The Church of San Nicolás is well worth the steep hike through the Albaicin to marvel at the view of the Alhambra and the Generalife with the Sierra Nevada backdrop. Bill Clinton recently re-visited this spot whilst on a trip to Spain as apparently he had been there once in his student days and had never forgotten the magnificent vista.
The View of the Alhambra form the Plaza San Nicolas
The extraordinary spectacle before us has been immortalized in paintings and photographs, with the Moorish palace crowning the woody ridge against its backdrop of snow covered mountains. What most people do not know, however, is that the spacious tree-shaded belvedere on which we are standing was the site of a much older fortress, the Alcazaba Kadima, which has long since disappeared.
But, let us identify the profusion of monuments before our eyes, rather than try to imagine those which no longer exist. From right to left (or south to north), this collection of fortifications and palaces which makes up the Alhambra is as follows.
Las Torres Bermeja - the ``vermillion´´, or reddish towers - are really a fortress of their own, directly overlooking the city to the south. This is the most ancient part of the Alhambra, built over 2,000 years ago by the Jewish community to defend their tiny citadel which gave Granada its name, and reconstructed on a much larger scale by the Moors to defend the southern tip of the new castle.
La Alcazaba, or ``military fortress´´ is the series of massive towers directly in front of us, the tallest of which is the one with the bell tower, La Torre de la Vela. When the Christians took Granada, their first action was to place the large bell they had brought with them as a symbol of their faith - and known as la vela or ``the sentinel´´ - to ring the chimes of victory. Later, the bell played a more practical role in the city´s life: by means of a complex series of rings, it regulated the opening and closing of the acequias, or irrigation canals, on the plain below (this system was perhaps the greatest legacy of the Moors, enabling them to use water from the snows of the mountains to turn the vega spreading below the palace walls into a heavenly orchard). The original bell was replaced in the 18th century, but its descendent is still rung on the 2nd of January as part of the celebrations of the Dia de la Toma, the ``day of the taking´´ of Granada in 1492.
La Torre de la Vela and its sisters, right up to the Palace of Carlos V which stands massively in the background, are empty military buildings and mainly visited for the views they afford. The tall slender tower with the single arched window, which stands slightly below the rest of the mass, with its feet plunged more deeply into the vegetation, houses the Puerta de las Armas, the main entrance to the Alhambra until the collapse of the bridge over the river which connected it to the city, after the Christian conquest. The gate itself - which we saw obliquely from the Placeta de Carvajales - is hidden from our view on the south side of the tower.
The round tower which stands to the left of the Torre de las Armas is the only part of the fortress which was built by the Christians, around and on top of a smaller, square Moorish tower. It is known as El Cubo, which in this context simply means ``round tower´´.
In the center towards the back of the ensemble we see the pointed bell tower of the church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra and the square mass of the Palace of Carlos Quinto. Everything to the left of these Christian additions is known as the Nasrid Palaces - the elegant buildings used either for the administration of the kingdom or the pleasure of the kings, which were adjoined to the primitive fortress by the Nasrid Dynasty in the 14th century, this being the part of the Alhambra which has made it famous.
To begin, the massive tower on the left of the Palace of Carlos Quinto - the one with two tiers of tiny arched windows - is the Torre de Comares, the main reception hall for functions of state. Just to the right is the oratory or mirhab which, upon entering the palace, on visits after the Mexuar. To the left of the comares is a small elegantly roofed tower and arched walkway, the precious Peinador de la Reina - ``the queen´s boudoir´´ - part of ``the rooms of Carlos Quinto´´ which were built by the Christians on top of the Moorish bulwarks, so that the King and Queen would have a place to stay when they came to Granada, until their own palace was finished (as we shall see, it never was). To the left of this charming Renaissance version of Moorish architecture we catch an oblique glimpse of the overlapping roofs of the Court of the Lions, which are part of the northern wall, leading up to the bridge which spans the gorge separating the main palace from the gardens of the Cerro del Sol.
The Generalife is the slender white building among the trees on the mountainside, where the court retired to hunt, and the military watch tower overlooking it is known as the Silla del Moro - the seat of the Moor. If you come in summertime you won´t see much snow on the Sierra Nevada, but the rest of the year the contrast of the creamy white mountains and the towers of the castle, like gigantic cubes of brown sugar, is well, any of a wide range of superlatives will do and at the same time none of them renders it justice!
This excerpt is taken from:
Granada, City of My Dreams - an artistic and historical guide for the curious traveler by Lorenzo Bohme
This book is available to buy now on Amazon Kindle.