Grandeur of Granada

Granada was the third of the big cities of Andalusia that I visited this summer (after Seville and Cordoba) and it was my favourite of the three. The city is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, helping to moderate the scorching summer temperatures, especially at night. Skilful usage of the area’s scarce water supplies means that the city is greener than much of Andalusia and the streets and gardens are full of trees including oranges and pomegranates (granada is Spanish for pomegranate).

The sightseeing highlight of Granada is the famous Alhambra, a magnificent complex of Moorish palaces, cloistered courtyards and gardens within medieval castle walls on a hilltop overlooking the rest of the city. Fortifications have existed on this site since the 9th century but these were gradually expanded and upgraded into a residence and royal court for the Moorish emirs who ruled this part of Spain during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Palacio de Comares

There are three Moorish palaces within the Alhambra including Comares Palace which was the official residence of the emirs and contains the largest room in Alhambra, the Hall of Ambassadors. The courtyard in front of the palace is known as the Court of the Myrtles due to the manicured myrtle hedges which line the pool.

Palace of the Lions

The beautiful courtyard of the Palace of the Lions with its cool marble flooring, flowing water and gardens provided an oasis for the sultans and symbolised a foretaste of paradise to come.

Elaborate Islamic calligraphic decoration and tile work can be found all over Alhambra.

The Sala de Dos Hermanas was part of a series of rooms occupied by the sultana and her family. The windows once had stained glass enabling the women to discretely observe the gardens below without being seen.

One of the fortified gates to Alhambra complex.

Generalife Leisure Villa

Generalife is a separate section of Alhambra and was a place for the emirs to relax with their hareem away from the formalities of court life. The name Generalife sounds like an insurance company to me but, according to some sources, it may be derived from the Arabic for Paradise of the Architect, referring to Allah as the architect of the universe.

The view from Paradise.

Being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Alhambra is always packed with tourists but by starting early you can avoid the worst of the crowds.

View of Albaicin from Alhambra

Albaicin stands on an adjacent hill separated by the River Darro. Together with Alhambra, they made up the ancient Arabic quarter and form the medieval core of the City of Granada.

Albaicin is a maze of steep and narrow cobbled streets, many of them free from cars.

Viewpoints such as Mirador San Nicolas are the perfect place to take photos of Alhambra.

Parts of Albaicin are quite touristy. The shops in this street specialise in products from North Africa and many of the vendors come from Morocco and other Arabic speaking countries.

There is much more to see in Granada City besides Alhambra and Albaicin and I was only able to scratch the surface during my short visit. In the heart of the city stands the Cathedral which took 181 years to build starting in 1523. It was built on the site of the Great Mosque. This building is the Royal Chapel containing a museum and is adjacent to the main cathedral.

The shopping and commercial centre of Granada has many elegant tree-lined streets.

Alleyways near Plaza Bib Rambla are full of interesting shops and great places to eat.

Granada is a wonderful city and should not be missed on any tour of Andalusia.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba


Amazing fact: In the 10th century the Spanish city of Cordoba was the largest city in the world with about one million residents (as a comparison, London’s population was probably around 25,000 at the time). Cordoba had an advanced civilisation with over 1,000 mosques, 600 public baths, a central water supply, paved streets, street lighting, schools, a library with 500,000 volumes, an extensive bureaucracy and was advanced in art, science and law. Under the rule of Abd al-Rahman III, Cordoba broke away from the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty and established an independent Caliphate of Cordoba.

This doorway was used by the Caliph to go and pray.

The greatest of these mosques was the Umayyad Mosque of the West, now known as the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. It was started in 786 during the rule of Abd al-Rahman I. It was modelled on mosques in Damascus and Jerusalem and used some Roman-era materials in its construction. It was later enlarged by Abd al-Rahman II, Al Hakam II and finally Almanzor, more or less doubling in size with each expansion, making it the largest mosque in the world by the year 994.

Here are some photos from my visit in June.

With the knobbly column tops and spreading arches, the early Arab architects may have been reminded of their date palm groves back home.
The double arches allowed for higher ceilings.
As well as being decorative, the double arches helped the mosque to withstand earthquakes
By the time of the Al Hakam II enlargement, the decor had become more lavish with stylised plant motifs, marble and mosaics.
The mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of prayer) is much larger than usual and is highly ornate with a scallop shell dome and ornamental mosaics. Unusually it also faces south rather than south-east towards Mecca.
But the most extraordinary feature of this mosque is that it has a huge Christian cathedral embedded right in the middle of it.
The Cathedral is a beautiful building in its own right, but why here?
A large section of the mosque had to be demolished to make way for the cathedral which was built from 1523-1606. It is said that when King Charles V saw what his architects had done he was horrified and said ‘You have built here what might have been built anywhere else but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’ This may be true but, had the mosque not been converted into a Christian place of worship, it would probably not have survived until today and would have been demolished or remodelled beyond recognition like the rest of Cordoba’s mosques.
A peak through this archway reveals church walls behind the Islamic decor.
The remains of the old minaret have been integrated into the bell tower.
The Roman bridge of Cordoba crossing the Guadalquivir river dates back to the 1st century BC although it has been reconstructed at various times since. The Mosque-Cathedral can be seen beyond.

