Granada was that rare place that left me free of conflicts. I never had to decide where to go: I just went up the hill to the Alhambra. Within an hour of getting off the bus from Madrid, I had found a place to stay and changed clothes—changed into sandals, in fact, because suddenly it was hot—and climbed to the big arched gate with ways up to the right, to the left, and straight ahead. I took the left: the ramparts of the fortress, high sand-colored walls, rose very satisfactorily to my left, and there were the sounds of a waterfall. There were also smells of spring, a musky, nose-prickling scent, and bird calls. I found my way to the ticket office, which had a confusing schedule of year-round entry times for morning, noon, and night, but once you cut through the ticket thicket, you’re in among the clipped cypresses and the trickling fountains. The ticket specifies a time at which you can enter the Nasrid Palaces, and I had just enough time to find the entrance for a 5:30 P.M. admission.
I was so happy, so sort of burbling, to be at the Alhambra, fulfilling at last a lifelong fantasy, that there was no way it could fail to surpass my expectations. It already had: I was satisfied just to see the outer walls of the place; every stone and alcove, every ceramic tile and plaster ornament inside was a bonus. You go in the entry hall, called the Mexuar, and right away you’re hit with tile mosaics on the lower portions of the walls. There were tiles set like diamonds, in a pattern that radiated out from, say, a row of black diamonds, surrounded by blue ones, surrounded by black ones, by bronze, by black, by green, by black, and topped with a row of uniform bell shapes. One of the motifs along the top rows looked like pine trees, very schematic, in ink-green. It would make a good Christmas card, I thought, if it weren’t for the fact that the Muslims who built the place would be appalled to have their geometry turned into Christian symbolism.
All this part of Spain was ruled for centuries by Moors, Muslims from Africa, who were conquered (it’s called the Reconquest) by the Christian armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an easy date to remember). This was their court and their home and their church and their spa, their Buckingham Palace and San Marco and Las Vegas, all rolled into one. At least three generations of sultans built it, for the most part in the thirteen-hundreds. Clearly, if you were alive in those times, this was the place to be.
The Mexuar opens into the Court of the Myrtles, with a long pool, fed by narrow troughs of water, that reflects the façades of the palaces at either end. Hedges of clipped myrtle run along the sides. A tomcat was stalking goldfish from the edge of the pool. There are lots of columns, more ceramic-tile mosaics, and, in rooms off to the sides, arches and walls covered in stuccoed floral patterns and Arabic calligraphy, with touches of ravishing blue in some of the hollows. These rise to fabulous vaulted ceilings with concentric rings of wheeling stars. The guide books call the shapes in the stucco “stalactites” and the arches "squinches"; what the vaults looked like to me was the insides of seeded pomegranates.
The next court was the Lion Court, and if I’d known anything much beforehand about the Alhambra I’d have been disappointed, because the lions—twelve of them—that hold up the marble fountain in the center were in restoration, so there was a bundle of plywood and plastic sheeting where the fountain ought to be, but it was perfectly possible to avert your eyes and enjoy the forest of graceful columns and the filigreed squinches and the sky. In the rooms off the Lion Court were more dazzling tiles, featuring patterns of stars and tilted stars and flower bursts and curled leaves and a kind of squiggle, like a bird in flight, that I believe is called an arabesque. High up, sunlight filtered in through carved wooden screens. Every room I went into was my favorite, especially the last, the Mirador de Lindaraja, where the mosaics were in a fine pattern of eight-pointed stars, in black and green and blue and red, topped by those inky-green pine trees, and where low, arched windows looked out over a fountain in a garden of palms and orange trees. Right there, I could have lain down and died.
Of course there were other pesky tourists about, posing for pictures, getting in the frame of my pictures, standing stock-still listening to their audioguides, their gaze fixed on the middle distance. The way down into the garden went through a room with a plaque dedicated to Washington Irving, who lived and wrote in the Alhambra in 1829. Outside was another mirador, or vista, or belvedere, or fabulous view, looking out over the city of Granada: white and yellow houses with corrugated tile rooftops in faded ochre, with clumps of cypresses interspersed, and the late-afternoon light defining with the distant hills. The air had a fresh chill on it imported directly from the snowy mountains. Out in the gardens, small children on family outings were screaming and tumbling around. I found out what time to return for night admission, and floated back down the hill.
