Los Palacios Nazaríes – finally!

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that I walked straight from the main gate of the Alhambra to the citadel, La Alcazaba. The main gate is located at the most easterly tip of the Sabika hill while the Alcazaba forms the most westerly portion of the Alhambra complex. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes to walk the distance.

When I said I walked straight from A to B, you have to take that with a grain of salt. My alleged straight walking usually involves leaning over, climbing up or dodging around all sorts of obstacles in order to take pictures. Walking straight is a euphemism for meandering while being distracted by shadows and patterns or by far views of extraordinary depth.

Crossing the Sabika hill from East to West, I occasionally encountered signs like this one for the citadel and the palaces.

Alhambra Visit - Fortification

Always together with a shared arrow ….

When you want to visit the palaces of the Alhambra, those Palacios Nazaríes, one is repeatedly reminded to arrive on time for the scheduled visiting slot. And I did. Despite my usual meanderings, I arrived at the gate well ahead of my assigned time.

Sadly, though, it was the wrong gate.

Not having studied the layout of the Alhambra Complex ahead of time, I just followed the misleading arrow and wound up in a citadel instead of a palace. After completing my visit of the Alcazaba without having found any palaces hidden within, I asked the citadel guardian for directions to the palaces. Like many Spaniards I encountered in Granada, he didn’t seem to understand Spanish, so I whipped out my phone for a quick internet search for Alhambra pictures. Those he recognized and his directions were easy to understand: walk through the gate, turn left. The palaces, it turned out, were essentially next door to the citadel, but the entrance was pretty well hidden from view.

Thus, I arrived at my destination 75 minutes late, promptly to be denied entry.

It was a crisp no-go, delivered by a stern Cerberus in a well-cut suit and elegant shoes. My ticket was stamped for a visit from 15:00 hrs to 18:00 hrs and I demanded entry at 16:15 hrs. In French and Spanish, by the way, ‘to demand’ simply means to ask for, not to insist upon obnoxiously. I do try to be polite, you know, even when I’m annoyed. She was cordial as well, just a little brusque, but did walk down a long ramp on my behalf to consult with her supervisor, who never looked up, just shook his head. Entry denied again. There I was, standing in the glaring afternoon sun, hot and bothered physically and emotionally. Had I really squandered my triple-the-usual-price ticket by missing one turn in the road? Fortunately, my Cerberus tried to help my just a little bit. She advised me to check in at the tourism office. And where might that be? You know, she said, that office next to the tchotchke shop across the church, only a short ten-minute walk back in the direction of the main gate. Really? Yes! Off I marched and got there in record time. The representative in the office had the gall to tell me that it had been my responsibility to be on time. I was on time, I told him through clenched teeth. However, your misleading signage led me to the wrong exhibit. What will you do about it? Apparently refer me to a supervisor! We went through the same spiel a third time. This time in German, the supervisor’s language of choice after he had entered my passport number in his computer to check that I was a legitimate visitor and not someone’s deranged grandmother. I pointed out to him that my ticket indicated a range of time for my visit, therefore it should make no difference when I actually entered within that timeframe. No response. Eventually, Mr. Supervisor relented after much clacking of computer keys, admonishing me to immediately return to the palaces for my visit. Happily, I sped back to the Palacios Nazaríes through the afternoon sun.

Meanwhile, at the palace entry, both the “group” and the “individuals” lines had filled with large numbers of tourists. Neither line was moving, as their entry time hadn’t arrived yet. What to do? I was afraid that I might miss my time again if I patiently waited to reach the front of the queue. So I roughly pushed past all those people toward the front of the enclosure, offering strings of ¡con permiso! and ¡disculpe! to the irritated crowd. Ms. Cerberus was some distance away near the actual door to the building. I waved my arms vigorously to attract her attention and she came to escort me through the electronic scanner. So much ado about nothing! The first room one enters into was so jam-packed with sightseeing tours that I literally couldn’t step inside until the crowds dispersed further into the building.

