02 November 2015

Cuento de La Alhambra

In which we foolishly drive ourselves to the brink in search of ornamental bliss.

A dreamy ceiling with mocárabe vaulting, Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra

We are in Malaga, Spain, with the ulterior motive of a conference, and whose proximity to Granada is impossible to ignore. I have always wanted to see the Alhambra and so after our first full day here we decide let's go tomorrow. Yes I had researched how to get there, it's only about 2 hours drive away, maybe less, but somehow I missed that you really must have reservations fairly well in advance, like months in advance.  Or maybe I did know that but had been so busy before we left on this trip that I failed to actually make a plan.  Undeterred, both of us pour over websites and blogs giving advice about how to get into the Alhambra despite not having advance reservations. This, the most visited sight in Spain, has extremely limited admissions and it's widely reported that that entrance times on reservations are strictly enforced, especially with regard to the Nasrid Palaces, whose famously ornamented walls and ceilings have been calling to me for years.

Erling learns that a limited number of tickets are sold at 8 each morning, only a half hour before the Alhambra opens its gates, and if you get there early enough and the queue isn't too bad you might just get lucky.  I find one travel blog with the great tip of using the credit card-only kiosks for which there is typically no wait at all. However, we are uncertain our credit cards will work in these machines, as Erling's card was rejected at the parking garage earlier in the day.  We decide we need to be in the queue by 6:30 AM, set our alarms for 4.  We are bold and adventurous. 

Just before going to bed, I check the batteries for my camera, and realize none of them has a decent charge, so I plug one into my charger, hoping to to swap it out for another battery after an hour.  Trying to sleep is pointless. I keep turning over to see if the charge is complete, but the light never turns green. Erling wakes up and asks me if I am ok. I tell him I am freaking out about having no batteries for the camera. By then it is 3:30 AM.  I have 76% on one battery and 28% on a second one, the third is totally dead, and have been searching "power-saving tips for the a7r" on the internet. Between the jet lag and this anxiety I am wide awake. But, I tell him, this isn't about photographing every inch of a much-photographed monument.  For me it's about the experience of seeing the place and enjoying being there.  Let's go now, he says, we're awake.
It is just starting to spit rain outside.

Google Maps recommends we take the Eastern route, which involves somewhat windier roads but gets us there 15 minutes sooner. The clouds over the mountains are glowing in bursts from lighting which I find beautifully distracting while Erling nervously makes our way in the dark. I check the weather report and it promises Granada will be overcast but pleasant.  Wow, I comment, the lightning show is becoming more spectacular... and we are driving right into it. Slowly we realize we are headed into the largest electrical storm either of us have ever seen, and then it begins to rain, hard, hard enough to make me wonder aloud if maybe we'd picked a bad day to go and whether we should just turn around, or maybe hide the car under a bridge or something.  Erling says those people who die in flash floods are usually trapped in their cars under bridges, citing recent examples, and quoting possible headlines back home:  "Local artist and unknown male companion found trapped in car in flooded Spanish ravine."  
"Tragedy in Andalusia: Composer dies trying to pull wife's body from lightning-riddled rental car."

Lightning is being thrown between one cloud and another several times per second with occasional ground strikes and Erling suggests checking the hand-held oracle to find out if being in a car during a lightning storm is the safest place to be. So I read aloud an article stating that an all metal car with the windows up is pretty safe owing to the Faraday Effect, but all the same this is just a bit too exciting and for a good solid hour I cannot help but mark the location of each and every lighting strike and whether it was horizontal or vertical and then mentally inventory each part of the car to see just how much metal we have surrounding us and at this point we have no cell service so I cannot read more about this supposed Faraday Effect or how much car metal is required for this to be a factor.  Meanwhile, "Faraday" strikes me as a good name for a model of car.

