Too darned hot. Some casualties maybe, we will see. So back to places I have been but not described or talked about.
This is my favourite view of the Alhambra, taken across the river valley, from the old town, with darkening evening light, and even some snow, though not in this photograph. To the left is the Renaissance palace of Charles V, built to knock spots off the beauty of the Moorish palace, and to the right, the 13th century Alhambra Palace and the Generalife, the world-famous gardens built by the Nasrid dynasty on an existing hilltop site.
Granada is a compact and delightful city to visit. I was there with a friend, just for an evening and a day, and in the evening, we climbed up and down the winding narrow streets of the old town, which, with one or two exceptions, were essentially quiet and empty for us to explore. ‘Alhambra’ means ‘red or crimson castle’, but maybe the name does refer to the golden stone, the colours of which are beautifully enhanced by the low evening sunshine. The following day, I visited the Generalife alone, and also discovered another garden very close-by, which is really worth a visit. Granada in the early morning moved me to tears, as it did the very first time I saw it in the mid 80s.
To avoid being crushed by groups of what seemed to be 192 tourists with massive cameras and an apparent need to be in every photograph they take of anything (tetchiness on my part perhaps?), I would strongly advise visiting at 0830, when the site opens. Lovely though the Alhambra Palace is, I went for the Generalife and gardens ticket- incidentally, these must be bought the day before online or you will cook in a never-ending queue.
So I had half an hour before the first coach disgorged its load. Perfect. Just enough time to visit the Patio de la Acequia, the most iconic part of the Generalife.
The Generalife was built as a palace, but in a much more modest and homely style than the Alhambra, and much of what we see now has been possibly over-restored and tinkered with too much over the centuries. The gardens themselves are little more than an echo of what may have been the pleasure gardens of the Sultans, but are still incredibly beautiful.
There is a magic about the combination of the cloistered buildings around you, the narrow space of the water channel and the perfect arcs of water, just beyond dribbling speed, which seem to hang in the air.
The planting, to be honest, is a bit of a rag-bag and jumble. You could be generous and say that there is an attempt to emulate the possible jewel-box approach of some historical views of Moorish planting. And some of it does work in that way, as my third photograph tries to capture. But too much reliance on snazzy annuals, and the inevitable bald patches of soil, mean that there is a constant need to replant and refresh. You can see a superb clump of Phlomis fruticosa in the corner of the first photograph, and, sadly, it was almost alone- there are so many really good, tough perennials which would handle the heat and also make for a great display. Sustainability seems to have been forgotten.
Through the Generalife, you then come to another Patio. The Patio del Cipres de la Sultana is a simpler affair, but atmospheric nevertheless. The oblong space is entirely filled with a pool, which contains two matching square hedged garden areas, and the whole is embellished with arcing fountains. The smell of the box hedges in the early morning was fabulous, aromatic and woody.
Coming down from the higher levels of the Generalife, the oldest staircase can be seen and felt. Considered to pre-date the Moorish buildings, the Water Stairway links the levels of the Palace, bringing water down to the lower reaches of the garden. Enclosed by arching laurel trees, the rushing water contained in the open handrail is a sensory delight. This precious water, in such a hot and dry situation, seems exuberant and beguiling, I had to trail my hands in it.
Down below, on the almost-ground level terrace, looking across to the Alhambra palace, I might be wrong, but I don’t remember there being active cultivation of this ground back in the early 00s when I last visited. Today, there are orchards, vegetable gardens, trees, and abundant cultivation taking place. This was a wonderful discovery- using the space and the ground as it would have been, a farm for produce to be eaten at the courts of the Moorish kings.
There are other planted areas, an open, modern courtyard with roses, gorgeous opium poppies and lychnis- which I thought worked really well on a big scale and en masse. So, there is clearly an openness to trying out different combinations of plant- but the embracing of some more robust perennials would really add to the longevity and sustainability of the planting overall.
I can carp about some of the planting, but, as a whole, this is one of the most atmospheric and incredible historical spaces to visit, and I came away bewitched again. If you haven’t yet been, do go (early in the morning).