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.


Spanish Street Art

Walking in the back streets of Madrid’s art district, between small galleries and run-down buildings, I was stunned by the graffiti you see in the featured photo. It was painted on a sheet of plastic covering part of construction site. The beautiful skyline, minimally emphasized by the yellow lines, and the lettering were so assured, and at the same time so ephemeral! I was lucky that I walked by the few days of its lifetime.

I did not see more by this artist. In that sense none of the Spanish cities I visited seemed to have the prolific street artists of Porto. But what I saw captured me. Just as I captured some of what I saw. Here’s the gallery below, browse it and see if you like it as much as I did.

Spanish pottery

I saw everyday pottery from before the modern era in various parts of Spain. In a village museum in Andalucia I saw the plate shown in the featured photo. The decoration looked very modern. When I looked at the date, it turned out to be from the early 20th century. I liked the red colour of the fired clay, which you see in the rim. The thin white glaze and the faded green decoration looked very nice too.

Andalucian pottery, early 20th century Andalucian pottery, early 17th century

In the same place, I saw the pieces which you see above in the photo on the left. These pieces are also Andalucian and come from the early 20th century. On the right, above, is a detail from a painting by Murillo. If it shows contemporary pottery, then it is Andalucian, and from the early 17th century. Three hundred years has changed this pottery a little. The shapes are very similar. The newer pottery has somewhat of a brighter glaze.Castillian pottery, early 19th century This could be because the firing kilns are hotter, and therefore allow different glazing.

Finally, I leave you with photos of pottery I saw in Toledo, said to be from El Greco’s time. If this is an example of mid-16th century Castillian pottery, then it is remarkably similar in colour and design to tiles from other parts of Spain and Portugal of that time. Interestingly, even now one finds in southern France, pottery with similar decoration.

Dancing in the streets

During our trip through Andalucia we expected to see a lot of dance. What we didn’t expect was a reminder of Shanghai, and its dances on the streets. In contrast to the spontaneity of Shanghai, Granada was more organized.

We arrived in Granada, checked into our room. The Family was excited. "Let’s go out", she said, without giving me a chance to look at the map on my phone. We wandered out, and the nearest square had this wonderful dance. I have two left feet, so I was content to stand on the sidelines and shoot the video you can see here. Later we realized that the square we were on, Plaza del Carmen, with that wonderful large mosaic in the center, is in front of the city council hall.

We fell in love with Granada right there.

The Generalife of Alhambra

From the terrace of San Nicolas church in the Albaycin of Granada, one gets a good view of the Alhambra complex. In the featured photo you can see, on the right, the palace complex which is together called the Alhambra. The white building on the left, nestled into a hill called Cerro del Sol (Peak of the Sun), is called the Generalife today. The word is a corruption of the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, meaning the Garden of the Architect.

Generalife: Patio de la Acequia

We had a ticket which would take us through the gardens and pavilions of the Generalife, as well as the Alhambra. These are on two separate hills. On the burning hot day when we walked through them, these distances looked enormous. I was happy for the water fountains dotted around, where one could refill bottles and splash water over one’s face.

We walked through the gardens. What remains of the Moorish garden is hard to spot. The present design is from the middle of the 20th century. The flowers are chosen for their colours rather than fragrance, testifying to an European sensibility. The main building here is called Patio de la Acequia, meaning the courtyard of fountains. The photo above is a view along this courtyard.

Generalife: Inside Patio de la Acequia

The sultan would retreat here for peace and quiet in the 14th century CE. The building is simple today, although one does not know where ancient arabesques have been hidden under centuries of whitewash. Those decorations which are still visible are similar to the work in the Alhambra. We walked through the passages of this structure, marvelling that a sultan would spend extended times here. Once one of them was here long enough that a rebellion broke out in the Alhambra.

Albaycin viewed from the Generalife

There is a marvellous view of the Albaycin from this hill, as you can see in the photo above. I did not spend too much time in the garden, because I liked this more. The Family was more practical; she figured that we would see grander work inside the Nasirid palace. So she spent more time in the garden, while I sat on a bench after splashing water on myself and waiting to dry out.

Two spanish sparrows

We had not planned to do any bird-watching while we were in Spain. The Family had not even carried her binoculars with her. When I saw a few sparrows raiding the ground around a cafe in Madrid for crumbs, I took photos because I was not doing anything else. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the photos and found that they did not resemble any sparrow I have seen before. Thumbing through my field guides I came to the conclusion that the species is not found in India. Further search makes me think I might have seen immature Iberian rock sparrows (Petronia petronia). An adult would show a distinct yellow patch at the throat, and a more well-defined light streak above its eyes. Notice the thick yellow beak and the long grasping toes; these are characteristic of both the adult and the juvenile.

Passer hispaniolensis seen in Granada

This surprise made me go back to a photo I had taken in the Alhambra of a sparrow nesting in a hole in a wall. It wasn’t the same. In fact this was another sparrow which I had not seen before, and which cannot be found in and around India. Another search led me to think that this is the so-called Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis). The streaks on the back and the markings around the eye distinguish it from the house sparrow. By the markings that I see, this individual is a female. I took this photo originally because of that immense gape of the nestling.