Ticket booth at the Alhambra opens at dawn. photo by Erling Wold
As we near Granada the weather eases up and I think maybe it will stay in the mountains. When we arrive at the Alhambra in the pitch black morning it's dry outside and fairly warm.
Parking at the Alhambra is easy at 6 AM as there are several lots and all seem deserted.   At the ticket office there is already a queue of about 70 people and just as we arrive to take our place it begins to rain quite suddenly and deliberately.  I hear a variety of languages being spoken but most people are sullenly looking at the ground or at their phones. After 5 minutes I am soaked through and fairly miserable at the thought of two further hours of this.  In those same 5 minutes the queue doubles in length and with every passing minute a further 30 people arrive. Thankfully an enterprising man approaches us with cheap umbrellas and bottled water. Both Erling and I purchase umbrellas, and I leave him in the queue and go look for the credit card kiosks I read about, which appear to be located at the far end of the book and gift shop in a separate building from the ticket sales windows.  A queue has already formed waiting for access to these and I take my place in it, under an ivy-covered eave. Moments later an Australian woman joins me and is likewise relieved to be partially out of the rain.

I text Erling "I thank Allah for this ivy-covered shelter."  My Australian Comrade says her husband is also waiting in the other queue just in case, and debates whether she should tell him she has a bit of an overhang to hide under, as the rain is really quite relentless at this point and we are feeling bad about our menfolk being left out there, bravely holding their places.

Others line up behind us; eventually we see our secondary queue is wrapped clear around the other side of the building. We wonder if we are wasting our time, we wonder why the Alhambra doesn't have a better system for dealing with this.  At 7 AM the café opens. People next to me promise to save my spot while I get hot tea. I remark that we did stuff like this in the 1980's like the night before Prince tickets went on sale but I totally laugh at people waiting overnight to purchase a new iPhone. Prince, says My Australian Comrade, was totally worth it.

By 7:30 the area is closely packed with soaking wet people and morale is sagging. I imagine myself marching up and down shouting encouragement to each of the souls waiting in the rain, we happy few... but think better of it. And so we wait.
At 8 AM the ticket booths open, and so does the bookstore.  We can hear a collective, audible sigh, then chatter, and just as it stops raining and the sky begins to brighten, the sound of hundreds of umbrellas being lowered and shaken.  It's a sign!  We have earned our reward with our patience and determination and now we will all enjoy the fragrant gardens of the Generalife in the sun!
At 8:04 a uniformed employee unlocks the door to the credit card-only kiosk. Our line condenses as people crush forward and word is passed back that only three of the ten machines are functioning. One by one, two by two, victorious queue-sitters emerge gleefully brandishing their hard-won tickets and we rejoice for them. By 8:20 the whole area is swarming with tourists from the many large buses that have arrived, just as I make my way to the kiosk. I dip my Visa™ card into the machine, and it works! and while I wait for the authorization I text Erling "got them!" but before I can complete my transaction an Agitated Spanish Woman waves money in my face, imploring me to help her as her credit card isn't working.  She is also soaking wet so I know she's been waiting with the rest of us, and though I speak next to no Castilian I totally understand her frustration. She asks me to buy cuatro más (the limit is 10) and I agree, so she all but shoves me out of the way and presses some buttons and immediately 6 tickets spit out the bottom. Outside I hear yelps of joy from those who have their tickets and are reuniting with the rest of their parties.  The Agitated Spanish Woman pulls me outside, grabs her tickets and stuffs money in my hands and then runs off.  I call Erling. He is next in line but abandons his spot and runs over to where I am.  We examine the tickets and find a nice easy 10:30 reservation for the Nasrid Palaces.

At 8:30 as the gates open, it is announced all tickets are already sold out for the entire day.  Now that it is light out I can see the faces of nearly a thousand disappointed tourists, slowly turning to leave.  Understandably a few linger in disbelief, or try to buy tickets from others, or plead with the employees for some hint as to how to manage an entrance. 
We get a bit of food and hot drinks at the café. Erling goes to the men's room to dry his clothes with the hand-drier.  I see My Australian Comrade, reunited with her husband, the two of them grinning and skipping out of sight. 