You enter the palaces through this small door, which opens into the Mexuar. That is the selamik [males only] and most public part of the palaces, where merchants and lower ranking petitioners were received by officials. It was here that the Sultan or Emir [king] and the Cadí [judge] and their representatives interacted with the rank and file.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

The Mexuar is believed to be a part of the original Nasrid Palace, but it has undergone so many changes over the centuries, both under the Sultans and under the Christian regimes after the fall of Al-Andalus, that it has become impossible to accurately reconstruct its original confirmation. To make it even more confusing, part of the structure was destroyed by a powder magazine explosion in 1590.

For modern eyes, the Mexuar presents a confusing multitude of patterns and textures which have a quite disorienting affect.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

The most beautiful part of the extant Mexuar, for me at least, was an audience chamber, which was subsequent to the completed Reconquista in 1492 used as a chapel by the Catholic Majesties.The outside wall has windows overlooking the Albayzín across the gorge of the Darro river.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Since the Room was roped off across a narrow entrance, one had to be very patient to get a glimpse. I wanted to take a picture of this beautiful window wall, hoping to catch the serene atmosphere of the dimly lit space, but a woman was standing motionless in the doorway, seemingly lost in contemplation. I could well understand her inward focus, yet my back was starting to complain. I had to get moving again. I gently asked her, if she could move over for a moment, startling her from her reverie. She was embarrassed and explained that she had been so absorbed in the professor’s lecture to his students that she had lost all sense of time and space, pointing toward a class of lively high school students near us, who was led through the Mexuar by this most engaging teacher. Even without understanding his beautiful Castillian, it was indeed enjoyable to listen to him.

From the Mexuar, you next walk into the courtyard of the Golden Chamber, the Cuarto Dorado, which connects the more public spaces of the Mexuar with the personal residence of the Sultan, the Palacio Comares, originally commissioned by Yusuf I and finished by his son Mohammed V. The Cuarto Dorado was used as an imposing throne chamber, where the Sultan used to receive petitioners of high rank in great splendor. These days it’s more like a sold out flea market overcrowded with us tourists.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

When visiting the Palacio Comares the flow of touristic traffic proceeds from the Cuarto Dorado to the even more elaborately decorated Salón de los Embajadores. Seeing the dense crowd packed into the Emir’s poshest reception room, I just couldn’t join in and started loitering instead in the Patio de los Arranyanes, the myrtle courtyard with its famous reflecting pool. While looking around, I remembered my father telling us about this courtyard with great enthusiasm and deep admiration. There used to be a great sense of tranquillity in this space, with orange trees providing scented shade for perambulating humans and shelter for songbirds and bees. Water features were a major factor in cooling hot summer days this far south in the Iberian peninsula, but they also provided inspiration for poets and thinkers during the cultural pinnacle of the Granadan Sultanate. Those were his recollections and I tried to reconcile his description with my own hectic experience.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

The roof of Christian Emperor Carlos V’s palace peaks out from behind the destroyed southern part of the Comares palace. Only the balcony façade remained when the Holy Roman Emperor decided to build his own palace on Alhambra grounds.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

A reflection of the Comares tower and the doors to the Hall of Blessings and the Salón de los Embajadores in the still pool. Below some decorative details found in niches and hallways around the Court of Myrtles.

Eventually, I left the reflecting pool to visit the Emir’s cozy living room despite the massive accumulation of groups with their many-tongued tour leaders. Actually, even back during the Emir’s time, his adjutants must have faced some logistical and protocol-related problems, since this magnificently outfitted room served both as private quarters and as a reception hall for foreign, namely Christian ambassadors. Hence its name, Salón de los Embajadores,  the ambassadors’ lounge.

But the cacophony inside this gilded lounge got me running back out into the quiet and entirely empty Hall of the Blessings, la Sala de la Barka, the narrow but very long anti-chamber to the salón. There, I greatly enjoyed the less polished restorations of the bright and funky tilework without noisy interference.

The embassador’s lounge is the main attraction, though, and sooner or later it’s time to grit your teeth and go back in, camera poised in a steep upward angle.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

This very tall and awe-inspiring ceiling was fashioned from almost 10 000 individual pieces of cedar wood, designed to represent the Seven Heavens of Islam, with the eighth heaven, God’s realm and throne in the center. It was interesting for me to learn that the sultans never called themselves kings, because their teachings allowed only one king, God. A little different these days, it seems!

