Episode 214 – Granada, I’m Falling Under Your Spell


March 4, 2022. Málaga 64°F/ 17°C. Granada 44°F/8°C

We’re docked in Málaga, but are heading to Granada today to complete one of my bucket list items: Alhambra (“the red one”).

Alhambra as viewed from the summer palace.
Looking down at a portion of Granada from the Alhambra’s plateau viewpoint

This combination palace and fortress (Alcazaba) complex is large enough that it was actually a self-contained city above Granada. It was originally built in 1238, was the castle and harem of a sultan, was modified in the 14th century, became the royal court of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain in the 15th century, and was partially reconstructed in a more Renaissance style in the early 16th century. During the Peninsular War at the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon’s forces occupied the Alhambra, and intended to dynamite the entire complex when they left, to prevent it being used as a fortress. Fortunately, a Spanish soldier disabled the fuses after only 8 of the towers were destroyed, saving the remainder of the complex. A subsequent earthquake did some damage, but mostly to newer construction and not the Moorish palaces which were built on a sand base and with “shock absorbers” designed into their architecture.

Some of the intact towers and fortress wall. Note the Hand of Fatima (Muhammed’s daughter) above the entryway as a good luck/safe passage talisman.

Internally, its stunning Byzantine gilding and scrollwork was whitewashed and partially destroyed during the Christian conquest of the city in 1492, and in the 1700’s parts of the structure were Italianized, but the result as it stands today is an absolutely magnificent combination of styles. Just thinking about what these walls have witnessed is mind boggling.

It’s interesting to note that this magnificent site only really became a major tourist attraction toward the end of the 19th century after the publication of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra in 1832, based on his visit here in 1828.

The number of tourists allowed into the site at any given time is limited, and generally group tours need to be booked about a month in advance, so Viking had to submit everyone’s names and passport information early in February to ensure that our “timed” tickets could be issued. In total, I think there are about 120 passengers lucky enough to be here today.

We had an excellent knowledgeable guide who filled our heads with so much information that quite a lot of it fell back out. I’m going to use Ted’s pictures to help me remember.

This part of Spain, Andalusia, was a Muslim territory from the 8th to the 15th centuries, but it was not until the 13th century when it gained its independence from the caliphate in Baghdad that Alhambra was built as a fortress and palace complex that grew into a city of its own. It remained Muslim until it was surrendered in 1492 to the armies of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, after which point Europe also lost much of the advanced knowledge accumulated by Arab scholars when agents of the Spanish Inquisition burned any books and documents left behind that they deemed “heretical”.

After touring Alhambra today I can only mourn again the propensity that humans have for destroying knowledge, when by cooperating and respecting each other’s accomplishments so much could be gained.

The current Church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra stands on the site of the original mosque.
The Convent of Saint Francis was built over the remains of a former Nasrid palace. The building is now a state hotel, and very expensive to stay in.

In the 1500s, a part of the Comares Palace was demolished, but its wall incorporated into the Renaissance palace of Carlos I of Spain/Charles V of Germany/Holy Roman Emperor (all the same guy). That palace is a unique structure that is perfectly square on the exterior (representing the 4 corners of the earth) and encloses a perfectly circular pillared courtyard (representing heaven). What was especially interesting to me was the difference in “focus” of the Renaissance style compared to the Arabic. The outside of the renaissance palace is intentionally ornate, to visibly demonstrate wealth and power, and is made of sandstone – expensive and time consuming; the interior of the new palace was never completed. The exterior of the Muslim structures are plain unadorned brick – cheap and fast to make. The INSIDE is a whole other story: every surface decorated with carved stucco and alabaster designs, ceramic tiles, and colourful paint, supplemented with ornate and varied wood ceilings, coloured glass windows, and interior courtyards and water features. The opulence is all reserved for those living inside, and intentionally not “shown off” to those outside who live in plain brick houses of their own.

Exterior of the Carlos V palace.

Carlos palace is undergoing renovation, but we were able to see the interior courtyard and one or two rooms.

Top: the interior round courtyard. Centre left: pillar detail, showing the aggregate stone construction (not marble). Centre right: one of 2 mosaic royal mottos from the main hall. Bottom: the arched ceiling and wall details from one of the completed rooms.

Beautiful, right? But wait until you see the Moorish construction, which predates it by centuries.

