Travel Thursday: Chilly Spain, the sequel

AUGUSTUS HARE (describing the Alhambra)
The most perfectly beautiful place in the world

After the surprisingly uninteresting Patio del Cuarto Dorado–Golden Room, as you no doubt figured out {oops, sorry about the accidental rhyme}–I found myself in a dark passageway that climbed obliquely to the Court of the Myrtles, at least according to the map. At the end of the hallway I instinctively took the turn to the left. . . and bumped into a wall.
“What a stupid place to put a wall!” I muttered as I rubbed my nose. Probably put there to foil assassins, since it makes a lot of noise when you break a nose. My mood was helped, though, when I turned around and looked in the right direction, where the wall opened to show flowers, or so I thought.
The Patio de los Arrayanes–Myrtles, if you didn’t know; I didn’t–was a wide open space with a long goldfish pool surrounded by fragrant shrubs. . . but no real flowers, strangely enough. Even worse, it was incredibly bright after that dark corridor, so I spent too much time rubbing my eyes to appreciate it fully. On the other hand, it allowed my other senses to kick in, and for someone who’s allergic to perfume, I have to admit I’d never smelled shrubs like these.
Once my eyes were back in play, I walked along the pool, concentrating on the arches while checking the book and glancing at the water every so often. “The long central pool helps not only to cool and refresh the surrounding rooms, but also to dissolve all the courtyard’s diverse and potentially discordant elements in a glittering surface where visitors can observe at night the shining of the stars and the moon, and enjoy by day the spectacle of goldfish swimming in between the reflected arches of the galleries.” I frowned at the book (the book didn’t seem to mind): Why couldn’t the writer keep it simple? Did they really feel such a need to make the prose match the decorations?
Next up was the Hall of the Ambassadors, which the book told me was the place where King Ferdinand and Columbus discussed the route to India that ran into a roadblock–or is that seablock?–called America. {“The only thing Columbus ever found was that he was lost!”} It was a perfectly square hall that was supposed to be one of the most magnificent rooms in the palace, every surface intricately wrought with inscriptions and ornamental patterns and topped by an incredible carved wooden dome which represented the seven heavens of Islamic Paradise. Even better were the latticed windows, which permitted dots of light to enter and make a pattern on the floor, practically the only light in the room. The book told me those windows usta have stained glass, which was incredibly hard to picture.
I spent a few minutes looking around, thinking of photo angles and then realizing they wouldn’t work, then saying the hell with it and shooting anyway with barely a grumble. From there I went on to the Torre de Comares. . . yeah, don’t ask me what that one means. This place had even funkier windows, enormous rounded holes that offered views in all directions. I liked them, and shot them over and over. After all, there’s no rule that says windows have to be square or rectangle.
According to the book, this tower was the tallest in the whole place, but looking up you wouldn’t know it. Not impressed, I moved on.

Washington Irving

I am not buying Washington Irving on this one: having been on the battlefield, what the fuck’s so romantic about people killing each other? Why couldn’t he have just mentioned the great view?

Richard Ford

This actually made me a little uneasy, as I’m used to symmetry, focal points, logical sequences. Everything about this place screams secrecy, intrigue; your imagination tends to run wild, and not in a good way. I know that’s part of the Alhambra’s charm, but it’s. . . too much. Fun to look at for a while, but the thought of living here makes me shiver. I’d always be wondering if someone was hidden around the corner, waiting to jump me, or even just watching me from the tons of latticed windows on the upper floors.
Or maybe it’s just so different than the culture I grew up in. Islam doesn’t like real representations; you not only can’t show Allah, but any human or animal forms at all. Maybe that’s what this place really needs: some artwork inspired from something other than flowers and vines.

This quote, on the other hand, I can totally go for. . .
Washington Irving
On one side is heard the refreshing sound
of waters from the Fountain of the Lions, and
on the other side the soft splash from the basin in the garden of Lindaraxa. It is impossible to contemplate this scene so perfectly oriental without feeling the early associations of Arabian romance, and almost expecting to see the white arm of some
mysterious princess beckoning from the gallery.

Yeah, the princess part, you know me well.
The Patio de los Leones–okay, okay, Patio of the Lions–is the most photographed place in the palace and was the center of the sultan’s domestic life. Describing it is kinda hard, but it’s basically a symmetrical arcade of horseshoe arches and white marble columns bordering the courtyard, while a fountain supported by twelve marble lions tinkles in the middle. Because the arches made for open pavilions instead of real walls, and because there were similar watercourses both inside and outside, it was easy to confuse which was interior and which was exterior.
I almost wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it, because, just like the previous patio, the entrance, from the southwest corner, provided an angled and very unclassical view. One book said the architects wanted to woo the visitor with lush and mysterious effects, but I stopped being wooed a long time ago.
Taking a deep breath–the loud “whoosh!” immediately afterward a dead giveaway–I took in the patio with a new perspective. . . mental perspective, that is, not linear. It didn’t take a genius to see why this place was named after lions, though the dozen statues supporting the fountain barely looked like cats. . . maybe because they appeared to be kinda snarling as they spit out the water, but I think the sculptor had only heard of this animal, never seen one, and even then it was a rough description.
Straddling one of the small channels that flowed symbolically to the four corners of the earth, and more literally to the surrounding apartments, feeding the small fountains inside–if you could call it an inside–it seemed like something was missing, though I couldn’t tell what it was. And since I’d be here for three weeks, I figured it would come to me on its own, but it never did.

