In Granada I was staying with another Couchsurfing host. This time it was an English couple who were living in a very nice and very old flat in the Jewish Quarter while teaching English for a year. They told me some good places nearby for free tapas – most places in Granada still honour the old tradition of “buy a beer, get free tapas”, and the beer (or soft drink) should cost you no more than €2. My main reason for coming to Granada, and in fact my main reason for coming to Andalusia as well, was to visit the Alhambra. Unfortunately I hadn’t realised quite how far in advance you need to book the tickets in summer so my hosts told me what I needed to do in order to get a ticket on the day.
And that’s how I ended up with my alarm going off at 5am, reaching the line of people already waiting at 5.40am, and still managing to only just get one of the last tickets when the office opened at 8am. There are still other tickets that you can buy on the day, and even some areas of the gardens that you can visit for free without a ticket, but for the ticket that includes the Nasrid Palaces, which was the part I wanted, there are a limited number (and cost €14).
The Alhambra is split into a few different sections. The Generalife, a villa with extensive gardens dating from the 14th century; the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortification built to be impenetrable and the oldest part of the Alhambra complex; the palace of King Charles V, built as an official royal residence in the 16th century but never actually home to any monarch; and the Nasrid Palaces, built in the mid-13th century and used as a Moorish royal palace until the Christian conquest in 1492, after which it became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella and some partial alterations were made in accordance with Renaissance taste.
The architecture and decorations in the Nasrid Palaces are world famous for their stunning beauty and intricacy. That is why there are nearly 3 million visitors to the Alhambra every year, and an average of 8,500 people a day. No wonder the tickets online were sold out 3 weeks in advance, it’s the most visited tourist site in Spain. And it felt like it. At least twice I was nearly hit in the face by selfie sticks. My allocated time slot for visiting the Nasrid Palaces (different from the general, all day admission to the rest of the complex) felt like waiting in line to enter an ant hill. And then I went into the ant hill and I couldn’t help feeling slightly claustrophobic from being so tightly packed in by other tourists.
There were so many people, literally everywhere. And the majority of them were there for the simple reason that that’s what tourists do: they visit beautiful and interesting tourist sites. I get it, I’d just done the same thing two days before at the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba, and many times at other places before that. But the Alhambra was the most important thing on my Andalusia ‘to-do’ list, not because it’s the most visited tourist attraction in Spain, but for a very different reason.
Probably anyone who knows me would know that I like history. My favourite historical time periods are Ancient Greece and the Tudor Court in England. I even have a tattoo of the Tudor rose. Henry VIII (1491-1547) is a fascinating historical figure for many reasons, not simply because he sentenced two of his six wives to death, and his first wife Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536) is almost as interesting just on her own. Katherine was an intelligent and strong woman who advised on the war council in the early years of her marriage to Henry. She was able to do so, and the men on the council listened to her opinions, because she was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (mentioned in the third paragraph). Ferdinand and Isabella are more or less responsible for Spain as we know it as a country today, between uniting the two largest regions of Spain, Aragon and Castile, with their marriage and their dominating contribution to the “reconquista”. They were even responsible for funding Christopher Columbus, the man who “discovered” the Americas. Katherine spent much of her childhood on the road with her parents’ army as they reconquered the south of Spain from the Muslims, and then the family conquered and settled in Granada in 1492, in the Alhambra, where Katherine lived until she was shipped to England in 1500 at the age of 15.
During that time the Alhambra was a centre of learning and sophistication. Scholars from the Arab world would travel there sharing new ideas on philosophy and medicine. The bathrooms had clear, running water with options for hot, warm and cold. The gardens were filled with fruit trees bearing everything from oranges and lemons to pomegranates and figs to olives and almonds.
I wanted to see the world that Katherine came from. When she went to London she basically went into shock and it took a very long time for her to feel at all comfortable in a cold and rainy country where there was no fresh fruit, no real plumbing, and, from what she could see, no sophistication. Shutting myself off mentally from the hoards of people around me, I could almost picture her as I walked around the Nasrid Palaces. I could imagine her looking at the view through this window, reading in that courtyard, walking around this garden having a discussion on philosophy and religion. I could understand fully how backwards and old fashioned the English Court must have seemed to her, how insurmountably foreign.
And I also felt ashamed, on her behalf, of what her grand home has become today. A beautiful thing that people come from across the globe to ogle at. A cool backdrop to a new Facebook profile picture but something that few people care to understand. A money-making tourism business. Not only is it €14 a ticket and nearly 3 million visitors a year (you can do the math) but there is a noticeable lack of information once you enter the complex so unless you Google everything as you walk around you either have no idea what you’re looking at or you pay extra for the €6 audio guide. Between 50 and 70% of the people I saw had the audio guides.
Oh how the times have changed. I wish it could be different. I wish there were still pockets of the kind of sophistication that Katherine lived and breathed, untouched by modern globalisation. But I know that by saying that I’m being an impractical idealist. And with a twist of irony, Katherine’s own parents gave a huge helping hand to this modern society of ours when they chose to fund Columbus’ expedition.