It is often the case that one tends to overlook the more obvious places. This is what has happened to me in the last 20 years or so… and now I am determined to change it. A visit to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain was at the top of the list. I ventured for a short break with my son and some friends a couple of weeks ago.
The Alhambra bizarrely only made it to the finalist list of the new wonders of the world but so did some of the most incredible monuments on the planet. It is truly a marvelous place. The Alhambra is a fortress city on a hilltop built by the Nasrid dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries in the late period of Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Rising above the modern lower town, the Alhambra and the charming residential area of Albayzín, situated on two adjacent hills, form the medieval part of Granada. To the east of the Alhambra are the magnificent gardens of the Generalife. The entire compound of the Alhambra is superb and inside, the architecture, mosaics and decorative works are amazing.
Because of the sheer popularity of these places (wonders of the world and the finalists like the Alhambra) it is daunting to decide to visit in the first place. But I decided to embark on this experience, and not be deterred by the crowds, to see if I could learn something new not only about the Nasrids but also as to how World Heritage sites are being managed for tourism. Involved in the world of tourism as I am, I always like to find ways—though it´s quite a challenge—to get these visits right.
We spent a lovely couple of days in Granada, and I feel we got it right, so I would like to share my experience with you (and your families). One of the key things (and this is obvious): if you can, travel outside of holiday periods, like Christmas or Easter and try to avoid local holidays. In the case of the Alhambra, avoid British half term at all costs. That is what we did, travelling in the middle of March, still low season.
The next tip is to plan in advance and book your site entrance tickets first. Before we got our flights or hotel, we booked our Alhambra tickets. That is easily done over the internet, either directly through the Alhambra, or as we did, with a local DMC. Tickets are timed: you can access the main part of the Alhambra for up to one hour after the time of your ticket, though you can visit the rest of the compound during the entire day of your ticket. If you don´t book your tickets in advance, there are tickets available at the ticket office (they always keep a quota for walk-ins), but that is a risk you may not want to take.
The third tip is to get a private guide. We managed that when we booked our tickets through the DMC. That went smoothly, and it wasn’t too expensive at all (about 50 euros per person—including tickets and guide for a group of 6), and we got a great guide (more later).
Fourth: book your visit in the morning and don´t do anything else of cultural substance that rest of the day. Budget an entire day to visit it. The visit takes between 3 and 4 hours, and after that, the rest should be relaxation time because as any cultural visit to a World Heritage site of this magnitude is very intense.
We stayed at the practical and unpretentious, excellent value and service NH Victoria Hotel in the town centre, highly recommended (and perhaps better for families than the most historic properties near the Alhambra). We took a public bus (number 30) from the Cathedral, a few blocks away from our hotel, to the Alhambra, which we reached in 15 minutes. There our guide Jose Antonio was waiting for us at the entrance area with our tickets. He had a lot of knowledge and a great disposition to entertain the boys (ages 12, 11, 10) while teaching us all about a world we hardly knew.
Again, as in my visit to the Holy Land which I recently blogged about, the guide was key. He transported us to the reveries of the Alhambra, and we discussed the Caliphate of Cordoba and Damascus, the lives of the Spanish musulmanes (Muslims), the «moriscos«, the mudejar styles and the delicate and refined achievements of Islamic Spain. We woke up several hours later, and wandered off to a delicious alfresco lunch at the Parador de San Francisco, which is located within the premises of the Alhambra itself. We faced no hassles or queues. During the visit, we didn’t feel too many crowds, since, as I mentioned before, tickets are strictly timed. After lunch and before our siesta, we wandered around Generalife Gardens at our leisure.
The way we did it was fantastic, and we all, including the boys, had a wonderful time and hopefully learned a bit.
We then took a little tourist train around town and after a siesta, had some tapas in the old town, which we all loved. We spent the next day wandering around the barrio Albayzín, a residential district, which is a rich repository of Moorish vernacular architecture, into which the traditional Andalusian architecture blends harmoniously. It is so picturesque, and we stopped at the Cathedral and the Chapel, where the ever-present in Granada Reyes Católicos are buried.
A family cultural weekend such as this could be greatly enhanced if you spent a few more days and went skiing in the Sierra Nevada. The Iberian Peninsula´s highest peak, Mulhacen (3400m), is here, the sun is always out and you can see the Mediterranean from the top of the slopes! You don’t even have to change hotels as the skiing in Sierra Nevada is no more than a 40-minute drive from a hotel in downtown Granada. In fact, it was quite funny to be there on a cultural weekend and be surrounded by people in their ski gear. I would love to go back for the skiing and to spend more time in this lovely, provincial University town with a wonderful mountain climate and great charm, and of course, I love the idea of going back to the Alhambra after reading Wahington Irving´s «Tales of the Alhambra».