Nina Murdoch (puritanical Australian)

Sure sounds puritanical, doesn’t she? And according to history, this patio usta be a garden, which probably complimented the architecture better than what it looks like now. With flowers, trees, and plants, I can imagine it looking crowded, but right now, with pebbles that make it look like a Japanese garden, it seemed eerily desolate, despite all the tourists. Did I say Japanese garden? How ‘bout a kitty-litter box? For these goofy lions.
Staying in that same part of the world, it occurred to me that these dozens of skinny columns and thin archways, with their honeycombed decorations, reminded me of Thailand, some multi-roof Nepali pagoda style of architecture that spread to East Asia. {I’ll spare you my research on the erotic art on the roof struts, especially since there weren’t any here.}
But then I finally stepped on the pebbles, and found myself looking down in surprise: the softness, the way the pebbles allowed the weight of the body to sink in, was cushioning my feet, actually relaxing them. The harder I worked to tire myself, the more energy that flowed into my body, right through the material under the soles of my boots. New-agey awesome.
I went inside, so to speak, and when I turned around to gaze at the patio and the fountain of lions, it finally looked awesome. The columns brought shadows in, making it seem like a forest as I stood next to the small fountain inside. With the sun toward me, it was very difficult to see the fountain, let alone photograph it, as it was in full shadow. The fountain next to me was fed by a channel that came from the lion waterway, so I followed the channel and finally made out the big fountain in the strong shade.
Here’s a quote I really liked: A structure so open to the elements and incorporating so many pools and fountains might be all very well for the summer, but would have been rather less inviting during Granada’s cold and damp winters. It is a breakdown of the typical western barriers between exteriors and interiors. Rooms open up into landscaped courtyards and an abundance of water flows from open to enclosed spaces, echoing the sounds of rivers and softening in its reflections the hardness of man-made lines.

They missed the checkers, or rather chessboard, on the floor, but I forgave them.
Moving on to greener pastures–like a cow–I headed south, into the Galeria de Abencerrajes–no, I’m tired of translating!–where Sultan Moulay Abdul Hassan piled the heads of the sons of his first wife–all sixteen of them–so that Boabdil, son of his second wife, could inherit the throne. The metaphorically bloodstained room had a central fountain fed by one of the four channels that were arranged like a cross around the fountain; the central marble basin had oxidized iron stains that some said were the bloodstains from the previous story, but even as I doubted that, I looked up and gasped. The spectacular honeycombed star-shaped stalactite ceiling was beyond description, so I’m not even gonna try, though I will say the entire star reflecting from the ceiling into the fountain was simply too cool. According to legend this might have been a music room, where listeners could look at the ceiling and imagine they were outside, but seriously, go hunt for images–someone had to get this shot as awesomely as real life.

Washington Irving
Bears the suggestive name of the Hall of
the Two Sisters. Some destroy the romance of
the name by attributing it to two enormous
slabs of alabaster which lie side by side, and
form a great part of the pavement. . . others
are disposed to give the name a more poetical
significance, as the vague memorial of Moorish beauties who once graced this hall, which was evidently a part of the royal harem.

On the north side of the courtyard was the resplendent Sala de las Dos Hermanas–look above for translation–which also has a staggering honeycomb dome, made of five thousand tiny cells, known as the “celestial vault.” From here a secluded portico overlooks the Jardines de Daraxa, though I was thinking I wished I’d seen this roof first, because as great as it was, it couldn’t compare to the previous one; it’s disappointing in comparison. Luckily the filigree surfaces of the wall coverings were so intricate and beautiful that it led the place to be called the most luxurious book of poems ever produced. And what I saw in the book I was given as a study aid helped, especially since it involved one of my favorite artists:
“Especially intriguing is the geometrical complexity that made the Alhambra of absorbing interest to such a lover of visual paradox as the 20th century illustrator M. C. Escher. This is present in the glazed and colored tiles that cover the lower levels of the walls. In their interlacing of abstract shapes–a technique of Persian origin–these create mesmerizing kaleidoscopic effects evoking at times both flickering stars and flowers bursting into bloom.”

to be contiued. . .



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