed, so I think on our own we would have still been carried through by the tide and would certainly have lost our orientation. The Alhambra is a complex of palaces and archaeological sites spanning centuries and abrupt changes in ideology. I particularly enjoyed the gardens with their brimming pools, arcing fountains, and the jewelled planting set off by shaped hedges, low edging myrtles, and tall, sculpted conifers, modern additions representing the walls of buildings now lost. Existing low walls were clothed in a narrowly clipped jasmine and the fragrance poured down the hill, mingled with the even more heady scent of gigantic waxy magnolias.
There was a bewildering amount to see and surprises within every structure. The plain fortress exteriors hid sumptuous inner courts, where an extravagance of water was displayed to epitomised wealth the of one time desert people. Elaborate filigree patterns and Arab script embellish the interior walls and looking up, the stylised stalagmites encrusting the domed ceilings, are like gazing up into the obsessive work of insects. The display of wealth was tactfully hidden away from the gaze of the taxpayers on the plain below, but designed to overwhelm visiting dignitaries, according to our guide. Perhaps it inspired the renaissance architects, as the middle of the square Catholic palace is a surprising double-tiered cylinder of columns, wide open to the sky, with echoes of the Pantheon in Rome. A perfect acoustic circle, the space reverberated with the sight and sounds of myriads of swallows swooping around the void and diving up into the plaster ceilings.
This building literally bit into the early Moorish Palace, which we visited near the end of our tour. The vast reflecting pool of the Court of Myrtles still exuded its’ aura of calm, but the splendour of the Lion Courtyard was lost in a dazzling glare of light and hoards of people taking ‘Selfies’ in front of the fountain. On our visit all of the twelve Lions were spouting water, hiding the genius of the original engineering, where each would pour for an hour, rendering the fountain a water clock to those who took note. Inside a newly opened pavilion at one end of the courtyard a lady on a scaffold was busy holding forth about the restoration work she was on with, at the rate she was going this looks set to be prolonged.
Our tour came to an end with a look inside a couple of towers, tall, red and plain with militaristic window slits from the outside, elaborate decoration domed ceilings and multiple archways within. The last even contained a fountain, “ A whole palace within a simple tower,” intoned Antonio in his best Francesco. He told us the tour was at an end, the workout had been an extra, for free; for those in need of revival he recommended a local beer, called Alhambra, brewed specially for the purpose. We opted to walk back, rather than take the bus, and soon tracked some down and I can confirm his claim. That evening we ate out in the courtyard of a onetime convent. We sat in the cloisters looking out on a pebbled square with orange trees in pots and a bubbling fountain. Tastefully hidden in one corner, under the cloisters, but fortuitously directly opposite John, was a television tuned into the football. Spain was to play the Netherlands. The waiters cut their eyes to the screen each time they passed by. At first all was well, a clenched fist of subdued celebration as Spain scored first and sadly, for them, only once. An equaliser just before half time was, as it often is, the prophet of doom. We thought about them all sat outside David’s Restaurant watching the unfolding nightmare on their new big screen and felt for them. As it turned out the restaurant had been packed with increasingly happy Dutch.