Sunday, March 14, 2010

In Bed with Washington Irving

In 1829, Washington Irving arrived in Granada. So enraptured by the Alhambra, the city’s fabled and near deserted fairytale fortress, he moved in and wrote a book about the experience, the much admired Tales of the Alhambra. In 2010, an average of 6,000 daily visitors make their way through the legendary palaces and gardens. So how much of the romance is left? Can you get out of the scrum and recreate some of Irving’s experience ? It sounds impossible but you can. Here’s how

Start by avoiding July through September and Easter Week. Stay at the Parador de Granada San Francisco smack dab in the center of the Alhambra, and book your room at least 6 months ahead. Once a convent and resting place of Queen Isabella, this is now a swish, small hotel that absolutely makes your Alhambra experience. From the moment you drive up the closed off road, past the scores of tourists on foot wondering about the lucky folks in the car, you feel special. Outside is intensive tourism but inside the parador is your own private sanctuary. At night, when the tour groups are long gone, you can wander the battlement and bastions treading haunted ground, and surrounded by romantic associations.” Like Irving you can believe that you "inhabit the enchanted palace of an Arabian tale", and "look down from its balconies upon chivalric Granada".

Another important thing to do prior to your visit, is to order your tickets to the Alhambra over the internet or by phone (902 441 221). Even if you are staying at the Parador de Granada, it is still a good idea to do this. Here’s why.

The fortress complex has some open areas, some areas only accessible by ticket and one area, the Palacio Nazares for which you need a time slot. If you order your tickets well in advance (you can order up to a year before your visit), you have a much better chance of getting a desirable time slot which for No Crowds travelers is either early in the morning or at night. The Parador will offer you a 2 ½ hour guided tour at EUR 49 per person, but we were perfectly happy with our EUR 13 tickets and EUR 4 audio guide which included the words of Tales of the Alhambra woven into the commentary.

At some stage during your stay you will want to leave your Arabian aerie and venture down into the city of Granada. To stay away from the crowds, we followed the excellent advice to be found in a 2008 article in the Guardian newspaper entitled “Granada’s top 10 Moorish secrets”. We especially appreciated the recommendation to visit the Carmen de la Victoria in the Moorish District, the Albaicin, which is now the guest residence for Granada University. The Islamic garden, with stunning views of the Alhambra, has been planted with flowers and bushes that would have existed in Nasrid times and we were quite alone during our marvelous visit. We also enjoyed a lively tapas evening on the Campo del Principe following the recommendation of Gayle Mackie, co-author of 100 Best Tapas Bars in Granada. Her favourite tapas bar, the atmospheric La Esquinta, also became ours.

After two magical nights, it was time to leave the Alhambra and the footsteps of Washington Irving with his love of the place still in our hearts and his haunting words still in our heads:

“Such is the Alhambra; a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished and passed away.”

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