Erling in the center courtyard of the Palacio de Carlos V
Once inside we are marveling at the view and the lush gardens. The Renaissance palace built by Carlos V is the first building we visit. Its oddly out of place, but I adore the round courtyard surrounded by columns, like a bull ring.  Inside the palace is a sweet little museum filled with household objects and fragments of architectural features that have been excavated during restoration efforts. Then we run over to the Alcazaba to explore the towers and take in a magnificent views of Granada and the mountains.  At each spot our tickets are scanned and an employee asks "where from?" with genuine interest, and a smile when we respond "San Francisco!" Every so often I catch sight of a soaking wet person and we nod at each other, acknowledging that our strange and soggy ordeal was well worth the effort.

A beautiful view of Granada from the Nasrid Palace of La Alhambra
At 10:15 am we dutifully attend the queue for the Nasrid. Only a limited number of people may enter; every half hour or so another group is admitted. A couple with reservations at 9:30 are not allowed in, but told to go to the museum in the Carlos V palace and ask to have their reservations changed to a later time (good to know.)

The Nasrid Palaces are truly wonderous: room after room is encrusted with carved plaster ornament and inlaid wooden ceilings. It's not at all overrated and no photos will ever do it justice. I make eye contact with an American woman in a red hat and can see her face is filled with joy.  She says "We're really here!"  to me, as if we know each other. Yes I chirp, we really are here! Areas are being restored and we read that thousands of swifts had to be relocated out of this palace where they have been nesting for centuries. We overhear tour guides telling their stories into their Whisper® systems, and in the Hall of the Ambassadors a man giving a private tour to an elderly couple is telling then some half-lies in an attempt to entertain them.

A window niche of the Hall of the Ambassadors, La Alhambra
We chat with a well-traveled Canadian in a bright yellow parka with a nice Lumix camera. He and I talk camera gear for a moment. He had been a journalist and has been everywhere.  I tell him my batteries are low and  I am being a bit conservative. He says put the camera in airplane mode – yes I already did and it's making a huge difference!  In every room I watch him as he picks the best spot from which to shoot. He knows what he is doing, and like me, is lingering a bit longer than perhaps necessary, letting the larger groups pass by to enjoy just a brief quiet moment in an uncrowded space before taking his next shot.

Patio of the Lions
In some spaces I stay put as waves of groups come and go. English, French, Chinese, and Dutch groups pass through.  A guide brandishing a Norwegian flag leads her group through the ornamented halls and chambers at a measured pace without stopping.  I change the camera battery and for the 4th time say hello to the American woman in the red hat who is following the same path we are. One room bears a majolica plaque honoring Washington Irving and his time living at the Alhambra and writing there.  I thank Erling for bringing me here and tolerating my obsession.  I lose track of the Canadian in the yellow parka and wish I had given him my card.

Daraxa's Mirador:  restored carved and polychromed ornament.
The Ornamentalist, Sated. photo by Erling Wold

After nearly three hours we reluctantly leave the Nasrid in search of a snack and a place to sit. Remarkably my remaining camera battery is not yet dead, but I am nearly exhausted. We take a lovely break lounging on the ramparts enjoying cold Coca-Colas and a sunny view, then meander slowly through the gardens and to the car to take a nap, spending a delicious hour lying in reclined seats with the windows down, shaded by the trees planted all through the car park.  Overall our vehicular siesta is perfectly nice and afterwards we make our way down the hill into town, to visit the cathedral and the Alcaiceria, and wander about the beautiful old city of Granada.

Stay tuned... More about of the ornament of Andalusia will be posted soon!

worn mosaic tiles at La Alhambra
Make advanced reservations to visit La Alhambra
Day-of tickets are sold at 8 AM on site but the queue is quite long at all times of year. Check in the bookshop for canceled reservations or ask the concierge at your Parador for advice.
The Generalife, a beautiful part of the Alhambra with lovely gardens, is easy to visit and requires no set reservation. 

Battery saving tips for the Sony a7r.    "put the camera in airplane mode" DUH!
Maybe you need more than one battery charger.  Perhaps even one that charges in the car.

Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra"

Images in this post by Lynne Rutter except as otherwise credited.
click on images to view larger


  1. I admire your delirium brought about in search of ornamentation. I am now facebook friends with people met in similar circumstances.....thank you for your wanderings and excellent photos.

    1. I so rarely post the stories in favor of the images. But this was a pretty remarkable day!

  2. This is why we travel! Great article Lynne!!


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