So, home again in El Parral after the long return drive from Granada. Three days away from the donkeys is quite enough. I saw an old photo outside a closed restaurant in Granada showing a man with two donkeys entering the main gate of the Alhambra, and I already felt I had been away from the donkeys for too long.
Here is a selection of my photos of the Alhambra and the Generalife gardens, with no tourists spoiling the shots! Apart from the visual treat, it was a remarkable experience to hear the Alhambra as it was meant to be heard, with the gentle sounds of trickling water and the birdsong, and the occasional rustle of leaves in the gentle hot breeze rising from the plain below.
The few visitors – mostly Spanish – preserved an unusual hush, maybe sensing like me that this was too rare a moment to blurt out the raucous sounds of normal tourism. A kind of reverence had fallen upon the place. Maybe we were not literally alone in the Alhambra, as Washington Irving had been in 1829, but it was probably no busier than it would have been on the average weekday in the mid-1870s at the time of the European Grand Tour… just for the leisured class who could afford the steam train from Paris to Granada and the horse cab from the station, piled high with hat boxes.
To be in the Patio de Leones and not have your view obscured by three hundred fellow tourists was quite astonishing. The ten people who were actually in the space took turns to stand back and allow each other to take photos of the lions and the columns without obscuring each other’s shots. It was as if we all realised this was a special kind of tourism.
I visited these sculptures half a century ago – having arrived early to be first in the queue to pay my 100 pesetas entrance – and then I hurried around the place to be first into the next courtyard before the coach parties arrived, hot on my heels, to flood each quiet space with their hubbub, like a tsunami wave of humanity, each carrying a Kodak Instamatic camera and a 200 peseta guide book (only available in English, French, or German.) One or two Japanese could also be spotted, but they were a curiosity in those days. They just had better cameras but otherwise merged into the crowd. Now I had the time to notice that each of the lions is different! Different ears, noses, mouths, feet… and a socially distanced one who looks for all the world as if he is wearing a Covid-19 face mask!
On this socially distanced tourist treat, the only tourist to ruin your photo is the one who appears unnoticed at the time, in a window, rather than walking in front of the camera as you carefully frame your shot.
After going out for lunch at a socially distanced table in a quiet garden in the Albaicín, I returned to the Alhambra in the late afternoon and strolled around the Generalife gardens. After about five o’clock I did have the whole place to myself. Yes, now I was literally alone in the Alhambra. The only sounds were the water and the birdsong. And as I left at eight o’clock I heard the staff closing the gate behind me.
Will tourism suddenly change after Covid-19 and residents of hotspots like Granada, or Venice, or Barcelona press for a new kind of tourism footprint? This has been talked about for the past few years and the issue has been thrown into relief much more by coastal towns that are subject to daily invasions from cruise ships. I don’t know if I am much energised by the problem: I will not be doing much tourism in future: and this trip was a rare venture only prompted by the sudden realisation that the empty Alhambra was a treat I could not miss.
For months we have been bombarded by the pundits telling us “nothing will ever be the same again”. I do slightly suspect they have over-egged the pudding and some version of “normal” normal will resume business as usual quite soon. The briefly enjoyed “new normal” will be over as soon as the politicians and economists find it convenient – regardless of the risks to our health.
But I will remember it mainly for the feeling of walking out of the Alhambra alone, as the very last tourist on an unusually quiet day. Perhaps the quietest since Washington Irving published his Tales of the Alhambra in 1832.