Morros and Me

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Sunday, January 8, 2006

Onward and eastward. After a blissful and busy week of rest and relaxation, we shoved off on January 5 heading to Frankfurt and then on to Barcelona, Spain, where we made our way down the Iberian peninsula and across the Mediterranean to Morocco. We landed in Barcelona, somewhat disoriented from the short hop across the pond and deprived of sleep, and we immediately boarded an overnight train to Granada, Spain, where we arrived late the next morning.

After a "small" nap, we ventured out into Granada to explore on foot. The last bastion of Moorish dominance in Spain, Granada was firmly Muslim until 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (the same infamous couple that financed Columbus' voyage across the ocean blue the same year) ran them out and into Africa. Granada is a mixture now of new modern suburbs, an old European center clustered around the main Cathedral, and an even older whitewashed Andalusian Muslim quarter, the centerpiece of which is the Alhambra, a military citadel cum pleasure palace for the ruling sultan - and later for Charles V, after the Moors were kicked out.

We opted for a walking tour of the Alhambra courtesy of one audiophone guide, and we were pleased to find that we could plug our headphones into the guide and thus both listen to the running commentary. The Alhambra was originally a fortress perched high on a hill overlooking present day Granada, and a small town grew up within the fortress walls to supply provisions to the soldiers there. Later, a succession of sultans identified the location as an ideal place for a palace, and each added on to the complex and adjoining gardens. We suspect there was something of a keeping up with the Jones (or in this case Bin Talishis) afoot in the construction of each new palace addition because from what we could tell, the newer structures seemed to out-do thier predicesors in thier grandure and architectural elegance.

The focal point of our visit centered around the Nazarine Palace, the most opulent and sumptuous of the rooms at the Alhambra. A very modest portico led to a receiving room where the sultan held audiences and occasionally prayed, The room was decorated in elaborate green, yellow and blue tilework in endless geometrically repeating patterns and butressed with heavy cedar planks. Off to the side of the room, a small oratory chamber, decorated entirely in elaborate white plastering, gazed out on the city. We passed through several additional chambers until reaching a large rectangular outdoor courtyard with a long reflecting pool running the length of the terrace and bordered by hedges of boxwood. The pool reflected the intricately carved Koranic verses set into the massive archways placed at the far ends of the courtyard. The courtyard was the center of palace life, where people lounged in the summer to stay cool and basked in the sun in the winter to find warmth. From the courtyard, we wandered into the most magnificant chamber of all: the Lion's Courtyard. The courtyard is a masterpeice in Andalusian design, art, and architecture. Delicate marble columns inscribed with Koranic verses encircled the rectangular courtyard, while sitting in the center was a large circular fountain supported by twelve carved lions. The fountain was supported by four small waterways leading from the four cardinal points, each bringing fresh water to the fountain. And, in the open-air rooms surrounding the courtyard, intricately carved plaster and woodwork with Islamic verses and geometrical designs (depiction of living things was prohibited under the dictates of Islam) covered the walls, while amazing eight sided celiings were decorated with stelactite designs of varying lengths in geometrical patterns. Truly a feast for the senses.

After the Moors were run out, Charles the V of the Holy Roman Empire visited Granada on his honeymoon, became enamoured of the place, and, regrettably, decided to add on to the existing palace in his own decidedly European sensibilities. Charles V's clunky architecture, with its reliance on heavy beams, rough-hewn brick work and lack of ornementation is heavier, less elegant and certainly less sophisticated than that of the sultans'. On the plus side, Charles V's rooms hosted the likes of Washington Irving in 1829 ad severa other notable writers, musicians and artists since. Also, in Charlie's defence, this was on of his few palaces that were never completely finished. Perhaps his finished product would have compared more favorably against the Moorish elegance than did his work in progress. In either case, the contrast and the ambition were both impressive.

We moved on to the Generalife, or the Palace Gardens, a large complex of delicately manicured plant life centered around fountains and still pools. The gardens - at least in the growing season - contain jasmine, mertle, cedar, boxwood, cirtus and olive trees, and other plants endemic to the area, and they surround a smaller, more liveable palace, in which the sultan could live more simply when he chose. It is, undoubtedly, good to be the sultan, but our quick conclusion after strolling around the gardens was that it is even better to be the sultan when the weather is cooperative. By the time our friendly audio tour guide told us that it was time to return our head-set, we were quite chilly. We wandered down the hill back into the city and decided to find a place to get warm.

The Alhambra was a wonderful jumping off place for our upcoming adventure for, just as the Moors did five centuries earlier, we planned to depart Spain and head south across the Straight of Gibralter to Morocco. Regrettably, we could not stay in Spain longer; we couldn't handle European pricing - it almost broke the bank, and we did witout food for increasingly long stretches. But, happily, we also had somewhere we needed to be, as we were slated to meet Steve's mom, Leo, in Casablanca on the 10th. So, with just a short foray into the region but with plans to return, we big adieu to Granada the next day, headed south round the rock of GIbralter, and boarded a ferry at Algiceras, Spain heading for Tangier, Morocco.
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