Two lifers! Even without looking for them. Sometimes one gets lucky.

I’ve seen three kinds of sparrows in India: the common house sparrow, the Eurasian tree sparrow, and the russet sparrow. This almost doubles the count. I would have to travel across central Asia and Africa to see the remainder of the dozen or so old-world sparrows.

The Bañuelo

We walked along the little stream called the Darro on a narrow road. This was the lowest part of the Albaycin in Granada. A tourist bus went by and we had to flatten ourselves against a wall to let it go. I saw an opening next to me and a sign for the old bath-house or Hammam that we were looking for. This is called El Bañuelo, which simply means the bath. We walked in, and just after a little reception found an open space with a little square pool full of water.

Granada : arches inside the hamam

We walked past this into the main baths. This 11th century CE bath would have been lost if it had not become part of a private house. Originally the baths were attached to a mosque called the Mosque of the Walnut Tree. Hammams played almost as important a social role in Al Andalus as mosques. Both were places where people could gather and socialize. Women, who were generally supposed to be inside houses, could go to both these places. A mosque would have separate rooms for the segregation of genders, but in a Hammam this would be done by having different timings for men and women.

Granada: Hamam with skylights

The different rooms were for hot and cold water. The openings which you see in the ceiling were meant to allow light in, and steam out. At the back was a room whose roof had fallen in. Apparently this contained the boilers. The tiles on the floor are original, but the plaster-work has not survived the centuries. When I started taking photos, I found that the light was beautiful. I can imagine the wonderful play of light on the rising steam in a working Hammam.


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.

A walk with Carmens

We walked up and down the world heritage district of Albaycin in Granada on a hot day. Narrow paths wound between closed doors framed with tiles. Dazzling white walls of Carmens struggled to hold back flowering trees and creepers. It took me some time to figure out that although carmen means a garden in Spanish, in the Albaycin it has the added meaning of a house surrounded by a garden. Through gaps in the walls one could get a view of the Alhambra. I’d not paid much attention to descriptions of walks through this old Moorish part of the town, but it is one of my most pleasant memories of Spain.

The old houses were made with bricks and limestone mortar. Although there is a tremendous amount of study of the old materials in order to restore the most important buildings, the results are mainly applied to public property. Most of these carmens are private property, with their doors firmly shut. I could see more modern materials used in various places. As we walked between these white walls, The Family and I talked about the name of this area.

Albaycin or Albayzin apparently comes from an Arabic root which means the (place of) falconers. Baaz is a word that we knew. It is the Hindi word for a falcon, a loan word from Persian. That was intriguing. Were there really Persian influences in al-Andalus? I found later that in al-Andalus other words related to falconry, for example, dastaban for a falconer’s gloves, also come from Persian. How did the Moorish kingdoms of the far west carry the influence of Persian?

Mudejar towers

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Mudejar as a Muslim living under Christian kings especially during the 8th to 11th centuries. It also says that the first known use of the word is from 1829. Soon afterwards it was applied to a style of Spanish architecture in the sense that it still carries. The style is seen in all the photos here.

The main characteristics of the style are brickwork, decoration with tiles, intricate carpentry, and the use of geometrical motifs in decoration. The featured photo is of the grand mosque in Granada, and shows all these features. The mosque was closed because I went there in the afternoon of the last day of Ramzan, so I did not manage to see the interior. Still, the exterior gave a good indication of what the interior would have been like.

In Granada, near one end of Plaza Nueva is the church of San Gil and Santa Ana (photo above), an exemplary piece of Mudejar architecture. Look at the beautiful azulejos (tiles) at the top, above the bells, the woodwork just below it, the beautiful tiles above each of the romanesque arches, and the ornate pillar just below the bells. Again, because I was always there at the wrong time, I could not see the interior.

Notice the beautiful woodwork in these three photos. The one on the left is the exterior of the church of San Nicholas. I climbed up to it on a really hot day, and was too dehydrated to walk in. I sat in the shade outside and drank a lot of water. The other two photos above show the church of San Pedro and San Pablo. Typical Mudejar elements are visible outside. Inside, the ceiling is covered in incredibly beautiful woodwork. A friend told me about his perception of the difference between Islamic and Christian architecture in the Alhambra: that they embody different philosophies of what make something grand. These churches combine these two world views: the high interiors are grand in the manner of churches you see all over Europe, and the beautiful intricate workmanship brings to it the Asian love of detail. One wonders about the missed paths of history; if only the Jews had not been expelled in 1492, and the Muslims had been allowed to stay on after the 25 more years that they did, what kind of new architectural styles would have evolved as engineering improved.

In my mind the Giralda of Seville (photo above) is the grandest of these towers. Technically it does not belong to the Mudejar style, because it was built before the Christian reconquest, and was only converted from a minaret to a bell tower afterwards. However, it has all the elements of this style: brickwork to build up a really high tower and incredibly detailed external ornamentation.

Finally, a moment of duh-ness or serendipity, whatever you may call it. I looked back at the photos I took a year ago inside the Royal Palace of Sintra and realized that I had seen the Mudejar style before. The chapel inside the palace, which you see in the photo above, is an example of this style. And a particularly fine example, one must say.