We passed several intact foundations of what were “normal” people’s brick homes.

There were originally 6 palaces plus a summer house (called the Generalife), but only 3 of the palaces and the summer house remain, and only portions are open to the public.

Just a few of the ceramic tile patterns still intact on the walls after 600 years. No wonder visitors are asked not to touch any surface except the floors.
Some of the alabaster details on walls ….
…. and pillars.
Look up. The wooden ceilings in smaller rooms are made of many different types and colours of wood, in gorgeous patterns.
Look up. These ceilings look like stalactites, mimicking the cave in which Muhammad spoke to God/Allah. Notice the remnants of blue paint.
The ceiling in the Sultan’s throne room is a dome representing the 7 levels of heaven, and is made of 8107 pieces of interlinked wood in a geometric design.

Although the untiled portions of the walls are now white/natural, that is because the Christian conquerors whitewashed them. They would originally have been decorated in 4 colours: blue, red, green, and yellow. Perhaps the new owners found them too gaudy, or perhaps they didn’t understand the value of the paints. The blue pigment, for instance, was created from crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan.

Remnants of colour.

There is only one remaining coloured glass window, in the Hall of the Two Sisters, although all the glass windows – mostly located in places like the sultan’s reception chambers – would have been coloured, creating a spectrum of light in those spaces.

Imagine the sun shining through.

Most windows are open-air for ventilation. In the winter, the floors would have been covered by layers of colourful insulating rugs, and ornate metal braziers would have burned wood or coal. The hot smoky air would rise, forcing the smoke out the high windows. In summer, the rugs would be replaced by tightly woven reed mats which could be soaked with water to create a cooling effect, and again hot air would escape through the windows.

A selection of fully open and ornately grated windows.
Tile floors like the one on the left would have been covered with rugs.
Marble slab floors are common in the large open-air areas

There are both ornately carved (on their interior side only) wooden doors and hammered metal doors to the exterior of the palace and into some private interior areas, although most entrances are open arches.

Detail from two doors.

Although we could not tour it, down this ground floor hallway was one of the palaces toilets, with flowing water, AND channels separating clean water from dirty water. These were built in the 13th and 14th century. Our guide pointed out that Versailles, completed in the 17th century, still had no indoor toilets (and yet, any Moorish architectural and medical drawings left behind were destroyed). The system in Alhambra was designed by the sultan’s vizier, who was also a doctor.

Hallway to the enclosed toilet. The white bowl has nothing to do with it – it’s a water dish for one of the many cats in the complex that keep rodents in check. Note the ceramic tile patterned walls, terra cotta tile floor, wooden door, and decorated alabaster arch.

There we also saw (but did not get a photo of) the Comares palace baths, used both for cleanliness and socializing. Apparently it is true that any non-female attendants or musicians who worked in the women’s bath were either blind or eunuchs.

The intricate decorations are all geometric, script, or depictions of flowers and plants. Depicting humans and animals was forbidden in Islam, since only Allah/God creates those perfect things. In this single panel, you can see a bit of flower pattern at the top, script below it, a stylized pictorial language in the widest section, and geometric tile at the bottom.

Look up. These two ceilings are covered in a mural painted on lambskin, and show both people and animals. They are located in the Hall of Kings, in which, during periods of peace, the sultan would receive and entertain Christian royalty and their emissaries. They were intended to make his visitors feel comfortable.

Speaking of hospitality, the niches below, which are found beside some of the archways, would be filled with food and drinks to allow visitors to refresh themselves. in the summer, one of those refreshments would be “xerbet”: ice brought down from the mountains in a portable “refrigeration” system, shaved, and sweetened with fruit juice. Can you say “sherbet”?

Water features prominently not only in plumbing but also in design. The Moors did not create fountains, preferring still waters and reflecting pools. The water was brought up from the river to the plateau via two long water channels and several sophisticated gears/wheels as hydraulic devices.

A portion of the Royal Aqueduct which brought water into the palace. A walking path was cut through it in the 19th century.
Top left: the Comares Palace reflecting pool in the Court of Myrtles (the hedges lining both sides). Bottom left, top & centre right: more reflecting pools. Bottom right: the reflecting pool in the summer palace had fountains of arching water added to it in the 20th century, when it was a private home before being donated to Spain.
The courtyard in the Lion Palace. The thin pillars are not structural supports, but purely decorative. See if you can tell that they are shaped to mimic palm trees, creating an “oasis”. Around the lion fountain there is an inscription that is a poem praising the beauty of the fountain and the power of the lions, that also describes the hydraulic systems and how they worked! We were not allowed close enough to see the inscription, but Ted did zoom in on the lions to reveal their carved “fur”.

