A Renaissance Design

Entering the unfinished palace which Charles V wanted built next to the Alcazar of Alhambra, I had to consciously wipe my mind free of all the beauty I’d seen around it. Only then can you enter the vision of Pedro Machuca, the architect. The design is a simple geometric concept of the kind that the Renaissance ascribed to classical Greece: a circle inscribed into a square. Seen from above the outer walls form a square. Inside it is a circular patio.

Palace of CharlesV in Granada

The building is two-storied. You can see in the photo above that the columns on the lower floor are Doric and the upper are Ionic. The windows on the facade mirror this: Ionian above, and Tuscan below. Unfortunately I never took a photo of the facade. It was June, and the place was full of people. Every frame looked cluttered. In retrospect, I should have taken a photo even if it wasn’t going to look perfect.

Palace of Charles V: stairs

The Renaissance seems to have invented the modern staircase, with its even rise, so easy on the knees. Every bit of the structure drips with an unified sense of elementary geometry: see the photo above. Even the precision of the tiles on the floor gives you a sense of how the rediscovery of Greek geometry and measurements was transforming European design.

No emperor ever lived in the palace. It never even had a roof until the middle of the 20th century. As a result decorations are sparse. The medallion you see in the featured photo adorns the otherwise severe facade. Inside there are empty niches on the wall with scallop-shell designs on them. The incomplete palace is a magnificent idea, never seen again in its contemporaries. It is as startling as it would be if the Barcelona Pavilion built by Mies van der Rohe never influenced his generation.


Qalat Al-Hamra, the ancient name of the palace now called Alhambra, means the Red Fort. Qalat comes from the same root as the Hindi word qila, meaning fort. The name is derived from the stone, whose colour you can see in the featured photo. An Indian, whose imagination will be inflamed by the red sandstone of Mughal architecture, may be disappointed by the name. However, everything else in Alhambra lives up to its reputation.

So much has been written about Alhambra that I do not really need to add to it. The present structure was built in the 14th century by the Emir of Granada, and added to over the next one and a half centuries, until the fall of Granada and the surrender of the last sultan, Boabdil, in 1492 CE. It eventually fell into disuse, and serious efforts at restoration only began in the 19th century CE. Even for those who have grown up with the impressive Mughal architecture, Granada is a visual treat. The intricate stone and wood work, the sheer proliferation of detail, the clever lattice work with Kufic calligraphy worked into it, everything is delightful. The little flakes of paint on some of the walls indicate that there was much more to the decoration than is visible today.

There are three distinct part of the Nasrid dynasty palace complex. The first part which you get to see is the Hall of Ambassadors and the courtyard in front of it. Then the route passes through the halls around the Courtyard of Lions. Finally you reach the Emir’s palace and the garden of Lindajar. The grandeur of the Hall of Ambassadors is more than matched by the intricacy of the octagonal vault of the Hall of Two Sisters.

This is Spain’s biggest tourist draw, so one has to make sure to buy the tickets well in advance. We realized this a bit more than a week before we were planning to visit, and found that the tickets to the Nasrid palace were sold out. One can get a combination ticket, at a higher price, which allows you into the full complex of Alhambra and also to some buildings inside Albaycin. This was still available. There is a separate ticket to the Alhambra gardens and the Generalife, which does not give you entrance into the palace complex. This remains available even longer. We were fortunate that our hosts independently arranged for a night visit to the palace, so we got to see the Nasrid complex twice. The second visit was with a guide. He was good and pointed out details which I might have missed otherwise. However, I liked to pace myself with the audio guide, since that is also really well put together.

The rooftops of Granada

Few people mention the wonderful views of Granada which you get from the hilltop fortress of Alhambra. The city of Granada is surrounded by mountains, which is the reason for the fanciful name. Someone thought it looks like the crown on top of a pomegranate, called granada in Spanish. The picturesque town nestles in a large and fertile valley between them.

The medieval part of the town is called the Albaycin. We climbed through the twisty maze of little streets in this area. Behind high walls you can see gardens. We found that this kind of single house surrounded by a walled garden is called a carmen. It was hard to get a good view of these from the narrow streets. Closer to the river the houses ran into each other.

This ancient Moorish quarter is visible better from the Alhambra. The river Darro separates the Albaycin from the Alhambra. Since there was a medieval city, a Medina, within the fortress, I wonder whether there was an easily understandable difference between those who lived in the Medina and those in the Albaycin. In any case, the white walls, red-tiled patios and the fired clay tiles on the roofs of the houses in the Albaycin look immensely picturesque when viewed from the Alhambra.