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

An acute downward angle showed some beautiful if heavily worn clay tiles. The original flooring in the ambassadors chamber, I read, was white marble.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

All in all, I couldn’t wait to get out of the Palacio Comares to look for lions, some very special lions. Along the way, I enjoyed some beautifully detailed decorations in hallways and alcoves,

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

before I suddenly stepped out into an almost blindingly white courtyard.

A hundred plus white marble columns with intricately carved capitals, highly polished white marble floors, and white plaster wall finishes. This, my friends, is a pleasure palace par excellence. The Palacio de los Leones was designed to allow the ruler, Sultan Mohammed V and his wives and concubines to relax and spend the most pleasant summers in series of beautiful chambers surrounding a magnificent central courtyard. Or, alternatively, afford the Sultan a night out with the boys in the Hall of Kings to re-live successful war campaigns or recite poetry and such.

Some historians believe, Sultan Mohammed V also had a winter palaces on the Alhambra grounds, but that theory could so far not be substantiated.

The center point of the Palacio de los Leones, in the very center of the Patio de los Leones, the Courtyard of the Lions, was and is a dodecagon white marble basin floating above the backs of twelve water spitting white marble lions. I had found my lions!

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Long before I saw the fountain in the flesh, or rather in the marble, I came across a postcard with a picture of the lion fountain. Since our name is Leon, I immediately formed an emotional connection to these stone cats.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

They are indeed one of the major attractions among the treasures of the Alhambra.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

Show us your teeth, boys!


These plush cuties are currently the most popular of all Alhambra souvenirs.

The lion fountain was the centerpiece of a system of fountains and shallow marble channels forming a cooling system through the main rooms and courtyards of the Palacio de los Leones. The gentle gurgling produced by water running through the open canals and the splish and splash of the fountains enhanced the tranquil mood of the palace.

The Palacio de los Leones was meant to be a delight to the senses of its inhabitants, above all their visual sense. The windows in the palace chambers were carefully placed to create either a soft ambient light or to highlight certain decorative features. The goal was to balance color, and light to amplify nature’s mysterious beauty and to establish a serene, even ethereal atmosphere.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios

The intricate plasterwork across some ceiling domes and doorway arches in the Palacios de los Leones is called muqarnas, or mocárabes in Spanish, prismatic honeycomb-like gypsum applications designed to resemble the stalactite cave into which the Prophet Mohammed fled on his way to Medina. The mocárabe domes in the Alhambra were created by assembling seven different prism shaped modules called adarajas in different combinations. The modules were made of black plaster incorporating sticks and nails to attach them to a wooden scaffold or frame. The white finishing layer was polished and decorated in blue, green, red, black and gold.

Not only the magnificent mocárabes are astounding, the neverending wealth of decorations in the Palacio de los Leones is overwhelming.

And I didn’t even get to see the Hall of Kings or the Baths because they were closed for restorations! I also completely neglected most of the designs and decorations the Catholic Majesties and their grandson Emperor Carlos V applied to the Palacios Nazaríes. But one more Nasrid decoration presented itself in the Mirador de Daraxa, one of the balcony pavilions off the Sala de los Ajimeces, a unique stained glass roof.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios
The Mirador de Daraxa overlooking the garden
Alhambra Visit - Palacios
Detail of the recently restored intricate, polychrome plasterwork above the window arches
Alhambra Visit - Palacios
The mirador [outlook] is topped by a vaulted false ceiling of multicolored crystals in a wooden frame.

On my way to the gardens which we saw through the window arches of the mirador, I came across what appeared to be a thoroughly modern decal sticking to window glass in a staircase.

Alhambra Visit - Palacios – Version 2

What the heck?! It certainly looked Moorish in style to me, maybe a deer or a sight hound? I had to search the internet quite thoroughly before I finally found a reference in Wikimedia:


The decal I encountered was copied from the images of gazelles on a Nasrid ceramic vase in the Alhambra museum.

After three hours of absorbing so much beauty, the sun was throwing long shadows and I was ready for a drink and tapa. Time to head back to the bus stop and go home!

Alhambra Visit

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