I would like to have seen more of Cordoba but our time there was limited. Next stop Granada.

Splendours of Seville

Seville is the largest city and capital of the Spanish region of Andalusia with a population of around 1.5 million. Its historic centre is packed full of splendid buildings and tourist attractions including three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Not surprisingly, it was heaving with tourists when I visited earlier this summer.

Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede, Seville
Seville Cathedral – The tourists must have been avoiding the horse drawn carriage drivers.

One of those World Heritage Sites is the Cathedral, Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede, which is said to be the third largest church in the world, after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The Cathedral started life as a mosque, built during the Moors’ 800 year occupation of Andalusia. It was mostly destroyed and rebuilt as as a Gothic style church in the 1400s.

La Giralda, Seville
La Giralda, a name derived from the weather vane (giraldillo) on the top.

La Giralda is the magnificent bell tower attached to the cathedral. The base of the tower was originally the minaret of the mosque with the upper floors (from the bells upwards) being added later by the Christians.

Alcazar, Seville
One of the courtyards at the Alcazar. The name comes from the Arabic ‘Al Qasr’ meaning palace.
The beautiful gardens at the Real Alcazar.

Facing the cathedral is the Alcazar, a complex of palatial rooms, courtyards and gardens lavishly decorated in the Moorish style.

The magnificent golden dome in the Hall of the Ambassadors symbolises the Universe. The frieze that runs along the top of the room contains portraits of Spanish monarchs. A unique fusion of cultures.
Here we see more fine Islamic-style decor on the ceiling and plaster work using only geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy.
Pabellón Mudéjar – Museo de Artes y Costumbres

This architectural mix of Muslim and Christian styles is known as Mudéjar and can be seen again at Pabellón Mudéjar in Maria Luisa Park. It was built between 1913 and 1915 and served as a permanent pavilion for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition. It now houses a museum, the Museo de Artes y Costumbres.

One of the ornate towers of the vast Plaza de España which covers 50,000 square meters. It has been used as a location in many films including Lawrence of Arabia and Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator.

The Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park, was also built for the 1929 expo. The fancy, wedding cake architecture is somewhat ‘OTT’ but you cannot fail to be impressed by the scale and ambition of the project.

Torre del Oro

The Torre del Oro was built around 1220 by the Almohad Caliphate (the Moors) to control access to Seville via the Guadalquivir river. A heavy chain was slung between it and another tower (since demolished) on the opposite bank to block the river. Guadalquivir by the way, is the Hispanicized rendering of Wadi Kabir, meaning big wadi in Arabic.

A thriving Jewish community once lived in Seville’s Santa Cruz Quarter.

Jews were the other big community in Seville during Moorish times and around 5,000 of them lived in the Santa Cruz Quarter until they were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. Today Santa Cruz is a popular tourist area with narrow lanes, shops and restaurants.

Palacio Arzobispal

There are lovely buildings wherever you look in central Seville. This is Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace), situated just behind the cathedral.

Portuguese Consulate in Seville

And this beauty is the Portuguese Consulate in Seville.

Hotel Alfonso XIII

Hotel Alfonso XIII was built for the 1929 Exhibition to accommodate international visitors. Now it is part of the Marriott’s Luxury Collection.

Fabrica Real de Tabacos
University of Seville.George Bizet’s Carmen, the gypsy cigarrera, once rolled cigars on her thighs in this building.

The University of Seville’s HQ has, since the 1950s, been housed in this neoclassical stone building which was originally a tobacco factory, Fabrica Real de Tabacos.

Casa Pilatos

Casa de Pilatos was begun in 1483 and is a mixture of Italian Renaissance and Mudéjar styles. It contains one of the world’s largest collections of azulejo glazed tiles.

Café Bar Macarena

The Macarena District was once one of the poorer slums in Spain but is now smartened up somewhat and is a popular spot for tapas, small bars and quirky shops. The district surrounds the Basilica de la Macarena where a virgin statue of La Macarena de la Esperanza is displayed. The statue is adorned with five emeralds which were donated by the bullfighter Joselito who has his own statue outside the church.

Las Setas

The Metropol Parasol, referred to by locals as Las Setas (the mushrooms), is a striking modern structure said to be the largest timber-framed construction in the world and sits, rather jarringly, in the heart of the old city. You can take a lift to the top and admire the view from an elevated walkway while skateboarders clatter around below.

We only spent a couple of days in Seville and could only scratch the surface of this impressive city but I hope this gives you a flavour. Next stop Cordoba.

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