The grand palaces of Europe span a myriad of architectural styles determined by their time periods and builders, the slow shift of cultures across a huge landmass as kingdoms conquered and assimilated each other. Spain is no different, but it does have some unique sites that are linked to the country’s period under Islamic rule. Perhaps one of the most consistently underrated European palaces is La Alhambra, located on a hill in historic Granada.
The Muslim Moors, who had conquered much of Southern Europe in the time of Islamic expansion that followed the death of Muhammad, originally built La Alhambra as a fort in the 9th century. Overlooking the city and surrounding countryside, it has a commanding spot. It is set in front of an epic mountainous backdrop that looks divine in any season, and today is illuminated magnificently at night so loses none of its appeal after dark. Over time, La Alhambra was slowly added onto and became a palace in the 13th century. Its distinctive Islamic architecture is highly apparent throughout the entire complex of halls, quadrangles, fountains, and domes. Intricate inscriptions in Arabic flow together to form holy patterns in a style known as “arabesque” decoration. This fusion of calligraphy, geometry, and symbolism is stunning when taken as a whole, covering nearly every surface of the palace. The expert guides on certain Alhambra palace tours take their time explaining the significance of this style of work, pointing out passages of the floor to ceiling text to decipher.
The palace itself is large, consisting of several connected buildings and courtyards that are each full of their own surprises. One of the most famous houses the Court of the Lions, with a central fountain made up an alabaster basin and twelve lion statues that produced water out of their mouths on each hour. The ingenious hydraulic system has yet to be deciphered, as the fountain was disassembled by Christians during the Reconquest of Spain. Water plays a major role in the ambiance throughout the palace, and fountains, channels, and pools are common in each of its areas. The Hall of Abencerrajes houses another small basin, but the eye is naturally drawn upwards here, to the stalactite-style ceiling. Honeycombed carvings make up an intricate dome that is impossible to look away from. Outside, the garden known as the Generalife offers inviting paths and benches between the residential buildings of the palace. It is well-tended and sumptuous, and if you’re lucky you might come across playful kittens scampering around under the rose bushes.
Walking up through the historically Moorish Albayzín district to La Alhambra is a delightful experience in people-watching and appreciating architecture. When you get to the top and get your chance inside the palace, though, you’ll really be blown away. Tickets are limited to a finite number of people each day and the experience is enriched by having some expert explanation, so booking Alhambra palace tours online is recommended. This is one place in Spain not to miss.