Thursday, March 15, 2007


The world is now divided for me into people who have been to the Alhambra and people who have not. At a party last night, I was with a bunch of architects (is there a collective noun for architects? A pile? A project? A complex? A grid? A brace? How about a buttress?), and the subject of the Alhambra came up. It wasn’t even I who brought it up, honest. A woman who, like me, had been in Barcelona last week told the lead architect at the table that the Alhambra was privately owned and that you couldn’t go there without a reservation. She had gone to a travel agent in Barcelona who told her this, and that the only way to get there was a miserable nine-hour journey by night train. I was appalled. How dare anyone utter a discouraging word about the Alhambra—especially someone who was only an authority on not going there?

But perhaps she deserves sympathy. She got bad advice, and she followed it. One of the things I found out very early on about travelling is that people, notably your fellow-tourists, love to tell you where to go and what to see and what not to bother with, and you let them talk and you listen, and then you go off and do what you originally planned. On the other hand, if this woman had been lucky enough to have a hermaphrodite in the family, a musical hermaphrodite, who was playing a concert in Barcelona followed by one in Madrid, she would have had the necessary motivation to go to Madrid, where, after she survived the attempt on her purse in front of the Prado and heard the superheroes talking each to each as they hosed down the street in the middle of the night, she might have found her way to the prosaic bus station, where a perfectly nice company called Continental had a luxurious coach leaving Madrid at ten-thirty in the morning, arriving in Granada at four in the afternoon.

The bus had video monitors and showed a double feature (“Proof” and “Happy Feet”), but I was trying to read up on the Alhambra and succeeding mostly in gazing out the window. A shantytown, black bulls, donkeys in a vineyard, horses, olive trees that looked as if their trunks had been cleft as saplings and now grew two, or even three, to a plot. The bus made a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, and when we got back on the road the scenery got very dramatic. We were going through the Sierra Nevada. Dee and I had seen a bar in Madrid called Nevada and thought it was funny—why would a bar in Madrid be named for the state of Nevada?—but now I realized that we had it backwards: “nevada” means snow-covered, and the state of Nevada must have been named, by the Spanish, for the snow, like these mountains in AndalucĂ­a called the Sierra Nevada, with their jagged snow-covered ridges. The olive trees are planted at perfect intervals, forming a pattern of dots on the hillsides that would have connected into squares, a grid of olive trees stretched over the dusty hills. The combination of olive trees and snow made that whole trip worthwhile.

I have been waiting to write about the Alhambra until I could post some pictures, and until I could find a Web site to make a link to. The official site of the Alhambra turns out to be in Spanish, of course, and the translation on the Web is, um, risible (although the poetry written in Arabic all over the Alhambra holds up amazingly well). If you google the Alhambra, the first site you get is not the official one but one overseen by none other than architects! The best one is a virtual tour put together by Columbia University. I will post these things here and then revert to my own tiny little point of view. My Alhambra.

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