Friday, October 15, 2021

Jewels of the Moorish Empire

Gardens at the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos in Cordoba. Photos by Vickie Kelber

Gardens at the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos in Cordoba. Photos by Vickie Kelber

By Vickie Kelber

Andalusia (Andalucía) is an autonomous region in southern Spain. It stretches from the Sierra Morena mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and, separated by the River Guadiana, borders Portugal on the west. Its name comes from the Arabic al-Andalus, the term used by the Moors who arrived there in 711 and their influence is visible throughout the area. Two of the jewels of the Islamic Empire were Granada and Cordoba.

Granada is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada; on a clear day you can see nearby snow capped peaks. It was the seat of the Nasrids, the last Moorish dynasty in Spain and fell to the Christians in 1492.

On a hillside overlooking the lower town sits the Alhambra, one of the most impressive fortresses in the world. It was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, although the oldest part dates from the 9th century; its name means “red fortress” reflecting the red tint of the clay used in its construction. Originally the residence of the Nasrid rulers and their court, it later served as home to Catholic kings and combines both Arabic and Christian architecture. It is a

tourView of Granada from the Alcazaba fortification.

tourView of Granada from the Alcazaba fortification.

complex of delicately stuccoed and tiled palaces, walls, towers, terraced gardens, patios, and museums. Highlights of the Alhambra are the main Palacios Nazaries, the old fort of the Alcazaba from which there is a panoramic view of the city, and the Generalife summer palace whose water gardens offer a cool oasis.

A visit to the Alhambra can easily take the better part of a day. Daily tickets are limited to 7000 and often sell out. You can book tickets in advance on the internet, at any La Caixa bank, or through hotels or travel agencies. Tickets are valid for either the morning or afternoon and there is a set half hour period printed on the ticket during which is the only time to enter the Palacios Nazaries. If you have prebooked your tickets, when you pass through the gate of the Alhambra, turn right and look for the machines in which you can insert the credit card used for booking and receive your tickets.

As part of your travel reading, consider Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra”, inspired by his stay there in 1829. A plaque in one of the chambers commemorates this.

  [/caption] class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-10573″ title=”Travel4″ src=”×300.gif” alt=”” width=”277″ height=”300″ />Facing the Alhambra on another hill is the well preserved Albaicín, the largest Moorish city quarter that remains in Spain.    Stroll along the Carrera del Darro, a picturesque street that follows the Darro river in the shadow of the Alhambra.  Wander up through the maze of narrow alleys and whitewashed buildings that comprise this quarter; visit the 11th century Arab baths (El Bañuelo).  The best view of the Alhambra is from Plaza de San Nicolas in the Albaicín.  Above the Albaicín is Sacromonte, known for caves where Gypsies (Roma) once lived and now a tourist draw for its flamenco performances.

Attractions in the compact lower town include the Romanesque Catedral and its adjacent Capella Real (royal chapel), the resting place of the Catholic monarchs, including Ferdinand and Isabel.  Their bodies lie in  crypts topped with stone effigies.    A bronze statue of Isabel and Columbus is located in the junction of the two main streets in the city center.

Near the Catedral is Plaza Bip Rambla, also known as the Plaza de las Flores.  Once the sight of bloody bullfights, it is now filled with flower stalls

The gardens of the Generalife, summer palace in Granada provide a cool oasis.

The gardens of the Generalife, summer palace in Granada provide a cool oasis.

and ringed by restaurants, making it a picturesque spot for a meal or quick refreshment.  Off of the Plaza is Alcaicería, once an Arab marketplace and silk bazaar, now a popular tourist shopping destination.

If driving to Granada, there is ample parking at the Alhambra.  You can take a taxi or bus #30 or #32 down to the town.

One hundred and twenty four driving miles from Granada is Cordoba.  A large city during Roman times, it came under Moorish rule in the 700s, falling to the Christians in 1236.  It was also an important Jewish center, especially during the time of the Moors.  Both societies lived there peaceably, establishing the city as a center of culture and  learning.  Maimonides, the Talmudic scholar, philosopher, and physician was born there, as was the Roman philosopher Seneca, centuries earlier.

Granada’s old city is compact, easily negotiated by foot; many of the streets are car free.  Evidence of the Romans remains in a well preserved and restored Roman bridge; the Archeological Museum features numerous Roman artifacts.

The must see sight in Cordoba is La Mezquita, the great mosque. Begun in the 8th century, but built over 200 years, a

The iconic tourist photo of Cordoba’s Catedral taken from the Calle de las Flores in the old Jewish quarter.

The iconic tourist photo of Cordoba’s Catedral taken from the Calle de las Flores in the old Jewish quarter.

cathedral was constructed in the center after the Christian conquest.  The interior is comprised of 19 aisles of red and white double arches and columns, a most striking sight.   Surrounding La Mezquita are the old Arabic and Jewish quarters, with characteristic  narrow streets, white washed walls, wrought iron grills, and  pots of bright flowers bedecking walls, balconies,  and patios.  La Judería, the Jewish quarter, is home to many restaurants and shops.

A second highlight is Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, with it’s beautiful gardens.  The term alcázar comes from the Arabic word for palace or fortress and this palace was where Ferdinand and Isabel bade goodbye to Columbus before he set out on his journey of discovery; later it was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.  Although this structure was built under Christian rule, there are Roman mosaics and Moorish influences in its many courtyards, terraced gardens, pools, and fountains.

There are parking lots adjacent to the old town.  Guidebooks repeatedly warn not to drive within the maze of the old town; you will get lost amid the myriad of narrow alleys.  That said, we did get lost, ended up driving through that maze and survived intact.   I would not recommend it, however!

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