Friday 22 January 2016

Alhambra by Kate Lord Brown

Few places seem as paradoxically familiar and exotic as the Alhambra. The romantic paintings of the Orientalists and the eulogies to nightingales and moonlight, to silver mountains and Moorish gold that spilled from Washington Irving’s pen have lured thousands. I was not expecting surprises from one of my favourite places in the world, but meandering down the Cuesta de Gomérez from the Palace I suddenly experienced a lingering sense of another place and time entirely.

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.


Carol Drinkwater said...

One of my all time favourite places too, Kate. AS well,I like to walk the streets of Granada and remember Lorca. Thank you for reminding me that it is time to return Cx

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely tribute to the Alhambra. I was at Durham, but I didn't see the link between the two places that you did - probably because I was only there for a few hours, and saw it just from the inside, not from the outside. Another time, I hope!

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thanks, Carol - such a beautiful place. Love to stay in the Parador in the grounds next time.

Think it was just one of those moments, Sue - the weather, twilight, something in the stillness of it.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Yes, I stayed in the Parador on one of my trips. Very special

Ruan Peat said...

I want to visit here, and your post has just made me more determined, thank you.

Marjorie said...

What a wonderful description! I'v never been to the Alhambra, but it is high on my list of places I want to visit.
Thank you

Miranda Miller said...

This is really beautiful, Kate, and I particularly liked your evocation of one place mysteriously rhyming with another - something I often experience.