Perhaps it was the rain, so unexpected in Andalusia, the old fashioned streetlamps at dusk or the softness of the deciduous trees cloaking the hillside and the water rushing down to the River Darro. Some strange genius loci joined the last Spanish Moorish kingdom and the seat of Durham’s Prince-Bishops in my mind. The monumental silence of the Muslim palace/fortress towering above me precisely echoed the presence of the Christian cathedral/castle as you walk along the banks of the River Wear from Prebends’ Bridge. Both are awe-inspiring World Heritage Sites, medieval monuments of faith and power, equally blessed with amazing natural settings that enhance the sense of external strength and internal brilliance. Architecture this coherent traverses cultures, faith and time to touch your soul.
Further down the narrow road into Granada, real life reclaimed me as knick-knacks and the smell of pot and patchouli spewed from the mouths of tourist shops like the fruits of seedy cornucopias. The cheap mirrors in mini versions of the Alhambra’s sublime arches have a noble genesis, more to do with the sympathetic thirst for knowledge of the traveller than the voracious hunger for novelty of the tourist.
The Alhambra remained a dream for many in the nineteenth century, so the restorers of the Palace devised a way to educate and inspire those yet to visit. European connoisseurs and architects marvelled at ornate scale models of the palace created by craftsmen such as Don Rafael Contreras y Munoz. Born in Granada in 1824 into a family of artists, Contreras became architect of the Alhambra. The Plaques recall in miniature the elegant colonnades, the ceilings with lapis lazuli pigment clinging to muqarnas, and the ornate mosaics. In the World Exhibitions in London, (1851), and Paris, (1855 and 1867), the models were awarded many prizes, and others went to the Academy of St Petersburg as well as museums in London, Paris and Vienna. The Alhambra Plaques were true cultural ambassadors.
I have never seen two plaques the same. Old silvered mirrors sometimes glint behind the alabaster arches - you can glimpse your face softly reflected like Gulliver or Alice. Some have heavily scalloped arches like the Patio de los Leones, or rich polychromatic decoration in deep reds and blues. Occasionally one still comes up for sale in London, or can be found tucked away in a corner of Drouot. The simplest are often the most beautiful: stone coloured plaster, and a marquetry frame inlaid with the Arabic phrase repeated throughout the Alhambra: Wa-la ghalib ila Alá: ‘There is no conqueror but God’.
It is sobering to reflect how regularly civilisations rise and fall. Though, as Irving points out the Moors “reigned in elegance and splendour in Andalusia, when all Europe was in comparative barbarism”, their kingdom fell, and the declarations of Moorish infallibility on the walls of the Palace poignantly recall Ozymandias’ proclamations. However, their palace walls still enclose an enchanted kingdom where the branches of trees are weighed down by pomegranates, the fountains’ mist is still drenched with the scent of jasmine and rose, and a court of cats lazily suckle their young beside ponds full of fish. Life flows on without them.
Leaving the Alhambra is always cause for regret. Who has not sympathised with the exiled Boabdil, whose mother famously rebuked him: ‘Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.’ It is only when our complacency is shaken that we begin to realise what we hold dear. The coherent beauty of the Alhambra, and the powerful memories of Durham it unexpectedly evoked spoke volumes across the ages. Any man of any age or culture would instantly know the power of these monuments. If there is one thing travel teaches you it is humility.