On our way to the Generalife (summer palace) we passed large gardens which still grow the kinds of flowers, herbs, and vegetables authentic to the 13th and 14th centuries, used for decoration, medicine, and food.

The Moorish style gardens.
There is also a Renaissance garden and fountain dating to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Pathways and some courtyards are laid with mosaic designs made of stone. In several places, a Star of David appears (look closely on the left around the diamond shaped centre); the Muslims had close ties with, and respect for, their Jewish compatriots – the other major monotheistic non-Christian religion. Other courtyards feature marble floors and stairs.

A suite in one of the Moorish palaces was renovated for the wedding of King Charles and Queen Isabella, since their palace was not yet built. Due to an earthquake that took place during their stay, the queen apparently refused to remain more than one night, and decamped to the nearby convent. In addition to covering the walls with plaster, and adding a fireplace, a ceiling was added which is patterned repeatedly with the king’s motto “Plus Ultre” (further beyond), which remains the motto of Spain, and the initials K and Y (Karlos and Ysabela).

At the end of this absolutely incredible day we returned to our ship for a tapas dinner, followed by a wonderful musical performance featuring the talented and charming Daniel Pascu, one of our Viking Vocalists, accompanied by the band and featuring guest performances by fellow vocalist Jack and resident balladeer King.

Today’s irrelevant fun fact: Paco is the Spanish nickname/shortform for Francisco. Francisco is named after Saint Francis, and by extension the Franciscan Order of Friars, in which the head of the abbey is called the PAdre de COmmunitas. Hmm. Now if someone could just tell me why Hank is short for Henry.

BTW, the post’s title is the first line from the song “Granada”, written in 1932 by Mexican composer Agustín Lara, with English lyrics by Australian lyricist Dorothy Dodd in 1951

Granada, I'm falling under your spell,
And if you could speak, what a fascinating tale you would tell.
Of an age the world has long forgotten,
Of an age that weaves a silent magic in Granada today.

The dawn in the sky greets the day with a sigh for Granada.
For she can remember the splendor that once was Granada.
It still can be found in the hills all around as I wander along,
Entranced by the beauty before me,
Entranced by a land full of flowers and song.

When day is done and the sun touch the sea in Granada,
I envy the blush of the snow-clad Sierra Nevada,
For soon it will welcome the stars
While a thousand guitars play a soft Habañera.
Then moonlit Granada will live again,
The glory of yesterday, romantic and gay.


  1. Thanks for such a thorough description and the detailed pictures! The Alhambra is on my bucket list too. It and the Hagia Sophia are the two places left that I really want to visit. I’m really enjoying traveling vicariously with you!


  2. Thank you for the time and thought you put into this lovely guide. Your photos and text are so very informative. I visited 20 years ago during the rehabilitation process. The lions were being rebuilt and modernized. Only certain rooms were open with plastic doors keeping the dust from migrating. How beautiful it all is now! Hail to those who funded this amazing restoration.


  3. For travelers on land vacations, there is a hotel in the former convent within the grounds of the Alhambra. It is part of the Spanish parador system of hotels in special places. When we stayed there 30+ years ago with two of our then-young daughters, it was magical.


  4. I had the privilege of visiting in 2004 or 5 with my 7 year old daughter on her school break when we lived in Brussels. It had been on my “bucket list” for decades and I actually teared up when we were finally there! We stayed in a little apartment with few amenities but with a rooftop view across to the Alhambra plateau — stunning. I read to her from Tales of the Alhambra and she got an early appreciation for the contributions of Muslim culture — especially visiting Cordoba and the fused Mosque/Church there. She removed her shoes and hid them under a bench, knowing that she should have them off in a Mosque (we had just moved from Dakar to Brussels) then got told off by a nun for her bare feet in church. A teachable moment! Thanks for helping me recover some memories –wish I’d had a blog, but not sure they existed yet.


  5. Thanks for sharing your exotic adventure …A stunning accomplishment in those days…we can only “imagine” what life might have been like for the aristocrats..

    Liked by 1 person

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