Our coming to the Alhambra had been telephoned from the railway station, and rooms were ready for us. We dined and went to bed. Tired by travelling, we slept soundly, and awoke in a scene of beauty. The guide-book speaks of the song of the nightingale, and there are a plenty of them in the groves, but the notes of chanticleer, and the melodious braying of an ass stabled near the Hotel Siete Suelos were prominent among morning sounds. As to the musical gypsies mentioned in an attractive paragraph in the same veracious authority, there were two male wretches in barbarous costume, who performed a sort of “tum-tum” on a discordant mandolin beneath our windows, and two dirty and disreputable females, who screeched now and then to the accompaniment, and importuned the visitor to buy flowers in the intervals. The aroma of frying fish quite overpowered the fragrance of the orange-blossoms, and the chatter of a party of Spaniards on the terrace, like a flock of parrots, prevented the romantic sentiments which might otherwise have controlled us in such a place. The dense foliage of the groves planted here by Wellington, the multitude of flowers, the cool airs, and the superb views tend to lift one above mundane trials in the gardens and courts of the Alhambra; yet he must cultivate the romantic and poetic spirit, in order to ignore the blind beggars, the obscene gypsies, the lazy boys and dirty men, the restorations of things which never existed, and the endless repetition of fable and nonsense which is obtruded upon the ear in the midst of things ancient and modern.
Painters swarm in the Alhambra, and photographers, professional and amateur, crowd each other. Nothing, however, can depreciate the serene atmosphere, the brilliant sunlight, the crystal glory of the Sierra Nevada, and the wealth of white waters that pour their rich treasures everywhere, in courts and gardens and fields, and rise in columns to fall in filmy spray from a hundred fountains. Birds sing in retired places, and would make a delicious concert, were it not for the dissonant braying of the omnipresent donkey and the harsh voices of the peo ple. Nature is lovely, and the palace becomes interesting in proportion as it is studied, though there is an ever present feeling of regret that much that was once very beautiful, and so delicate in its beauty, should now be ruinous and decayed.
The city of Granada lies in the valleys of the Xenil and the Darro. These rivers, fed by the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada, irrigate and fertilize expanding vegas, or plains, among which the city is built. The succession of crops never ceases, and the country teems with sugar-cane, hemp, wine, oil, silk, grain, and fruits of all sorts. The city is built upon four hills, and extends in an amphitheatre from the river, covering the gradual ascent of the hills, which are crowned by the Alhambra and old lines of fortresses. The vega stretches to the base of the distant mountains, and as we looked down upon it from the towers of the Alhambra, or the gardens of the Generalife, seemed like a green ocean dotted with sails, the white walls of many villas rising out of its verdurous depths.
At the extreme north of the town rises a long ridge called El Cerro del Sol, which is cleft in twain by a wooded ravine, bordered on either side by precipitous terraces, which were formerly girded by walls and towers and connected by walled lanes. Within this fortified circuit stood the palaces and villas of the caliphs of Granada, as well as the principal fortresses. It was a city by itself, and was called the Medinah Alhamra, “the red city.” The road from Granada enters by the gate of Charles V., and is planted thickly with English elms and lofty cherry-trees, while waters from many fountains run in paved channels on either side. We pass up this shaded avenue, and just before reaching the two hotels, which are close to the walls of the Alhambra, a sharp turn to the left leads to the “gate of judgment,” which is the principal entrance to the grounds and buildings to which the name of “The Alhambra” is now generally applied.
This gate, which is familiar from the many pictures and photographs which have been made of it, is in a square tower forty-seven feet wide and sixty-two feet high. There is a horseshoe arch rising half-way up the tower, and over the arch is sculptured an open hand with the fingers pointing upwards, which has been considered by some as symbolical of the five tenets of the Mohammedan creed, of hospitality, or of power and providence, and by others as a protection against the evil eye. Marble sculptured pillars are on either side of the gate bearing the inscription, ” There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is the prophet of Allah; there is no power or strength but in Allah.”The huge two-leaved door turns on a vertical pivot in the centre and leads to the place where the caliph sat to give judgment. Over the second arch is a sculptured key, which has been the occasion of many guesses, and of the legend that the Moors boasted that this gate would never be opened by Christians till the hand over the outer arch took the key over the inner one. Here also is the inscription, “May Allah make this a protecting bulwark! “The passages between the gates are winding and contrived for obstinate defence. Beyond this gateway, passing by an altar placed in the wall and a tablet recording the conquest at Granada, we come out upon a large plaza, called the “Place of the Cisterns.”These large and deep tanks receive the waters of the Darro and supply the Alhambra, and from hence water is carried on donkeys and the shoulders of men in summer to the town and sold to the thirsty people.
We are now upon a long and narrow plateau, surrounded by walls of red stone, thirty feet high and six feet thick, with frequent towers built by the various tribes and nationalities which have in turn held this magnificent stronghold. Roman and Carthaginian, Moor and Spaniard, French and English have ruled here, and each have left the traces of their residence and power. Each palace and tower has its history and its legends. On the left of the plaza is the citadel with its yellow towers, which command a superb view of the town of Granada, a vast expanse of whitewashed houses, churches, and towers, with the great Cathedral in the midst. Beyond this are the river valleys, the green vega, and the rugged mountains with their snowy crown. On the right is the unfinished palace of Charles V., an immense quadrangular edifice without, while within it is a vast circular courtyard, with a superb double colonnade. Much of the Moorish palace was destroyed to make room for this modern building, which stands with unglazed windows and incomplete sculptures, a monument to the pride and folly of royalty. Beyond the palace are gardens and orchards, a mosque and a church, a little town with a few shops for the sale of photographs and mementos, all within the walls of the Alhambra.
To this plaza, natives and tourists delight to come, and sit in the shadow of the buildings or beneath the trees, and gaze for hours upon the landscape. The view towards the villa of the Moorish sovereigns, called the Generalife, is in striking contrast to the view of Granada. Its white walls rise among groves and gardens, and venerable cypresses lift their solemn spires from the palace courts as if it were the mausoleum of a race of kings. Above this are hills covered with prickly pear, among which, in caves and earth burrows, live a gypsy population. Then come rugged hills, from one of which the unfortunate Boabdil, last ruler of his race, gazed for the last time upon the kingdom which he had lost and the palaces and towers, once the pride and glory of the Moor, which were henceforth to be trodden by the infidel and to fall into ruin and decay amidst his unchristian wars. In the far distance rise the purple mountains and the Sierra Nevada pearly white beneath the noonday sun, or bathed in rose and crimson as the reflection of sunset falls over its snowy ranges.
We entered the Alhambra only to look out from it upon the beauties of its environment. There are treasures of beauty within, which must wait for another chapter.