A recurring theme in sci-fi stories and films is that of The Last Person on Earth. It feels something like that here in the Washington Irving Hotel next to the Alhambra in Granada looking out on the empty street next to one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions.
Ask yourself, where would you go if you were the last person on earth? To wander around the empty Alhambra was always the top destination on my list, and today – in this mad year of 2020 – I was able to live the fantasy.
After three months of lockdown, the Alhambra reopened, with social distancing and a complex set of traffic light controls, paperwork identity checks (seven times in one visit!) and nearly no visitors compared with the usual hordes that had put me off coming back here even in the “quiet” season. The old tourists’ complaint when they related their travels was always, “It was great but there were too many tourists.” And it was precisely the antidote to this idea that brought me here today: the sudden realisation that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wander around the magical palace with much-reduced visitor numbers. Not exactly alone in the Alhambra but the closest you will ever get.
To begin with, let me smugly savour the pleasure of staying in the American hotel in Granada without any Americans; because no visitors from the USA are currently allowed into Europe. Washington Irving popularised the Alhambra in his collection of essays, written while staying there in the early 19th century and Tales of the Alhambra put it on the map for the first intrepid tourists with their Baedekker guides and their stagecoach tickets booked through Cooks Tours. In post-Covid 2020, instead of arriving by two-horse diligence, I drove here from Alicante in the good little one-litre white Hyundai saloon which now sits resting in the vast empty expanse of the tree lined car parking terraces under the Alhambra walls.
The Patio de Leones is the most recognised feature of the Alhambra for the modern tourist. Some would use the word “iconic” but if you are tempted to use that word in any other context than Russian Orthodox painters, please refrain. Icons are not about popular recognisable trash imagery (as if Andy Warhol ever equalled Andre Rublev) so please use the term “icon” with its appropriate meaning. A “popularly recognised feature” is not an “icon.”
The lions guarding the fountain were never designed as a popular image, but for the pleasure of a small minority paying homage to a powerful sultan. When we intrepid explorers venture out of the lockdown and look at such marvellous sculpture and such hieratic architecture as that on display in the Alhambra, we must not kid ourselves. The political power structure that created this marvel, this wonder, this magical journey through chambers of praise to Allah, with its splendid choreographed calligraphy in stone, was all built on slavery and blood lust. Any craftsman or architect failing to please the sultan’s whim would not survive the swordsman’s blade.
To come out of a hundred days of Covid-19 lockdown in Spain and join a party of ten Spaniards – a family, two couples, a guide and me – in a celebratory walk around this site, was a kind of affirmation, a reconquest, a defiant gesture towards “the East”. The word “China” came up once in the guided tour – in relation to a medieval term for gravel. People looked uncomfortable hearing the word “China” and we all refrained from saying anything unkind, but there were “looks”. China is not popular now… But the reconquest of Granada (and its Alhambra) has always been a Spanish symbol for stopping the foreign spread into Europe. It is undoubtedly a “racist” message on one level, and yet the comparison of (Spanish) Catholic and (Iberian) Islamic art in close proximity on this site leaves little doubt about the superiority of Islamic craft techniques and hieratic art theory. The pathetic Catholic “contribution” to the Alhambra is both dull and embarrassing.
I can only walk around the Alhambra in astonishment at the power of Islamic art theory, craftsmanship and boldness of vision. I also reject it philosphically and side with the Catholic Kings whose superior military might – but very dull art – destroyed this civilisation and drove it from the Alhambra and from Spain.
I have many more photographs of the Alhambra to upload. Over a hundred today. I may put them all on a publicly accessible cloud. News on that will follow shortly-
7 thoughts on “Alone in the Alhambra”
How wonderful. When we went there some years ago it was so crowded that we really did not have the opportunity of taking everything in. It sounds like a perfect visit – and the drive there in the little one litre Hyundai didn’t let you down! Hopefully see you on your return. Enjoy the rest of your trip. Frank and Michael
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Hi Jabba. The “dull art” referred to here was not elaborated, but here is the detail: the remnants of the Catholic kings’ wood panelling etc.with the phrase “Plus Vltra” carved in very poor lettering, and there are some ceramics with the same phrase. They are simply no match for the fine Islamic calligraphy. In fact, at one point, looking up at a ceiling of carved wooden panels repeating “Plus Vltra” I couldn’t help thinking the Catholic kings had lost the plot! They kept the fine calligraphy proclaiming “Allah is great” – all around the Alhambra – in the unwise belief that the Mohammedans worshipped the same God. But at least that mistaken sentiment preserved the fine calligraphy for our present day gaze!
Wonderful, with the same thinking we are hoping to head for an empty Venice next week!
Exactly! I was thinking about Venice as I wandered around the Alhambra marvelling at the emptiness of the place. I began to think of other places I had been, where the experience was like Piccadilly Circus in the rush hour. Venice and Florence came to mind. Assisi would be another ideal place to go just now!
Yes, enjoy it while it is still quiet. The Venetians are talking about re-starting with a new kind of tourism model. I hope they can do it – like the residents of Barcelona for who tourism is also a nightmare – but they will have to move fast before the tourist agencies take over their cities again. It will be business as usual in no time. A few weeks ago I chanced upon a YouTube video of deserted Venice with drone footage of the eerily empty piazzas and bridges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nSE5SeZO1Y
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It brings out the art critic in me. Words ‘iconic’ and ‘juxtaposition’ .
So, Ruskin’s quiosco turned out to be well preserved after all. ¿Conseguiste entradas sombra pa’ la novillada?
Here’s some iconic juxtaposition of your stone masonry:
 Are there others? ‘Abstraction’, perhaps. Or ‘paella’?
I’ve shared the folder with you and Alys but I’ll put a dozen of the better shots on a new blog post shortly. I used the Nikon D80 for the Patio de Leones and most of the interior shots but bagged it for wandering around the gardens and the Generalife as the pocket Nikon is easier on my wrists which are awaiting operations and the D80 is far too heavy for comfort. (Thanks to Covid-19 the routine hospital appointments are just getting back to normal.) There are two theories about photographing the places you visit.
1. The camera spoils the immediate experience as you are living in the future – thinking of the camera shots you will experience looking back…
2. The concentration on framing the camera shot means that you are more intimately involved with viewing the subject.
On balance, I think the latter is now where I stand on the issue. I spent many years wandering around some marvellous medieval religious sites as a Franciscan friar, and had no phone or camera in those days. But I should think I improved the tourist photos of other people… There must exist many photos of me in Franciscan habit in such gothic ruins as Tintern Abbey and Glastonbury, or the pilgrim sites of Rocamadour, Assisi or Compostela. But I shall never see them!
At least you probably experience a better class of drunken Englishmen. 🙂
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