There was a full moon that night, its face looking off to the left, slightly glazed and travel-weary. Now it was cold, and I had to change back into regular shoes and put a coat on. At night, the palaces are lit with lamps that cast an upward glow, like candlelight, showing the stucco to its best advantage. People were lying on the floor with cameras and tripods trying to photograph the ceilings. I was cursing myself for not having solved the problem with the battery of my digital camera before leaving home. Then, again, I was free simply to look and absorb. On the way up the path between the cypress trees, I’d been addressed by a young woman in Spanish, who soon switched to English and turned out to be a student from Madison, Wisconsin, spending a semester in Madrid. She had chosen to come to the Alhambra at night so that she’d be free to go skiing the next day, and was having qualms. I liked being by myself at the Alhambra, liked the direct experience of just me and the place, with no one to come between us. So I didn’t adopt the child from Madison, I didn’t let her affect the pace of my very leisurely second tour of the Nasrid Palaces by moonlight, but I didn’t mind answering her questions.
I said I’d had a thing about the Alhambra all my life, and she asked where that came from. It had ludicrously prosaic roots in a house that was different from all the other houses in the neighborhood I grew up in, at the top of the valley overlooking Brookside Park and the Cleveland Zoo. We used to climb down this hill, which descended from the end of our street to some railroad tracks and a swamp, beyond which was another set of railroad tracks, and then the zoo. About four or five blocks over from us, this one house at the top of the cliff, instead of being a big two-family frame house with a front porch, like all the other houses, had solid walls that rose up like a fortress, very Spanish-looking to my mind, romantic and mysterious. I was never in the house, and I never knew who lived there, but I always thought of it as the Alhambra.
My head was full of Zorro and Walt Disney in those days, with maybe a pinch of Ali Baba, but I’ve since developed a passion for mosaics. Greek mosaics, Roman mosaics, Byzantine mosaics: I’ve been to Paphos and Venice and Ravenna and Palermo, and though I later read that the Alhambra is built of “cheap” materials (I like stone), the designs make you completely forget that they’re not the most precious stones on earth. The shapes explode out of them: stars, crosses, diamonds, blades, clocks, tilted lilies, flung birds, more stars ... I got out my notebook and tried to sketch some of the patterns. One started out as an eight-pointed star, with each side of a star point extending into a cross, and somehow all the angles formed a circle before locking into another eight-pointed star. How did they do that? My notebook had a few sheets of graph paper at the back, and I thought that might help. But it was frustrating to try to comprehend how they fit together, and I gave up.
I was in my current favorite room, the throne room off the Lion’s Court, when the girl from Madison found me and asked, “Is this all there is?” Poor child! She was smart enough to have learned Spanish and gotten herself to Madrid for a semester and to the Alhambra by herself on a moonlit night, and she could ski, but she had not had my advantages. She had not grown up near the Cleveland Zoo.
Later, on the plane home, when I was finally able to focus on the little book I’d brought along (“The Alhambra,” by Robert Irwin; a very irritating, scholarly fellow, until you know what he’s talking about), I learned that the sultan’s geometers were working with surds (a surd is an irrational square root, say of the number 7) and that the patterns were meant to express infinity.
I was there again the next morning, this time climbing up past the ticket office to see what I was missing, and finding a parking lot. (I have radar for parking lots.) I walked farther up among the buttercups and olive trees and tried to get it through my head that the snow on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada was not a mirage. Outside the parking lot, Gypsies in spandex were accosting tourists with sprigs of laurel, trying to get hold of the hand of a little white-haired lady to read her palm and perhaps extract a fraction of a euro.
This time when I bought my ticket, I rented the audioguide and strolled through the palaces more leisurely than ever, visiting also the Alcazaba (the watchtower) and the Generalife (its name looks like an insurance company, but it’s actually pronounced HeneraLEAFay), a sort of auxiliary complex of palaces and gardens with something called a water stairway. One of the things the Moors were brilliant at was plumbing, and they devised the hydraulics to bring water up from the rivers of Granada to water their fortress. I bought every postcard of mosaic tiles that I wanted, and also spotted a little pile of broken tiles at the back of one gift shop, which I sorted through until I had found two fragments, one a piece of calligraphy with a touch of blue in it and the other a fairly complete version of one of those pine-tree shapes. I thought it was green, but by the light of home I see that though the background is mint green, the shape itself is a dark iridescence, shiny black-blue-brown, that has the effect of green. I am under no illusion that these are antiquities, but I do like the sensation of having come away with a little piece of the Alhambra.
Then there was the night train back to Barcelona, about which the less said the better (I should have gone first class). I never wrote about the Gaudí in Barcelona, distracted as I was by my life as a groupie. I went to Park Güell with one of the groupies, and when we came down from among all the swirls and cracks and blues and greens, the curved mosaic benches made from tiles that looked as if the sun had been shattered and put back together again, everything we saw looked different from how it had looked on the way up. Gaudí altered my consciousness. The Alhambra, though I liked it better, did not make me look at the world differently; it made me wish the world looked different—more like the Alhambra.