Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Granada (Spain)

One of the places in Spain I have always wanted to see is the Alhambra... and I am not alone. Over two million people per year come to Granada to visit the massive palace and fortress complex. The Muslim kings who ruled much of Spain - and, indeed, most of the Iberian peninsula - for over 700 years originally built it for defense. You can still visit the remnants of the early citadel, known as the Alcazaba, and appreciate the restful luxury that the Generalife and its extensive formal gardens could provide royalty as a summer palace.

Most of the postcards of the Alhambra focus on the Palacio Nazaríes, built by the Nasrid emirs in the 14th century. Getting in is a little tricky, as there are signs everywhere reminding that entry is strictly controlled by a limited number of tickets with set 30 minute entry slots. Rich and I were a little concerned that our past visits to similar sites in Turkey and Morocco would dim our opinion of the Palacio Nazaríes, and we are quite happy to report that it did not. Always enchanted by colorful mosaic work and intricately carved stucco, the architecture and decor we saw were of particularly fine quality, and probably more importantly, in far better state of upkeep and preservation. Restoration work on the iconic marble Fountain of the Lions was only just finished this past December.

Back down in the city, we decided to pamper ourselves like sultans. A hammam is a traditional Arabic bath, and even though we'd had some experience with these elsewhere in Europe and Morocco, this place really pulled out all the stops! Located in a 13th Century building, the owners of this hammam really tried to recreate ancient baths with more intimate rooms, gorgeous mosaic work, and superb temperature controls. The circuit consists of a warm room with the pool set at a cozy 36 C (or 97 F);  a blissfully hot room at 40 C (or 104 F); and a cold room, whose 18 C (or 64 F) plunge pool makes your whole body feel like it's having a heart attack. In between, you can take breaks in the steam sauna or at one of the tables with piping hot pots of traditional mint tea. Rest, and repeat!

I also tried out the traditional hammam treatment. They lay you on a table and pour buckets of warm water over you. There is a light, tickling sensation as you get covered with a thick blanket of bubbles. Then, using a rough glove (or kessa), they scrub you down like you haven't been scrubbed since your mom caught you making mudpies. After the rinse, your exfoliated skin feels fantastic, and you adjourn back to the pool rooms.

Any description of Granada itself would be lacking without a shout-out to its overwhelming ghosts of the past - Ferdinand II and Isabella I. Known simply as Los Reyes Católicos (the Catholic Monarchs), this power couple were the ones who created the unified Spain. Not content with simply ousting the Muslims from the peninsula, they also ushered in the Inquisition. They were also the ones who sent Christopher Columbus off in 1492. You can visit their sarcophagi in the ornate Capilla Real and view the actual coffins through a window set a few steps underground. Creepy!

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