In the scorching cauldron of Andalucia, the Sierra Nevada mountains rise up to tickle the skies and gather enough snow to cover the peaks for most of the year. Beneath them, amidst rolling countryside of rust-coloured paths, cypress trees and white-washed towns, the city of Granada gets on with life.
On its steepest slope sits the Alhambra.
The name comes from the Arabic “al hamra,” the red one. Its stocky outside walls wear the standard European fortress look, albeit with an unexpected glimpse of charisma at sunset, when they glow a soft copper-red against the lilac night sky.
Inside, however, reveals a completely different world.
Like many castles in Europe, work on the Alhambra began seven or so centuries ago. Unlike most of the others, this work took place at the request of the Moorish Sultans, kings who used Arabic instead of Latin and who practised Islam instead of Christianity.
Their work and influence live on across the Iberian peninsula, from the architecture of the haunting Mezquita in Cordoba to the expressions of everyday Spanish. Ojalá in Castilian derives from In šāʾ Allāh in Arabic. Both translate to a form of “god be willing” that has taken on more of a “fingers crossed” meaning in more secular times.
Yet, it’s within the vast grounds of the Alhambra that the majesty of the Moorish heritage becomes clear. At the same time as French and English kings sheltered in draughty, damp castles eating turnips and porridge, the Nasrid kings basked among elaborate engravings, elegant courtyards and olive groves, sheltered from the angry sun.
Instead of howling wind and dripping rain, the lyrical chatter of fountains filled the air. Instead of wall to wall mildew, ivory carvings decorated the space.
Yet for all the delicate beauty of the building, the history of the Alhambra issues another deeper message about today’s myths that link beauty with doing good, and motherhood with kindness.
When the Moors lost this paradise to the reconquest of the Catholic monarchs, the last sultan of the Alhambra sobbed as he watched them enter.
In an era devoid of political correctness, his mother turned to him and uttered the phrase that became immortal:
“Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”
Not that the incoming mother, Queen Isabella, offered up a much better alternative. She sent her baby daughter off to marry the King of England, who turned out to be the murderous and maniacal King Henry VIII.
So it was with some trepidation that I walked around the rose-scented gardens of the Alhambra with my own mother, an inspirational woman who has also shown great courage, strength and guidance over the years.
She also tells me the truth.
“I’ve looked at your twitter feed. It’s boring. I don’t see the point.”
Ouch. Fair enough. Back to the drawing board.
And, hey, getting things into perspective, at least I don’t have to marry a tyrant.
Unlike most tourist attractions, to get inside the Nasrid Palaces you MUST, MUST, MUST, MUST book in advance. If you turn up on the day, you are likely to gain admission to the rest of the (stunning) grounds but you may miss out on the intricate Nasrid Palaces.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com