November 5, 2015. “You’ll never get in,” nattered the German man behind us in the queue when I told him that the entrance time on our e-ticket was 3 pm. We were in a painfully slow ticket line at Granada’s Alhambra, an Islamic fortress and palace built primarily during the Nasrid Kingdom, established in 1238. The Alhambra is one of Spain’s biggest attractions and endures as the finest example of Moorish architecture and art in Europe. “They didn’t let us into the palace last year, and we were only a few minutes late,” the man continued. If only I hadn’t struck up a conversation with him, but I wanted to practice my German.
Apparently the e-ticket had to be redeemed for a real ticket. I vaguely remembered reading about this in the fine print. I was getting increasingly worried with only one ticket window open and each party in front of us taking at least 5 minutes to process.
When it was finally our turn, it was already past 3 pm. I asked the agent whether we’d still be able to see the Nasrid Palace, the star attraction of the Alhambra and the only section with a time allocation. He muttered something about getting there as fast as possible.
The Alhambra is a huge complex, covering about 3.5 km. We bolted from the ticket office following the signs for the palace. Racing through beautiful gardens and a massive stone entrance, we breathlessly presented our tickets to the attendant. She said something to us in Spanish about our 3 o’clock time but let us enter. “Gracias, thank you,” we said at least a dozen times, grateful to “be in.” She looked at us a bit oddly.
We climbed a narrow stone staircase that emerged onto an exterior walkway with stupendous views of Granada. Several look-out towers later I was beginning to wonder when we would be entering the palace. This place was impressive, but it didn’t fit the description I had skimmed in my Lonely Planet Guide. Where were the mosaic tiles and the intricately carved arches? “Mike, I don’t think we’re in the right place,” I said with a growing sense of alarm. “Don’t be silly, this is it,” chided my hubby who had done even less reading than me.
We continued following the self-guided tour, and I became more convinced that we were not in the Nasrid Palace. Mike was getting increasingly annoyed with my grumblings. He grudgingly agreed to back track. Maybe we had missed a door or entrance into the palace. No luck.
About 45 minutes later, we exited. I was confused. I had expected something different. As we walked back the same way we had come, I saw a sign directing visitors to the Nasrid Palace. “Oh my God, we were in the wrong place.” In our haste we had run past the sign and ended up at the Alcazaba (fortress). No wonder the attendant had looked confused. She had probably asked us whether we really wanted to forfit our 3 pm entrance to the palace.
I ran to the front of the 4 pm palace queue, composing what I was going to say. All I could muster was “somos idiotas, we went to the wrong place, please, por favor, can we still get in.” The attendant gave me a little smile, amused by this frazzled, grovelling woman. He told us to go to the on-site tourist information where they might be able to help us.
Off we raced. I started with the “somos idiotas” line again. Perhaps the nice woman took pity on us. More likely we were lucky because it was mid-week in November. She made a notation on our tickets, relayed something on the phone, and sent us back. “Hurry, go straight there,” she called out.
We presented our tickets to the same attendant, and with no questions asked he removed the entrance rope. We thanked him profusely and let out a collective sigh of relief: we’re in!
A stroll through the Nasrid Palace might just be the perfect stress reliever. The architectural and artistic brilliance of the place is total pleasure for the senses. From the graceful horseshoe arches and exquisite plaster carvings to the reflecting pools and geometric designs, everything feels harmonious and tranquil.
The Nasrid emirs, Mohammed III (1302-1309) and Yusuf I (1333-1353), responsible for building the complex as we know it today, instructed their builders and artists to follow a consistent theme: paradise on earth. Standing in the Court of the Lions— a gorgeous courtyard, showcasing a white marble fountain— I think they achieved their lofty goal.
I was particularly awed by how almost every surface in the palace is covered with decoration. Arches, halls, walls, and ceilings are all adorned with intricate plaster work, wood carving, and painted tile. It is strikingly beautiful and feels wonderfully soothing.
The rooms, some with gorgeous domed ceilings, are connected to the inner courtyards via passageways with finely scalloped arches. Some have miradors (panoramic windows) that frame lovely gardens. The courtyards, with their rectangular pools and water features, have a geometric simplicity that complement the decorative elements.
I could have stayed for an eternity, but time was running out and we still wanted to wander through the Generalife. We laughed with a couple of Brits who thought it sounded like a life insurance company. It’s actually the name of the elaborate palace gardens and roughly pronounced “hen-er-a-lee-fay,” derived from Arabic meaning architect’s garden.
The ornamental gardens, pools, and fountains cover a huge area and are absolutely breathtaking. Beyond the gardens, the views open to panoramic vistas of Granada on one side, and the Sierra Nevada mountains on the other. It was closing time and we were among the last stragglers, not ready to leave this enchanting place.
I have been to many exceptional monuments—Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican, the Egyptian pyramids, just to name a few. For me, Granada’s Alhambra is right up there with these stars, perhaps even better. Despite the embarrassing blunder, it was my favourite day of our southern Spain trip. I can’t believe we almost missed out on one of the most beautiful monuments in the world.
If You Go:
- Buy tickets in advance as day-of tickets often sell out. Information about ticket purchases for self-guided visits and tours can be found on the alhambragranada.org website. Online purchases are re-directed to Ticketmaster.
- Don’t make our mistake. Read the fine print and allow plenty of time. The time on the ticket is when you need to be at the Nasrid Palace queue, not the general entry ticket office. However you must go to the ticket office, or one of the automated machines, before heading to the Palace.
- Count on 3-4 hours to properly see the Nasrid Palace, the Alcazaba, and the Generalife sections.
The views of the Alhambra from the narrow streets of the old Albayzin District, where we stayed, are almost as magical as the Alhambra itself. The post will have lots of photos from this great part of town.